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17 Things you Didn’t Know About Hadrian’s Wall and Vindolanda

Hadrian's Wall

This blog has been written in collaboration with English Heritage and Vindolanda as part of a promotion.

Hadrian’s Wall spans the width of England from west coast to east coast and crosses three counties. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and quite rightly a must-see attraction in the North of England, Hadrian’s Wall has marked the landscape for nearly 2,000 years. The landmark attracts a vast number of visitors each year to explore the miles of ruggedly beautiful scenery and discover more about the Romans who built the wall from a number of Roman forts and museums that still remain along the Wall. Popular visitor attractions such as Vindolanda and English Heritage’s Housesteads Roman Fort Museum, Corbridge Roman Town and Chesters Roman Fort and Museum tell the story of the communities who lived and worked along the Wall as well as giving visitors a fascinating insight into an ancient chapter of European history.

English Heritage Housesteads Roman Fort on Hadrian's Wall

English Heritage Housesteads Roman Fort on Hadrian's Wall.

We’re sure there’s lots you already know about this world-famous historical artefact but here are 17 surprising facts about Hadrian’s Wall, the community who lived there and its remaining sites. Get ready to wow your friends at the next pub quiz.

  1. Vindolanda Writing Tablets: Britain’s Top Treasure.

Experts from the British Museum back in 2003 voted the Vindolanda Tablets as Britain’s Top Treasure. The wafer-thin wooden postcards which are nearly 2,000 years old were first discovered in 1935 and since then many more have been found at Vindolanda. They are some of Britain’s earliest written records and include a birthday invitation, strength reports, complaints about the roads and the earliest reference to underpants! There are nine of these precious tablets on display at Vindolanda. An absolute must-see.

  1. It took around 15,000 men about 6 years to build.

Hadrian’s Wall was built by legionaries – the citizen-soldiers of the Roman army. The army contained specialists in masonry, engineering and architecture. That’s a lot of manpower!

  1. Urban Hadrian’s Wall.

Hadrian’s Wall is often associated with the rugged, rural landscapes of Northumberland and Cumbria but did you know you can find evidence of the Roman Frontier in Newcastle? Perhaps surprisingly, evidence of the Wall can be found in this very urban setting – everything from the remains of a Roman Fort at Segedunum Roman Fort, Baths and Museum on the banks of the River Tyne in aptly named Wallsend, to the remnants of a Roman Temple in the residential Newcastle suburb, Benwell. Download the Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail walking guide and discover more about the urban areas of the Wall.

Vindolanda in the morning on Hadrian's Wall

Vindolanda in the morning.

  1. Just keep digging!

Vindolanda is a brilliant visitor attraction near Hexham, Northumberland steeped in centuries of history which lies just south of the curtain wall of Hadrian’s Wall. Although first built by the Roman army before Hadrian’s Wall, Vindolanda became an important construction and garrison base for the Wall, a Hadrian’s Wall fort in its own right. During this time Vindolanda was demolished and completely re-built no fewer than nine times! Each re-build, each community, leaving their own distinctive mark on the landscape and archaeology of the site. It is because of all the layers of Forts that archaeologists believe they have at least another 150 years of excavation still to do!

  1. Live Excavations at Vindolanda.

You don’t just get close to history at Vindolanda you can actually watch history emerging.  The Vindolanda excavations have started and run Monday-Friday during the summer months.  You can see the Vindolanda archaeologists and their teams of volunteers (who come to dig at this site from all over the world) as they uncover more of this astonishing Roman Fort. You might just be lucky enough to witness something amazing being uncovered.

  1. We know the names of men who built Hadrian’s Wall.

Despite the Wall being nearly 2,000 years old some of the names of the men who actually built Hadrian’s Wall have been discovered on centurial stones – 53 of these stones can be found in the Clayton Collection. Each group of men would have been given a set length of wall to build, and they often inscribed a stone when they had finished.

Children's Pair of Shoes (C) Vindolanda Trust. Roman shoes found on Hadrian's Wall

A pair of child's shoes found at Vindolanda. (C) Vindolanda Trust.

  1. Over 7,000 leather shoes!

Vindolanda has the largest collection of ancient leather from anywhere in the Roman Empire and this includes an astonishing number of shoes. Over 7,000 have been found so far, everything from men’s marching boots to delicate slippers and even tiny baby shoes. The shoe display in the Vindolanda museum is something everyone should see.

  1. Authors Sir Walter Scott and George R. R Martin have something in common.

They were both inspired by Hadrian’s Wall. Sir Walter Scott wrote the poem ‘To a Lady- with flowers from a Roman Wall’ in 1813. Indeed, Scott met his future wife whilst staying in Gilsland, the village near to Birdoswald.

George R. R Martin, author of Game of Thrones (the ‘Song of Ice and Fire series’) took inspiration for The Wall (which keeps wildlings out of the Seven Kingdoms) from a visit to Hadrian’s Wall in 1981. Visitors to Hadrian’s Wall are often eager to sift the fact from the fiction as a result of the stellar success of Game of Thrones.

  1. There were flushing toilets.

We take them for granted today, but the sanitary arrangements on Hadrian’s Wall were quite advanced. Roman bathhouses are famous, but did you know they also had flushing latrines? The best preserved Roman loos in Britain are at Housesteads Roman Fort, which was garrisoned by 800 men.

Romans at Chesters Roman Fort, English Heritage on Hadrian's Wall

  1. Romans on Hadrian’s Wall wore leggings and sheepskin boots.

Although we associate the Romans with armour and tunics which exposed their arms and legs, Northumbrian winters are no joke – and the Romans were no fools. During the winter they added woolly cloaks, trousers and sheepskin boots (not unlike the ones we wear today) to their uniform to keep warm.

  1. The Romans brought burgers to the North East.

Street stalls and ‘fast food’ as we might think of it today came to Britain with the Romans.

The famous cookbook ‘Apicius’ (a compilation of recipes written by lots of different people) includes a recipe – ‘Isicia Omentata’ which looks a lot like a modern burger. The recipe uses minced pork, which was a popular meat in Roman Britain, flavoured with pepper, wine and garum (a rich fish sauce), and served with a wine sauce. Although this ‘burger’ is likely to have made it to Hadrian’s Wall, it would have been served as part of an upmarket feast, rather than grilled up for the troops.

  1. Cavalry soldiers lived alongside their horses.

In Roman cavalry barracks, such as those at Chesters Fort, the soldiers lived in the rear room, while their horses lived in the front separated only by a narrow wall. Covered pits were dug beneath the horses to take away the waste!

  1. Get an eagle’s eye view of Hadrian’s Wall at the Roman Army Museum.

The award-winning real 3D film at the Roman Army Museum is a must see. The 20-minute film takes you high above Hadrian’s Wall and you get to see the Wall, forts and towns as they were nearly 2,000 years ago with realistic 3D reconstructions.  You can’t see this film anywhere else so don’t miss it. 

Roman Army Museum at Vindolanda

  1. We can only see 10% of the original Wall.

The Wall that you see today is only a small fraction – estimated at around 10% – of the original. Over the course of the intervening centuries stone has been removed, buried or destroyed.

  1. Hadrian’s Wall has never been the border between England and Scotland.

These two kingdoms didn’t exist when Hadrian’s Wall was established. And if it was used as the border today, it would place parts of Cumbria and much of Northumberland in Scotland.

  1. When John Clayton excavated the bathhouse at Chesters Roman Fort in the 19th Century, he found human skeleton.

The discovery of the bathhouse itself was accidental. Clayton’s workmen were putting in drains to improve the drainage of the fort when they discovered it. A very unexpected find were the 33 human skeletons. It is likely they were not Roman in date but unfortunately, they are no longer in the collection, so we know very little about them. John Clayton is widely considered the man who saved Hadrian’s Wall.

  1. Vindolanda Roman Fort has mysterious circular huts.

No other military site in the Empire has yet to find anything like the circular huts at Vindolanda and there may be as many as 250 of them! Archaeologists have dated their construction to between AD208 and AD211

Hadrian's Wall at sunset

It might be chilly out there on Hadrian’s Wall but there is still much to discover over Autumn and Winter so wrap up warm, don your sturdy (sheepskin) boots and make sure you double check English Heritage on Hadrian’s Wall and Vindolanda’s winter opening hours before you set off.

  • Housesteads Roman Fort

    Open daily, 10am – 5pm until Sunday 3 November 2019. Then 10am-4pm daily during the winter.

  • Corbridge Roman Town

    Open daily 10am – 5pm until Sunday 3 November 2019. Then open 10am-4pm on Saturdays and Sundays only during the winter.

  • Chesters Roman Fort

    Open daily 10am – 5pm until Sunday 3 November 2019. Then open 10am-4pm on Saturdays and Sundays only during the winter with some additional days during school holidays.

  • Vindolanda

    Open daily 10am – 5pm until Saturday 26 October 2019 and open daily from 10am – 4pm from Sunday 27 October until Sunday 5 January 2020 when the site closes until Saturday 8 February 2020.

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