One of the most well-known and iconic structures in Britain is Hadrian's Wall, the 73 miles long barrier built by the Romans starting in 122 CE to protect the land south of it from the hordes of ‘barbarians’ to the north. As is often the case, the Roman side got all of the attention for the next 2,000 years while the ‘barbarians’ garnered less research. That changed with a new study on the Roman impact on Northern Britain – a study which instead uncovered more about the indigenous people who lived there before the Romans, including 134 previously unknown settlements.
“Furthermore, many analyses have adopted a predominantly Roman perspective, focusing primarily on Hadrian's Wall, the Antonine Wall and the hundreds of Roman forts and temporary camps known in northern Britain. Although this is undoubtedly important, a holistic understanding requires paying greater attention to the indigenous evidence, both through the study of specific sites and wider landscape patterns.”
To do this, the authors of “Beyond Walls: Reassessing Iron Age and Roman Encounters in Northern Britain,” published in the journal Antiquities, focused on an extended period from c. 500 BCE to 500 CE, which covered the before, during and after occupation by the Romans, and studied not just the immediate area of Hadrian’s wall but 40 km (25 miles) south of it and 40 km (24) north of the Antonine Wall, which is 100 miles north of Hadrian’s Wall. That proved to be a wise decision.
Burnswark Hillfort, a fortified earthwork, was chosen as the place to start scanning the ground with LIDAR – this area between Ecclefechan and Lockerbie in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, is known to contain the highest concentration of Roman projectiles in the entire region. Why? Because that’s where the ‘barbarians’ lived who somehow were managing to stop the Romans from conquering the rest of the land. While the shells have been easy to spot, LIDAR penetrated past them to the reason why they were there – indigenous settlements. Dr. Manuel Fernández-Götz, head of archaeology at the University of Edinburgh and lead author on the study, brought in The British Academy to help.
“This work established a corpus of 704 definite, probable or possible Iron Age settlement locations in the study area, of which 570 were previously known sites and 134 were new discoveries.”
While the number of new settlements was significant, the various types and locations brought new insight into the land before the Romans arrived. The LIDAR showed the settlements to be highly organized small farms spread across the fertile landscape in a regular pattern. Was that organization the reason why the Romans failed to conquer the area? It’s possible – the LIDAR scans also gave a better picture of the Roman camps established in direct view of Burnswark hillfort, including those located directly at its foot.
The pre-Roman indigenous people of Scotland may have held off the Romans with their organization, their sheer numbers or their tenacity … most likely, a little of all of them. Hadrian’s Wall is not so much a monument to Roman might – many scholars now think it was built just to give Roman soldiers something to do while not being frustrated by the pesky yet resilient ‘barbarians’ to the north. In the end, Hadrian’s Wall is less a fortification and more a symbol of a standoff – the Romans never made it north and the indigenous Scots never made it south.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that Emperor Hadrian never saw his namesake's frustrating standoff and eventual abandonment. Although being Roman, he’d probably want a cut of the tourism revenue.