Sunday, June 03, 2007

Lake District Holiday II: A Day on Hadrian's Wall (Northumberland)

The Lake District is in the English county of Cumbria, created in 1974 from the older counties of Cumberland and Westmorland. Most of Hadrian's Wall is in the neighboring county of Northumberland, which stretches east to the coast at Newcastle-on-Tyne, although some traces of the wall can be found in Cumbria. Originally, the wall stretched from Newcastle in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in the west. Today, the best-preserved stretches of the wall are in western Northumberland, and on the second full day of our holiday we drove about an hour northwest of Dacre, past Carlisle, to make a long-anticipated visit to Hadrian's Wall.

The praetorium,or headquarters, at Vindolanda.

The weather in Cumbria was fair, but an hour away in Northumberland there was a persistent drizzle. We parked at the national park information centre in Once Brewed and walked south (away from the wall) to Vindolanda, one of the most fascinating Roman sites in Britain. Vindolanda was a pre-Hadrianic Roman fort, part of the loose defensive network in the north of England that predated the construction of the wall. In addition to the walled military post, Vindolanda included a small civilian settlement where the families of soldiers lived. Since 1973, archaeologists at Vindolanda have been unearthing fragments of wooden writing tablets, well-preserved in the often anaerobic underground environment. The tablets offer an extraordinary glimpse into daily life in a settlement at the northern limit of the Roman Empire. In one tablet, the fort's C.O. writes requesting more beer (cervesa) for his thirsty soldiers. Also among the tablets are letters written by a woman named Claudia Severa to her friend Sulpicia Lepidina (one letter is an invitation to a birthday party!): these represent the earliest surviving correspondence between women, and the earliest surviving writing in a woman's hand! These tablets, which are still being excavated, are so important that the British Museum has called them Britain's greatest treasure.

Excavations at Vindolanda

The excellent conditions at Vindolanda have also yielded an amazing array of materials that have rarely survived elsewhere, including leather slippers and sandals, tools, kitchen utensils, and items made out of hair moss—including a woman's wig and the only surviving helmet crest from ancient Rome.

Clara and Peter at Milecastle 37, west of Housesteads Roman Fort.

From Vindolanda, we walked northeast to join Hadrian's Wall near the Roman fort of Housesteads. In AD 122, the Emperor Hadrian decided that the system of forts (like Vindolanda) along the northern border were insufficient to defend against the threat of marauding Picts from the north. His solution was to build a coast-to-coast wall across the frontier, defended by a series of "milecastles" and turrets at regular intervals along the wall. Housesteads Roman Fort lies between milecastles 36 and 37, and incorporates turret 36b (the second of two turrets between the milecastles). It was built in about 124 to add another layer of defense to the wall (in all, twelve forts were built along the wall). Below are two of my favorite features of Housesteads: the granary and the latrine.

The granary (horreum) at Housesteads. The floor was raised on pillars to aid in the drying of the grain, and to keep away vermin.

The remains of the latrine. Below is the information sign posted at the site (click to enlarge and read the text).

The Romans occupied Britain into the fifth century, although in the later days of the Empire there was a significant draw down in the number of troops stationed along the wall. The world was restless in the fifth century. The Huns pushed westward from Asia. The Goths pushed into the territory of the Roman Empire. The Anglo-Saxons were squeezed westward in England from their homeland in Germany. The Romans watched them nervously from signal stations along what is now the north Yorkshire coast (see the end of Clara's blog entry on The Romans in the North).

In this area of western Northumberland, the Roman defenses were aided by the often dramatic natural topography. Around Housesteads, the wall runs along the top of a high ridge: to the south lies the hilly countryside of Northumberland; to the north (after an often precipitous drop), the land stretches out flat toward Scotland. At left is a particularly dramatic section: the lake of Crag Lough below the sheer cliff of Whin Sill.* The wall (no longer visible) ran through the woods at the top of the cliff and up to the top of the peak (Steel Rigg) at right center. In the photograph below, Will is sitting at the top of the sheer cliff of Whin Sill; beyond him lies the relatively flat landscape stretching north from the wall toward Scotland.

After the Romans left Britain, the wall stood for centuries along the bloody border between England and Scotland—made more bloody in the 13th century when Edward I stirred up fierce resistance to his efforts to conquer Scotland. Pele towers, like the one in Dacre, were built to provide some defense against the Scots, but it wasn't until the Act of Union in 1701** that the border area became relatively safe for settlement. (Other than the church and castle, most of the buildings in Dacre date from the first half of the eighteenth century.) Standing at Hadrian's Wall, I couldn't help reflecting on the fact that, more than 1,500 years after the wall was abandoned and the Roman Empire crumbled, we're still building walls: in Gaza, in Baghdad, along the Mexican border. We still haven't learned how to bring people together, so we persist in building walls to keep them apart.

*Whin Sill was formed in the late Carboniferous when an injection of magma cooled to produce an escarpment of basaltic rock, known as "whinstone." Click here for a map from 1817 showing the Great Whin Sill in Northumberland and County Durham. Crag Lough is the small peanut-shaped lake along the wall west of Sewingshields.

**Interestingly, the anti-Unionist Scottish National Party (SNP) received the largest number of votes in May's Scottish parliamentary elections, despite the fact that a majority of Scots favor the Union. The vote was construed as being against the Labour Party rather than for the SNP. There's an ongoing debate about whether Scotland benefits from the Union. Certainly England benefits, since Scotland is a source of North Sea oil, and since the UK's controversial Trident nuclear submarines are based off the coast of Scotland. Sir Sean Connery is a high-profile supporter of the SNP; the supporters of the Union include Sir Alex Ferguson, the Glasgow-born manager of Manchester United.

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