Housesteads Roman Fort is an auxiliary fort lying about midway along Hadrian’s Wall. It is the most complete example of a Roman fort in Britain, and one of the best-known and best preserved. It was built shortly after work on the Wall began and was garrisoned by an 800-strong infantry regiment for much of the period of Roman rule in Britannia. Excavations have revealed major buildings of different periods, defences and a civilian settlement outside its walls (vicus). The visible remains also include the finest preserved latrines known from Roman Britain.
Housesteads was built in stone by Roman soldiers around AD 124 over the original Broad Wall foundation and Turret 36B. It was a large fort covering 2.2 hectares and was arranged on a regular grid plan with a stone wall up to 5m high. Four gates led onto the streets that divided the fort into three areas. The central area contained administrative buildings, the headquarters (principia), the granaries (horrea) and a hospital (valetudinarium), as well as the commanding officer’s house (praetorium). On both sides of the central area were at least 10 barracks blocks where up to 800 soldiers lived, and also workshops and support buildings.
In the 2nd century AD, the garrison consisted of an unknown double-sized auxiliary infantry cohort and a detachment of legionarii from Legio II Augusta. From the late 2nd to the 4th centuries AD, the Cohors I Tungrorum (the first cohort of Tungrians, a German people from the region of Tongres, in modern Belgium) was stationed at Housesteads with additional units recruited beyond the Rhine frontier in Frisia, now north-east Holland.
The vicus developed along the main military road outside the fort. However, it may not have been as long-lived as the fort. Archaeological evidence points to its abandonment around AD 270, though the temple area nearby probably continued into the 4th century AD. Temples and other buildings are known to have existed to the south of the vallum and a Mithraeum (temple dedicated to the god Mithras) was excavated to the west of it.
Housesteads was occupied until the end of the Roman period in Britain, shortly after AD 400, during which time many changes were made to the buildings and their use; the hospital and most of the granaries had been converted into living quarters.
Housesteads is probably the best preserved Roman fort on display in England. It has produced many significant archaeological finds including quantities of statuary, altars, inscriptions, pottery and small finds.
Hadrian’s Wall is the most important monument built by the Romans in Britain. The Wall was the north-west frontier of the Roman empire for nearly 300 years. It was built by the Roman army on the orders of Hadrian following his visit to Britain in AD 122. At 117 kilometres long (80 Roman miles), it crossed northern Britain from Wallsend on the River Tyne in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in the west. Frontier installations continued for a further 40 kilometres down the Cumbrian coast.
Considered as the most famous of all the frontiers of the Roman empire, Hadrian’s Wall stands today as a reminder of the past glories of one of the world’s greatest powers. Hadrian’s Wall was made a World Heritage Site in 1987 and is part of the transnational Frontiers of the Roman Empire WHS (see here), inscribed in 2005 and currently comprising Hadrian’s Wall, the German Limes and the Antonine Wall in Scotland.
The original plan was for a wall of turf in the west and stone in the east, with small forts (milecastles) at intervals of a Roman mile, and two observation towers (turrets) in between the milecastles. These were installations where small groups of soldiers could be outposted in areas where there were concerns about security. Size varied, but in general, they were about 15m by 18m internally, with stone walls as much as 3m thick and probably 5m to 6m high, to match the height of the adjacent wall. There were 80 milecastles and 158 turrets.
To the north lay a broad and deep ditch, except where the lie of the land made this unnecessary. Forts were added along the length of the wall, including Vercovicium (Housesteads) and Banna (Birdoswald), each holding between 500 and 1,000 auxiliary troops, and a great earthwork, known as the Vallum, was constructed a short distance south of the Wall. Some of the larger forts along the wall, such as Cilurnum (Chesters), were built on top of the footings of milecastles or turrets, showing a change of plan.
The construction of Hadrian’s Wall was a major feat of engineering. Soldiers from three legions are known to have helped build the Wall, Legio VI Victrix (which arrived in Britain c. AD 122, just in time to start work on the Wall), Legio XX Valeria Victrix and Legio II Augusta. Other soldiers from the provincial army helped. It stood up to 4.4 metres high in places with walls 3 meters wide and was built by a force of no more than 15,000 men in under six years. It had dressed facing stones in a soft mortar and a core of earth or clay with stones. There is some evidence that there was a wall-walk and parapet along its top. The Wall underwent various changes over time. Changes in design from a broad wall through to a later adoption of a narrower gauge wall, and subsequent rebuilding in the 3rd century AD.
Up until at least the 1850s, it was thought that Septimius Severus built the wall during his failed attempts to finally bring all of Britain under Roman control while Hadrian was credited with building the Vallum. However, the Milecasle 38 stone inscription, found in the mid-1700s, proves that Hadrian commissioned the wall that now bears his name. The inscription, probably made and erected to mark the completion of the milecastle, bears the names of the emperor Hadrian and Aulus Platorius Nepos (Governor of Britannia during Hadrian’s reign), as well as Legio II Augusta (Second Augustan Legion). It is on display at the Great North Museum in Newcastle.
Hadrian’s Wall was abandoned from AD 142 for about 20 years when the Antonine Wall was built to the north, but from about 160 for 250 years it remained the north-west frontier of the Roman empire.
With the end of Roman rule, the ruins of the Wall became the homes of farmers, strongholds of lords, hide-outs of thieves and the building material of churchmen, but always remained a powerful reminder of what had once been.
Almost 2,000 years on, long sections on Hadrian’s Wall still stand, remarkably well-preserved.
Hadrian’s Wall has long attracted hikers and history fans and is now the heart of an 84-mile-long (135 km) National Trail through some of Britain’s most beautiful countryside. Hadrian’s Wall Path stretches coast to coast across northern England, from Wallsend in the east to Bowness-on-Solway on the west coast. The trail is well signposted and despite the fact that it has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Northern England, it retains a real sense of quiet wilderness. The sites of several Roman forts lie along the route, including Segedunum at Wallsend, Chesters, Housesteads, Vindolanda and Birdoswald.
Hadrian’s wall trail is an extraordinary journey which gives you a unique insight into a fascinating era in history as well as a massive respect for the soldiers who engineered and built the Wall. National Trail Maps and Guides are available to download from the Hadrian’s Wall Country website at hadrianswallcountry.co.uk/.