The Problem with Hadrian’s Vallum

Historians and archaeologists, have the Romans pretty sown up when it comes to how and why the Empire did things and why? Let’s take Hadrian’s Wall (Hadrian’s Vallum) – English heritage would have you believe that:

“Permanent conquest of Britain began in AD 43. By about AD 100, the northernmost army units in Britain lay along the Tyne–Solway isthmus. The forts here were linked by a road, now known as the Stanegate, between Corbridge and Carlisle.

Hadrian came to Britain in AD 122 and, according to a biography written 200 years later, ‘put many things to right and was the first to build a wall 80 miles long from sea to sea to separate the barbarians from the Romans’.

The building of Hadrian’s Wall probably began that year and took at least six years to complete. The original plan was for a wall of stone or turf, with a guarded gate every mile and two observation towers in between, and fronted by a wide, deep ditch. Before work was completed, 14 forts were added, followed by an earthwork known as the Vallum to the south.

Really so what is the Vallum then?

Classic Cross-section of Hadrian’s Wall as seen by archaeologists

Let’s read on……The Wall was placed slightly north of the existing line of military installations between the River Tyne and the Solway Firth. Its line was carefully chosen to make best use of the topography, and it was surveyed from each end towards the middle, or rather towards the crags, in sections. Building in the east started at the point where the road from the south, Dere Street, met the Wall and where later a gate, the Portgate, was erected.

As first planned, most of the Wall was to be built in stone, but the eastern 30-mile section was in turf. In front of both was a substantial ditch, except where crags or rivers made this unnecessary. At each mile a gate was protected by a small guard post called a milecastle.

Between each pair of milecastles lay two towers (turrets), creating a pattern of observation points every third of a mile. The stone wall, with a maximum height of about 15 feet (4.6 metres), was 10 Roman feet (3 metres) wide, wide enough for there to have been a walkway along the top, and perhaps also a parapet wall. The turf sector was 20 Roman feet (6 metres) wide.

To the north of the turf sector lay three advance forts, all probably part of this plan, but otherwise the forts remained on the Stanegate behind the Wall.

Before the first plan was completed, a radical change led to the placing of forts on the wall line and down the Cumbrian coast, and the construction of an earthwork to the south (Vallum).

The forts, each apparently built for a single unit and at a basic spacing of 7⅓ miles, were placed astride the Wall wherever possible. This allowed three main gates, each with two entrances, making the equivalent of six milecastle gates, to provide access to the north; the double-portal south gate was supplemented by two small side gates. The position of the forts and the provision of so many gates suggest that a requirement for increased mobility led to this change.

The addition of the forts was followed by the construction of an earthwork to the south 120 Roman feet (an actus – about 35 metres) wide. This consisted of a central ditch between two mounds. Causeways, surmounted by gates, were provided at forts. The purpose of the Vallum, as this earthwork is known, was presumably to protect the rear of the frontier zone.

So, the Vallum is a defensive ditch, then?

Sounds quite simple doesn’t it……. Until you start looking at the detail!!

I have been studying the 1497+ (for every two scheduled Dyke I have measured and categorised I have found on average one not scheduled or noticed) Dykes in Britain (including Southern Ireland) and noticed a few cut through the Vallum, which is strange as I have observed that the Vallum either starts or ends on these occasions.

Consequently, I have started to measure and track the Vallum via LiDAR maps I have at my deposal and have found severe flaws in the English Heritage Literature. So let’s look at just one section of Hadrian’s Wall to show you examples of how the present understanding of Hadrian’s Wall does not hold up to scrutiny.

Scheduled Monument section 1010987 – The Vallum between the field boundary south east of Heads Wood and the A6021 road in Wall Mile 57.

LiDAR Map of this section – notice the section over the peninsula is probably a road as it connects and ends at a Roman Fort -Hadrian’s Vallum

The first problem we find is that it disappears for 3,000 metres without reason – not a very effective ‘defensive structure’ with gaps of this size – and our survey has identified quite a few gaps like this throughout the line of the Wall.

The second problem is its construction – it’s far too big?  The LiDAR maps clearly show its 36m wide consisting of TWO banks(one on each site) of 13m wide and a Ditch of 10m with a flat bottom (found on previous excavations) – if it’s defensive, it’s rubbish?? A defensive ditch has ONE bank (which you place a wooden palisade) and a V-shaped smaller ditch 3 – 4m, so soldiers fall in and break their legs – these ditches you can jump in and march across??

OS 1800s Map showing a gap – but it is much larger than OS believed – Hadrian’s Vallum

The third conundrum is that the Wall is sometimes a fair distance from the Vallum.  The construction seems to hug the lowlands near or on rivers and shorelines – sometimes connecting with prehistoric Dykes, as we have previously suggested.

The evidence suggests that the Vallum was a Dyke, which would make more sense as the Wall needed constant supplies, and to date, nobody has worked out how on earth you move TWO MILLION CUBIC METRES OF STONE without using boats?

Moreover, the identification of the double-banked Dyke shows that the Roman’s had ‘tow paths’ on both sides of the Dyke for ease of two-way traffic (unlike the Victorian canal system) and that the later ‘Military Way’ Road was simply the continuation of this ‘goods connection’ by using one of the banks when the Dyke dried or silted at a later date.

What our research has shown is that there was a great possibility (due to location) that a prehistoric Dyke (like Wansdyke and offa) was already in this area, and the Roman’s used it for convenience and to save money (labour) on their wall endeavour.

I will be publishing a book on the Vallum and Hadrian’s Wall as the Antonine Wall has similar characteristics to the Vallum, and with LiDAR, we can again correct (like my first trilogy) the so-called ‘known history’ of Britain.

For further information about Hadrian’s Vallum and other dykes see our website ot video channel.