A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
By DANIEL WEISS
Wednesday, May 10, 2017
On September 3, 1650, between Doon Hill and the London Road in Dunbar, Scotland, the English Parliamentary army led by Oliver Cromwell battled the Scottish Covenanting army. By this time, the series of conflicts known as the English Civil Wars had raged, off and on, for eight years. At the outset, Cromwell and the Scots had been on the same side, opposed to the royalists who backed King Charles I. The king had been beheaded the previous year, and now the Scots were supporting the royal claim of his son, Charles II.
The Scots are thought to have had as much as a two-to-one advantage in men, and held a superior position on the hill. However, many of the Scots were novices who had been recruited over the summer to replace more experienced soldiers purged from the army for their dissenting political views. When the Scots set out to attack at first light, Cromwell’s forces pounced and made quick work of them. The Battle of Dunbar was over in an hour, with the Scots suffering the overwhelming majority of casualties.
“I imagine it was quite chaotic. Cromwell’s men were trained professionals, and the Scots weren’t in good condition when they went into that battle,” says Chris Gerrard, an archaeologist at the University of Durham. “They had been at war for many years, and the clans were tired of giving up their best to the army. It was just men against boys.”
In the aftermath, several thousand sick and wounded Scottish soldiers were allowed to go home, but some 4,000 others deemed a potential threat were taken prisoner and marched south into England toward Durham, 100 or so miles away. These captives, many still teenagers and away from home for the first time in their lives, were in for a series of horrific travails. Already malnourished, they would suffer extreme privation and languish in unsanitary confines. Those who survived would be dispersed throughout the British Isles and as far afield as North America, where some would go on to lead improbably prosperous lives, with countless descendants living in the United States today. Although generally aware of their Scottish ancestry, many of these descendants knew little of what their seventeenth-century forebears had gone through—until an archaeological excavation produced new evidence of the harrowing events of more than 350 years ago.
As they made their way south toward Durham, the Scottish prisoners were in the charge of Sir Arthur Hesilrige, Cromwell’s governor at Newcastle. He explained what became of them in a letter to the English Council of State for Irish and Scottish Affairs dated October 31, 1650. The captives hadn’t been given a morsel to eat, and 30 miles into the march a number collapsed, claiming they could not go on. Parliamentary troops shot several dozen protesters, and the rest, resigned, continued on their way. Penned into a walled garden for the night farther along, the famished captives dug up raw cabbages and wolfed them down, muddy roots and all, so that they “poysoned their Bodies,” Hesilrige wrote. Based on his account, it seems that around one in four of the captives died on the march to Durham from starvation, exhaustion, execution, or an intestinal condition that he termed “the Flux.”
There is evidence that the Scots thought men would fight in a more “kingly” fashion if they were hungry, Gerrard says, so they probably hadn’t eaten much even before the battle. “They then were marching for six or seven days, and that is quite a time to go without food if you are walking a hundred miles.”
In Durham, the 3,000 captives who made it were locked in the town’s cathedral, which was unoccupied as Cromwell had dismissed its religious leadership. The town’s nearby castle, also empty, was used to house the many captives who grew sick. In his letter, Hesilrige reported that, during their stay in Durham, around 1,600 more of the captives had died and been buried—with the flux as the primary culprit. He also blamed the “unruly, sluttish, and nasty” prisoners for creating conditions that led to their demise and, in some cases, outright killing each other. In reality, historians believe that, despite Hesilrige’s claim to have gone to great lengths to supply the captives with food, they probably succumbed to a range of maladies brought on by starvation, reduced strength and immunity, and cramped, filthy quarters with little fresh water.
The survivors were sent to a variety of destinations. Some were used as labor to drain the fens in East Anglia, others fought for the Parliamentary army in Ireland, and still others were enlisted in the battle against the French in Barbados. Around 150, possibly selected for their hardiness, were transported to London, and then shipped across the Atlantic on the Unity, most likely arriving in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in late December 1650. There, the 100 or so who had survived the journey were sold into indentured servitude for £20 or £30 each. Around 60 of these went to work in various capacities for the Saugus Iron Works in Lynn, Massachusetts, around 20 were sent to a sawmill on the Great Works River in southern Maine, and the rest were bound to other masters in the area.
Arriving just a few decades after the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which had a total population of around 15,000 at the time, the new arrivals from long-settled Scotland found themselves in dramatically unfamiliar surroundings. Further, as Presbyterians, or even Catholics, who spoke with a heavy brogue, they also constituted a distinct cultural minority in Puritan New England. “I think they would have stood out like a sore thumb,” says Emerson Baker, an archaeologist at Salem State University who studies colonial New England.
Ultimately, these men were able to obtain their freedom—either by saving up funds equivalent to their sale price or completing a five- to seven-year term of service. Many then settled in southern Maine near the Great Works River sawmill, married, and had children. “They were really on the edge of the frontier,” says Baker. He notes that the area was the target of multiple attacks by Native Americans, in which some of the Scots were taken captive or killed. The McIntire Garrison House, dating to the early eighteenth century and among the oldest private dwellings still standing in Maine today, was built to protect against these raids. “They lived pretty tough lives,” Baker says.
Nonetheless, this small band of Scots formed a thriving, tight-knit community, and ended up naming one of the area’s towns Berwick, after a town close to Dunbar, and one of their meetinghouses Unity Parish, after the ship that brought them to the New World. “Some of these families did quite well and, within a generation or two, they had become regular colonists,” says Baker. “They had acclimated themselves to their surroundings, taken advantage of their opportunities, and become part of the fabric of society.” Today, their descendants live throughout the United States.
In the centuries since the Battle of Dunbar prisoners were held in Durham, human remains were occasionally found near the cathedral, which is still active, and the castle, which now serves as housing for University of Durham students. But they were never analyzed or carefully documented—nor was it clear whether they belonged to some of the 1,600 Scottish soldiers who had died there or to a known burial ground near the cathedral.
On a rainy afternoon in November 2013, during construction of a café at the university’s Palace Green Library, a piece of skull and a piece of pelvis were unearthed within a foot or so of one another. “One of the builders who was working on the project said, ‘Oh, that’ll be one of them Scots soldiers, then,’” says Richard Annis, a University of Durham archaeologist who supervised the excavation of the site and analysis of the recovered remains. “We spent a long time trying to prove whether or not he was correct.”
Further excavation made clear that the remains were part of a mass grave. “A large number of burials were tightly packed on top of each other with absolutely no artifacts at all—not a pin with them,” says Annis. “It looked like they had been dropped naked into a pit in some disarray. Some were face up. One was face down. A couple were on their sides tumbled in.” A few feet away, separated by an area that had been disturbed in recent times, the archaeologists found another mass grave. In all, they excavated the remains of somewhere between 17 and 28 people, all male and generally aged 13 to 25, with the majority toward the younger end. “There was very little evidence of healed injury,” says Annis, “so they weren’t a bunch of battle-hardened soldiers or anything like that.” All of this fit with what was known of the Scots who had fought in the Battle of Dunbar.
A helpful clue to dating the remains was provided by several sets of teeth with telltale elliptical gaps in the upper and lower incisors, evidence of habitual tobacco smoking with clay pipes. “This was remarkable given their young age,” says Annis. “And it showed that they had died after the introduction of relatively cheap Virginia tobacco in the early seventeenth century.” Radiocarbon dating further narrowed the window to between 1640 and 1655. Isotopic analysis of teeth from 13 of the people showed that most were likely to have come from various parts of Scotland, but three had grown up in areas of northern Europe outside the British Isles. These could have been descendants of Scots who had gone to war abroad, or mercenaries from mainland Europe or Scandinavia who had come to fight in Scotland.
After several years of analysis, the researchers concluded that the remains were indeed those of the Scots soldiers. “It’s been known for hundreds of years that large numbers of men had gone through a horrendous campaign of warfare, defeat, the march to the south in very poor conditions, then imprisonment, and that a sizable number of them had died. Yet there was no clear evidence as to where those people had ended up,” says Annis. “The discovery at Palace Green was tremendously important in answering that question.”
When the researchers announced on the university website that the mass graves held remains of Battle of Dunbar soldiers, they were surprised to find a massive influx of online traffic from the United States. “Thousands of people on the eastern seaboard of America were looking at our site,” says Gerrard, who led the University of Durham team that excavated and analyzed the remains. “We were inundated with inquiries from the survivors’ descendants. It was quite remarkable.”
Last October, a number of the researchers, including Gerrard and Annis, traveled to New England, where they presented their findings to several dozen of these descendants at a public library down the street from the site of the Saugus Iron Works, which is now a National Historic Site. “The room was completely packed,” says Annis, “and most of them were clutching their family tree that shows their eighth or ninth great-grandfather being one of these people who had gone through this experience in Dunbar, in Durham, and then the transportation overseas. It was absolutely fascinating to see the degree of interest in this group, and it was profoundly gratifying, really.”
One of the descendants who attended the presentation was Heidi Thibodeau, 58, a corporate library assistant who grew up in Stoneham, Massachusetts, and now lives in Connecticut. Before starting to work on her family tree several years ago, she knew nothing of her connection to the Battle of Dunbar. She has since found that she is descended from a number of the survivors who formed the community in southern Maine. One of these was James Warren, who lived into the early years of the eighteenth century and had five children, one of whom was abducted, along with her daughter, and taken to Canada in a 1689 Native American raid. At the presentation, which she says felt like a family reunion, Thibodeau met fellow descendants for the first time.
“I’m really grateful to the people from Durham that came over and shared what they’ve found out about the lives of the men who died and were buried over there,” she says. “It kind of brought to life my own ancestors. I’m in awe of them, of their ability to survive and thrive when I think of what they went through. They were shipped here to a strange country, far from their family and loved ones, and they made successful lives for themselves. I’m just amazed at their strength and their courage.”
In Durham, once the researchers determined that the remains they had excavated were those of Battle of Dunbar soldiers, they were faced with the question of where they should be reburied. Some in Scotland have argued that the remains should be buried there, to return the soldiers to their homeland. However, Gerrard points out, the prevailing practice in the United Kingdom is to bury excavated remains in the modern cemetery closest to the point of discovery.
In this case, he suggests, there are several added arguments for this custom. First, the team has excavated only parts of individual soldiers’ bodies, with the remaining bones thought to lie under the library building, and some believe that different parts of individuals should not be separated by a great distance. Second, the overwhelming majority of the captives remain buried near the café site, so the excavated remains should be kept as close to them as possible. As a result of these arguments, the team has decided that the remains will be reburied later this year at the Elvet Hill Road Cemetery in Durham, less than a mile from where they were exhumed.
“A point of view that has been made forcefully is that this is a group of people who fought together, went through this terrible march together, and then died together,” says Gerrard. “These were their friends, their colleagues, and in all likelihood their relatives, so they should be kept together.”
Daniel Weiss is a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.
By SAMIR S. PATEL
Tuesday, May 09, 2017
The Hallmundarhraun lava field—basalt dark, with great swells and a froth of white moss—looks like a stormy sea whipped into a frenzy and frozen in place. It begins under the Langjökull glacier in mountains to the east and winds some 30 miles to Hraunfoss—literally, “Lava Falls”—where a crystalline river of meltwater pours directly from its wide, stony face. It’s very Icelandic: fire and ice, water and stone. When the lava flowed at the end of the ninth century, shortly after the Vikings arrived on the island, it was probably the first volcanic activity of its kind that northern Europeans had ever witnessed. Those early residents of western Iceland may have heard eruptions, seen a fiery glow on the horizon, and tracked its spread across the landscape, a spread that ultimately consumed around 90 square miles.
Hallmundarhraun, just a few hours’ drive from Reykjavík, is riven with lava tubes which form when fresh molten rock flows through an existing field of cooled lava. Over time, the ceilings of some of these tunnels partially collapse to form caves. There are some 500 across Iceland, and around 200 hold evidence of human occupation. One of these caves is Surtshellir, part of a lava tube complex that is Iceland’s longest, at more than two miles. It is named for Surtr, the elemental fire giant of Norse mythology, the “scorcher” or “blackener,” ruler of Muspelheim, who will kill all gods and life at the end of time. Inside is one of the more enigmatic archaeological sites on the island.
Until one is almost directly on top of Surtshellir’s entrance, an amphitheater-shaped depression, the arrested turbulence and uniform darkness of Hallmundarhraun conceals it. But the cave is no minor feature. It is giant-scaled, a leviathan’s burrow up to 40 feet in diameter, littered with massive, angular blocks of basalt calved from the ceiling. Around 100 yards into the cave, that ceiling opens to the sky, the result of a collapse centuries ago. Just before reaching this skylight, one encounters, partially buried under boulders from the ceiling, a titanic man-made wall, 15 feet tall and spanning the cave, made up of blocks, each weighing up to four tons. Just past the skylight, two small galleries branch off, one to the left and one to the right. These side caves, Vígishellir (“Fortress Cave”) on the left and Beinahellir (“Bones Cave”) on the right, are the remnants of an older, smaller lava tube bisected by Surtshellir. After one scrambles up a rockfall into Vígishellir, the darkness descends like a shroud. Light is swallowed and incidental sound amplified. Breath hangs in the still, cold, humid air.
A few yards into Vígishellir is a second man-made structure: an anomalous arrangement of stones, piled a few feet high to form an oval enclosure, 22 by 11 feet. Archaeologists believe it could be the oldest standing Viking structure in the world. Next to it is a pile of animal bones, methodically hacked into tiny pieces. Archaeological sites generally have telltale patterns that show scientists how they were used: domestic activity, craft production, ritual. Surtshellir eludes such clarities. The things it contains—and, more importantly, doesn’t contain—fit some patterns and resist others, and show just how difficult it can be to divine behavior, intent, and even emotion from bits of stone and bone.
The thirteenth-century Landnámabók (or Book of Settlements) describes in detail the earliest habitation of Iceland, beginning around 870. It is the first source to mention Surtshellir by name. It states that a chieftain’s son, Thorvald “Hollow Throat” Thordarson, traveled there across the uninhabitable interior to recite a drápa, or a laudatory poem, to the giant who lived there. It also tells of a group of 18 “cavemen” outlaws who lived in the area centuries before, and a related story appears in the fourteenth-century Harðar saga ok Hólmverja, though neither places them specifically in the cave. In the Sturlunga saga, Órækja Snorrason, illegitimate son of Snorri Sturluson, then Iceland’s most powerful chieftain, was captured in 1236 and taken to Surtshellir, where he was blinded, castrated, bound “on the top of the fortress,” and left for dead (though he survived the ordeal). A later folk story tells of 18 heretical student priests who took refuge in the cave and turned to livestock theft, kidnapping, enslavement, rape, and murder. The dire reputation of Surtshellir increased through the centuries, and was cemented in the Hellismanna saga, a nineteenth-century work of fiction that brought many of the outlaw stories together.
The site deep in Surtshellir—the enclosure in the side cave Vígishellir—was first described as early as the 1750s by Icelandic naturalists Eggert Ólafsson and Bjarni Pálsson, and was cited again several times after that. Notably, none of these descriptions mention the other built feature, the wall across the main tunnel, which was concealed by some combination of darkness, rockfall, and, once the ceiling collapsed fully, snow drifts.
In 2000, archaeologist Kevin P. Smith, now chief curator of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University, was excavating at a nearby site. He and archaeologist and architectural historian Guðmundur Ólafsson of the National Museum of Iceland encountered tourists in the small town of Reykholt, once the chiefly center of Snorri himself, who told of the bones they had taken as souvenirs from Surtshellir. “It’s a very long tradition,” says Ólafsson. In the museum collection, there is a large piece of bone collected there by a couple on their honeymoon in 1915—conveniently engraved with the details.
A few days later, Smith and Ólafsson visited the enclosure and bone pile in Vígishellir. “I was shocked to learn that there had never been an archaeological survey,” says Smith. The next year they returned with a team to map Vígishellir and excavate part of the bone pile. It was also the first summer that snow drifts melted back enough to expose the wall in the main part of the tunnel, which proved to be the largest known Viking Age stone structure in Iceland.
The other lava caves in Iceland with evidence of human occupation usually show signs of brief, transient use. Surtshellir is different. “It’s a complicated cave,” says Smith. “It’s got a lot of interesting stories in it.” There is the enclosure in Vígishellir, rough but sturdy. It resembles in shape a Viking-era hall, with an opening, or doorway, on each of its longer sides and three shallow niches built into the walls. In 2001, the bone pile next to it was just a few inches deep and several feet around. It appears that the bones had been thoroughly smashed, perhaps to extract every bit of marrow, a pattern not often seen in Iceland. But, surprisingly, they were not burned or scorched by a cooking fire. Staining on the wall and fragments embedded in cracks show that the pile—before tourists and travelers got to it—had been a couple of feet deep and 12 feet around, perhaps representing the remains of up to 200 animals. The archaeologists excavated a portion of the pile and catalogued 7,500 fragments, mostly from sheep and goats, but also cattle, pigs, and horses. Radiocarbon dates and the age of the lava flow put the bones at around 890–930, soon after the arrival of the first migrants from Scandinavia.
The other structure in Surtshellir, the large wall, adds to the mystery. It is easily overlooked when initially exploring the cave, but once distinguished from the later rockfall, it is unmistakable. Its sheer face runs 40 feet across, a formidable barrier to movement through the cave in either direction. Because there is no passage through it, anyone wishing to access the deeper interior of the cave and the enclosure there would have to scale it. Building the wall was surely a communal undertaking—by hand, in complete darkness. “This is almost certainly the ‘fortress’ wall on which Órækja, Snorri’s son, was blinded, castrated, and left to die,” says Smith.
Smith and Ólafsson’s initial interpretation hewed to the cave’s local reputation. “It takes quite a lot of work to put up those stones,” says Ólafsson. “If you have a group of youngsters with testosterone and needing something to do, I think this would be a perfect place to have a youth gang.” Under this theory, the cave would indeed have been the residence of a band of young outlaws who raided local farms for livestock and deposited the bones in a pile. The wall would have been built for defense, the enclosure a sort of “home” to make the space more livable, Ólafsson suspects. As time passed after their initial explorations, however, Smith began to have doubts about the hypothesis.
Surtshellir is a place without equivalents, and would have been very, very difficult to live in. The enclosure in Vígishellir is around 800 feet from the entrance. Before the ceiling collapsed, it was far beyond the reach of natural light. Anyone living there would need fire for heat, light, and cooking. They would need a latrine area in the cave to spare them dangerous passage through the darkness and over the massive wall. The cave is damp but has no stream, so the outlaw residents also would need means to collect, transport, and store water. Finally, though the written sources are not strictly reliable, many refer to 18 outlaws. That’s a lot of people to be making use of the small, room-sized, short-walled “house.” “It’s not big enough for 18 people to do anything in,” says Smith.
In 2012, Smith, Ólafsson, and others returned, with funding from the National Science Foundation and Iceland’s heritage agency, to test a new 3-D modeling system developed at Brown. The cave environment made modeling difficult, but Smith saw an opportunity to look for more evidence of long-term occupation. During the project, the team chanced upon a Viking Age bead, then another, and pieces of jasper firestarters, all in a delicate, sandy layer running through the enclosure. The next year Smith brought a team back for an emergency excavation and survey.
The archaeologists found few of the additional signs of occupation Smith was looking for. Little to no soot on the walls and ceiling. No hearth or food preparation tools. No phosphate-rich areas to indicate a latrine. No water collection or storage system. No additional structures. Though absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, the apparent lack of any of these features bolstered Smith’s suspicions. The survey did find the remains of six additional, smaller bone piles—now more or less picked clean—near the enclosure, in the main tunnel, and in the second side gallery, Beinahellir. The bone fragments were contemporaneous with the main bone pile, deposited over a span of 80 to 100 years. That is a long time for an outlaw occupation that left scant evidence, especially during a time when such careers were more often measured in months or seasons rather than decades.
The sandy layer held a collection of glass beads near the opening in the enclosure that faces the deeper recesses of the cave—“one of the largest assemblages of beads at any site in Iceland other than burials,” says Smith. They came in an unusually restricted set of colors: green, blue, and yellow. Around them were small flecks of orpiment, a valuable arsenic-based yellow pigment not otherwise found in Iceland at the time. The beads and orpiment may have been part of an object of some value. There were also burned bone fragments, clearly separated from the large, unburned bone pile. “There was a strangely divided treatment of bone,” Smith says. Within the structure were more jasper firestarters—the Viking equivalent of matches, in this case burned by intense heat—from all over western Iceland, in a variety of colors, but notably not the black jasper from the closest known source. It appears that the enclosure had been host to fires after all, but only episodically.
And, in the center of the enclosure, the archaeologists found a lead cross, and then three other lead pieces. They had been pecked and gouged, suggesting they were used as official weights. Smith believes they comprise a complete set, as they add up to 26 grams, a weight standard that Vikings used not for commerce but for legal proceedings, such as the manumission of a slave or compensation for injury or murder. He thinks that they were not dropped by outlaws, but rather placed there (and not burned) deliberately—to end a tradition of ritual offerings around the time Christianity came to Iceland. “It has closing deposit written all over it,” he says.
The strange artifacts and patterns of color and origin, to Smith, echo this more mystical explanation. In the Landnámabók, it is not outlaws that Surtshellir is explicitly tied to, but the poem of praise to the giant. Traditionally, such poems were powerful incantations, still remembered, in this case, hundreds of years after the island-wide conversion to Christianity.
Smith’s theory is that the cave was the site of rituals dedicated either to keeping Surtr in or to supporting Freyr, a Norse god of fertility and agriculture who opposes Surtr. The enclosure, in addition to resembling a Viking hall, could also be interpreted as a ritual stone boat, related to the mythology of giants. The domestic animals may have been sacrificed as a call to Freyr and placed in a series of piles as a barrier across the cave—like the wall itself. The colors of the beads are also associated with Freyr, and the absence of black beads or jasper is interesting, as the color is tied to Surtr. The labor involved and the value of the remains suggest to Smith that the rituals were organized at the chieftain level. “The punch line is that it worked,” he says. “The volcano never erupted again.”
The National Museum’s Ólafsson doesn’t appear convinced just yet. While he acknowledges that the site is unusual and complex, he thinks that occupation by some fringe group remains the most likely explanation, supported by cultural traditions. “In my opinion, that story gives the best explanation of all the finds, but it seems that it’s much more complicated than we thought in the beginning,” he says. “I don’t think we have the answer yet.”
A ritual history and a legacy of outlaws need not be mutually exclusive. Both engender a frisson of fear, the taboo, the unknown, transgression, destruction. It’s not hard to imagine that a place thought to be the gateway to Muspelheim, the door through which the blackener would come to claim time itself, would become home to stories of debased priests, torture, and gangs who terrorized the countryside. During the 600 years between the medieval and modern periods, Surtshellir was more or less unvisited and perhaps even off-limits. Whether associated with giants or outlaws, it was threatening. The place where these narratives overlap—mythical, apocryphal, historical, archaeological—at least conveys a bad feeling. It’s darkness, and in Surtshellir, it is consuming.
Samir S. Patel is deputy editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.
By JARRETT A. LOBELL
Monday, April 10, 2017
When the emperor Hadrian visited the province of Britannia in A.D. 122, he was in full command of the entire Roman Empire, which stretched some 2,500 miles east from northern Great Britain to modern-day Iraq, and 1,500 miles south to the Sahara Desert. He had become emperor five years earlier, after a controversial postmortem adoption by his predecessor and guardian Trajan, and he ruled until his death in 138, at the age of 62, likely of a heart attack. In just over 20 years, he became, according to an anonymous ancient source, the “most versatile” of the Roman emperors. He was a battle-tested solider who fought with Trajan in Dacia, a skilled politician who masterminded the consolidation of the empire’s territory, a faithful patron and lover of the arts, and a tireless traveler who visited nearly half the empire during his reign.
Hadrian is perhaps best known, however, as one of Rome’s most prodigious builders. In this he followed in the emperor Augustus’ footsteps as a ruler who grasped architecture’s inherent ability to express ideology and power. For most of Hadrian’s reign, the empire was at relative peace—the Pax Romana, or “Roman Peace,” was at its height. Thus he didn’t achieve the notable military victories of some of his predecessors. Instead, he turned to art and architecture as a way of legitimizing his rule, demonstrating Roman dominion, solidifying his legacy, and leaving his enduring stamp on the landscape of the empire.
In Rome itself, the emperor sponsored numerous building projects, both to enrich the lives of its citizens and tie himself to the city’s past. At the site of the Pantheon, the spectacular domed temple in the heart of Rome that Hadrian is credited with completing, he linked his own rule to one of Rome’s most revered men, the first-century B.C. consul Marcus Agrippa—a great builder in his own right. Hadrian chose to retain the facade of Agrippa’s much earlier temple on the front of the Pantheon, while at the same time providing a new venue for the worship of all the gods. Hadrian also designed what is thought to have been the largest temple in ancient Rome, an enormous edifice honoring the goddess Venus Felix, a “bringer of good fortune,” and Roma Aeterna, or “Eternal Rome,” a double dedication whose symbolism, like the immense temple itself, was impossible to miss. Outside Rome, Hadrian displayed his personal love of all things Greek, and he combined it with the clear message that Rome was now in charge. In Athens, for example, he restored the Greek Olympieion, or Temple of Olympian Zeus, and erected a new gold-and-ivory statue to the god, but also placed four statues of himself in front of the main shrine and a large Roman-style arch at the entrance to the temenos, or sanctuary.
In the provinces, as in Rome, architecture served symbolic as well as utilitarian purposes. Hadrian sponsored the renovation of ancient cities such as Smyrna, now Izmir in modern Turkey, founded entirely new ones such as Antinoopolis in Egypt, and commissioned the construction of public architecture—theaters, temples, arches, municipal buildings, and countless statues and inscriptions—everywhere he went. These sites often exhibit a mix of local and imported styles and tastes, and brought what Duke University historian Mary Boatwright calls a “‘Roman’ visual vocabulary” to much of the empire, uniting the vast territory in a way that proclamations and policy often could not. But there was one place where the emperor thought something entirely different was required.
By the time Hadrian visited Britannia, his plan to end Trajan’s policy of extending the empire’s territory at all costs had already played out in Mesopotamia, where he had ceded newly conquered lands east of the Euphrates River and restored the border to its previous location. In this, too, he followed Augustus, who had espoused the principle that borders should be defendable, and, whenever possible, formed by natural boundaries, such as the Euphrates, the Rhine and Danube Rivers, and the Atlantic Ocean. But Great Britain has no broad rivers running through its center to delineate the border between the province of Britannia and the lands north, which were occupied by indigenous Celtic tribes with whom the Romans often came into conflict and who, early in Hadrian’s reign, were in rebellion.
Hadrian decided that the only solution was to build a wall. There were already man-made fortifications along parts of the empire’s other frontiers, mostly constructed of timber, earth, and turf. But on no other frontier did an emperor construct a wall made almost entirely of stone—the formidable edifice now known as Hadrian’s Wall, much of which survives to this day.
Hadrian’s Wall spanned 73 miles, or 80 Roman miles, the entire width of the island, from Wallsend on the River Tyne in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in the west. At first the eastern part of the wall was built of stone, the western half of turf and timber, but the plan for the wall changed soon after it was begun. Its overall width was reduced to about eight feet, or even less in some places depending on the terrain, and the 30-mile turf-and-timber section from Bowness east to the River Irthing began to be replaced by stone, though this modification would not be completed for decades.
The majority of the construction was accomplished in six years, mainly by 15,000 troops from the three Roman legions stationed in Britain at the time—the II Augusta, VI Victrix, and XX Valeria Victrix—along with some members of the Roman fleet, using the ample supply of local stone as well as the natural features of the landscape, and largely without the use of mortar. The medieval monk, historian, science writer, and theologian, the Venerable Bede, describes the wall as standing 12 feet high, although some archaeologists believe it might have once stood a few feet higher. At each Roman mile along the span, there was a fortified milecastle, and between each milecastle were two observation towers. There were also forts, likely 16 in total, spaced about seven miles apart. To augment its effectiveness and create a military zone, a 19-foot-deep by 10-foot-wide ditch with mounds flanking it, called the Vallum, was constructed south of the wall. A 10-foot-deep, 28-foot wide, V-shaped ditch was dug on the north side of the wall as an additional defensive measure. When fully manned, not by the legions that built it, but by regiments of auxiliary infantry and cavalry drawn from the provinces, at its height under Hadrian, nearly 10,000 soldiers were stationed on the wall.
Much current archaeological and historical research on Hadrian’s Wall centers on the question of its purpose. At first, this might seem obvious—if there are troublesome tribes to the north, and you want to keep them out, you build a strong defensive wall. In fact, the late-Roman author of Hadrian’s biography in the Historia Augusta states that Hadrian “was the first to build a wall 80 miles from sea to sea to separate the barbarians from the Romans.” But this undoubtedly biased view is not the only possible answer, and, as with his other construction projects across the empire, Hadrian likely had multiple objectives in mind. The wall was also built to keep people in, within the confines of a Roman province. It allowed the Romans to direct civilian traffic in and out of the empire, a powerful weapon in exerting economic control over those wishing to obtain access to Roman markets. Construction and maintenance of the wall provided years of work for thousands of soldiers who, particularly until near the end of the second century, had very little to do owing to the relative quiet that prevailed across the empire. Idle, bored soldiers—who are already being paid—are never a good thing. Furthermore, the Roman legions had all the expertise required to build the wall as they traveled with their own surveyors, engineers, masons, and carpenters.
Beyond its practical purposes, the psychological impact of the wall must have been tremendous. For nearly three centuries, until the end of Roman rule in Britain in 410, Hadrian’s Wall was the clearest statement possible of the might, resourcefulness, and determination of an individual emperor and of his empire.
The Roman conquest of Britain began in earnest in the mid-first century A.D. Although the Romans had first come to the island a century earlier, rebellions had pulled Julius Caesar back to the continent. Britain remained free until A.D. 43, when the emperor Claudius led an invasion force of as many as 40,000 legionary and auxiliary troops. The complete subjugation of the island would take decades, but from that point on, the Roman army left its permanent mark.
At the time of the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, there were likely about 35,000 Roman soldiers in Britain, and twice as many people associated with military installations there. Assuming a total population on the island of around one to two million people, as much as 10 percent of its inhabitants were supported by the empire. This, explains archaeologist Andrew Birley, had a tremendous impact on the environment, trade, economics, law and order, governance, and, indeed, every aspect of life. Although its effect on some segments of society, such as the native population of Great Britain, is not well understood, a great deal has been learned, particularly over the last 100 years, from excavations of sites on and associated with the wall. Hadrian’s Wall is a microcosm of the Roman world—its military strategy, building techniques, material culture, and the lives not only of its soldiers, but also of the thousands of men, women, and children who lived on the empire’s northern frontier.
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