Hadrian’s Wall finds suggest family life at Roman outpost
Hadrian’s Wall has long been regarded as a symbol of Roman military might, but scholars believe it may have had a more domestic past.
The discovery of the remains of a woman and a five-year-old boy, thought to be a mother and child, calls into question the theory that the fort was only for military men.
They were discovered in Roman cremation urns, which will soon be on display as part of an English Heritage project worth £1.8 million ($2.5 million).
It aims to bring to life the stories of the men, women and children who lived along the Roman empire’s north-western frontier.
Visitors will also be able to see infant feeding bottles, the remnants of a doll, a bone whistle and evidence of board games, uncovered at the ancient site.
The urns, discovered during a rare cemetery excavation in 2009, are going on display at Birdoswald Roman Fort, Cumbria, close to where they were found.
Analysis of the child’s tooth suggests he or she was around five while the woman is thought to have been in her 20s or 30s.
Experts believe that the bodies, believed to date from the turn of the Third Century AD, may have been related, due to the close proximity of their burials.
Goods found in the urn with the woman include a section of iron chain mail from armour, leaving archaeologists puzzling over the meaning of an item that normally indicates a male burial.
A new permanent exhibition will tell the story of the garrison and its support communities, including a crane that demonstrates the expertise needed to build the wall.
At nearby Corbridge Roman Town, English Heritage has included a new visualisation of what the outpost of the Roman empire would have looked like. A perfume vase in ‘impeccable’ condition will also go on display, alongside the children’s toys and games.
English Heritage curator of Roman collections Frances McIntosh said: ‘Alongside its military function, Hadrian’s Wall was a thriving centre of everyday life.
‘Even though ordinary Roman soldiers weren’t officially allowed to marry until 197AD, a blind eye was often turned and many wives and children would have lived there, alongside a large community of civilians which sprung up to service the forts.
‘The discovery of this woman and child is fascinating, it leaves us with questions about how they were related, and why she was buried with armour.
‘But it also reminds us how rich and diverse the story of life on Hadrian’s Wall is, something which our new exhibitions will highlight.’
For around three centuries, Hadrian’s Wall was a vibrant, multi-cultured frontier sprawling 80 Roman miles (73 miles / 117 km) coast-to-coast. 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’.
Hadrian’s Wall became the north-west frontier of the Roman empire and crossed northern Britain from Wallsend on the River Tyne in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in the west.
Built by a force of 15,000 men in under six years, it’s comprised of Milecastles, barracks, ramparts and forts. Among these are the forts of Banna, now known as Birdoswald, the town of Corbridge and the auxiliary fort of Vindolanda, to the south of the wall.
Hadrian’s Wall resisted all comers in its day and defended an empire that stretched from Britain in the west to Jordan in the east.
Although mainly built by legionaries, the Wall was manned by auxiliaries. They were organised into regiments nominally either 500 or 1,000 strong and either infantry or cavalry or both.
The 500-strong mixed infantry and cavalry unit was the workhorse of the frontier. Each fort on the Wall appears to have been built to hold a single auxiliary unit. Hadrian’s Wall was made a World Heritage Site in 1987.