Divide and Conquer: Hadrian’s Wall and the native population

20 mins read

For decades it was believed that the army on Hadrian’s Wall peacefully co-existed with a local farming community flourishing under the pax Romana. Now, as Nick Hodgson explains, fresh excavations suggest that the frontier stamped out a way of life that had endured for centuries.

Hadrian’s Wall cresting the crags of the Whin Sill in the frontier’s central sector. But what was life like for the indigenous population living in its shadow? It has long been known that indigenous settlements only produce few finds, including crude handmade pottery, which belongs to a centuries-old tradition and cannot be closely dated and, much scarcer, decorated glass beads in the Meare tradition. Recent research in the Newcastle area is overturning the long standing consensus that the new frontier allowed locals to flourish in a pax Romana.

Archaeologists have always struggled to understand the impact of Hadrian’s Wall on the lives of local people who farmed the land in the immediate vicinity of the new frontier barrier. Surviving Roman written sources tell us hardly anything about the lifestyle of the local people and their relations with the occupying army. Even when the famous cache of writing tablets from Vindolanda fort, lying 3km south of the eventual course of the frontier, touches on the fighting habits of the Brittunculi — literally the ‘wretched little Brits’ — the combatants they describe could hail from anywhere in north Britain, and conceivably far north of Hadrian’s Wall.

The emerging Iron Age on the Northumberland coastal plain: difficult working conditions as archaeologists at Blagdon Park race to sample and record the site before the mine consumes it. The circumstances may seem difficult, but thanks  to funding from the developers sites like this have revolutionised our knowledge of the Iron Age in the north-east.

Frontier life
Indigenous settlements were known to exist in considerable numbers immediately north of Hadrian’s Wall in the Newcastle area of the south-east Northumberland coastal plain as early as the 1960s. The predominant settlement form in the north-east appeared to be a small rectangular enclosure containing roundhouses. This site type is inextricably linked with the name of Professor George Jobey of Newcastle University, the so-called ‘one-man Royal Commission’ who pioneered their investigation in the 1960s and ’70s. To him we owe the image of a ubiquitous and recurring settlement style with enclosure ditches around 40-50m long, containing a cluster of roundhouses and, sometimes, a large central dwelling. Typically built of timber on the coastal plain, stone was also employed in the uplands. Finds were few and usually consisted of handmade pottery in the crude local Iron Age tradition, a very few Roman pottery sherds, glass bangles, stone tools, potboilers, and quernstones.

Jobey concluded that these rectilinear enclosed settlements flourished in the Roman period under a pax Romana, and this view has prevailed ever since. At first Jobey even believed that these settlements were founded during the Roman occupation. By the 1970s, however, he was finding clear evidence for phases of pre-Roman Iron Age activity at sites in the North Tyne valley, excavated in advance of flooding by the Kielder reservoir. But it remained his view that the settlements only attained their final, most developed form (sometimes boasting stone construction) under Roman rule.

The dense pattern of indigenous settlement enclosures (shown as yellow squares) north of Hadrian’s Wall (shown as a black-and-red line) in the Newcastle area. Most  of the sites are known from aerial photography.

This situation has now changed. This is not due to any deliberate programme of archaeological research, but because of the rise of developer-funded archaeology. Since 1990, planning policy has obliged developers to fund the excavation of sites threatened with destruction by their projects. The Northumberland coastal plain north of Newcastle is a prime area for open-cast coal mining, and as energy prices have risen many surface mines have been opened. Since 2000 this, coupled with the pressure of housing development on the northern fringes of Newcastle, has led to the discovery and excavation of several Late Iron Age settlement sites.

Although the settlements are extremely poorly preserved, following heavy ploughing, and often have to be investigated under extremely difficult conditions, the last decade has yielded crucial new information about native settlement north of the Wall. The fact that much larger areas are now stripped and examined than was ever the case in the 1960s or 1970s has led to a much more detailed picture. Crucially, the financial resources made available through developer-funding also mean that it is finally possible to date sites that are poor in artefacts by means of extensive programmes of radiocarbon dating.

The location of the recently excavated indigenous sites (shown as yellow squares) north of the Wall. Contrast the economic development indicated by villas in the County Durham area south of the Wall (shown as triangles).

Between 2002 and 2008 TWM Archaeology excavated three Iron Age earthwork-enclosure complexes in a housing and commercial development 6km north of the Wall at East Brunton, West Brunton, Newcastle Great Park, and in advance of surface mining at Blagdon Park, 12km to the north. As well as these three settlements, several lesser unenclosed sites and pit alignments were also investigated, giving the most complete sample so far of an Iron Age landscape immediately north of the Wall. The detailed results of these investigations have just been published in a monograph entitled The Iron Age on the Northumberland Coastal Plain. This complements an important report published by Jennifer Proctor of Pre-Construct Archaeology, who extensively excavated another Late Iron Age site at Pegswood (near Morpeth, 22km north of the Wall), in 2000.

Over 60 radiocarbon dates were undertaken on the sites in the new volume, allowing the chronology of the settlements to be much more closely understood than before. These dates have been analysed and combined in Bayesian models, a technique that uses archaeological information to refine scientific data (see CA 259), by Derek Hamilton. This radiocarbon evidence shows that the earthwork-enclosures were cut around 200 BC and form the latest phases of roundhouse settlements continuously occupied since the Late Bronze Age, when the landscape was already subdivided by pit-defined boundaries.

One of a series of ‘pit-alignments’ or pit-defined boundaries now known to have extended over the region by the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age (around 700 BC). They testify to widespread settlement and organisation of the landscape at an early date which is contemporary with developments elsewhere in eastern England.

Settled community
The new site types and their dates show that on the coastal plain of Tyne and Wear and Northumberland we are dealing with a late pre- Roman Iron Age society with more variation in wealth and status than previously thought. It looks as if the substantial earthwork enclosures represent a social elite, while contemporary small unenclosed roundhouse settlements, which were not previously known in the region, and agglomerations of small-ditched enclosures like Pegswood may have been dependent on the more substantial enclosures. In the region to date it is only within these substantial enclosures that evidence for iron-working has been detected, sometimes in specialist areas. Perhaps the social elite monopolised this key industry (see also CA 267).

At all social levels there was a centuries-long tradition of building timber roundhouses. These were so substantially founded that even on severely ploughed sites their external wall foundation trenches, and particularly the drainage gullies that surrounded them to collect water from the conical thatched roofs, leave a strong archaeological signature. The biggest roundhouses of all occurred in the substantially enclosed settlements: the largest of these, at East Brunton, had a diameter as great as anywhere in southern Britain. There is evidence that such sizable houses had two storeys, with cattle accommodated on a low-ceilinged ground floor and the human inhabitants (presumably members of a leading family) living on an upper or mezzanine floor.

Radiocarbon dates from East Brunton, West Brunton, and Blagdon Park 2 clearly show that occupation ceased during the 2nd century AD. At these three sites close to Hadrian’s Wall abandonment was total. Further north at Pegswood the settlement that had evolved over centuries was abandoned and replaced by a much smaller, unoccupied enclosure, possibly a stock-corral.

This circular structure, seen under excavation at Blagdon Park 2, is too small to have been a domestic roundhouse, but was one of a group of structures associated with metalworking residues — could this have been a specialist craft area?

This new evidence, although obviously a preliminary sample, calls for a reassessment of the question of whether most of the dense distribution of Iron Age settlements that we can map were truly occupied contemporaneously with the Wall. It has long been recognised that Roman material occurring on the sites investigated by Jobey was, with very few exceptions, not later than 2nd century in date. Jobey himself was reluctant to concede that these sites were not occupied in the later Roman period, arguing that Roman material was only available in smaller quantities after AD 200. But the near absence of earlier 3rd-century pottery, when the Wall-forts and the civilian settlements or vici outside them were at the peak of their material prosperity, is telling. There are also native sites outside the north-east, south of the Wall in Cumbria, that produce 4th-century Roman material, and even one exception in Northumberland, a site at Huckhoe, 16km north of the Wall, that has produced 3rd- and possibly 4th-century pottery. This confirms the view that the absence of evidence at other sites is significant.

It is also now clear that south of the Wall traditional life did not continue as before. As reported by David Mason (CA 239), more Roman villas and a previously unsuspected settlement similar to a southern small-town have been found in the County Durham area. Excavations at Faverdale, near Darlington (see CA 273), reveal rapid development in the Hadrianic period, around AD 120- 140, of a roundhouse settlement into an enclosure complex making conspicuous use of Roman pottery, metalwork, and building technologies. It seems inescapable that either a member of the indigenous elite or an immigrant entrepreneur was profiting from their role in the supply infrastructure of the Wall and its garrisons. These discoveries suggest that Hadrian’s Wall was no mere backcloth against which rural life carried on much as before. They point to a major social dislocation occurring north of the Wall, and the creation of a supply-network and rudimentary Roman provincial society to its south. Seen this way, the Wall represents a sharp line of distinction between two different kinds of development.

Line in the sand
The current trend in ancient-historical writing on Roman frontiers is not to see them as sharp lines of separation: rather frontiers are currently interpreted as zones of gradual transition into economic marginality. According to such theories, the actual frontier line (in the case of Hadrian’s Wall, the Wall itself) is an arbitrary one drawn up for the purposes of border control. The populations on either side of the line will have more in common with each other than with the imperial power maintaining the border. One of the most influential exponents of this view was C. R. Whittaker in his book Frontiers of the Roman Empire: a social and economic study.

The recently discovered system of obstacles on the berm (the space between the Wall and ditch) combine with our new knowledge of economic developments in the Wall hinterland to suggest that it did serve as a practical defence. With settlement to the north largely abandoned, it is hard to see the Wall as a system to regulate contacts between separated populations.

This belief found some support when the archaeological evidence from the Wall zone seemed to point to an enduring traditional way of life, little different whether north or south of the frontier. The idea that the Wall had a destructive effect on traditional Iron Age society to the north, and protected a nascent provincial society to the south, is a starkly different model, but one that must be seriously considered in the light of emerging archaeological evidence. With this kind of development immediately to its rear, Hadrian’s Wall would not be alone among Roman frontiers. It has long been known that on parts of the Roman frontier in south-western Germany, Roman city territories and large numbers of small villa estates ran right up to the running frontier barriers. In effect a colonised landscape was enclosed and protected by the frontier.

It is uncertain at present whether some settlements north of Hadrian’s Wall were abandoned as an act of policy — the imposition by imperial authorities of a cleared zone 10 Roman miles wide, say, north of the frontier line — or whether the former dense settlement pattern simply could not be sustained in the zone between the permanent Roman frontier and new power groups developing further north. We sense the emergence of a different kind of society in Scotland, in response to the permanent presence of the Roman imperial frontier in the form of Hadrian’s Wall, from the documented emergence of new tribal names like the Maeatae and, eventually, the Picts, and from the renewed importance of centres such as Traprain Law, near Edinburgh (see CA 265).

The indigenous settlements could be substantial. This shows the relative size of West Brunton and Blagdon Park 2 (anti-clockwise from bottom left), in comparison with the smaller, ‘traditional’ Jobey site at Tower Knowe Wellhaugh and the Roman fort at Wallsend.

These developments seem to have left the population of the coastal plain north of the Wall in an exposed position. Depopulation was not necessarily total, but a monumental building tradition of earthwork enclosures, and the sequences of substantially founded timber roundhouses that leave such an unmistakeable archaeological signature, clearly came to a sudden end. It may be that somehow the presence of the Wall fatally weakened the agricultural wealth and stability of social bonds that had allowed a complex society to express itself in earthwork enclosure and substantial roundhouse building.

For the glory of Rome
These discoveries about the fate of the indigenous population north of Hadrian’s Wall also cast doubt on the view of the Wall as primarily a facility for the control of movement by civilians, whether merchants, local farmers or local people visiting their kin on its other side. Conversely, rapid creation of villa estates not far south of the Wall compels reconsideration of the Wall as a practical defensible barrier against raiders from the north — something suggested quite independently by the recent discovery of a hitherto unknown system of obstacles between the Wall and its frontal ditch. Raiders need not have come from the area close to the Wall, but from areas far out of reach of immediate Roman retaliation, in Scotland. Immediately north of the frontier, on the Northumberland coastal plain, the presence of the Wall brought an agrarian civilisation of long standing to an abrupt end.


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