Commemorating Hadrian’s Wall: searching for signs of a 2nd-century celebration

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This year marks the 1,900th anniversary of the visit of the emperor Hadrian to Britain where, according to his biographer writing more than 200 years after the event, ‘he put many things to right and was the first to build a wall 80 miles long to separate the Romans and the barbarians’. In 2022, the anniversary is being marked by events across Britain – but was there a ceremony in AD 122 to mark the building of Hadrian’s Wall? David Breeze, Christof Flügel, Erik Graafstal, and Andreas Thiel explore the possibilities.

In 2004, there was great excitement at the discovery of an enamelled bronze vessel (see CA 188) inscribed with the names of four forts on Hadrian’s Wall: MAIA (Bowness-on-Solway), COGGABATA (Drumburgh), VXELODVNVM (Stanwix), and CAMMOGLANNA (Castlesteads). Dating to the 2nd century AD, the colourfully decorated vessel is known as the Ilam Pan – after the Staffordshire parish in which it had been found by metal-detectorists – but it is in reality more the size of a soup ladle. Its text is not limited to the fort names, however: in 2021, Christof Flügel and David Breeze published two papers on the other part of the inscription, which reads rigore vali Aeli Draconis. Vali Aeli, or ‘the Aelian Wall’, is thought to refer to Hadrian’s frontier fortifications, as Aelius was one of the emperor’s family names. As for the rest, Flügel and Breeze argued that the word rigor is a technical surveying term, and that therefore Draco may have been one of the surveyors of the Wall. (If so, he was almost certainly a legionary – and therefore a Roman citizen – and so another possible interpretation of the text is that Aelius refers to him, as citizens had at least two, if not three, parts to their name.)

Found by metal-detectorists in Staffordshire in 2004, the Ilam Pan is a colourful Roman vessel whose inscription names four forts on Hadrian’s Wall, as well as the Wall itself. Photo: © Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle.

This led Julian Munby to ask the authors if there were any Roman accounts of ‘topping-out’ events – that is, building-completion ceremonies such as occurred in later centuries, at which celebratory toasting cups, like the Ilam Pan, may have been used. This question does not appear to have been asked before about Roman frontiers, and so the authors of this feature – four archaeologists from Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands, all countries intimately connected to Hadrian – have set out to explore how Roman frontiers might have been commemorated at the time of their construction.

Construction clues

It may seem surprising to begin with an answer in the negative, but we should start by admitting that it is highly unlikely that the Ilam Pan was used in any such religious ceremony. It belongs to a vessel type used for drinking, whereas a different kind of vessel, combined with a jug, was in use during ceremonies and sacrifices – hence why this latter ‘vessel set’ is often depicted on the sides of Roman altars. But even without the involvement of the Ilam artefact, could there have been a topping-out ceremony for a Roman frontier? Again, we are doubtful, as the construction of these frontiers were such long, drawn-out affairs. The building of Hadrian’s Wall, for example, started in or shortly before Hadrian’s visit in AD 122, and was probably not finished at the time of the emperor’s death in 138, partly because the plans were changed several times during its construction, but also possibly because of local opposition.

When did Hadrian’s ambitious frontier fortifications begin, and was there any kind of dedication ceremony to commemorate the construction? This coin depicting the emperor was minted in AD 129/130. Photo: © Great North Museum and Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle.

Other frontiers also took years to build: the palisade along the limes in Raetia, modern Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, took at least from 160 to 165 to complete, while the road along the eastern frontier, the via nova Traiana, probably took about seven years. Even before work started on a frontier, there might be years of planning. The building force had to be assembled and materials collected. To illustrate this advance preparation, when Hadrian came to Britain he was travelling from Germany, where another frontier was being built. It appears that the timbers for this construction had been felled in 119/120, over a year before Hadrian’s visit in 121 – Hadrian may therefore already have been able to inspect a good part of these new border installations. We can be certain that plans for the building of his frontier in Britain started before his arrival, and part of this preparation involved the dispatch of the Sixth Legion from Germany to Britain, presumably to take part in the building of the Wall.

A jug and bowl depicted on the side of a Roman altar from Heilbronn, south-west Germany. This ‘vessel set’ is commonly associated with ceremonies and sacrifices. Photo: Archäologisches Landesmuseum Baden-Württemberg/Ortolf Harl.

It is very possible that Hadrian arrived in Britain in 122 after work had already started on his new frontier. If the Draco named on the Ilam Pan was indeed a surveyor, he would have probably completed the marking out of the line of the Wall, though his work on the frontier was not yet finished, as later decisions still needed to be taken, including the building of forts and the construction of the Vallum (a wide ditch, flanked by banks, running to the south of the Wall). We cannot know whether a Roman official, perhaps the governor of the province, had already held a ceremony seeking the support of the gods for the enterprise before the emperor’s arrival. There are hints, however, that Hadrian held a dedication ceremony during his visit.

At Jarrow, near the east end of the Wall, two stone slabs appear to record a speech. The surviving fragments read like a justification for the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, and Paul Bidwell has recently argued that the inscription may have been part of a monument erected at Wallsend at the easternmost point of the frontier. This may have been an address by Hadrian to his troops, no doubt carefully prepared in advance. Fragments of speeches delivered by the emperor to his soldiers in North Africa survive, recording his reaction to their manoeuvres. They no doubt also took place when Hadrian granted market rights to Forum Hadriani (modern Leidschendam-Voorburg in the western Netherlands) while travelling from Germany to Britain. Might we see the same thing here?

Found at Gilsland, west of Jarrow, this stone was discovered close to Hadrian’s Wall. In its bottom right corner, it shows a structure interpreted as a possible temple or victory monument.

Another clue comes from Gilsland, well to the west of Jarrow, where the structures on the stone wall are among the earliest to have been constructed, perhaps pre-dating Hadrian’s visit. There, a sculptured stone was found very close to the junction of the stone and turf sections of the frontier. It bears a depiction of a building which appears to be a temple. Was this a victory monument, and was it erected during Hadrian’s visit? A similarly designed temple is known on the Antonine Wall, though it was unfortunately destroyed in 1743.

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 388. Read on in the magazine (click here to subscribe) or on our new website, The Past, which details of all the content of the magazine. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current World ArchaeologyMinerva, and Military History Matters.

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