Interpreting Hadrian’s Wall

6 mins read
Vast arrays of sculpted and inscribed stone set the tone for the Clayton Museum – one of several English Heritage sites along Hadrian’s Wall that have been recently renovated and reinterpreted. ‘Curator’s Choice’ labels help to point out highlights among the many objects on display.
How do you explain the latest thinking about a 73-mile-long monument to the public? Visitors to Hadrian’s Wall in recent years may have noticed some changes at the English Heritage sites and museums on the Roman frontier. Frances McIntosh takes us on a tour of the latest developments.

Running for 73 miles and scattered with fascinating archaeological sites, Hadrian’s Wall is a monument with a host of stories to tell. Since 2012, we at English Heritage have been working to help share those stories by renewing all our interpretative material along the Roman frontier. This has included the four sites in our care (the forts at Housesteads, Chesters, and Birdoswald, and Corbridge Roman Town) and their museums, as well as the 30 sections of Hadrian’s Wall that are free to visit. All of the panels at these latter locations now have new reconstruction drawings to help visitors visualise the monument as it was, often highlighting the gaps in our knowledge and offering ‘options’ for how it might have looked. Meanwhile, the work at all of our sites has been aimed at providing informative, accessible content based on the most up-to-date research, whether carried out by English Heritage staff or external commissioned specialists.

We have been working through excavation archives and old publications, and rootling in stores to make sure no stone was left unturned in the research on our sites and collections. Through this work, we have been able to confirm some theories, challenge others, and get new items out on display. All four sites have very different stories to tell visitors, and we wanted to highlight these differences – the ‘USPs’ for each site. We also wanted to play to the strengths of each location, in terms of the Roman history, but also the location and facilities. So, what have we done?

At the Clayton Museum, Victorian display cases from 1896 have been retrofitted to provide a better environment for delicate objects.

Let’s begin with Housesteads Roman Fort (Vircovicium). Described by William Hutton in 1802 as the ‘grandest Station in the whole line’, it sits on the Whin Sill escarpment, high above the modern road. There, excavations in 1898 (led by R C Bosanquet) exposed the full outline of the fort, providing one of the earliest complete plans of a fort in the entire Roman Empire. What is visible today is almost entirely due to this work. The well-preserved remains and the dramatic landscape in which they lie make this fort justly famous, but the site museum adds an extra element to visitors’ understanding of life in the Roman period.

In 2012 this museum reopened with new cases, objects, and layout, modernising the space completely. A separate cinema room was created, where a short film is screened, taking you through the life of the fort from its construction to abandonment and beyond. Felix, a Roman soldier, leads children round the museum and fort, while, out on site, new interpretation panels with beautiful reconstruction drawings guide visitors through the spectacular remains. Children still love the communal latrines, while for many grown-ups the views north and south from the top of the fort are the big draw.

At Corbridge Roman Town stonework has been carefully steam-cleaned.

Over at Chesters Roman Fort (Cilurnum), the refurbished site opened in April 2016. This project reinterpreted the collection, returned the museum to its original name (the Clayton Museum), and installed new graphic panels all across the site. Open to the public since 1896, it is one of the longest-running museums managed by English Heritage in the whole country, and visitors will soon realise when they enter the museum that the Victorian feel has been retained, which was a key goal.

Most people expect a site museum to tell the story of that site, and consequently had been a little confused on entering the Clayton Museum to see items from a variety of sites in the Central Sector of Hadrian’s Wall. Our recent work aimed to put the collection into the context of its 19th-century discovery: John Clayton (1792-1890) was an antiquarian whose country house had the fort of Cilurnum in its front garden. He spent some of his considerable fortune on acquiring land along Hadrian’s Wall so that, by the time he died, he owned five forts and around 20 miles of the Wall.

Inside the museum, our work included improving the 19th-century cases to provide a better environment for their Roman objects, as well as stone restoration/conservation to remove poor repairs, and a brand-new interpretation scheme throughout. My PhD research had uncovered archive letters, drawings, and photographs, which gave great insight into Clayton and his archaeological work. By explaining the ‘Clayton story’ more explicitly, we hoped visitors would gain a greater appreciation of this amazing collection. Out on site, the new panels all have a Clayton-era vignette – very relevant, as all the remains visitors see were excavated by him and his workmen. A children’s trail encourages the whole family to explore these traces, taking different roles to find the stones.

Housesteads Roman Fort reopened in 2012 following a dramatic modernisation of the site museum, which now includes a cinema room that also houses some of the inscribed and sculpted stonework excavated on this part of the Wall.

Last year (27 April, to be precise) saw the reopening of Corbridge (Coria) and Birdoswald (Banna). This was the culmination of a lot of hard work from the curators, conservators, historians, and interpretation managers, and very different approaches were taken to each site, reflecting their strengths.

At Corbridge Roman Town, the scheme was driven by the fantastic collection of artefacts that have been excavated at this location, and our desire to link the site and these objects more closely in the visitor’s mind. A complete refurbishment of the space, along with new cases, gave us the opportunity to update the story of Corbridge, taking into account new research on the site and the collection in the last 30 years. New items were brought out of storage; old favourites received conservation, cleaning, and new mounts; and better lighting brought everything to life.

Visitors pass through a ‘gatehouse’ to enter the interactive exhibition space at Birdoswald.

As the only Roman town on the frontier that you can visit, Corbridge offers a unique insight into the lives of a different group of people to those living in and around the forts. While still connected to the army, the town did not depend directly on a fort, and indeed boomed in the 4th century when the vici (extramural settlements associated with forts) were abandoned. The return of two 4th-century gold rings that had been loaned to the British Museum meant we could highlight the wealth in the town at this time, just one example of the wonderful objects on display.

Birdoswald Roman Fort is perhaps best known for its evidence for late Roman and post-Roman occupation. However, it also marks the point where people can see the longest continuous section of Hadrian’s Wall, along with all its associated features: fort, wall, milecastle, turret, watchtower, and bridge. The new exhibition at Birdoswald tells visitors how and why the Wall was built, and tells the story of the people who lived and died on the frontier. Urns from the cremation cemetery excavated in 2009 are on display, highlighting the research and detailed conservation work carried out on these fascinating artefacts.

One of the star finds displayed at Corbridge Roman Town: the Corbridge lion greets visitors as they progress into the 4th-century section of the museum

A new layout for the entire complex means the café is now free to enter for anyone passing, so weary walkers and cyclists can use the toilets and get refreshments, and we have a quiet family room with seats, a sink, and Roman-themed soft toys. The exhibition is family-focused, with lots of hands-on activities such as Lego, signalling, and a crane, all helping to explain how the Wall was built and maintained. Out on site, meanwhile, a quest leads visitors of all ages beyond the excavated area and around the fort, which can otherwise seem a bit confusing, as only the exterior wall is visible.

Over the last seven years, English Heritage has invested nearly £2 million in interpretation, visitor facilities, and museum displays at our sites along the amazing World Heritage Site, most of this since we became a charity in April 2015. If you’ve not been recently, why not come to visit and tell us what you think?

The Corbridge Hoard takes pride of place, with a backdrop of newly mounted architectural stonework.


For visitor information about English Heritage sites and museums along Hadrian’s Wall, see

This review appeared in CA 353.

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