Progress Report – New 15mm scale Hadrian’s Wall Turrets

Jun 25th, 2010 | By | Category: Rome, Workbench

Last week, I previewed the upcoming Porta Secundus Limes / Triarus Civica for the forthcoming Roman Frontier (Hadrian’s Wall) range of 15mm wargames buildings, currently on the design bench.  This week, again with copious research notes, I’m looking at the wall turrets which appeared at 500 metre intervals between the mile-forts along the frontier wall, and in the walls of defended civil towns and cities.

Background Research

Unlike the impressive and dramatic gatehouse reconstructions shown last week, I’ve been able to find little photographic material for the turrets beyond copious quantities of images of ruined foundations.  This makes it difficult to present an intrinsic case for how the turrets appeared at the time of the Roman occupation.

Despite that, the few pictures I have been able to find, show again that the builders of the time used different designs for different purposes.  Most strikingly, like the gatehouses, it seems that crenelated turrets and towers were used only for the mile-forts / mile-castles along the wall itself, and on the wall towers of military garrison towns.  The non-gatehouse turrets and towers of civilian fortified centres, and the between-fort turrets on the frontier walls appear to have used the same pitched-roof design of the gatehouse towers described in last week’s article.  This is by no means an absolute condition, but is based on the scant evidence I’ve been able to dredge during research – it almost seems as if the turrets were not “sexy” enough for detailed consideration by research data providers.

Intermediate turret of Hadrian's Wall at Banks in Northern England - the eastern of two turrets at the village.So, as the main evidence consists of foundation ruins, our first hard evidence relates to base-shape and size.  Here again, there is evidence of the towers being of at least two sizes and at least two shapes.  The photo at the left of this paragraph, is of the east turret at the village of Banks in the mid-section of Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England. (Click any photo on this page to see it enlarged).

There are three distinct features of note in the outline of this turret’s ruins – first is that the northern “outer” face seems to be set marginally proud of the general wall line, rather than flush with it.  Second is that the tower is square (as opposed to rectangular) in plan.  Third is that the ground floor rear doorway appears to be in the lower left corner of the tower as photographed, though it is hard to tell.

Those three features are important.  Generally the towers were rectangular, being deeper than they were wide.  They also have, in most research, been depicted with the ground floor door as central to the rear wall when there is no corresponding door to the frontal (outer) face, and the tower’s outer face is usually evidenced as flush to the main wall face.

A fourth and major deviation from normal turret design is the base size of the turret – it is exceptionally small.  Assuming the main wall at this point is the standard 1.8 metres width, the turret is less than 4 metres square according to the viewed proportions.  Even if this section of wall is the originally planned 3 metres thick, the tower is less than 5 metres square, compared to the standard 6 metres front to back.  Perhaps someone visiting this location, or living near it, could confirm the measurements by posting a comment below?

A distinct feature of the Roman frontier walls was the regularity of their design, and in particular, the interval-spacing of this week’s topic, the turrets.  To some degree, militarily, the Romans weakened the defensive usefulness of their walls by being too regular with their feature spacing.  Other cultures would have made far greater use of the terrain topology in order to strengthen the frontier by more careful choice of where, and how many, towers to build.  In this respect, the Romans were very much copying the style of the Chinese Great Wall (built roughly 350 years before Hadrian’s).

Hadrian's Wall running arrow straight with wall towers at regulation intervals.This photograph evidences the Roman regulation spacing between the turrets – there are two foundation sets in the picture – one in the middle distance three quarters of the way across the flat meadows, the other at the very base of the nearest slope next to the wooden gates.  By definition, this implies that the mile forts were positioned with one on the far wooded slope (perhaps on the hill top) with the other on the hill somewhere behind the photographer, again perhaps on the hill top.  In the photo, North is to the right of the view.

It’s difficult to see in this photo, but the tower fascias appear to be flush with the wall, rather than proud of it as at Banks.  They also appear to be larger than the version at Banks, averaging 3.5 times the width of the wall.  The visitor in the middle foreground allows scaling of the wall width as being the 1.8 metre version, placing the tower depths at around 6.5 to 7 metres.

The turret and mile-fort positions leave the valley floor carrying the weaker part of the defence line, where later cultures would have built with “beefed up” defences in that area.  That consideration reinforces the theory that the wall was a barrier to regular movement, rather than a defensive structure, as mentioned last week.  Notice too the loss of fascia stones on both sides of the rubble and concrete wall-core.  The prime reason for this is that the fascia stones were “dressed” for building, whereas the core rubble was not.  Many older Northumbrian and Cumbrian farms, along the wall’s route, show evidence of their buildings being made from robbed Roman stone.

Interior view of a turret on Hadrian's Wall in Northern England

Now we know about the outline sizes and shapes of the turrets, which in regulation Roman fashion were anything but regulation standardised, what about the upper parts?  This photo shows a reconstruction of a turret with the rear wall missing – the wood door frame hints at reconstruction in progress.

I’m still not sure if this is a real world archaeological reconstruction, or a model (and as I’ve lost the source reference, I cannot recheck – sorry), I’m assuming it’s real world for several reasons.  In particular, the very realistic irregularity of main-wall stone sizes and dimensions, plus the characteristic real-life reconstruction detail of the crenelation spacing – typical of full size reconstructions along Hadrian’s Wall.  This is either an exceptional piece of “most excellent” model making, or it is the real thing – I’m just not sure which.  The main nay-sayer is that there seems to be two light sources – a strong direct one to the upper left, and a weaker one above and behind the camera, although the roof beam shadows indicate a main single light forward of, and near in-line with directly above, tending slightly to the right.

I’m intrigued by the trench around the wall footings at the left of the picture – drainage or further excavation at a real world site?  If anyone knows, please post a comment to explain.

Remember this picture.  It is the prime source for the design of the  frontier wall towers that I present below as the turrets for the new Hadrian’s Wall 15mm models range.

At the front right corner of the upper-floor’s wooden floor, there appears to be the opening for a trap door as would be needed at the head of a ladder – a prime clue for how the upper floor and main-wall walkway was accessed.  Mind you, I can think of easier routes for legionaries to haul themselves up there in full armour and winter woollies, with scutum and pilum etc., before going for a trudge backwards and forwards along the paving stones.  As this was an interstitial turret between mile-forts, my conclusion is that they’d keep their armour and weapons upstairs, and climb down to the lower floor for sleep and food.  It makes more sense than risking a broken leg or neck climbing up and down fully equipped – soldiers are very practical about such things.

Full-size reconstruction of crenelated tower at Vindolanda Roman garrison town on Hadrian's Wall in Northern England.This week’s final picture relates to last week’s observation of the artist’s impression of a pristine Vindolanda military garrison town having only one non-gated tower per long-side wall, plus similar towers at each of the four corners.

The photo is of a full size reconstruction at Vindolanda in Northumbrian Northern England and depicts a square-plan tower with offset rear ground-floor door, plus crenelated roof level.  Just discernible in the photo (on the rear wall) are white stone-courses at the floor/ceiling levels between the three storeys of the tower.  Using those as dimension guides, we can see this tower uses the equal-height storeys rather than the over-height ground floor of the Arbeila Porta Primus Civica, at South Shields on the eastern extremity of the Limes Brittanicus.

Curiously, the reconstructors have used equidistant crenelations on both the tower and wall, contrary to all other British reconstructions.  This is a worry for model designing – was it an oversight by the reconstructors, or a deliberate decision as a result of different research results to other reconstructors?  The ground floor doorway is in a similar position to the turret at Banks, shown above, does this mean we are starting to uncover a standardised placement, even though it is on the opposite side to the pitched roof tower immediately above this one?  However, we should note the simple lintel above the door, and the doorway’s square top (not arched) which parallels the same doorways in the frontier gatehouses at Arbeila and Saalsburg, as shown last week.

A detail in the last photo which I feel is important, is how the main wall height “steps” up (or down) as it crosses through the tower.  This section of reconstruction is on sloping ground, clearly seen by the tower base, and the wall height has to be adjusted because of it.  Rather than following the normal Roman practice of laying the stone courses parallel to the ground surface, resulting in a sloping wall top, this construction uses “the Chinese Method” of stepping up slopes to keep foundations and wall courses horizontal.

That the Chinese system has been used in this reconstruction tells me the builders allowed modern building practice to interfere with accurate portrayal of original appearance – it is completely contrary to all archaeological remains along the original British wall – see the second photo (above) for an example of terrain-following stone-laying.  If this then means we cannot rely on reconstructions by archaeological organisations, where then can we turn for proof of design?  This causes a dilemma for model makers like myself.  Many arguments and debates will ensue with customers, regardless of what we make.

The Long Range Logistics interstitial Hadrian’s Wall Turrets

Long Range Logistics 15mm scale Hadrian's Wall interstitial Roman Wall TurretsHere at last, you get to see a preview of what I’m designing based on the evidence of the third photo above.  These turrets are for the linear wall along the frontier, not for garrison-town or civic defences.  (Click for larger view).

OK, first things first, in line with one of the pre-completion changes to the gatehouse shown last week, I need to block-up those ground floor external-face windows, for the same reasons as given last week.  I also have yet to add shutters for the internal face windows.

Other than those two points, the turrets are finished from a design point of view.

I’ve made three of them, all to the same design, though because they are each scratch built prior to moulding, there are minor differences between them, mostly evident in the “stonework” fine details.  They are designed as rectangular in plan – deeper than they are wide – and you can see I’ve taken the liberty of adding a narrow, external stone staircase.  To me this is a logical feature … as discussed above …  If you’ve got a bunch of disgruntled locals beating on your door, the last thing you want to do is descend (fall down) a ladder in full battle gear, and then open the door to smack them around the head while you’re aching from the fall.  It makes far more operational and military sense to have a second method of getting up and down in full combat readiness, and to outflank the upstarts.

As I said about the gatehouse last week, if this small historical liberty is strongly disagreeable to you, post a comment to let me know why and persuade me otherwise.  If this feature would stop you buying the models, please give me your reasons to either redesign, or to make alternatives without the steps.  Oh, and we really need to figure out a personal name for that 15mm halberdier I use in all the model photos for scaling them – suggestions please.

Next week – the Wall Sections.

There are currently eight sections of wall on the design bench, with roughly another ten or so (mostly corner bends for towns and mile-forts) still to be made.  Next week, I’ll be looking at the source research for them, and previewing what’s made so far. Plus, there’ll be a big confession about something.

Also, if I can locate the explanatory drawings, I’ll go into more detail about the “Chinese System” of wall building compared to the Roman “contour-following” method.  You’ll be surprised at how more advanced the Chinese were, all those centuries before the Roman constructions, and at which ancient civilisation’s methodology is the most commonly used today.

Please remember to post your thoughts, comments and questions on this week’s article using the form below.


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