Progress Report – New 15mm Hadrian’s Wall range Wall Sections

Jul 2nd, 2010 | By | Category: Rome, Workbench

Construction and Design

Hadrian’s Wall was a stone and timber fortification  built across most of the width of what is now Northern England. Construction started in AD 122 (the year of Emperor Hadrian’s visit to Britain).  It was the first of two fortifications built across the width of the island of Great Britain.  The second wall was the Antonine Wall in what is now Scotland, between the two great estuaries of the Firth and Clyde, between the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow.  Whilst Hadrian’s Wall was garrisoned for almost three centuries, Antonine’s was abandoned after only 40 years.

Hadrian's Wall follows strategically advantageous terrainHadrian’s Wall is the better known of the two, principally because its physical remains are more evident today, but also due to the extreme interest in excavation, preservation, and reconstruction of The Wall itself, and its associated forts, towns, and garrison towns.  It also has a burgeoning following of both fans and official “friends”, and of period re-enactment societies who add colour and vitality to visitor centres along the wall.

On 13th March 2010, these re-enactors, friends, and others formed a “line of light” along the entirety of The Wall’s route, burning 500 equidistant beacons to mark the 1,600th anniversary of the end of Roman rule in Britain.

The construction that was started sometime in AD 122 following Hadrian’s visit, was largely completed within six years.  It started in the east, between mileforts four and seven, and proceeded westwards, with soldiers from all three of the occupying Roman legions participating in the work. The route chosen largely paralleled the nearby Stanegate Road from Luguvalium (Carlisle) to Coria / Corstopitum (Corbridge), upon which was situated a series of forts, including Vindolanda. The wall in the east follows “a hard, resistant, igneous diabase rock escarpment, known as the Whin Sill“.

Length – The initial plan called for a ditch and wall with 80, small, gated “milecastle fortlets”, one placed every Roman mile, holding a few dozen troops each, and pairs of evenly spaced intermediate turrets used for observation and signalling.  Hadrian’s Wall was 80 Roman miles (73.5 statute miles or 117 kilometres) long, its width and height dependent on the construction materials which were available nearby.

Dimensions –

  • East of the River Irthing the wall was made from squared stone and measured 3 metres (9.7 ft) wide and five to six metres (16–20 ft) high
  • West of the river, the wall was made from turf and measured 6 metres (20 ft) wide and 3.5 metres (11.5 ft) high. These measurements do not include the wall’s ditches, berms and forts.
  • The central section measured eight Roman feet wide (modern – 7.8 ft or 2.4 m) on a 10-foot (3.0 m) base.  Some parts of this section of the wall survive to a height of 10 feet (3.0 m).

Organisational note – Roman infantry legions consisted of ten cohorts under the Trajanic military reconstruction plan.  Trajan was Hadrian’s predecessor.  The Primus Cohort comprised 800 men, and the other nine at full strength had 480 men each.  Equites (cavalry) were additional, as were skirmishers.

A full Trajanic / Hadrianic legion was 5,200 men plus ancilliaries.  The cohorts were subdivided into maniples of 120 legionaries = 40 maniples, plus command and Tribune’s bodyguard / staff in the primus.)  Assuming 80 mileforts along the wall (ignoring the Solway coastal forts) this implies one maniple per two mileforts, but does not account for the more than a dozen forts and garrison towns along the Stanegate, which held 500 to 1,000 men each.

Numbers here are not stacking up – simple maths indicates the entire length of the wall was garrisoned (on the wall structure itself) by a maximum of just over 3,000 men, with probably only one third of those actively on duty at any one time.  1,000 (on duty) legionaries along 73 modern miles means one man every 128 yards.  That is not a defence line, it is a security colander and a false hope.  Other factors must have been at play here – see also the references below to additional deployments NORTH of the main wall, that imply further depletion of manpower along the linear defence.

Very few mileforts were actually situated at exact Roman mile divisions.  A Roman mile was 1,620 yards / 1,480 metres, compared to a modern mile which is 140 yards longer; they could be up to 200 yards east or west of the intended point because of landscape features, or to improve signalling to the Stanegate forts to their south.

Local limestone was used in the construction, except for the section to the west of the Irthing, where turf was used instead. Mileforts in the western section were also built from timber and earth rather than stone (see the turrets article for reconstructed turf and timber gate at Vindolanda), but turrets were always made from stone. The Broad Wall (see summary below) was initially built with a clay-bonded rubble core and mortared dressed rubble facing stones, but this seems to have made it vulnerable to collapse, and repair with a mortared core was sometimes necessary.

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