Considering the Wall

Hadrian’s Wall, that is. Max Adams explores Britain’s lost early medieval past by walking its ancient paths.

Max Adams | In the Land of Giants: A Journey Through the Dark Ages | Pegasus | October 2016 | 15 minutes (4,012 words) 

Below is an excerpt from In the Land of the Giants, by Max Adams. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

I am surprised when I come suddenly upon the Wall.

Just after dawn on a late November day the North Pennines air is rigid with cold. A thick hoar of frost blankets pasture and hedge, reflecting white-blue light back at an empty sky. The last russet leaves clinging to a copse of beech trees set snug in the fold of a river valley filter lazy, hanging drifts of smoke from a wood fire. The sunlight is a dreamy veil of cream silk.

I am surprised when I come suddenly upon the Wall. I have not followed the neat, fenced, waymarked route from the little village of Gilsland which straddles the high border between Northumberland and Cumbria, but struck directly across country and, with the sun in my eyes, I do not see Hadrian’s big idea until I am almost in its shadow. Sure, it stops you in your tracks. It is too big to climb over (that being the point), so I walk beside it for a couple of hundred yards. The imperfect regularity of the sandstone blocks is mesmerizing, passing before one’s eyes like the holes on a reel of celluloid. This film is an epic: eighty Roman miles, a strip cartoon story that tells of military might, squaddy boredom, quirky native gods, barbarian onslaught, farmers, archaeologists, ardent modern walkers and oblivious livestock. I am somewhere between Mile 49 and Mile 50, counting west from Wallsend near the mouth of the River Tyne. The gap in the Wall, when I find it, is made by the entrance to Birdoswald fort. Birdoswald: where the Dark ages begin.

There is no one here but me on this shining day. The farm that has stood here in various guises for around fifteen hundred years is now a heritage center. On a winter weekday I have Birdoswald to myself. Just me and the shimmering light and the odd chough cawing away in a skeletal tree. In places the stone walls of this once indomitable military outpost still stand five or six feet high. Visible, in its heyday, from all horizons, the Roman fort layout was built on a well-tested model: from above, it is the shape of a playing card, with the short sides facing north and south. Originally designed so that three of the six gates (two in each long side, one at either end in the center) protruded beyond the line of the Wall, the fort was not so much part of a defensive frontier, more a launching pad for expeditions, patrols and forays in the lands to the north. Rome did not hide behind its walls; the legions did not cower. Any soldier from any part of the Empire would have known which way to turn on entering the gate; where the barrack rooms would be; where to find the latrines and bread ovens; how to avoid the scrutiny of the garrison commander after a late-night binge or an overnight stay in the house of the one of the locals. Uniformity was part of the Roman project.

Any native on any frontier would get to know the layout too. The British warrior might, in those first years of the Wall’s existence during the 120s, try to attack it; when that failed he would herd his livestock through its gates to his summer pastures and pay a tax on his sheep or cattle. British women would barter their homespun goods for ironwares or posh crockery; one day their sons might be recruited into its garrison. The Brittunculi or Little Britons, as a Vindolanda tablet suggests they were called by their imperial betters, might grow to like the idea of the Empire.

Outside Birdoswald fort, to the east, the frosted surface of a smooth, grassy field conceals the magnetic traces from geophysical mapping of a small village, or vicus, which grew up alongside. These vici were native British settlements, clinging like limpets to their military protectors, supplying them with goods and services and probably with children, wanted or unwanted. Much the same thing happens in frontier provinces today. You see it on documentaries filmed in the dodgier parts of Afghanistan—only there the Taliban regards such integration or fraternization as a capital crime. When the Western troops leave, and they are leaving as I write, one fears for the safety of the inhabitants. When Rome came to this frontier, she came to stay.

To the south, the line of the Wall, and this fort, are protected by the deep, sinuous gorge of the River Irthing, the western of two rivers which between them create the Tyne–Solway gap linking east and west coasts. This gap has been a lowland route through the Pennines for many thousands of years. Two generations before Hadrian the Romans built a road along this line, known in later times as the Stanegate, so that they could rapidly deploy troops along its length. Much of that road is still in use, or at least passable. And long after Hadrian, General Wade had his redcoats build a road following much the same route to keep Jacobites at bay. The gap between the headwaters of the Rivers Irthing and South Tyne is narrow: no more than four miles. Near Greenhead, just to the south-east of Gilsland, is the watershed boundary, the pass, a choke-point through which modern road and railway, ancient Wall and eighteenth-century military road must squeeze.

To the north, Birdoswald—Banna to the Romans—looks onto a landscape of boggy mires, dispersed sheep farms and conifer plantations, with another twenty odd miles before the modern border is reached. It is an odd thought: this land, so often fought over, has been at peace for two hundred and fifty years. The old border garrisons of Carlisle and Newcastle have almost lost their walls; standing on either coast halfway up the island of Britain, they are just like other modern cities. Had Scotland voted for independence in September 2014, that defunct border could have been revived; we might have had customs posts, and police on either side might have spent their time chasing smugglers once again. It may still happen. It would amuse the legionary builders of this place to think of their imperial customs booths being reopened after nearly two millennia; it would not surprise them. Sometimes borders are self-defining.

* * *

These things don’t just happen.

During the middle of the fourth century, long before the traditional date of ad 410, when the Roman administration dissolved the province of Britannia, the roof of one of the granaries (horrea) at Birdoswald collapsed. These things don’t just happen. The Roman auxiliary cohorts who had been stationed here for two hundred years relied on periodic resupply from the coast ports and on storing the fruits of each year’s harvest. Leaky roofs and military efficiency don’t go together; so either slackness was creeping in or the fort had been abandoned. That’s how it seems at first sight. But the subtle text of stratified deposits read by archaeologists tells a more complex story. The fort was not abandoned; and when, in the 360s, a huge barbarian onslaught threatened to overwhelm the province, Rome and her generals responded. After the north granary at Birdoswald lost its roof, its stones and tiles were used elsewhere. The floor of a second granary, immediately to the south, was reflagged, its under-floor heating flues blocked—to keep out draughts, or rats? The centurions’ quarters were remodeled to allow for the construction of a building with a small apse—a by then fashionable Christian church, perhaps. The abandoned north granary was used as a rubbish dump, but part of the main street frontage was refaced with dressed stone and a new barrack block was built. Neither slackness nor abandonment explains the halving of the fort’s storage facilities. More likely, the realities of the frontier zone changed.

Rome was not a static force any more than the British Empire was in its day. Three hundred years is a long time. As the empire stretched, then overstretched, as emperors’ fortunes waxed and waned, as troops and political interests migrated from one distant land to another, local commanders became increasingly autonomous. Centrally organized lines of supply, overly bureaucratic and too bloated to adapt to local realities, were superseded or bypassed. Pay wagons turned up with hard cash less often. Commanders took an active role in supplying garrisons from their immediate hinterland; probably they got more involved in the administration of local politics. The relationship between occupying force and native elite became more intimate, the integration more complete. By the middle of the fourth century Wall garrisons consisted mostly of troops called Limitanei, that is, frontiersmen. Many of the men had probably been born within a few miles of Birdoswald; their fathers had been soldiers before them. They spoke the native language known as Brythonic—an early form of Welsh—and were embedded in the native communities of the Wall zone. They revered a suite of local divinities and the odd imperial god, especially Jupiter. After Constantine, who was declared emperor in York in 306, they may have felt inclined, or obliged, to rationalize their pantheon and worship the one true God Jehovah and his charismatic, earthbound son.

The garrison commanders were an elite cadre. They could afford to modify their official quarters with bespoke trappings like Christian chapels or bath houses. Their dress and social class set them apart culturally and politically. In many places they brought with them in their deployments personal retinues from far-flung provinces of the geriatric, obese empire, now disintegrating and under threat of being overrun. The rigid formal structure of the old imperial army, mirrored in the fixed, square-shaped identikit forts of the first and second centuries, became flexible, individualized. The emergence of a vernacular tradition, blending native and foreign with a distinct local cultural flavor, meant that each fort and town was recognizable by its own regional idiosyncrasies. Many of the late imperial commanders had been recruited from the northern boundaries of the Empire from whose ongoing conflicts and edginess fine warriors were raised. Many of them must have spoken Germanic tongues.

* * *

We are talking barn conversions.

No one noticed the beginning of the Dark Age in Britain. It started in different ways and at different times in different places. Rome never lost interest in these islands; they bore valuable minerals, their soils were fertile and their conquest had been a prestigious triumph of the imperial project of the first century ad. But distance stretches and thins one’s interest; as the Empire reformed in the East and as Western emperors focused their attentions on Gaul, Hispania and Germania, it became harder to keep up with what was happening in Britannia: the distant relative was slowly lost to the family. In the towns of Roman Britain decline may have begun as early as the third century, as local elites increasingly favored the country life and became bored with Rome’s urban experiment, its high-maintenance sewage and water supplies, tedious civic snobbery and the tendency of the urban proletariat to riot on almost any pretext. On the coasts, vulnerable to a Continental penchant for piratical raiding, life from the early fourth century onwards could be uncomfortable even with the presence of the imperial navy to watch Britain’s shores facing Ireland and Saxony, Frisia and Pictland. In the cultured, decadent luxury of the Cotswolds, where superb country villas sat in an ordered, fertile and bucolic landscape, reality might not have dawned until the middle of the fifth century when effete toga-wearing Romano-British aristos woke up to find revolting peasants stealing their prize heifers and touting the heresy of a suspiciously liberal British-born cleric called Pelagius.

At Birdoswald the moment can, in its way, be quite precisely identified, with fifteen hundred years of hindsight to draw on. At the very end of the fourth century the south granary, renovated some decades before, had a succession of hearths built into its west end. When excavated, their ashes were found to contain some rather nobby personal items: a green glass ring, a gold and glass earring. More importantly for the excavator, Tony Wilmott, there was a worn coin of the Emperor Theodosius (reigned 388–85), which gives some idea of the date after which these fires were in use. Archaeologists, when finds and structures tell them they are excavating deposits of the fifth century, get a shiver down their spine: these moments are desperately rare.

Hearths seem odd things to have in a granary: fire and grain are a dangerous combination. Was the garrison now so compact, were the other buildings in such a state of disrepair, that the garrison commander had moved himself and his family into the grain store and fitted it out as domestic quarters because it was the only building left that would keep out the winter weather? Were these people cowering among ruins?

There is another way of looking at it. We are talking barn conversions. Not so much retreating to the corner of a bar because it’s the only building with a roof; more likely, the commander liked to have the company of his men for good cheer and fireside stories in those long nights of winter when they talked of the old days, of battles and life on campaign. The barn still had a good solid roof, maintained because it was where all the local produce came in and had to be stored for the year ahead. This produce was no longer paid for in cash (these late coins of Theodosius were about the last to make it to Britain from the imperial mints); the natives were required to give a few days’ labor and to donate a proportion of their harvest and other agricultural produce—say, a tenth. The commander still had his own quarters, nice bath suite, private chapel—wife from a local well-to-do family or perhaps an exotic Dacian bride who played a quasi-diplomatic role in the local community and kept a small but tasteful salon, as British army wives sometimes did in colonial India. Often, and especially when there had been a good harvest or on the quarter days of the native festive calendar when communal gatherings were de rigueur, it seemed right to have a feast in the barn, to share the land’s bounty, dispense a little justice and a few trinkets from the bazaars of Alexandria and reinforce old and prospective loyalties. The man who sat at the center of the long feasting benches was more of a local worthy and judge than a garrison commander. One is tempted to use the word ‘squire’. Gifts were exchanged; promises made; eligible young men and women affianced. Poems were composed and sung, wine and local mead consumed: drinking horns for the men, Rhineland glass beakers for the commander and his wife. Understanding the rules of patronage was becoming just as important as running a tight ship or ruthlessly enforcing the imperial law.

This cozy scenario takes us well into the fifth century, when there is virtually no narrative history for the British Isles, just rumors of civil war and raiding Saxons, plague and famine. Traders from the Continent came to these parts less frequently. We know that Gaulish bishops visited, retaining their solidarity with the British church long after secular link shad been severed. But no emperor came after the departure of Constantine III in 407. Rarely does archaeology have anything meaningful to say about the two centuries after 400: there are no new coins to date the layers; almost no inscriptions, and those few that do exist are difficult to date. The pottery found in native settlements might just well be that of the Iron Age. Even radiocarbon dating is unreliable for these centuries and, unless you are in the peaty bogs of Ireland, wood rarely survives to be dated by its tree rings. The fifth century existed all right—we just can’t see it. It is like the Dark Matter which fills our universe but can’t be seen or measured. The record falls silent, even if echoes and rumors of echoes are heard across the Channel in the courts of Byzantium, Arles and Ravenna.

Almost the earliest indigenous written account of events in Britain after the end of Rome is a note in an Easter calendar called the Annales Cambriae, its only surviving copy belonging to hundreds of years after the event. Under Anno I, which historians believe equates to the year ad 447, is a simple, bleak Latin entry: Dies tenebrosa sicut nox: ‘days as dark as night’. That just about says it all, even if it is an obscure reference to some distant volcano or a really terrible winter.

* * *

The works of giants.

At Birdoswald life went on, perhaps until the first years of the sixth century. On top of the defunct north granary a timber replacement was erected using the old stone foundations to give it solidity and a floor. Years passed. Finally, a similar structure was erected in more or less the same place, only it was designed to line up with a remodeled gate on the west side of the fort. The new building, imposing in its dimensions and constructed using great hewn crucks, looks for all the world like one of the timber halls of poetic legend: the Heorot of Beowulf. And if, at times, the walls were hung with spears and shields and the air rang to the sound of drunken song and poetry, with boasts of victories and laments for fallen comrades, it was, after all, still a barn. Were its carousing warriors and petty chiefs, its quartermasters and poets Romans, Britons or Anglo-Saxons? Who can say? Did they themselves know or care? And was the successor to the commander in whose name this grand design was built a rival, an imposed replacement, or a son?

Even the casual visitor to Birdoswald can’t fail to be impressed by the solidity of the foundations where the north granary has been excavated, its footings and buttresses consolidated. Where the post pads for the new timber hall of the fifth century were sited English Heritage has installed great round logs, like oversized telegraph poles, standing a few feet high to give an idea of the size and layout. It is a crude reconstruction, and yet viscerally effective in demonstrating the moment and mindset that changed Roman into Early Medieval. What is particularly striking is that the new timber hall was much wider than the old granary. If the south-granary-cum-barn-cum-feasting-hall was mere adaptation, with a hearth at one end and perhaps a partition in the middle, then the new hall built over the ruins of the north granary was a more ambitious vision, designed for the commander of the fort (be he a dux of his cohort, a war-band leader or petty tribal chief) to sit in the center of one of the long sides with his companions ranged on benches on either side, a glowing fire before him in the center and, perhaps, with doors at either end. This is truly a building in which the mythical Beowulf would have felt at home. And we must suspect that this was not an isolated structure: the Birdoswald of ad 450–500 was a busy place.

The fort at Banna, high in the Pennines, may just have an even more potent role to play in our history. St. Patrick claimed, in his Confessio, that he had been born and brought up in a place called Bannavem Taberniae, son of a local landowner called Calpurnius whose father, Potitus, had been a priest. His vita is difficult to date, but some time in the middle and later decades of the fifth century is plausible. Several modern scholars believe that this place name should read Banna Venta Berniae: the ‘settlement at Banna in the land of the high passes’. Berniae shares its root with the name Bernicia, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of north Northumbria. That Patrick, taken by slaves to Ireland, should have unwillingly launched his epic career as an Irish patron saint at this remote, beautiful spot, is quite a thought.

And then there is Arthur. Historical references to the legendary Romano-British warlord are very few: a list of twelve battles; a great victory recorded at a place called Badon (perhaps Bath in Somserset); a death notice; a possible mention in a battle poem. Arthur may be, as many historians have argued, an irrelevance, a distraction. There are ‘southern’ Arthurs and ‘northern’ Arthurs, never mind the medieval romantic hero of Camelot. Those who favor the northern version argue that the notice of his death in 537 during the ‘Strife of Camlann’ places him on the Roman Wall; for Camlann seems to be derived from Camboglanna. It used to be thought, erroneously, that this Roman fort, mentioned in the very late Roman list of imperial postings called the Notitia Dignitatum, must be Birdoswald. Now it is accepted that it should be Castlesteads, some seven miles to the west. Either way, there are those who would place both Patrick and Arthur on this stretch of the Wall between the fifth and sixth centuries.

Narrative histories do not get us very far towards an understanding of these islands in the centuries after Roman rule. An early sixth-century British monk called Gildas wrote of civil wars, of invasion, fire, sword and famine (and mentioned a victory at Badon without naming the victor), but nothing of the everyday comings and goings which sustained life. The Kentish Chronicle, fascinating in its melodrama but of doubtful veracity, tells of the foolish British tyrant Vortigern who made a fatal drunken deal with two Saxon pirates (a pretty girl was involved) and sold Britain’s soul and future. Even Bede, the greatest of our early historians, writing nearly three centuries later, covers the nearly one hundred and fifty years after 450 with a single paragraph. The odd memorial stone offers us the name of a Christian priest living in a far-flung community; but no suggestion of when, or why. Occasionally a Continental source records or speculates on the visit of a Gaulish saint or bishop to these islands or on their encounters with pagans and heresies, but not of how people moved around their landscape, how they grew old, tended their sick or brought up their children. Archaeology sometimes tells us where people lived and what they ate, show they constructed their houses; but it says frustratingly little about their relations or their identity. We must piece together these fragmentary sources and animate them. But if we cannot construct a narrative history, what can we say about the journey of the peoples of Britain between the last days of Rome and those of Bede or the Vikings?

This was an age when people believed that the material ruins of lost cultures—the walls and fountains, megalithic tombs and great earthworks, the aqueducts, henges and stone circles that populated their landscape and poetry and framed their psyches—had been built in a lost time by a race of giants. An Anglo-Saxon elegy called ‘the Ruin’, first written down, perhaps, in the eighth century, marvels at nature’s conquest of these great works. The poet writes:

Wondrous is this stone wall, wrecked by fate;
The city buildings crumble, the works of giants decay.
Roofs have caved in, towers collapsed,
Barren gates are broken, hoar frost clings to mortar,
Houses are gaping, tottering and fallen,
Undermined by age. The earth’s embrace,
Its fierce grip, holds the mighty craftsmen;
They are perished and gone. A hundred generations
have passed away since then. This wall, grey with lichen
and red of hue, outlives kingdom after kingdom,
Withstands tempests; its tall gate succumbed.

* * *

Excerpted with permission from In the Land of Giants: A Journey Through the Dark Ages, by Max Adams. Reprinted by arrangement with Pegasus Books. All rights reserved.

Poem quoted at the end of the excerpt is: “The Ruin”, translated by K. Crossley-Holland, The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology, Oxford World’s Classics, 2009.