Twenty eight years of archaeological excavations and interpretation go into a new report revealing the richness of archaeology and history at Segedunum and Wallsend on Hadrian’s Wall
A new archaeological report tells the story of the most excavated fort on Hadrian’s Wall, Segedunum, which over 1,900 years ago stood on the very cusp of the eastern end of the Roman Empire’s northern frontier.
The new report, which is being hailed as the definitive and full account of the excavations of Hadrian’s Wall at its eastern end, was recently published by Tyne and Wear Museums and Archives and has been written by archaeologist and Hadrian’s Wall expert, Paul Bidwell OBE.
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Drawing together the results of over 28 years of archaeological excavations and interpretation, which Bidwell describes as “the great advance in our understanding of how Hadrian’s Wall was built and of its later history”. The book also shows how “the remains of the Wall in urban Tyneside are just as important as the better-preserved lengths in rural Northumberland.”
Segedunum – meaning ‘strong place’ – sat on a plateau overlooking the north bank of the River Tyne at what became Wallsend, the spot chosen strategically to command views east down the river to the coast at South Shields and two miles up the river toward Newcastle upon Tyne, the strategic Eastern tip of Hadrian’s Wall.
The 73 mile wall, now a World Heritage Site, was constructed on the orders of Emperor Hadrian in AD122 and originally ended at the River Tyne’s lowest bridgeable point – Newcastle upon Tyne – until two or three years later, when it was extended to Wallsend.
Only 7% of the original wall is visible today and only about 0.5% of its entire length has been excavated using modern archaeological techniques, although much more can be seen of the forts, milecastles, turrets and bridges along its line.
Forts across the Roman Empire followed a standardised plan; rectangular with an HQ (principia), Commander’s house (praetorium) double granary (horrea) and sometimes a hospital (valetudinarium) flanked north to south by barracks, accommodation for the men and horses that made up the garrison.
As at other forts, Segedunum had a double portalled gate on each side, which opened out onto land beyond the Wall. Surrounding each fort a small civilian settlement (vicus) would thrive. The fort at Segedunum housed 600 Roman soldiers and stood for almost 300 years as a symbol of Roman rule and a bastion against barbarian attack.
Today, the site boasts surviving foundations of many buildings and part of the Wall itself.
The archaeological digs revealing these remains at Segedunum and Wallsend took place between 1988 and 2015, and culminated in a Treasury-funded project that saw the rediscovery of the fort’s baths, as well as the public display of the full stretch of Wall remains.
Segedunum’s Museum has galleries exploring Roman soldier life, displaying what was found there and the area’s more recent industrial past. A 35 metre Viewing Tower delivers spectacular views across the site and surrounding area up and down the River Tyne.
The 80 metre stretch of wall at Wallsend actually lies 50 metres west of the Segedunum fort and its first contemporary digs were led by the late Charles Daniels of Newcastle University in the mid-1970s.
Daniels and his team unearthed walls measuring 2.26m wide, that were built without mortar but with carefully-laid courses of stone work. It is thought separate groups of legionaries built lengths of 30 Roman feet (about 9 metres).
They were also tasked with building an aqueduct which ran through the Wall and supplied the baths outside the fort. Markers for building plots running up to the back of the Wall were also found that show the standard settlement containing civilian and some military buildings, which were laid out at the same time that the Wall and the adjacent fort were built.
In the early third century the Wall at Segedunum was destroyed by a catastrophic flood which also washed away part of the baths and undermined the fort wall. The aqueduct was replaced and the Wall rebuilt, probably on the instructions of Septimius Severus in about AD 208; this emperor, rather than Hadrian, was credited by late-Roman writers as the original builder of the Wall.
Shorter lengths of the Wall collapsed and were rebuilt on three subsequent occasions. The report recounts how one of these later efforts reused masonry from various buildings, including one of the fort gates, a temple possibly dedicated to Diana, and a bath house.
Bidwell was Head of Archaeology at TWAM until retirement and led several digs at South Shields, Vindolanda, Newcastle, Chesters and Willowford; and has been a contributor to many other publications on aspects of Roman Archaeology, including Roman ceramics.
The driving force behind one of the UK’s most ambitious and controversial reconstruction projects at Arbeia, South Shields Roman Fort 31 years ago, Bidwell also led the charge to recreate a fort gate house in its original foundations.
The volume also includes an account of the building of the replica section of Hadrian’s Wall at Segedunum, constructed in 1996.
Hadrian’s Wall at Wallsend is available to purchase via the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums online shop, priced at £35.
Segedunum Roman Fort, Baths and Museum
Wallsend, Tyne and Wear
In AD122 the Emperor Hadrian ordered a mighty frontier system to be built across Britain to defend the Roman Empire from the barbarians to the North. The result was Hadrian's Wall, a 73 mile barrier stretching from the River Tyne in the east to the Solway Firth in the west.…