Along Hadrian’s Wall, ancient Rome’s temples, towers, and cults come to life

New discoveries are still rising from the coast-to-coast wall that once marked the edge of the Roman Empire.

By Joe Sills
Published 10 Jan 2022, 13:01 GMT
Punctuated with the remains of a milecastle (small fort), Hadrian’s Wall stretches over hilly terrain near ...
Punctuated with the remains of a milecastle (small fort), Hadrian’s Wall stretches over hilly terrain near Haltwhistle in Northumberland, England. This year, the Roman landmark will be 1,900 years old.
Photograph by Nigel Hicks, Nat Geo Image Collection

Hadrian’s Wall once marked the extent of the Roman empire in Britannia. Now it’s a pitstop on the way to Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, or the country’s largest city, Glasgow. Things have changed over the past two thousand years.

But the 73-mile-long chain of walls, ditches, towers, and forts—which stretches across northern England, linking the North Sea and the Irish Sea—continues to fascinate. This year, 1,900 years after construction began, soldiers clad in Roman armour will once again patrol its length and the sounds of ancient instruments will float over its ramparts.

Writer Joe Sills and archaeologist Raven Todd DaSilva traverse a tricky section of the wall, just east of Sewingshields Crags. To the right lies Northumberland National Park—home of England’s cleanest rivers and darkest skies.
Photograph by David Guest

These celebrations make now a great time to visit, and an even better time to hike its length. The wall’s most popular attraction, the sprawling hillside complex of Housesteads Roman Fort, sees some 100,000 visitors per year. But only 7,000 people hike the full length of the wall annually.

The reign of Roman emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-138) coincided with the pinnacle of Roman power. An expansive emperor—Roman territory reached its widest extent when his reign began—he was known as a builder of monuments, from his opulent villa at Tivoli, near Rome, to the defensive fortifications marking the frontiers of his empire; both are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Built under Hadrian starting in A.D. 122, the wall stretches through the counties of Northumbria, Cumbria and Tyne, and Wear. For hikers, this landmark near the Scottish border makes the perfect trail for those looking for a straightforward route that barely necessitates a map. Guided by stonework and hedgerows, its path blazes by sidewalks, meadows, woodlands, and crags in a line that has been beaten since ancient times.

Stepping into ancient life

The wall’s relatively small number of ‘thru-hikers’ presents a perfect opportunity to connect with the distant past in a landscape that often resembles its ancient state. 

In the wake of my father’s death due to COVID-19, this setting became an ideal place to mourn, remember, and move onward—as my father would wish. My route takes me along the 84-mile Hadrian’s Wall Path, a U.K National Trail, from Arbeia South Shields Roman Fort in the coastal suburbs of Newcastle to the marshy outskirts of Carlisle at Bowness-on-Solway.

Clad in sturdy boots and carrying an overstuffed backpack, I’m joined on my trek by archaeologist Raven Todd DaSilva. Together, we set off to retrace the wall’s route from east to west. Instead of hotel key cards, we carry tents—an effort to save money and to catch a glimmer of the wall’s wildlands as they might have appeared during Roman times.

While travelling an ancient trail, searching for new discoveries along a route that formed the northwest frontier of the Roman empire for nearly 300 years, we find that we are not alone.

The landmark made headlines last summer when a new section of the wall was found beneath the streets of Newcastle, a reminder that modern life and our ancient roots are not so separate from one another. 

The bluff near Crag Lough, close to the Sycamore Gap Tree, was a natural lookout point and that provided fortification from Celtic tribes to the north.
Photograph by David Guest

Less than a mile from St. James Park, the city’s 52,000-seat English Premier League stadium, a crew of waterworks employees laying pipe for Northumbrian Water Group discovered a nine-foot section of Hadrian’s Wall buried just two feet below modern asphalt. Ultimately, the pipe was rerouted and the stones were left undisturbed.

Hadrian’s Wall occupies an interesting position among UNESCO World Heritage sites. These defensive fortifications were never lost to time; they simply became part of new communities sprouting up along their contours. Stones from the wall litter nearby farmlands. They form the foundations of nearby chapels and roads.

“That’s not usually what we do now,” says Todd DaSilva. “We separate history and fence it off, but things haven’t always been that way.”

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, she says, society had a different relationship with its past. Before the 19th century, history was rarely partitioned from the present, which partly explains why this summer’s find in Newcastle generated so much buzz. When the Romans left around A.D. 400, much of the wall was pilfered by regional politicians, generals and priests. Few visible remnants remain in metropolitan areas.

But away from the city, along a rugged volcanic ridge known as the Whin Sill, much of the wall still stands. At the foot of the ridge a parade of sheep marches by. Farm animals and feed troughs are a familiar site outside of Newcastle. Out here, a hiker can dodge cow pats while dancing along the edge of Rome for days.

Exploring Roman technology

Ancient archways, bridge abutments, and earthworks are scattered along our route west. Progress on the path is slow, and it takes days for the urban sprawl of Newcastle to give way to farmlands and fields.

From a pasture near Chollerford, Todd DaSilva sprints through the rain towards low, grassy mounds marking the location of a milecastle, a small fort. A few hours later, in a meadow near Hexham, we uncap a flask to celebrate as the mounds marking our journey turn to waist-high rows of stone—our first true glimpse of the wall.

After three nights of camping and more than 40 miles of backpacking, the sun begins to glow over the English countryside. Dawn breaks over the Temple of Mithras as our boots splash inside. 

Reenactors portraying soldiers from the Imperial Roman army pose for a photograph at Birdoswald Roman Fort in northern England.
Photograph by Oli Scarff, AFP/Getty Images

Built around A.D. 200, the ground beneath our feet would have been hidden from the world outside in Roman times. In this subterranean sanctuary, soldiers practiced rituals of a religion that made its way to Britain from the Middle East. Sacrifices and ceremonies here honoured the sun god Mithras, whose weathered likeness, a replica of the original, now faces an open sky.

Mithras was a cult for soldiers, and Todd DaSilva explains that the temple was built here near an army outpost. She shepherds me through a row of columns toward an altar on the temple’s far side. This is the spot where sunlight would have penetrated to illuminate altars artisans left behind long ago, the focal point of ceremonies in the temple before early Christians likely destroyed this place around A.D. 350.

I kneel at the altar and clutch the silver cross my father held in the coronavirus ward during his final moments. I peer into its turquoise inlays as they glint in the morning light. The air here is still and heavy. It is impossible to ignore the weight of time in these ruins, and also impossible to ignore that the people sitting here two millennia ago were much the same as we are today.  

We continue our hike and pass an inquisitive cow, who looks on as we discuss the many ways Roman life informs our existence today, from toilets to currency, language, art, and construction projects that are clearly visible across Britain today.

“People living around here had plumbing,” says Todd DaSilva. “They had farms with fields like these. They had kitchens where they baked bread and baths with hot water. Kids played with toys. Adults communicated with letters. We tend to think of ancient people as less intelligent than us, but that’s not true. They just had different resources.”

The most impressive ruins on our path are testament to this. Sprawling bathhouses, including those at the Vindolanda and Chesters forts, feature amenities still coveted at spas today. Heated floors, massage rooms, changing rooms, and exercise areas were all at patrons’ disposal. No trip to the bathhouse was complete without a visit to the frigidarium, calidarium, and tepidarium—rooms to cool, heat, and soothe you.

Like many other Roman forts, Vindolanda had a bathhouse for keeping clean and socializing. Vindolanda, near Bardon Mill in Northumberland, has two bathhouses that showed evidence men, women, and children all spent time there.
Photograph by Vindolanda Charitable Trust

“You don’t usually know what’s really beneath your feet,” Todd DaSilva says. “For me, that’s the most exciting part of being an archaeologist. We tend to think we know a lot, but there’s always something waiting to be found that is going to knock our socks off.”

Hidden gems of Hadrian’s Wall

I wore dad’s cross around my neck from coast to coast, its delicate weight bouncing over my chest as I walked past strongholds including Housesteads, Chesters, Vindolanda, and Segedunum.

These are the most accessible forts along the path, their manicured lawns and museums teeming with visitors streaming out from parking lots. Some don plastic Roman helmets, others drink from wall-themed cups.

But for Todd DaSilva and me, the highlights of a week spent in the shadows of the past are more subtle than souvenirs.

They are memories of muddy earthen mounds in meadows and sun-soaked stone reliefs at the Temple of Mithras. They are quiet moments on the trail, when the line between what we saw and what people here saw 2,000 years ago seemed paper thin. And they include the unforgettable site of the first wild segment of Hadrian’s Wall, mere miles from the concrete streets where this ancient defence is once again making the news.

Joe Sills is a journalist based in Memphis, Tennessee. You can find him on Twitter.


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