05 February, 2021

Top 10 Peer reviewed Myths about Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall sits on the boundary of Archaeology and History, apart from its scant remains, it exists as a literary and artistic creation, it is already something imagined, a myth.  It is thus, an individual conception, part of the visual conditioning of a pictorial past and subject to cognitive dissonance when this imaginary world is challenged.

Literacy is the key divide, the dead weight of Latin, a the slim volume of Historical data, and the need to justify knowledge of both, has distorted archaeological dataset along the Proto-historical interface.

At this important boundary we are also confronted with our own barbaric tribal ancestors; half naked heathens, primitive peoples, framed by colonialism, classism and xenophobia.

This invisible world has been made real through a visual culture with its own district history, however, just how this imagined past has interacted with the literary narrative, and it’s effect on the interpretation of the archaeological evidence is more difficult to assess.  As result, and in order to keep the list down to just ten, the wide range of visual myths is not examined, but it is worth noting the deficiency in the representation of timber as an engineering material; why apparent buildings like Turrets and Milecastles are imagined without roofs is baffling.

It is also important to remember that Archaeology is traditionally taught as an “Arts” subject, and is not evidence based, being driven by reproduction of existing texts by academics, often without an understanding of underlying datasets. While as a subject, archaeology does not directly effect human well-being and society, it’s an expensive indulgence among a select group of academics, which as we shall see, incorporates much science denial and irreconcilable non sequiturs at its core.

This clearly a very subjective list, and based on my highly contentious view that academic archaeology should be evidence based, sadly a view not shared by the institutions and stakeholders that insist on promulgating and merchandising these myths.

Top 10 myths.

1. The post pits on the berm were Cippi pits

One of the traps other countries have not fallen into is Cippi pits, a fantastic conflation of two different Latin references to explain away double post-pits which are evidence of a Roman timber rampart. A good example of Tyne and Wear Museums Archaeology’s interpretation of archaeology features through Latin text, and the incidental creation of a new species of spiky tree.

2. The Berm was for structural stability

Traditionally, the space between the Ditch and later Wall was regarded as required for “structural stability”, but if you pushed the Wall over it still would not fall into the ditch; it is not an argument that an engineer, ancient or modern would concede as valid.

3. The Wall was successful cohesive proactive project

While the archaeological evidence has not been well understood, it has typically been framed by a mindset of Roman superiority and achievement, [that discounts native culture and abilities], seeing the apparent changes in design as proactive driven by “decisions”. The archaeological evidence suggests that the project was driven and ultimately derailed by external factors, particularly native resistance on both sides of the Wall.

4. The Wall was for trade, display or distraction

The nonchalant approach to the construction, coupled with the apparent lack of a consistent strategy, [as in No. 3 above], has led some commentators to assume or suggest that the Wall was not driven by military necessitates, but was primarily for the regulation of trade, show, or even something to keep the army busy.

5. The 80 Man Century

Idiosyncratically, the one issue that might have seemed fairly clear from the Latin, the number of men in a Century, has taken on a life of own. The origin may lie in the use of the 8 man leather tent, forgetting the concept of men being on guard and being required to look after the units collective kit as part of the baggage. I am happy to concede 80 men formal fighting units because of the need for support troops and important specialists, but a Century ideally comprised 100 men, [otherwise Decimation becomes the killing of 1 in 8, etc.].

6. Cavalry Barracks and forces

There is a tenancy to impose ideas about the size and nature of cavalry units onto the archaeology with no regard to the real practicalities of equine care and accommodation. As a result horses have been envisaged packed like sardines into infantry barracks and even milecastles, contrary to all established practices and norms of this well documented type of building.

7. Manning levels

In a sense we are touching on the visual representation of the Wall as a continuous manned barrier, however, even at its most optimistic, the overall manning levels of about a century per mile which precludes any realistic defence of the Curtain Wall. The strategic objective of any attacker would have been the capture of a gate.

8. Wallsend Horse Toilets

This has to be the dumbest most tin hat piece of madness on the Wall to date, and a tribute to Tyne & Wear Museums Archaeology complete disregard to reality, science and the concept of evidence. In reality, this is a regular barrack block with a set of stairs marked by a slot and posthole in each unit, and I find it difficult to conceive by what mental process this archaeological feature came to be interpreted a “Horse toilet” on the basis of no supporting evidence. In the real world horses are kept on bedding which absorbs the urine and is regularly changed to prevent harmful ammonia making the horse ill.

Three horses are packed incongruously into a small room with a wooden floor with proper no manger or water supply, which is accessed by a door to narrow safely accommodate a horse.

9. The Valium was a boundary

This is probably the largest "earthwork" in Europe and popularly misrepresented as a "Bank & Ditch"; if that were the case there would be no issue with it also being deemed some sort of boundary. The Engineering clearly indicates that this was foundation trench for a frontier road that was never completed, no other explanation can realistic account for its physical form and the massive investment in man hours.

10. The Wall was built of Turf

The idea of structures constructed from turf dates back to statements made by Bede in the 8th century, dutifully reproduced by generations of historians, and confirmed by early attempts at archaeology. Twenty years ago, an English Heritage produced the evidence that confirmed beyond all reasonable doubt that this was not the case, tragically, in a remarkable piece of science denial, the report reached the opposite conclusion.

This is probably the most portentous misconception in Roman military archaeology, since any structure not made of stone is presumed to have been constructed of turf, rather than timber as all the archaeological evidence and even the classical sources would indicate.


Clearly, a lot “peer review” in archaeology signifies little more than that the author works in or for an institution with peers. However, given the importance of this archaeology to the local economy, and both national and international scholarship it is little short of a scandal that an idiosyncratic narrative, based on tradition and myth is being sold to students and the public.

The dumbing down of the subject, even at postgraduate level, to little more than copying out text books in your best handwriting, has ensured that the skill set necessary to understand archaeological evidence has not developed, and is perhaps illustrative of a wider decline in British educational standards driven the need for profitability.

It is worth noting that it is not just our eccentric local Museums and bottom feeding Universities that sell these narratives, but also English Heritage, The National Trust and the “Elite” Russell branded institutions like Oxford & Cambridge.

Caveat Emptor.


Lurcio said...

Seriously, have these horse dunnys been peer reviewed ?, seems quite fashionable to find these in almost every fort now.