Uncovering the Hidden History of Hadrian’s Wall

The view of Hadrian's Wall looking west across Trench 1 © Copyright ARS Ltd 2021
South facing section of Hadrian's Wall in Trench 1 © Copyright ARS Ltd 2021
East to west orientation of Hadrian's Wall sandstones © Copyright ARS Ltd 2021

As archaeologists, we love an unexpected discovery.

And it turns out we’re not the only ones, after the revelation of a hidden section of Hadrian’s Wall underneath a road in Fenham, Newcastle, made huge news last week and captured the public imagination.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site draws many tourists to it each year. Built in AD 122 for (among other things) defending the northern frontier of the Roman Empire, the wall stretches for 74 miles and there are plenty of opportunities to visit it.

So, how come we found part of the monument sitting under the tarmac in one of Newcastle’s busiest streets?

A watching brief, keeping an eye out for Romans

Archaeological Research Services was commissioned to undertake a ‘watching brief’ by Northumbrian Water as part of necessary groundworks. As the term suggests, this watching brief involved us monitoring the excavations as they took place, while looking to identify, characterise and record anything of archaeological interest that might have popped up.

In this case, the Romans.

Previous archaeological work had established that the site is in an area of extensive Roman activity, lying within the presumed extent of the vicus (civilian settlement) associated with Condercum Fort in Benwell. The road where the groundworks were taking place was also known to follow the projected route of Hadrian’s Wall.

But were we really expecting to find the wall itself during the works? The team thought it was a possibility:

“We were very aware, before the watching brief began, that we had a high chance of encountering the wall during the groundworks as its route along the West Road in Newcastle is fairly well documented. The wall has already been found in various locations nearby and is visible above ground level. However, it is still always exciting when a new, undocumented section is encountered as we never really know how well the wall has survived and whether there will be anything to see below-ground at all.”

Finding the hidden Hadrian’s Wall

The groundworks undertaken in March and April 2021 involved the archaeological monitoring of excavations to open up a mains renewal trench and two test pits.

It was on the northern edge of the main trench where the wall was uncovered. It comprised large rectangular and square dressed sandstone blocks, with a single large granite rectangular block – which is now suggested to have been a later repair. In the course of the excavation, two courses of stone were exposed, bonded together with light compacted clay mixed with small irregular fragments of sandstone.

Overall, the composition, construction and depositional sequence indicated that the exposed structure represented the southern face of Hadrian’s Wall. Because of this discovery of the wall, a revised and rerouted Trench 2 was planned and undertaken with a buffer of 0.6m around the encountered stonework.

After uncovering the stones and cleaning them up, our archaeologists on-site made sure to record everything before the remains had to be covered up again. Working together with Northumbrian Water, we did this with protective sheeting and sand, to maintain the integrity of the masonry beneath the tarmac.

What’s the future of the site?

A lot of archaeology is reactive to the necessary hustle and bustle of the world. In this case, the groundworks needed to be completed and the street reopened, to avoid too much disruption for local residents and commuters. The site has now been covered over and reburied to keep safe for years to come, however the accurate recording and location information gained from this intervention will help fill out the layout, phasing and function of the wall and its associated features in this important section of the Wall corridor.

We’ve been delighted to see the excitement and interest over this find. One of the great pleasures of our work is bringing archaeology into the public eye and thanks to Northumbrian Water we’ve been able to do that for this discovery at Fenham.

For those seeking more information, the full archive report will be made available to the public soon via this website or the Archaeology Data Service.

Archaeological Research Services Ltd