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Hadrian's Wall and the River Eden

Beau Ouimette may be from across the Pond, but this American YouTuber is on a mission to excavate secrets from British history, using only his metal detector and his talent for swimming. He and fellow outdoorsy enthusiast Rick Edwards are the River Hunters, literally diving into the past to find relics from bygone epochs.

One episode sees them exploring the River Eden, which flows close to one of the most remarkable historical monuments in the country: Hadrian’s Wall. Once the northern boundary of the Roman Empire, the wall still draws visitors today, eager to see and touch this throwback to a legendary time. Beau and Rick hope they’ll discover anything from coins and weapons to everyday household items which belonged to the thousands of troops stationed here.

And that’s the key thing to remember about Hadrian’s Wall. Its remains may look stark, lonely and romantic today – the stuff of wistful rustic poetry – but in Roman Britain, this was a bustling, fearsome militarised zone, with fortifications and multiple barriers. Think the border between North and South Korea, only with more swords and shields.

Construction on the wall began in AD 122, several years into the reign of Emperor Hadrian. This was during the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace – a long period of stability that began with the transformation of the old Roman Republic to the Roman Empire back in 27 BC. The unrest and civil war that plagued the latter days of the Republic gave way to an era of empire building, as the Romans expanded their reach across Europe and the Middle East.

Hadrian took over the reins of power from the previous emperor, Trajan, in 117 AD. Unlike Trajan, who oversaw a vast expansion of the Roman Empire, Hadrian was more interested in consolidating and strengthening the territories. Openly gay, he is remembered almost as much for his private life as he is for his political moves. His lover, a beautiful Greek youth called Antinous, was at his side during his travels across the Empire, before perishing mysteriously while sailing with Hadrian along the Nile. To this day, historians debate whether it was an accidental drowning, a murder, or even a human sacrifice of some kind.

Art and architecture were Hadrian’s other passions. He spearheaded the building of one of the most iconic structures in world history: the Roman Pantheon. But what about that famous wall in Britain? Why was it even built?

The question isn’t as easy to answer as many might think. The most common assumption is that Hadrian’s Wall was created to keep out the defiant confederation of tribes inhabiting what would become known as Scotland. These were the Caledonians, who resisted the invading Roman forces who’d successfully conquered the southern part of Britain.

The peoples of the region would in later centuries come to be known as 'Picts', deriving from the Latin for 'painted', as in painted people. There is some historical ambiguity about exactly who the Picts where in relation to the earlier Caledonians and the various different tribes in the region. In any case, these peoples of the north managed to resist being swallowed up as part of the Roman Empire.

Although it’s certainly possible the wall was simply a defensive barrier to keep the 'barbarians' out, there are other, less exciting explanations for its construction. Perhaps it was intended as a symbol of Roman might? Or a way of controlling immigration and trade, and procuring taxes from local native Britons? After all, the wall wasn’t just a wall: it had multiple gateways that allowed traders to cross the frontier, with troops acting as border officials. The area of operations extended far beyond the wall itself, with a long earthwork known as the Vallum running alongside the southern side of the wall and forming the boundary of the militarised zone.

Running for 73 miles from the shores of the North Sea to the Irish Sea, the wall’s dimensions differed throughout its length – in places, it was almost 20 feet high and 10 feet wide. Studded with fortified gateways as well as observation towers and full-scale forts which could accommodate vast numbers of troops, Hadrian’s Wall was painstakingly constructed by over 15,000 legionaries, who were Roman citizens, as well as the auxiliary troops, who were drawn from various parts of the Empire.

The diversity of the people garrisoned at the wall made for an unlikely melting pot of cultures at this remote, northern outpost of the Empire. There are inscriptions referencing soldiers recruited from North Africa, while one of the most remarkable archaeological finds recovered in the vicinity of the wall is a sculpture of the god Mithras. A deity based on Ancient Persian mythology, Mithras became the venerated figure in a new religious movement that spread through the highest levels of the Roman military, and clearly had its supporters among those stationed at Hadrian’s Wall.

It’s hard for today’s Britons to square the 'heyday' of Hadrian’s Wall with the subtle landmark it is today. Following the end of Roman occupation of Britain in the 5th Century, the troops of the Empire departed, and the forts were possibly used for a time by local tribespeople. 

Eventually, though, the wall was abandoned and plundered over the centuries for its stones. Many structures, such as Lanercost Priory in Cumbria, were built using material pulled from Hadrian’s Wall. You can even see inscriptions by Roman legionaries in the walls of the priory – a striking reminder of the heritage of the stones and of the wall which still beguiles onlookers today.