3.5 The Antonine Wall

Reconstruction of the Antonine Wall at Callendar Park, reproduced courtesy of Falkirk Museum and M. J. Moore DA FSA Scot

The Antonine Wall has seen considerable interest in recent years, leading up to its inscription as a World Heritage site in 2008 (and see 4.2). A programme of geophysical survey has provided some additional information about forts and the military way, although much is still to be learnt. A study of the coarse ware pottery found along the Wall identified styles in use in North Africa, leading to the suggestion that troops from this area arrived on the Wall after the Mauretanian War (Swan 1999). An alternative historical sequence has been proposed for the construction and development of the Wall, but this is not fully reconcilable with an earlier proposal relating to the timetable for the addition of annexes to forts along it (Bailey 1994). Indeed, the timetable for both the building and abandonment of the Wall are subject to much debate (e.g. Breeze 2006a, 99-102).

The Antonine Wall Management Plan (Breeze 2007) identified the need for 'a research programme for the Antonine Wall within its international framework'. Such a detailed consideration lies outwith the scope of this Framework document, but it is hoped that some of the issues raised here will be of relevance to Wall studies, and that following on from this wider Roman Iron Age study, a more detailed research framework for the Wall will be created. Perhaps the key point to stress here is how many issues remain ripe for research.

The crucial date relating to the end of the Antonine Wall system is an inscription from Hadrian's Wall recording rebuilding in 158 (RIB 1389; Hodgson 2011).This indicates an intention to reoccupy Hadrian's Wall and abandon the Antonine Wall, and is supported by the continuing rebuilding programme on Hadrian's Wall through the 160s (Breeze and Dobson 2000, 131-3).

The latest dated coin from an archaeological context on the Antonine Wall is a worn coin of Lucilla from Old Kilpatrick, struck between 164 and 169 (Robertson 1978, Abdy 2002, 196, 211), though there are later chance finds. It is possible therefore to envisage a significant period when there was activity on both frontiers, with one being de-commissioned and the other repaired/rebuilt.

The decommissioning of the Antonine Wall involved the removal of the distance slabs from their stands and, it would appear, their burial in pits. Other inscriptions might have been dropped into wells, as at Bar Hill. Fort buildings were demolished and in some cases burnt; ramparts were slighted. There was, however, no attempt to flatten fort ramparts or the Wall itself, as its survival and visibility as an earthwork demonstrates. Reasons for the withdrawal remain the matter of debate.

Some of the detailed questions which remain unanswered about the Antonine Wall at this time include: (a) the location of the eastern terminus; (b) in places, the exact course of the Wall where no longer visible; (c) the purposes of the enclosures, expansions, and platforms attached to the rear of the rampart; (d) whether or not there were fortlets spaced 1 Roman mile apart all the way across from the Forth to the Clyde; (e) and if towers and/or a Wall-walk existed along the length of the Wall and (f) what were the social and environmental impacts of construction of the Wall. In addition, north of the Wall, and contemporary with it, there was a corridor of forts linked by a well- built road extending up to and beyond the River Tay. This would seem to be more than a superficial chain of outpost forts, and raises the question: just where was the boundary of the Roman province in Antonine times?

Publication of the excavations at Bearsden, Croy Hill, Falkirk, and Mumrills (see Table 4) would be extremely beneficial, as would analysis and publication of the geophysical survey results obtained for the World Heritage Site nomination process. Further analysis of the finds from excavated sites along the Wall is recommended, building on the work undertaken by Hartley (1972), Gillam (1970) and Swan (1999), for instance to study life on the frontier, compare the nature of finds from different types of site (e.g. primary c.f. secondary forts), and use their potential as a dating horizon of much wider relevance to Roman studies.

Fieldwork issues include the need for more work at Auchendavy to determine whether it or Bar Hill is likely to have been a 'primary' fort; to address the perennial question of the eastern terminus of the Wall; and whether there are further outpost forts or fortlets to the east (eg at Blackness) to strengthen the known 'screen' along the coast.

Antonine Wall with forts and fortlets © Crown Copyright Historic Scotland


Paper presented by Rebecca H Jones on 3/10/2015, sumarising the recent work carried out and published regarding a rethinking of the planning of the Antonine Wall.

Graafstal, E., Breeze, D.J., Jones, R.H. & Symonds, E.A. (2015) Sacred cows in the landscape: rethinking the planning of the Antonine Wall, Ch 4, pp54-69. In Breeze, D.J., Jones, R.H. & Oltean, I.A. (Eds) Understanding Roman Frontiers: A celebration for Professor Bill Hanson. Edinburgh: John Donald.

Previous thinking regarding the AW is dominated by research regarding Hadrian's Wall.  In 1976 John Gillam's proposed a  hypothesis of an initial phase of of planning of primary forts 8 Roman miles apart with fortlets every mile between; followed by a second phase of the construction of secondary forts at some fortlet sites reducing the fort gaps between forts to 2 Roman miles.  This hypothesis let to the "great fortlet hunt" and 5 new fortlets were discovered at sites Gillam suggested.  Evidence for these 2 phases was that some forts (e.g. Castlecary) appear to have been constructed before the wall, and others (e.g. Rough Castle).  In 2008 John Poulter suggested a new hypothesis, he believed that all the forts were planned from the outset but they were not all built at once, thus some were constructed before the wall and some after.

Rebecca Jones highlighted the inconsistencies in the evidence for Gilliam's theory such as both Auchendavy and Bar Hill appearing primary despite being adjacent or the causeways across the ditch at Rough Castle and Cadder, both secondary although the causeways suggest the ditch diggers knew they were going to be constructed. So it appears that the secondary forts were only laid out secondary but were conceived along with the primary forts. So AW wasn't a blind copy of HW but a construction informed by lessons learnt when building HW.  It is also clear that the known installations along the line of the wall do not fit neatly into Gillam's rigid spacing. There is also a lack of evidence for fotlets preceding the sites of the supposed secondary forts apart from at Croy Hill.

The Military Way may also be an important aspect of the landscape as it deviates to pass through most of the forts forming their via principalis, this demonstrates that the proposed positions of the forts and their layout would have been know to the road builders.  The early construction of the road is demonstrated by the occurrence of a quarry pit for road material being located beneath the Bonnyside East expansion.  Bearsden is also constructed out of position despite it's measured position offering a good vantage point, instead it appears to have been constructed at a position to better allow control of north-south traffic.

The following notes were taken by Ryan Stone, a student at the Cramond Archaeology conference.

1. The Antonine Wall was built during the reign of Antoninus Pius, as the northernmost boundary of the Roman Empire. Along it numerous Roman forts and fortlets have been discovered, among them the Cramond Roman Fort. Currently, the wall runs through the most densely occupied part of Scotland which commonly affects the state of the evidence.

2."Were there two periods of Antonine occupation in Scotland?" This question is often asked due to the evidence found at the site, as well as the alterations to the site. 

3.It is thought that Cramond was the harbor fort where Roman ships could pull into Roman Scotland.

4.There is much debate as to which fort was the primary fort along the wall during the Antonine period. Auchendavy and Barnhill are the most common forerunners, as Auchendavy is the halfway point along the wall while Barnhill is free-standing and on the highest topographical site.

5.The Antonine Wall was intended to be permanent but was often adjusted by the Romans.