Walltown Crags and Roman Army Museum – Hadrian’s Wall

On one of our most recent weekend trips we went to the Walltown Crags and Roman Army museum (along with a crucial stop at a tearoom for tea, delicious cake and advice):

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Things we learnt:

  1. Apparently it is possible to enjoy consistently good weather at Hadrian’s Wall after all

For the first time in several trips to Hadrian’s Wall we had good weather all day! This Sunday we were very lucky as the sun shone all day although it was very cold, with frozen ponds and frost being present.  This was a definite improvement on previous visits involving varying degrees of rain and, once, flooding requiring an alternate route!

  1. There will be frontier sheep:

Throughout our walk up to, along, and away from the Wall, there were consistently frontier sheep of varying colours, sometimes seeming to challenge us on who could be on the path! Luckily they moved on before we reached their position so all was okay.

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  1. Even when Dr Phillippo herself is not present, adventurous routes will still be taken:

Although this particular trip was led by Dr Claire Stocks, due to Dr Phillippo being away, we still took routes of which she would have approved. In order to access Thirlwall Castle, we scrambled up a steep and slippery slope. While descending the same way, it took effort to ensure we didn’t simply slither to the bottom. At other points, we clambered over stiles even when gates were available. Nevertheless, Dr Stocks made sure that we followed ‘health and safety’ regulations!

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  1. Sadly there’s no treasure to be found at Thirlwall Castle:

At Thirlwall Castle, Dr Stocks informed us of legend that there was treasure hidden somewhere around the site, along with secret passages. Sadly, despite a quick search we managed to uncover neither of these. Nor did we run into any ghosts, in spite of rumours that the castle was haunted.

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Thirlwall Castle was built at a time when the border disputes between England and Scotland meant that living in such a location could be fairly dangerous and as such was a fortified building, protecting its residents. It was built around the 12th century although it was added to over the years. It also happened to boast a prison.

  1. The Wall was some kind of vanity project:

In various places (including the Walltown Crags section), Hadrian’s Wall is built at the top of a rather high cliff. Less because the Romans needed to have a six-foot high wall at the top of a cliff to keep people out, than to show that they could build one – even if that wall was built at the end of the world, as the British Isles were seen by the Romans. This was also a prestige project for Hadrian, so that no one would get ideas about assassinating him if he spent his time on expanding the Empire.

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In any case, with various gates along the Wall and forces regularly stationed beyond it, the Wall was less an attempt to keep people out (or in, for that matter), and more akin to Ancient Roman Border Control. That is, it was more a method to control movements rather than to halt them altogether.

  1. 3D Cinema can be found even at the end of the world:

Within the Roman Army Museum, along with having the opportunity for lunch (a nice and warming soup, considering the frostiness of outside) and to wander the museum itself, we were also invited to watch their film.

This film was a short, twenty minute affair, entitled ‘Edge of Empire’. It concerned the life and training of the soldiers and how the Wall and the forts surrounding it may have looked. The film followed the life of one of the soldiers posted at the Wall and an eagle who, of course, provides us with an “eagle’s eye view” of the area, including the fort of Magnis/Carvoran.

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The café area of the museum also provided “food” for thought. On the wall is a pictorial representation of records detailing the whereabouts and status of the men stationed at the fort. This includes things such as illness and absence. From this record, it is clear that a large number of men were, at the time, away from the fort, some of whom were in Gaul. It is strangely specific in some ways since, although some men are simply listed as being ill, others are revealed, specifically, as having conjunctivitis.

Overall, we had an excellent day led by the lovely Dr Stocks, in which we learnt many things (such as how to navigate slippery slopes without losing our footing) along with enjoying delicious cake, before managing to safely return to Newcastle for a good night’s sleep!

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Barnard Castle – My Final Trip!

When I applied for my work placement with the Department of Classics and Ancient History, one of the interview ‘tasks’ was to write a blog post. I did mine on The Bowes Museum, so what a coincidence then that my last trip with the department, and also the last trip of the academic year, would include a stop here!


The ruins of Barnard Castle

Before our visit to Bowes, however, we stopped by Barnard Castle. Founded in the 12th century, the castle eventually passed into the ownership of Richard Neville. He is also known as Warwick the Kingmaker and is sure to be a familiar figure for anyone who has been on these trips! As well as offering excellent views of the town and river, the castle has also inspired many poets and authors including Walter Scott who includes it in his great work Rokeby.


Testing out the Castle’s facilities.

After a stop for lunch, we ventured on to The Bowes Museum; located a short walk from the centre of town. Within this magnificent French chateau style great house lies a vast and varied collection of items covering textiles, paintings, archaeology, children’s toys and pottery – to name but a few. While I had visited the museum within the last few months, nevertheless there was plenty to explore including a new temporary exhibition on the life of one of the museum’s founders Josephine Bowes. This exhibition also included a silver clock which many of us expressed a desire to steal!


The clock in question. If you look very closely you may notice each book has been given a title.

Of particular interest to the classically inclined is the silver statue of Sappho, the plaster casts of Greek statues on the first floor, the many paintings inspired by classical myth and history, and the large collection of neo-classical items which can be found dotted throughout the museum. All visitors can also definitely enjoy the Silver Swan, a 18th century automaton, which still operates today. You can see it in action every day at 2.

After we had all done being serious students there was as always time for fun. While not advertised as such, we discovered that the grounds of the museum also house one of the world’s greatest slides! The Bowes Museum would do well to include it on all of its marketing materials from here on out. Finally to finish our day out, what else but some ice cream!


World’s Greatest Slide in action!

While I undoubtedly learnt so much about British history from this trip series and there are some stories which I am sure to never forget – from poisoned jam tarts to horses holding on to church pews – what will really stick with me is the sense of fun brought to every occasion. Whether in pouring rain, strong wind or on the rare occasion sunshine, Dr. Susanna Phillippo led us through. Over the weeks the adventure, the enjoyment and the opportunity to stop for tea never died!

Please note: the header and the slide image are borrowed from Elizabeth Cooper.

Lindisfarne Trip Report

Cut off by the tide twice a day, Lindisfarne makes for an unforgettable trip. The island is only accessible at certain times, across an atmospheric causeway, which made it a natural fit for a solitary monastery.

The priory was founded by St. Aidan, an Irish monk, in 634AD. He was granted the island by Oswald, King of Northumbria. The remains visible today are from its later occupation in the 12th century. The original monastery comprised mainly wooden buildings. Lindisfarne is most famous as the home of St. Cuthbert whose life there was immortalised by the Venerable Bede.

The remains of the priory are undoubtedly the main site of historical interest. Understandably as they are the dictionary definition of a picturesque ruin! The still standing ‘rainbow arch’, which dates to c. 1125-50 is particularly impressive.

rainbow arch

The arch as photographed in 1864 by Stephen Thompson

The ruins are supported by a small but excellent museum which along with telling the story of St. Aidan and Cuthbert also explores the day to day life for a monk at the monastery. A short walk from the priory is St. Cuthbert’s Island, where he is said to have retreated for extra solitude. Be careful of the tide as you may end up having to take a paddle! If you’re lucky you may even spot one of St. Cuthbert’s famous ducks, also called Cuddy ducks, which he is said to have befriended.

view of priory from st cuthberts island

View of the priory from St. Cuthbert’s island

Aside from this, the island also sports a church where you can see replicas of the Lindisfarne Gospels, a 16th century castle (unfortunately closed for conservation work at the moment but you can still walk around the outside freely) and a small nature reserve where you can learn about the wildlife on the island.

The island boasts a selection of cafes (which we took good advantage of!), craft shops and even a winery where you can try some of the famous Lindisfarne Mead. Lindisfarne is an incredibly beautiful island and the relatively dull day of our visit only added to the atmosphere. It is worth visiting just for the drive across the causeway; on the return journey we were able to see the beginnings of the tide coming in to cover it once more. Dr. Susanna Phillippo’s warning that if we missed the bus we’d be stuck there overnight didn’t really seem much of threat!

students with doggo

If you’re lucky you may even spot some friendly dogs!

Servi Publici in Rome: Regular or Privileged Slaves?

Three important occasions for disseminating the preliminary outcomes of the Servi Publici: Everybody’s Slaves’ (SPES) research project took place over the last few months.

Dr Franco Luciani, the SPES project Fellow, attended the International Conference ‘Romains ordinaires / Regular Romans /Romani ordinari. La fragmentation socio-économique de la plèbe romaine’, which was held in Rome at the École Française de Rome and the Academia Belgica on October, 17th-18th 2016.

His paper was entitled Les esclaves publics chez les Romains, 120 anni dopo Halkin’.


Continue reading “Servi Publici in Rome: Regular or Privileged Slaves?”

The ‘Servi Publici: Everybody’s Slaves’ (SPES) Project: the Six-Month Secondment at the Institute of Classical Studies (ICS), University of London

A six-month secondment for the Servi Publici: Everybody’s Slaves’ (SPES) project is scheduled from April, 1st to September, 30th 2017 at the Institute of Classical Studies (ICS), which is part of the School of Advanced Study (SAS) of the University of London.


As a Visiting Fellow at the ICS, Dr Franco Luciani will conduct a crucial part of the SPES project, i.e. the creation of a freely accessible online database. He will work under the mentorship of Dr Gabriel Bodard.

Every relevant piece of information for the study of public slaves and freedmen in Rome and in the municipalities of the Empire will be gathered and organised in the database: textual (literary, legal, and epigraphic), iconographic and archaeological sources.

Following the model of Roman Inscriptions of Britain (RIB) and Inscriptions of Roman Tripolitania (IRT) online, each textual source on public slaves will conform to the EpiDoc guidelines.

At the end of the project, the database will be available online for public use, hosted by the Newcastle University website, and will be linked to other existing epigraphic databases, such as EDCS, EDH, and EDR.


Brancepeth & Hexham Trip Report

If you asked me at the start of last term what I knew of Brancepeth and Hexham my response would have been a resounding ‘not much!’ and now I find myself having too much to say for one blogpost. Brancepeth Castle and Hexham Abbey both have Anglo-Saxon origins – with Hexham Abbey even retaining its c.674 crypt – and from then on long and varied histories featuring many famous families and a fair share of notable incidents. Aside from their remarkable past they are both still actively used sites in their communities. Hexham Abbey retains its religious function while Brancepeth Castle, in stark contrast to the tales of murder and intrigue Dr. Susanna Phillippo recounted to us, was in the middle of a Christmas market at the time of our visit.

Hexham trapdoor Saxon apse

Hexham Abbey – a suitably ominous trapdoor to the Anglo-Saxon crypt

While the castle is perhaps the most immediate association with Brancepeth, there is also a small church to St. Brandon which dates back 900 years. Sadly, the original building and its impressive woodwork burnt down in 1998. It has since been rebuilt and it does retain its original stone features including an effigy of Robert Neville the ‘peacock of the North’ whose family owned Brancepeth Castle for nearly 400 years. It was confiscated from them in 1569 as a result of their involvement in the ‘Rising of the North’. While the church is open to the public, the castle is now a private residence but due to the Christmas market we were able to look around the interior.


Inside Brancepeth Castle – a busy Christmas market!

Hexham also has a number of interesting buildings including the Old Gaol and the Moot Hall. The undisputed highlight however is Hexham Abbey, a stunning building which dominates the town centre. It is worth visiting for aesthetic reasons alone!  Inside there are many points of interest which speak to its extensive history. Beside the ‘Night Stairs’ (c. 13th century in origin) which once led to the canons’ dormitories sits a Roman gravestone to the standard-bearer Flavinus which was discovered in the foundations of the cloister in the 19th century. While in the onsite museum there is a series of remarkable wooden 16th century ‘Passion Paintings’ whose vibrant colours are still visible today. These are just a few of the remarkable items viewable at the abbey.


A roman cavalryman and a unfortunate ‘barbarian’

So far, the trip series has really given me an appreciation for the rich history of Northumbria.  My only real association with Newcastle before moving here was Hadrian’s Wall, but as I have seen and learnt there is so much more than that to explore! Hexham and Brancepeth are both a short trip from Newcastle city centre and are easily accessible by public transport.


Walltown Crags trip, Hadrian’s Wall: eight things we learnt

1. Dr Phillippo has never yet cancelled a trip due to bad weather…

  • …and clearly wasn’t going to start now despite warnings of gales and possible flooding. Walltown in the windShe did say the programme and route were kept under careful review, and she did ask local advice in a café before attempting Walltown Tippalt burn floodto take the group across local small river the Tippalt Burn (in spate) — even if the bridge by which we crossed the Burn was now only about 6 inches above the water level!
  • She comes from NE Scotland, and by her own confession “my standards for passable weather are not high”.  However, there is also the useful lesson no. 2:



2. Travel hopefully: Weather forecasts are not infallible.

  • Ever since Michael Fish declared there was little risk of the 1987 UK hurricane that battered the south of England, TV weather forecasters have tended to err on the side of caution. While they can be right, quite often things turn out less bad than predicted. Travel hopefully. We even ended up with some patches of blue sky in the afternoon rather than the warned-of torrential rain.Greenhead flooded river 1








On the other hand:

3. Timing is everything.

  • 3 weeks ago we strolled pleasantly along the banks of the Tyne from Corbridge to the nearby Roman site of Corstopitum. If we’d left it to today, we’d have been swimming: the week’s rainfall had swollen the Tyne to a racing torrent and the riverbank path was totally submerged. Even the ducks seemed to have moved on.Corbridge river path
  • Luckily for our being able to continue our journey, that bridge has stood since the 17th century and survived a flood in 1771 which disposed of every single other bridge on the Tyne including the one at Newcastle… so wasn’t likely to give way now.

4. The Romans believed in doing things thoroughly

While there’s not much left to see of Magnis/Carvoran, the big Stanegate fort at Walltown, the site has yielded some remarkable finds, including inscriptions showing that among the fort’s garrisons was a cohort of archers from Syria  (what they thought of the climate is not recorded).  Perhaps the most famous find is the Carvoran modius, a huge 20-pint bronze corn measure (probably for paying taxes), discovered sticking out of marshy ground, so the story goes, by an Irish postman on his local round in 1915.  It dates to the reign of the Emperor Domitian (late 1st century AD), as can be told from its inscription; but when the decision was taken after Domitian’s death to erase him from all records (damnatio memoriae), this was carried as far as erasure of his name even on a bronze utensil in the farthest NW reaches of the Empire.  This is either impressively thorough or disturbingly vindictive (or possibly both!).  The modius is now in the museum at Chesters Fort, further east.

(For more on the Romans not doing things by halves, see also Hadrian’s Wall (7 below!).)

5. It’s dangerous territory north of the Wall.

  • Actually, despite the many popular conceptions and presentations of the Wall ‘separating the Roman Empire from the barbarians’, it’s not quite so simple: even when Hadrian’s Wall did mark a frontier (rather than, for a time, the Antonine Wall up in really Dangerous Country, i.e. Scotland (joke —I’m Scottish!)), there was a considerable Roman presence north of the Wall. But:
  • on a windy day, crossing to the outer side of the Walltown Walltown steep climb cropped for blogstretch of Wall is a little hazardous. After about 60 seconds, Dr Phillippo realised she was in danger of contravening her own Risk Assessment (“advise students to take reasonable care”) and ordered the troops back to the S side before anyone could be blown off the cliff edge.


6. Sir Walter Scott is the only person to have a major railway station named after one of his novels (Edinburgh’s main station Waverley). His connection with this trip: he proposed to his wife at the “Popping Stone’, Thirlwall castle 1a bit further up the river from Thirlwall Castle, and helped popularise Romantic Ruins including this castle through his historical novels and collection of ballads Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders. However…

  • …when imparting this fact, it helps if your audience knows who Walter Scott was. Following recent chastening experiences assuming knowledge of Robert the Bruce and the spider (go and look it up!) and English Romantic poetry, Dr Phillippo again found herself describing as really, really famous someone not everyone had heard of.
  • For those who don’t know, he was an early nineteenth-century publishing phenomenon akin to J.K. Rowling, and is often credited with having practically invented Scotland’s tourist image and industry.

7. Not even the Romans were mad enough to build a wall leading over the edge of a cliff.

  • At Walltown Quarry, Hadrian’s Wall seems to stop in mid-air high Walltown crags and studentsabove you at the top of the quarry face. This is not the Romans’ fault, but due to the well-known tendency of industrial development not always to be over-concerned with cultural heritage.Walltown Crags
  • However, the Romans were mad (or determined, or dogmatic) enough to build a 4–5 metre-high wall on top of sheer cliffs 40–60+ feet high. Because they could. And to show that they could, even if they didn’t need to. As the Walltown Crags stretch of the Wall shows.

8. Sheep have right of way (or will assert it even if they don’t)

  • In a scene straight out of Sean the Sheep, our bus to Hexham was held up between there and Corbridge on the A695 by a galloping flock of sheep, herded by a couple of small motor vehicles and one very bedraggled-looking sheepdog. Presumably their usual across-the-fields route was under water. They were clearly determined to stop for nothing, not even a large Stagecoach bus.

Walltown Corbride to Hexham sheep2

Picture acknowledgements: Naomi Aldridge (Q800 Stage 1); Pengpeng Wang (QV31 Stage 2); Daisy Doncaster (BA Hons History 2015)