The Turf Wall and the Vallum: Linguistic Dislocation on Hadrian’s Wall; Geoff Carter.
Abstract; Above and beyond the physical reality of its archaeological deposits, Hadrian’s Wall exists as a literary entity with its own distinct vocabulary including Latin loan words. Research has often been confined to this linguistic construct, creating an understanding that has in part been conditioned by the inherent meaning of its own terminology, in certain cases this circularity has resulted in a growing discontinuity between what is discussed and what is actually present. The paper considers this process with specific reference to the Turf Wall and the Vallum, contrasting the physical evidence in terms of their soil science to the textural narrative, reaching different conclusions as to the nature of these important early structures.Or, in short, the paper explains that the Turf Wall could not have been made from turf, along with the more familiar idea that The Vallum was not a vallum, which has some interesting implications for our understanding of Hadrian's Wall.
Apart from those unsuspecting tourists, who thinking me just another dog walker, mistakenly ask the way to Hadrian’s Wall, I don’t get to talk about archaeology, but a recent conference at Newcastle University afforded a rare opportunity. The conference considered the Wall in art and literature, it was not about archaeology specifically, but my point was that the representation of the Wall in the academic literature was, in part, demonstrably a self-sustaining myth.Apparently, Hadrian’s Wall had helped inspire GeorgeR.R. Martin to write the books which have given us Game of Thrones, and the University had invited writers Garth Nix and Christian Cameron, who set the tone referencing the role of the Romans played in their Childhood. There were shared moments about Look and Learn, the Trigan empire, and Airfix models. I wished I had read Puck of Pook Hill, and not just looked at the pictures. The standard of presentation was great, people who do this for a living are usually comfortable, amusing, and familiar with their material. It is always fascinating to catch a glimpse of others academic world; as I cannot possibly comment fully on all of the other papers, I will confine my observations to my own contributionI was speaking near the end, on day three, so after a couple of days enjoying the company of these convivial and well informed people, I have to face the prospect that some may not like what I have to say.
I had hoped that the emphasis of literature and the arts would not attract too many archaeological stakeholders who might potentially be disturbed by what I had to say; while I wanted to introduce a different tone, I did not want to offend anyone.
This image represent the visual culture of the past, but it also serves as a visual metaphor for the literary construct about the Roman Wall, with its many layers which have only superficial coherence.
Visual Conditioning; Our visual culture of the past.
There had been much discussion of the Wall in art, but I wished to make the point that we have no real entitlement to some of this shared visual culture, and how we see the past can be seriously prejudiced by the way it is depicted.
I decided to create the visual style specifically for this paper, using the traditional diagrammatic recording conventions of the Wall, but with West facing sections, in a colour scheme of white on black, with oxblood, and a narrow range of earth colours.
This is unlike the visual style of the blog, and apart from giving myself something to do, it means that this presentation was something distinct from my usual material, so very little of it will ever appear on line.
I judged this would be completely different from other presentations, which would help take the viewer outside the normal frame of visual reference to emphasise the change of perception being presented. There was also something inherently dark about my reading of this archaeology as an active war zone where something went wrong for the Roman army. There may well be a more sinister aspect to the Human drama played out here during the building of the Wall in the mid 120’s.
There is another important strand here; I am offering a different framework for understanding an aspect of Hadrian’s Wall, can I do this without showing a picture?
I had decided to try the novel approach of admitting that even archaeologists don’t know what the past looked like; but I was happy to discuss engineering principles.
A full version of this paper is only available as a live, interactive and in person format, but these are some of main points I was attempting to make, or would make if invited to.
As regular readers will be well aware, it is my primary contention that The Berm - the space between Hadrian’s Wall and The Ditch, was the space originally occupied by a timber rampart represented archaeologically by three lines of postholes behind the ditch.
Even if the concept of this primary timber phase is not accepted, three points have to be made.
- A wide berm is unusual, unnecessary, and an irregularity that requires an explanation.
- A wide berm is not related to any real or perceived concern for the Wall's structural stability.
- The idea of obstacles or “cippi pits” on the berm is not logically sustainable 
While the recognition of 3 lines of postholes behind the ditch marked a significant discovery, their subsequent interpretation as “obstacles” with reference to “cipi” has only served to obscure their significance. 
Postholes are for postsJulius Caesar describes how during the siege of Alesia his lines were reinforced with additional obstacles to prevent surprise attacks on his troops while engaged in constructing the ramparts. However, in addition to sharing some military black humour, these details are probably included in the narrative because the obstacles prove particularly effective at night and a significant factor in breaking up the Gaul’s penultimate attack.
The “cipi” were sharpened irregular wood and branches up bedded into a series of 5 foot deep trenches to create an entanglement that could not be pulled up. Also mentioned are "lilies”, concealed tapering circular holes the size of a man’s foot in which a sharpened stake was embedded. The terms appear to jokes or puns, lilies being shaped like the flower, although cipi is more obscure, but may a reference to grave makers. Quite inexplicably, the author appears to combined two unrelated systems described by Caesar to explain the postholes behind the ditch, giving us a term “Cipi pits” which have no real historical credibility. You cannot simply mix these ideas up to create a new one; these "obstacles" would have no practical value, since they could be easily uprooted, are too far apart, and would be difficult to maintain as they would soon become overgrown. In addition, postholes usually contained posts, traditionally the stems of trees, which growing in completion with others in a generally perpendicular habit, produce roughly straight timber; much of human material culture was predicated on this observation. While it is possible for an artist to draw timber that fits in a posthole but becomes spiky and irregular where it leaves the ground, they would not be abundant in nature. In addition these irregular pieces of wood have to be asymmetrical to fit together in pairs. I want to be quite clear about this; a system of obstacles with no historical precedent and based on the use of a unlikely form of tree of an unknown species does not have sufficient rational credibility, to replace the more normal explanation that the postholes on the berm were dug to house posts.
The Timber Wall
The paper started by reviewing the evidence for postholes on the berm found at Buddle St, Wallsend, Shields Rd, Byker, Melbourne St, Newcastle and along the pipe trench at Throckley. The evidence is characterised by three lines of regularly spaced, evenly sized double postholes, with a ditch in front, which could have been presumed to be rampart, as this is the normal practice. The regularity of these features in terms of diameter and depth is particularly evident at Throckley where 2km were sampled, and is best understood as engineering.
Caesar’s war in Gaul starts with the building of a rampart with a ditch in front and forts to prevent the Helvetti crossing the Rhone; this type of military engineering described many times being used in battles, sieges and building forts. Building fortifications and gathering timber is a constant theme in his military writings and is a familiar scene depicted on Trajan’s Column.
Perceptually, the layout of these structures have to be understood in terms of the pattern of spaces between the post pairs. By stacking horizontal timbers in these spaces between the posts it would be possible to lock them in place and create an effective rampart much of which can be space too narrow to penetrate between baulks. The main features of this type of military engineering.
● Rampart of horizontal Timbers, laid taper out.
● Simple to construct around a foundation of posts.
● Built up from layers at 0˚ 60 ˚ & 90˚ to the axis.
● Flexible design – can use timber of different length and diameter.
● Abundant local material – can be recycled
● Wide fighting platform
● Strong / credible – uses triangles and the natural properties of the timber
● Difficult the enemy to understand and dismantle
The Turf Wall
Having established the idea that the vacant space or berm between Wall and Ditch was the spatial footprint of a primary timber rampart, I turned my attention to the early section of Wall with a ditch in front known as the Turf Wall.  On the basis of the common understanding that turves or turfs are blocks of soil held together by the roots of vegetation, and by using the evidence of pollen, plant remains and soil science from recent work at Appletree, it possible to demonstrate conclusively the Turf Wall could not have been made of turf. It is also apparent from the same environmental evidence that the structure is the archaeological remains of timber structure.
The main point being that “Turf Wall” was the western extent of the initial temporary timber rampart which was never dismantled.
Important points about this Turf Wall section of the frontier.
● A Timber Wall that rots in situ.
● Was it abandoned, slighted or damaged?
● More evidence of the disruption of plans for stone frontier or Dislocation - probably as a result of warfare. 
Demonstrating that the idea the Romans had built about one third of the Wall out of turf , was in fact a myth, bearing no relationship to what is found archaeologically, debunks a significant component of the official peer reviewed account. While it might be argued that this is a technical detail, this assumption has guided, influenced, and been fully integrated into our understanding of Hadrian's Wall for decades. So, while it is a small wedge, the resulting crack may proliferate through the many rigid interconnected parts of the literary construct.
Significantly, the idea of a Wall of a turf was discredited using specialist reports from within the most recent authoritative account,. It is thus important to observe is how the power and momentum of the existing narrative conventions can serve to obscure any contrary evidence. The effect of expectation and the need to conform on the archaeological process is apparent, emphasising that archaeology can be a faith based subject, which can lack detachment, often relying on inherently circular reasoning for its credibility. However, I hope that the paper also demonstrated that done properly, archaeology can be a useful tool in our understanding of the past, and that it need not be mysterious, ambiguous or incomprehensible. Rationalising the Vallum.
In the event, here was no time to talk about the Vallum, but the initial point was that a Vallum
is that it is probably the Latin term most appropriate to describe the timber rampart, but it cannot be used because the venerable Bede misappropriated the term over a millennia ago. The extent to which this word has conditioned subsequent thinking is unknown, but the explanation that the Vallum, while clearly not really “defensive”, was nonetheless some form of boundary has persisted to the present day.
It is invariably referred to using the terms banks and ditch, despite it being more a trench from which some 1.5 m³ of earth has been placed in heaps some 30 feet away.
If it were a bank and ditch, it would be a typical Roman Military structure, not a mysterious earthwork with problematic claims to being some form of boundary.
When 16 of its principle characteristics are considered, the idea that it was boundary, often wider than the area it defines, is difficult to sustain. A much better fit would be a trench for a road bed for a paved road that was never completed.
Road foundation v Boundary [relevant; 1 = yes; 0 = no]
The importance of understanding the Vallum as a planned, but unfinished road, is not just that it makes sense of the archaeology, but also that it emphasises the ambition of the project and strength of the initial workforce; by contrast, it highlights the scale of setback represented by the dislocation.
Runs from the Newcastle bridgehead
Does not follow defensive line
Laid out in straight lengths
Consistent measured design plan
Marginal mound as removed crossings
Profile at White Moss marsh
Abandoned following dislocation Unfinished/labour shortage
The Timber Wall - 12 ◊ key points
There are perhaps twelve key points which make the idea of an initial timber phase significant to an understanding of the building of Hadrian's Wall.
- ◊ Explains the existence of berm and layout of the Wall.
- ◊ Explains the potholes and other features on the berm
- ◊ Explains the anomaly of the Turf Wall
- ◊ Evidence of active military frontier.
- ◊ Explains why the Wall was built; the fortified frontier is a military response to a real threat to the South from the North.
- ◊ Explains how the Wall was built; the construction of a temporary Timber Wall explains how it was possible to attempt the construction of complex and time consuming stone structures in an active military.
- ◊ Resolves the underlying tension - Requirement v Implantation;As it was apparent that the stone structure took many years to construct in somewhat piecemeal manner, thus, it was hard to view it as purely military structure, leading to suggestions of a more socioeconomic functions.
- ◊ Ghost Wall with Timber Forts; it is important to conceptualise the rampart and ditch as just part of the larger infrastructure required to build Hadrian's Wall while simultaneously maintaining the security of the frontier.
- ◊ Contextualises the Dislocation; Once the concept of full scale Wall, albeit a temporary one, is accepted, then the idea of Warfare on the frontier requiring work to stop or be scaled back is much reasonable and in keeping with the strategic situation.
- ◊ Wider implications of the dislocation; if you have an active frontier, certain general assumptions about the prudent distribution of troops can be made, and if this was significantly disrupted by a successful incursion, then a very poor strategic situation could develop rapidly for Roman troops, where heavy losses can be envisaged.
- ◊ Fire in London;  the fire in Hadrianic London is just as an example of the possible consequences if the Northern Frontier was breached; it even provides a context for the vandalised statue of a young Hadrian found in the Thames.
- ◊ The concluding point that I wished make about Hadrian's Wall is that it was not necessarily a success; with the benefit of some archaeological hindsight, it could be seen as over ambitious, and a strategic failure.
“... under the rule of your grandfather Hadrian what a number of soldiers were killed by the Jews, what a number by the Britons” Marcus Cornelius Fronto, letter to Marcus Aurelius, AD162
● Ω ●
The room feels very different when you are speaking, none of the archaeologists present, more than I had expected, had any interest in believing what I had say. I can imagine it may have some implication for their own scholarship, but only if they are prepared to accept it as true; in archaeology, it is what people believe
that is important.
However, I am not interested in belief, my objective was to achieve a single moment of understanding; That the Turf Wall was not made of turf, it was made of timber
. I think I nailed it; I hope it would be difficult for anyone present to think of the “Turf Wall” as being made of turf or soil. So, some now “know” what most of their colleagues are unaware of, that this fundamental concept in Wall studies is a fallacy. Good luck with that.
I have no idea what people made of it, I have not spoken in public for several years, - I screwed it up and overran, an embarrassing breach of protocol; but I had been waiting eight years for the opportunity. I did not include a slide on environmental modelling of the timber supply, so naturally the amount of wood required was the only question raised.
It did change the mood, producing the one and only negative reaction of the whole conference, but it was efficiently dealt with by the chairman.
It was important that I could go to professional conference and hold my own, especially at Newcastle, where in terms of archaeology I had been verboten.
It reinforced my observation that an individual’s contribution is only as significant as the funding behind it, and now the money in slot has run out, I can return to my virtual existence. However, I have got a presentation which I hope will help people understand the archaeology of the Wall, that with a couple of extra slides and a few maps, I can easily spin out to an hour or more.
The scale and significance this World Heritage site
, built by the Roman Army, makes it somehow inappropriate that it should be in anyway mysterious or irrational. My analysis is simple, the Romans built in timber first and then in stone; this is an observation borne out by the archaeology, historical sources, and exigencies of military engineering. The failure to factor this into our understanding of stone structures like Hadrian's Wall has been a long standing source of confusion. It is only as a timber structure, replaced in stone, that the Wall makes strategic or spatial sense.
I thought that a conference about the Wall in literature, art and fantasy, could accommodate a paper that demonstrated that the idea that the Romans had built a wall of turf across one third of the country, was in fact a fiction, a myth, just some academic make-believe. For those who understand, the idea of a Wall of Turf is debunked, a fox has been shot in a field thick with foxes.
I have to thank my family for funding this hunting trip, and apologise to the dog for missing her walk by the Wall for two mornings in a row.
Sources & further reading
 Bidwell, P T, 2005 'The system of obstacles on Hadrian's Wall; their extent, date and purpose', Arbeia J, 8, 53-76.
 Caius Julius Caesar "De Bello Gallico" and Other Commentaries English translation by W. A. MacDevitt, introduction by Thomas De Quincey (1915). see; VII.73 Op. sit; VII.82
 Bidwell, Paul T.; Watson, Moira. 1989 'A Trial Excavation on Hadrian's Wall at Buddle Street, Wallsend'. Archaeologia Aeliana, 5th ser., 17 (1989), 21-28.
Grey literature: Shields Road, Newcastle, Phase 2b, archaeological excavation. TWM archaeology 10/2006
Platell, A. C.: Excavations on Hadrian's Wall at Melbourne Street, Newcastle upon Tyne. 5th Series, vol 41, 185–206
T. Frain, J. McKelvey & P. Bidwell 2005 Excavations and watching brief along the berm of Hadrian’s Wall at Throckley, Newcastle upon Tyne, in 2001-2002. Arbeia J, 8
Grey literature; Throckley, Newcastle upon Tyne, archaeological excavation and watching brief. TWM Archaeology 12/2003
Also;Bidwell, P T, 2005 'The system of obstacles on Hadrian's Wall; their extent, date and purpose', Arbeia J, 8, 53-76. http://www.arbeiasociety.org.uk/journal.htm
 Simpson F. G. and I. A. Richmond I.A., 1935, The Turf Wall of Hadrian, 1895-1935, The Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 25, (1935), pp. 1-18
p. 114 the pollen James Wells
p.116 The plant macrofossils, Allan Hall, Breeze, D.J. 2003. "Warfare in Britain and the Building of Hadrian's Wall." Archaeologia Aeliana 32, 13 –16 For example; Graafstal, Erik P.: 2012, Hadrian's haste: a priority programme for the Wall. Archaeologia Aeliana, 5th Series, vol 41, 123–84
 Hill, P. R. 2006. The construction of Hadrian's Wall. Tempus
. G. C. Dunning, 1945, Two Fires in Roman London', Ant. J. 25 (1945) 48-77.
Roskams, Steve & Watson, Lez 1981 `The Hadrianic fire of London - a reassessment of the evidence' London Archaeol 4, 1981 62-6