The next major fort is Housesteads, the highest, the most austere, the bleakest of all the Hadrian’s Wall forts — and the most popular. It is a long climb up from the car park, first to the museum and then to the fort. In front of and outside the fort are the ridges that formed the buildings of the civilian settlement, and to the left is the farmhouse and museum.
The fort was one of those bought by John Clayton in the 19th century. When he purchased it, it had been turned into a defended farmhouse, or bastle. So he moved the farmer out and built a modern farmhouse which now accommodates the museum.
The entrance through the south gate shows the steep main road through the fort where steps have been added for the modern visitor. Note to the left the commandant’s house with the modern stairway going through it. It must have been a nightmare to live in on such a steep site: it must presumably been on two or three stories with the main residence on the top storey to face onto the headquarters building.
The fine view over the valley to the south. The weather is often stormy but the occasional glimpses of the sun reveal the magnificent view.
I think this is the Headquarters building with the courtyard left, and the crosshall right with the tribunal from which the commanding officer could address his troops.
Adjacent there is a building identified as the hospital. All forts had hospitals, for it was important to keep the soldiers fit and healthy. Indeed the tablets at Vindolanda record a suspiciously high number of soldiers suffering from swollen eyes. There is no direct identification of this as being a hospital –no inscription or surgical instruments, but a building with a central courtyard surrounded by rooms seems about right for a hospital.
There is also a fine granary: the pillars down the centre look as if they were for a hypocaust for heating, but they were for keeping the corn dry.
The north gateway has a wonderfully bleak view out over the barbarian north — compare this with the more fertile land to the south. Today it appears to face out over a steep drop, but apparently there was a sloping approach road which was removed in the 19th century.
Then there were the barracks which have been the subject of a big modern debate. In the 4th century, the barrack blocks which had hitherto been rooms in a continuous building, were divided up into individual houses which were called chalets, and it was argued that the soldiers’ families which had been in the civilian settlement outside the fort were moved up into the fort. However more recent examination of the finds suggested that there were very few feminine finds from these chalets. The situation was very different in Vindolanda where again in the 4th century the barracks were turned into chalets, but here there was very strong evidence for female presence: jewellery and other knick knacks. So it seems that at Housesteads, women only visited the chalets occasionally.
Discovering the turret
One of the most remarkable discoveries at Housesteads came in 1945 when Ian Richmond and F G Simpson were excavating and came upon a very big puzzle indeed. However, Ian Richmond loved puzzles and what he worked out led to the re-writing of the history of the construction of Hadrian’s Wall.
It appears when the Wall was originally built, forts were not included. Thus the wall was constructed and a turret was erected, and then it was decided to move the forts from the Stanegate up onto the wall. This ‘fort decision’ is now considered to be general along the wall. But at Housesteads, the position of the fort was moved forward from the original line of the wall to the very edge of the escarpment, and the original line of the fort and the turret which had been so recently erected were demolished. But the foundations were left behind underground to confuse the archaeologists, which they certainly did.
The history of the wall was re-written. The wall had originally been constructed without forts which remained behind along the line of the Stanegate and it was only later that the forts were moved up onto the wall. (And all this took place within 20 years before Hadrian’s Wall was abandoned and moved 100 miles north up into Scotland to form the Antoine Wall).
The most famous part of Housesteads are the latrines: these were down in the corner of the fort where they could drain out into the lower ground and are extremely well preserved. They were communal toilets where the soldiers could sit side by side and no doubt chat. Friendly people, the Romans! Note the deep channels which would have been covered by the wooden seats. And note too the shallow water channels with which the users would have moistened the sponges or whatever served as toilet paper.