Walking Hadrian’s Wall
Dr Buck tells me that it’s highly unusual to find human remains inside one of the Roman forts. ‘It was actually illegal to bury people there, so it was certainly a clandestine burial,’ she says.
Her preliminary measurements of the bones suggest that the child was aged between eight and 10 years old, but its gender is still uncertain. Further analysis of the DNA and chemical composition of the bones is due to take place and may help to shed more light on the child and its fate.
While it’s tempting to idealise Roman civilisation with its baths, straight roads and military discipline, clearly things are more complicated than that. Few wish to get carried away with speculation, but there is something lonely and strange about the child’s secret internment.
The site’s museum director, Patricia Birley, suspects something unpleasant took place. She says the body’s hands were tied, and there were no clothes buried with it. ‘Societies change, civilisations change, but human nature hasn’t changed,’ she says.
After the Whin Sill, the return to ground level comes as an anticlimax. It’s steady going from here until Heddon. I share the almost empty path with cattle and sheep. A big chunk of wall runs through the middle of their pasture. I skirt behind it to avoid what looks like a bull; two millennia on, the wall is still serving a useful defensive function.
The Roman soldiers left Britain in 410 AD. The confidence of their predecessors seems to have evaporated. ‘In 122 AD, the Roman empire had the northern frontier largely under control,’ Hadrian’s Wall historian Richard Hingley had told me. ‘By the early fifth century, things were seriously running down, and the priorities of Rome were far away from Britain.’ New threats at home made Rome scale back its imperial commitments. They made an orderly retreat. At Brocolitia Fort, the departing soldiers blocked up gateways to render it unusable. Over time, grass has carpeted the remnants of its walls with green.
In the car park by the fort, Ant Wright serves espresso from his stall and enlightens his customers about the more arcane aspects of Roman religion. Just behind him lie the remains of a temple to Mithras, or Mithraeum. It is one of the most complete in Britain. ‘The Romans believed Mithras was born on 25 December, out of a rock or an egg,’ says Ant. ‘The more you look at it, the more parallels there are with Christianity.
There is certainly something eerie about the excavated temple. Although roofless, it feels oppressive: a tight rectangle of low walls and odd sculptures. Mithraeums were small, designed to evoke the atmosphere of the mythical cave where Mithras slew a bull and new life sprang from its blood. By the door is the place where adepts underwent ordeal by fire as part of their initiation; three altars – copies of the originals – stand at the end.
Back in the car park, I ask Ant when the Mithraeum was discovered. ‘Ask her,’ he says. ‘Her dad found it.’
Jennie DuCane is walking past with her dog, Wesley. ‘Actually, my father’s dog found it,’ she says, and tells me the story.
In 1949, Jennie’s father Richard bought the land on which the Brocolitia Fort sits. The turf had been cut in preparation for raising fence posts. Richard’s dog, Adam, pawed at the ground and revealed a piece of stone that had clearly been shaped by hand. ‘It didn’t take my father long to realise it was an altar,’ says Jennie.
Even in its reduced state, a shred of mystery still clings to the temple. I add some change to the offerings on the central altar and set off on my way.