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Lock, Stock, and History

What happened to Hadrian’s Wall?

One of the greatest feats of the Roman Empire was Hadrian’s wall, at about 70 miles long and almost 12 feet high, the heavily fortified wall was the boundary between Romanized England and barbarian Scotland.  It would have been fortified with battlements, guard towers, and fortresses, yet today the wall is a ruin that measure only 3-6 feet high and has no fortifications. Much of the wall has disappeared altogether. So what happened to Hadrian’s Wall?

After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD the wall fell into abandon and ruin.  While a neglected building will fall into disrepair and eventual collapse, Hadrian’s wall was well built with strong stone and mortar.  The cause of the wall’s downfall was not time, but people.  Over many centuries, the wall became a resource for locals who needed building materials, especially stone.  Stone quarrying is a hard and expensive task, so many stone masons reused already cut stone.  One source of cut stone was standing 12 feet tall in the open English/Scottish countryside for all to see; Hadrian’s Wall.  With no one claiming ownership over the wall, it was easy for stone masons to just pry out and take what they needed.  This was not just done to Hadrian’s Wall, but to many other monuments around the world such as Roman and Greek Temples, the Colosseum, the Pyramids (used to have a covering of polished white limestone), the Great Wall of China, and many more.  Indeed scavenger stonemasons would become the great enemy of future historians and archeologists.

Hadrian’s Wall provided an incredible wealth of cut stone for local houses, government buildings, castles, churches, and cathedrals. In the early 1700’s an ambitious project of road-building was commissioned by King William of Orange and Queen Anne to link together the newly united kingdoms of Scotland and England.  Large sections of the wall were literally torn out and laid as paving stones for the new highway system.  When the Scots rebelled against the rule of King George I in 1745, the English General George Wade ordered even more of the wall torn apart to construct a large military road to support his invasion of Scotland.  

By the 1830’s most of the wall was gone.  It was then that a lawyer from Newcastle named John Clayton began to research Hadrian’s Wall and took steps to preserve it.  Clayton bought up land from farmers to halt its destruction and even sponsored projects to rebuild several sections of the wall.  He also conducted archeological excavations of many wall sites.  By the early 1900’s the land was purchased by the National Trust, a British conservation organization.  Today it is a World Heritage Site of the United Nations and strict laws govern its preservation.

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