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Frontier Towns

Copyright Graham Sumner; commissioned by Hadrian's Wall TrustCivil settlements grew up adjacent to most established Roman forts and are known at many of the forts along Hadrian’s Wall. These settlements have been relatively little studied, either in Britain or elsewhere. It is assumed they were home to a cosmopolitan mix of locals and incomers from across the Empire, including retired soldiers, serving soldiers’ dependants, and individuals who made a living from servicing the fort, from blacksmiths and food-vendors to innkeepers and prostitutes.

It is likely these people followed the regiments to their different postings across the Empire.  Evidence from the recent excavations at Maryport and elsewhere suggests the building plots were laid out to a plan and to a set size.  This may have been done by the soldiers in the fort who then rented out the plots. Frontage on the main street was at a premium for trade so the plots are long and narrow.  The room fronting the main street was likely used for direct trading whilst preparation or manufacture of goods took place behind or in yards to the rear.  There was probably a second floor where property owners or tenants and their families lived.

Like frontier towns throughout history, these settlements are likely to have been cultural ‘melting pots’, with more than their share of rogues and ‘characters’, and life would doubtless have been made all the more interesting by the presence of several hundred soldiers in the adjacent fort with money in their pockets.

All the civil settlements excavated so far along Hadrian’s Wall were abandoned in the mid third century.  We don’t yet know why?  This may be connected with the restructuring of the army at this time – frontier regiments became smaller, pay was poorer and foreign postings less likely. It may be that the people who previously lived outside the fort moved into the fort itself creating a community of soldiers, traders and civilians.

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