‘Turf war’ as experts argue over first Wall

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29 November 2016 5:21PM

A THORN in the side of academia for the past decade, maverick archaeologist Geoff Carter has now completed the research he says debunks a long-held myth about Hadrian’s Wall.

The first Roman Wall was made of timber, not turf as the establishment would have it, he states.

“Words and pictures condition our understanding of the past,” he begins. “Hadrian’s Wall also exists as a huge body of text and that’s what people – students and academics – research.

“What I do is go out to assess the difference between what’s in a book and what’s actually there, on the ground.”

A misplaced piece of the jigsaw forever colours the perception of future generations, he argues, and that is what he has sought to correct in relation to the Wall.

The man who previously posited the theory that the vallum running in tandem with it was not designed for defensive purposes, as perceived wisdom has it, but instead was the intended bed of an uncompleted Roman road, is irritating academics once again.

When he presented his paper, Understanding Hadrian’s Wall, at Newcastle University’s Reading the Wall conference in June, he was met with a stony silence, he said.

“It was quite tricky! Several of the leading experts on the Wall were sat there and while I think my findings are very exciting, they are sat there thinking ‘s**t, that’s my book going up’.”

The basis of the ‘turf war’ is that while established experts believe the first Roman Wall here was made out of just that, turf, Geoff counters that the precursor to the stone wall we know today was actually built out of wood.

“This whole idea the Romans came and built a wall out of turf is not sustainable, even though English Heritage’s latest report says it is,” he said. “It’s just not scientifically possible.”

The unearthing of a section of the supposed turf wall at Appletree, near Birdoswald, provided data about pollen that has proved crucial to his case.

Pointing to a pie chart, he said that while the bottom layer had all the hallmarks of turf drawn from moorland, complete with copious amounts of heather pollen, the top layer was shot through with pollen from trees and shrubs.

Geoff said: “Are they trying to say the turf was drawn from woodland?

“When they put some of it through a sieve stack, they found charcoal and a lot of fire moss, a fungus that grows on rotten wood – when you burn wood, that’s the first thing that grows back.

“What they didn’t find was much in the way of sand or gravel, which is the real killer. I would expect turf to contain soil!

“But there were no stones in there and I can’t conceive how you could get stone-free soil like that, so the idea that this is a 14ft stack of turf does not add up.

“So where did the soil go? The answer is it was never there, because this is the remains of a timber structure.”

His particular specialism in post holes – quite literally the holes timber posts were sunk in – and the discovery of what he says are many examples of them on Roman archaeological sites, such as The Buddle, in Wallsend, Shields Road in Byker and a 2km stretch running through Throckley (discovered during Northumbrian Water excavations), has convinced him he is on the right track.

“These small pits, these holes, continue for miles,” he said, “and at one point, when the route of the vallum turns, the post holes do too. They turn together.”

The holes were all dug to roughly the same depth and in pairs, in a very regular, symmetrical pattern. This was not the assymetrical pattern you would expect to see if they were the result of planting spiky wooden posts as an additional line of defence, the current accepted theory.

That, in itself, was the conflation of two ideas, said Geoff.

Caesar’s own account of the war in Gaul in 50BC was a written description of how the Romans fought. At different points he described the building of trenches which were then filled with branches, ultimately creating an obstacle for the enemy, and the sinking of spikes into a spread of small holes the enemy would step into.

No, the holes in the Hadrian’s Wall corridor had been dug for the planting of pairs of construction posts that collectively were the basic framework for the original timber wall.

He said: “My idea is not of a fence-style construction, but rather an interlacing stack of horizontal and cross-over diagonal posts that braced the structure.

“I’ve modelled it on CAD (computer aided design). It’s a very strong design and very credible, not least because it provides quite a wide fighting platform on the top.”

An illustration on Trajan’s Column, the triumphal column in Rome with a bas-relief that commemorates the emperor Trajan’s victory in the Dacian Wars, gave his theory added credence. Three or four of the carvings depicted structures constructed in just that manner.

In addition, Caesar’s account contained more than 40 references to the wooden ramparts Roman soldiers routinely built in battle.

Turf, on the other hand, was mentioned just three times, and then only in the context of building a siege mound and blocking up a gate.

However, Geoff has a long way to go to convince the sceptics/his critics.

The paper he wrote, ostensibly as his PhD thesis, has been rejected.

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