Research History

The site of Birdoswald on Hadrian’s Wall has been central to the study of this and other Roman frontiers. Its position with relation to the changes in the initial plan for the frontier, including the relationship between the Wall and the Vallum, the succession of the Turf and Stone Walls, and the idea of the fort decision, has been key to understanding of the phasing of the entire frontier. In 1929, famously, the first stratigraphic, scientific excavation on a fort building took place, resulting in the consolidation of the four-period system which was the basis of Wall studies until the mid-1970s. These works led Prof. Eric Birley to state that:

‘Birdoswald is a site of exceptional interest; in the record of Wall-research it is even more important than Greatchesters or Housesteads or Chesters’ (Birley 1961, 203).

Large scale excavations took place in 1987-1992, then in 1996, and 1997-2000, all under the direction of Tony Wilmott of HE, co-director for this project, and all fully published (Wilmott 1997, Wilmott et al 2009).

20th and 21st century excavations on the fort site

The four- period system had already been undermined, but these excavations showed that it did not work fully even on the site where it was proposed. The most important result of this work was, for the first time, to show that forts on the Wall were not simply deserted in the late 4th century, but that occupation continued in a different form (Wilmott 1997).

These works mean that the detailed phasing of the fort and the broader phasing of Hadrian’s Wall as a whole are better understood through modern excavation and analytical techniques at Birdoswald than any other fort on Hadrian’s Wall.

In 1999 the then owners of the Birdoswald site, Cumbria County Council invited the Channel 4 Time Team programme to undertake evaluation of the Roman cemetery, which was threatened by erosion, and also to undertake limited evaluation on the extramural settlement, the extent of which had recently been demonstrated through extensive geophysical survey by Timescape Archaeological Surveys (Biggins and Taylor, 1999, 2004). These works were published in 2009 (Wilmott et al 2009).

Also in 2009, the acceleration of the erosion threat on the cemetery prompted an archaeological project to mitigate the damage by totally excavating the area of the cemetery under short- and medium- term threat.  This was conducted with the involvement of Prof Ian Haynes and Newcastle University, who used the work as a training opportunity for students.  The cemetery excavations will be published in 2021 by Tony Wilmott.

Haynes’ (2013) study of the auxilia, the non-citizen units that occupied the majority of frontier forts, was heavily influenced discoveries at Birdoswald and his own experience at the site.

Newcastle University student excavating a ‘Bustum’ Grave during the 2009 cemetary excavations


Biggins, J A and Taylor, D J A 1999 ‘A survey of the Roman fort and settlement at Birdoswald, Cumbria’, Britannia, 30, 91-110

Biggins, J A and Taylor, D J A 2004 ‘Geophysical survey of the vicus at Birdoswald Roman fort, Cumbria’, Britannia, 35, 159-178

Birley, E B 1961 Research on Hadrian’s Wall (Titus Wilson: Kendal)

Haynes, I P 2013 Blood of the Provinces. The Roman auxilia and the making of provincial society from Augustus to the Severans, Oxford University Press

Wilmott, T 1997 Birdoswald: Excavation of a Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall and its successor settlements 1987-1992, English Heritage

Wilmott, T 2009 ‘Transection in Wall Mile 29 (Black Carts, Northumberland)’, in T Wilmott (ed) Hadrian’s Wall: English Heritage Research 1976 – 2000, English Heritage Archaeological Report, 79-102

Wilmott, T, Cool, H and Evans, J 2009 ‘Excavations at the Hadrian’s Wall fort of Birdoswald (Banna), Cumbria: 1996-2000’, in T Wilmott (ed) Hadrian’s Wall: English Heritage Research 1976 – 2000, English Heritage Archaeological Report