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Climate change could be erasing our past at a key Hadrian’s Wall site


New evidence has been found for an ancient lake near a Roman fort which may be under threat from desiccation and climate change.

A special team of archaeologists, geoarchaeologists and scientists from Teesside University and Newcastle University have been working with the Vindolanda Trust and Historic England to examine how historic land management and future climate change may be damaging the sensitive archaeological deposits of the World Heritage Site of Hadrian's Wall at the fort of Magna.

Situated near the village of Greenhead in Northumberland and owned and administered by the Vindolanda Trust, Magna was the ancient home of two of the most exotic Roman regiments to have served in Roman Britain, the Syrian Archers and Dalmatian Mountain soldiers.

For several years the land around the north side of fort, which was historically covered by a marsh, has been rapidly drying, damaging the covering of peat and organic soils that have formed above the ancient Roman landscape. Further erosion by bouts of torrential rain following on from periods of drought have compounded this problem, washing away topsoil and vegetation, and exposing the ancient and precious organic Roman layers to natures elements and ultimately putting them at risk.

While placing bore holes and monitoring equipment into the ground, two new discoveries were made.

Between the fort and Hadrian's Wall the remains of an ancient lake or lough under the marsh were discovered. This lake, now completely hidden, has preserved organic material, wood, ferns and remains from Roman times and it may be the key in answering questions about where the ancient community sourced its water and what sort of landscape they lived in.

In addition, to the South of the fort, they came across sensationally preserved material, wood and animal bones, set within 5 metres of anaerobic material. These are the same oxygen free conditions which have seen some of the finest discoveries at Roman Vindolanda, including the Vindolanda writing tablets. The fort of Magna, unlike Vindolanda, has never been subjected to a sustained research excavation and the pioneering work being undertaken is the first to offer a good profile of its preservation landscapes. It is also hoped that the ongoing data collection from Magna will help to inform the wider research and preservation strategies being developed for the whole of the monument.

Dr Andrew Birley, the Director of the Vindolanda Trust said: "We knew that Magna had the potential to be a remarkable archaeological time capsule, and that the landscape was changing, but the geoarchaeological survey work has proved beyond doubt that Magna has some of, if not, the richest environmental deposits thus far identified from the World Heritage Site. The continuing monitoring a Magna will provide the data we need to understand the extent to which climate change, heavy rainfall, heatwaves and drought events, are having an impact on this precious resource."

Dr Gillian Taylor, From Teesside University's School of Health & Life Sciences, is the lead scientist for the research.

She said: "The impact of climate change upon archaeological sites requires urgent attention to prevent the loss and destruction of our World Heritage Sites. Understanding the impact of current climatic conditions upon sites, especially at the molecular level is challenging, but important to ensure development of management strategies to mitigate environmental challenges of the future."

This vital work was made possible by a fundraising campaign ran by the Vindolanda Trust in 2020. It is hoped that this work will be the first major step in helping to develop a comprehensive research strategy for Roman Magna.

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