Press Centre

Secrets From The Sky

  • Episode: 

    6 of 6

  • Title: 

    Antonine Wall
  • Transmission (TX): 

    Fri 21 Nov 2014
  • TX Confirmed: 

  • Time: 

    8.00pm - 8.30pm
  • Week: 

    Week 47 2014 : Sat 15 Nov - Fri 21 Nov
  • Channel: 

  • Status: 

    Last in series
The information contained herein is strictly embargoed from all press, online and social media use, non-commercial publication, or syndication until Tuesday 11 November
Britain’s most historic landmarks and glorious landscapes are explored from a bird’s eye view in Secrets From The Sky. 
Using an octocopter, a remote controlled helicopter carrying a camera, historian Bettany Hughes and aerial archaeologist Ben Robinson look down on sites of great historical interest to gain a fresh perspective and uncover the secrets of our ancestors. 
Britain’s landscape is dotted with historical monuments including Tintagel Castle, Stonehenge, Maiden Castle, Sutton Hoo, The Antonine Wall and Old Sarum.  This series investigates these monuments, showing Britain’s stunning landscapes through fantastic aerial views and revealing a new insight into our nation’s story. By looking down on these sites from above, the clues on the ground can be linked together to uncover the full story locked in the landscape. 
For the final episode in the series, we explore the relatively unknown yet monumental Antonine Wall in Scotland. 
When the Romans invaded Britain in the middle of the 1st century AD, their military pushed relentlessly north, conquering as they went before coming to a standstill at the edge of Scotlan. It is widely known that when Hadrian built his great wall and it was the most northern frontier in the whole Roman Empire. Except its not entirely the case because the Romans didn’t stop their advance. In fact, they occupied the Southern half of what is now Scotland. 
In 142 AD, the Romans began building a new wall, a hundred miles north of Hadrian’s Wall, between Glasgow and Edinburgh, named the Antonine Wall after the new emperor Antoninus Pius. The Antonine Wall was a coast-to-coast border at the most northerly outpost of the whole Roman Empire and yet it seems to be Roman Britain’s great hidden secret.   
Ben considers the site of the wall: “It has that ruthless quality.  I mean it’s just straight across the countryside, ploughing through everything.  And there’s this air of thought about it’s design, this is classic roman engineering.”
What’s most mystifying about the Antonine Wall is that within two decades of being built, it was quietly abandoned and left to crumble. With the help of aerial archaeologist Rebecca Jones, Ben uses the octocopter to view the incredible structure from the sky, to look for clues as to why. 
Two thousand years of erosion have taken their toll on the three metre high turf wall, but as Ben & Rebecca move further east to a site known as Rough Castle, the aerial camera clearly shows that what remains is much more than just a big ditch. 
They discover some defensive pits to the north which are the excavated remains of a vicious Roman booby-trap known as Lillia. Originally, the 40cm deep pits would have been covered in bracken, with spikes inside, creating a nasty surprise for anyone attacking the wall. The pits are just the first of intimidating defences on the ‘enemy’ side of the Antonine wall as archaeologists have discovered that the Romans used every trick in the book to stop an invading force reaching the wall, including a 16ft deep ditch and hawthorn branches, the equivalent of Roman barbed wire. 
It must have taken thousands of soldiers to dig the ditch, build the wall and lay the traps that spanned the 40 miles from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde. But Hadrian already constructed a massive stone defence, so why bother with a new wall at all? 
Bettany heads to the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow to see a collection of inscribed stone slabs found along the length of the wall. The inscriptions suggest that the entire wall was a vanity project for the new Emperor, Antoninus Pius, a big message to the Roman people saying: ‘Look at me, I’m supremely powerful and I’ve expanded our empire’.  
Lawrence Keppie, University of Glasgow, explains: “Antoninus has just succeeded Hadrian who was a very successful emperor and successful militarily, but Antoninus has no military background or experience at all and I think he wanted to open his reign, inaugrate the new reign with a bit of foreign policy success which would be commemorated in Rome & of course on the new frontier line itself.”
The wall was a great feat of construction and yet lasted a mere 20 years, when it was abandoned as the army retreated 100 miles south to Hadrian’s Wall. Along the wall were forts and fortlets where thousands of soldiers would have been stationed. 
Ben says: “Looking down, you can see there, right next to the fort, partly under all those trees, is the annexe.  That’s where the soldiers could go to relax a bit, but still inside the safe surroundings of a nicely defended enclosure.  You’d get the accommodation in there, probably a temple and right at the heart of the annex would have been the bath house, a place for them to relax.”
These buildings were central to Roman Culture and remains have been excavated in fort annexes right along the length of the wall. One of the most spectacular is on the outskirts of Glasgow where under the remains was found a cesspit, and that most precious of relics, poo, the contents of which were analysed by the team headed up by archaeologist David Breeze. 
David says: “We didn’t realise it at first because we found the sewage from the latrine before we found the latrine, so we now know what the soldiers ate….We know they ate wheat, barley, but also other foods that come from abroad, so we have fig seeds, opium poppy, coriander, which is almost certainly coming from the continent.”  
A map of the wall drawn up in 1755 shows at least 17 forts plotted on the 40 miles of the wall. Which is a similar number to those on Hadrian’s Wall, despite that being double the length. So it seems to be a more densely defended wall than Hadrian’s. What’s more, recent digs by Glasgow University have found that some of these forts were built after the wall went up, suggesting that the Romans had to reinforce their new flagship frontier, having underestimated the wrath of the locals.
A collection of coins at the National Museum of Scotland implies that the wall was not an efficient means of enforcement, as the silver coins found near the wall are believed to be bribes. The Romans seemingly decided that paying the locals to keep them on side, rather than fighting them, was a much cheaper way of keeping Northern Britannia in check.
Having paid off the locals, in 162 AD the mammoth frontier was officially shut down and dismantled. The emperor who commissioned the wall had died and so there was no political embarrassment as the Romans retreated and the turf of the Antonine Wall was left to crumble and decay. Yet The Antonine Wall deserves to be remembered.  It is a world-class monument that was once the ultimate boundary to one of the greatest civilisations on earth.