PRESS RELEASE 2nd September 2021

Is climate change starting to erase our past at a key Hadrian’s Wall site?

Geoarchaeologists have found new evidence 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 two of the north’s leading Universities (Newcastle and Teesside Universities) working with the Vindolanda Trust and in consultation with Historic England have been undertaking vital work to understand 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 the archaeologists made two astonishing discoveries. 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.

If this was not remarkable enough the geoarchaeologists were even more stunned when they dug a bore hole to the south of the fort. Here 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 here 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 at 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), the lead scientist for the research 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 launched 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. 

The preliminary bore hole investigation report is available to download here.

Press enquiries please contact: 

Sonya Galloway, Communications Manager, The Vindolanda Trust 

[email protected] 

About the Vindolanda Trust 

The Vindolanda Trust is an independent archaeological charitable trust, founded in 1970. The Vindolanda Trust does not receive any annual funding and relies on the visitors to both Roman Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum to fund its archaeological, conservation and education work.  The Trust encourages people of all ages and abilities to enrich their present and future by learning from the past. The passion at the Trust is to preserve and share the gift of history. The sites are not conceived as tourist attractions, they are places people can come and actively participate in historical and archaeological research.