History of Benwell Vallum Crossing

Nothing is now visible of the fort at Benwell (Condercum) in Newcastle, which was occupied throughout most of the Roman period by the Asturian cavalry regiment from northern Spain. To the south of the fort site, however, is the only causeway (or permanent crossing) of the Vallum earthwork to be seen on the line of Hadrian’s Wall. The crossing was one of a series of such causeways sited south of the forts, which were the only points where the earthwork known as the Vallum could be crossed to gain access to the zone immediately behind the Wall.

Benwell Vallum causeway reconstruction illustration showing stone built archway and wooden gate
A reconstruction drawing of the gate halfway across the Vallum causeway, which controlled access to the military zone between the Vallum and Hadrian’s Wall. The arch may have been more elaborately decorated than is shown here © Historic England (illustration by Frank Gardiner)

The Vallum

The Vallum was an addition to the original scheme for Hadrian’s Wall, building of which began in about AD 122. Built a short distance behind the Wall, this great earthwork, consisting of a ditch and two banks, ran its full length, except between Newcastle and Wallsend. It probably defined the rear of the military zone.

The Causeway at Benwell

The Vallum causeway at Benwell is at the centre point of a southward deviation of the earthwork around the pre-existing fort. It interrupted the Vallum ditch at a point directly in line with the south gate of the fort (the porta decumana), 55 metres distant from it.

Halfway across the causeway was a gate, which took the form of a free-standing arch supported on massive uprights. This controlled access from the south into the fort and into the zone between the Vallum and the Wall.

Black and white photo of the Vallum crossing, taken in 1934, showing the cornice block reused as a pivot-hole
A photograph of the Vallum crossing, taken during excavation in 1934, showing at the centre the cornice block reused as a pivot-hole for one of the leaves of the gate that controlled the crossing. The block was probably from the gateway itself. (From Archaeologia Aeliana, 4th series, 11, 1934)

Later History

Three layers of road metalling were found on the causeway; the uppermost contained a coin of the AD 270s as well as earlier issues.[1] This latest surface was associated with a block containing a pivot-hole for the spindle of one of the gate leaves (the block has been removed to expose the original pivot-hole). The block had a concave moulding and had been taken from a finely carved cornice, probably from the entablature (the horizontal mouldings above the gateway) of the gate arch.

The reuse of this block shows that the arch, though partly ruinous, was still equipped with wooden gate-leaves in the later 3rd century.

The Vallum ditch on either side of the causeway had been filled by the late 2nd century, and was then covered by buildings of the civilian settlement.[2] Why the gate arch remained is uncertain. Perhaps the line of the abandoned Vallum, still visible in the landscape, continued to represent a boundary between different jurisdictions, and the gate arch marked its course through the civilian settlement.

About the Author

Paul Bidwell is Head of TWM Archaeology, a section of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums. He has published extensively on Hadrian’s Wall, Roman south-west England, Roman architecture and Roman ceramics. 


1. E Birley, P Brewis and J Charlton, ‘Report for 1933 of the North of England Excavation Committee’, Archaeologia Aeliana, 4th series, 11 (1934), 183.
2. The results of the excavations of 1937–8 are summarised in P Salway, The Frontier People of Roman Britain (Cambridge, 1967), 71–3.

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