Archaeologists at Hadrian’s Wall in northern England say global warming could soon ruin undiscovered Roman artefacts.
Nineteen hundred years after it was built to repel the barbarian hordes, archaeologists at Hadrian’s Wall are facing a new enemy: climate change. It threatens a vast treasure trove of ancient artifacts.
The 118 kilometer stone wall is one of Britain’s best-known historic tourist attractions. It crosses England from the west coast to the east coast, marking the boundary of the Roman Empire and forming the largest Roman archaeological feature in Britain. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Construction began in 122 AD during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. The Roman soldiers who lived there left behind the fascinating detritus of daily life that today allows archaeologists to reconstruct their way of life in the windswept north of the empire.
Over the past 50 years, the dramatic landscape around the wall has revealed stone and wooden structures, leather shoes and clothing, tools, weapons and even handwritten wooden tablets, fueling knowledge of life in Roman Britain.
But the artifacts already discovered would represent only one percent of the actual treasure that lies below.
Global warming is drying out the soil
About 33 miles west of modern Newcastle, at Vindolanda Fort, one of 14 forts along the wall, 5,500 leather goods have been found so far.
Thanks to the black, peaty soil, many artifacts have retained a fascinating level of detail.
“They are fantastic because they have completely changed our perception of the Roman Empire, the Roman army, they have changed it from a male reserve to a lot of women and children running around,” said the Director of Excavations and Managing Director of the Vindolanda Trust Andrew Birley.
Archaeologists believe the majority of the artifacts are still hidden under the ruins.
“Less than one percent of Hadrian’s Wall has been archaeologically explored and a lot of that landscape is protected in this wet peat environment and it’s a landscape that is really under threat,” says Birley.
As our climate warms, the soil heats up faster than the air temperature, which dries out the soil. It then cracks open, allowing oxygen to ruin the treasures below.
“When that oxygen gets in there, things that are really delicate, that are made of leather, textiles, wooden objects, crack, decay and are lost forever,” says Birley.
Now, instead of defending Roman Britain from unconquered Caledonia to the north, the race is on between archaeologists and climate change.
Watch the video above to learn more about what’s at stake.