Excavation of Milecastle 46 on Hadrian’s Wall reveals unexpected surprises. 

Press Release 25th October 2023

This seasons excavations at Milecastle 46 and its surroundings on Hadrian’s Wall revealed a host of surprises and some significant discoveries. The 5-year research project made possible with a £1.625m grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, commenced in July with the Vindolanda Trust’s archaeologists supported by volunteers from around the world. 

Site of Milecastle 46 on Hadrian's Wall
Visitors at the Milecastle 46 dig site.

Within weeks of the project starting a delicate and very rare beam from a dual balance was uncovered. This specialist type of weighing instrument combined elements of both an equal balance and a steelyard. Weights could either be placed in one of the hanging pans or hung at different points along the arm marked by the silver dot insets.  Rachel Frame, Senior Archaeologist at the Magna site noted “We now know that this is one of only twelve examples of a dual balance found in the UK and the first to be found on Hadrian’s Wall. It gives us a glimpse of daily life at the milecastle, with potentially high value items being weighed on such a delicate instrument”. 

Close up image of copper alloy dual balance beam showing silver dots.
Copper alloy dual balance

The rare beam was not the only surprise and as excavations progressed some unexpected features were uncovered. While the internal space of the milecastle proved to be lacking in buildings, it did have one substantial feature close to the East wall – a clay-lined well. Wells are always an exciting discovery because of the high potential for waterlogged or anaerobic preservation within but they’re not typically found within milecastles making this discovery even more interesting. The well had been intentionally backfilled once it was no longer in use and had been packed with a great deal of heavy stone rubble, including facing stones which probably came from the milecastle walls. This packing had allowed the lower deposits to remain waterlogged and semi-anaerobic, preserving organic material such as timber, leather and rope.  Rachel commented “we certainly did not anticipate any organic finds in year one of the project. The discovery of the well along with the deposits that it held will give us valuable information about the use of the milecastle”. 

There was an opportunity for excavation outside the milecastle and a series of very large irregular pits to the east of the milecastle wall were discovered. The similarities between them suggest that they were all probably for the same purpose and may all have been in use at the same time. Current interpretations are that they were most likely for industrial activities, such as quarrying or processing raw materials however there were very few clues as to their exact use found during the excavation. Rachel noted “These pits are a mystery, but it is hoped that detailed analysis of the environmental soil samples that have been taken will help shed some light on their function”.  

Aerial image of the MAGNA Excavations taken on 8th September 2023
Aerial image of the Milecastle 46 with well (centre) and pits.

It was however in the last few weeks of the excavation that the greatest surprise was uncovered.  Outside the milecastle walls was the discovery of a stone lined cist grave. The grave was nestled in the corner between the east wall of the milecastle and Hadrian’s Wall and contained the remains of a single individual who appears to have been wrapped in a shroud before burial. These details suggest the person was buried here deliberately and with care while the milecastle walls were still standing, most likely in the late Roman period. Rachel remarked: “Burials at Hadrian’s Wall itself are rare, with only a handful of other examples known from sites along the wall. The discovery of this person has the potential to give us significant information about life at this site in the late Roman period. The skeleton was fragmentary but crucially we have some of the teeth. They will enable us to find out more about this mystery individual, including information about their diet, lifestyle and origin.” 

Two female archaeologists excavating a human skeleton.
Archaeologists uncovering the skeleton
Excavated human skeleton
Human skeleton revealed

Helen Featherstone, Director, England, North at The National Lottery Heritage Fund, said: “It’s fantastic news that the excavations at Magna Roman Fort are uncovering such exciting heritage. We are thrilled that we are supporting the project with funding made possible thanks to National Lottery players, to conserve and save these fascinating stories that are being unearthed.” 

Research on the human remains, soil samples and artefacts uncovered during the dig will continue over the winter. The picture of life at Milecastle 46 and Magna Fort will continue to evolve before excavations at the site resume in April 2024.   A limited number of volunteer places are still available for the 2024 season and can be booked through the Roman Army Museum website.


Images ©The Vindolanda Trust 


Press contact: Sonya Galloway sonyagalloway@vindolanda.com 

Notes to Editors 

About the Vindolanda Charitable Trust  

The Vindolanda Charitable Trust (Charity No.1159798) is an independent archaeological 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. In July 2023 excavations at the ancient Roman Fort of Magna, located adjacent to the Roman Army Museum began. The five-year project supported The National Lottery Heritage Fund is the first modern excavation of the site. Volunteers from around the world have the opportunity to take part in the excavations. You can follow the progress of the Magna excavations in the Dig Diary.  

About The National Lottery Heritage Fund  

As the largest dedicated funder of the UK’s heritage, The National Lottery Heritage Fund’s vision is for heritage to be valued, cared for and sustained for everyone, now and in the future as set out in our strategic plan, Heritage 2033.  

Over the next ten years, we aim to invest £3.6billion raised for good causes by National Lottery players to bring about benefits for people, places and the natural environment.   

We help protect, transform and share the things from the past that people care about, from popular museums and historic places, our natural environment and fragile species, to the languages and cultural traditions that celebrate who we are.  

We are passionate about heritage and committed to driving innovation and collaboration to make a positive difference to people’s lives today, while leaving a lasting legacy for future generations to enjoy.   

Follow @HeritageFundUK on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and use #NationalLotteryHeritageFund  www.heritagefund.org.uk  

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