Hadrian’s Wall with Bricks to the Past


A couple of weeks ago we went to the Great Western Brick Show (which used to be the Great Western Lego Show, until one party or the other decided not to license the Lego trademark). This takes place annually at Steam, the railway museum in Swindon, and is just one of a growing number of large events run by AFOLs (Adult Fans Of Lego). It’s full of impressive models, but this year’s triumph was a huge diorama of a section of Hadian’s Wall.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It was built by Bricks to the Past, a collective of Lego-builders with a particular interest in history. Their inspiration comes from University of Newcastle’s FutureLearn course Hadrian’s Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier. I’ll have to try to persuade them to enroll on Southampton’s Portus course next time it runs, though they are probably looking for a non-Roman project next year.


The massive model depicted aspects of life on both sides of the wall, with a Pictish village and Iron Age barrow by Simon Pickard,  on the “uncivilized” side, and a Roman Villa by Steve Snasdell on the other.


I had a brief chat with the builders at the show and they talked about some of the compromises they made with scale, particularly on James Pegrum’s fort, so they they could fit interesting features (for example Roman latrines) into the diorama.


They also included features for future minifigure archaeologists to find, around the perimeter, people could peek underground into charnal pits and burial sites.


They had no idea how many bricks they’d used in the model, but it looked like hundreds of thousands. Having struggled with the roof on my Portus Magazzini model I was particularly interested in their imaginative use of cylinder and hinge bricks (among others) to create a variety of roof styles.


Apart from the diorama, the group also made other Roman archeology inspired models, such as a centurion, a Romulus and Remus plaque and a fragment of tiled flooring.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

All in all, it was an inspiring piece of Lego visualization.



OK, just one more post about Lego #buildyourownportus

I can’t stop fiddling. I spent most of today back on LDD recreating the Grandi Magazzini components, to take account of the lessons I learned with the actual Lego model. I also changed the Gothic arch on the reverse, and added some roofing (omitting the ridge tiles, which are not available on Lego’s pick-a-brick service). Here’s a picture of what a few components look like, when put together to make part of the central range of the full building.


The scary thing is, now I’ve got a definitive version, using only bricks I can order from Lego, I can find out actually how much the whole thing might cost. Just the three roofed two story “units” in that picture would cost almost £90, plus postage. Based on those costs – the whole thing could be more than £1,250. Too rich for my blood.

The Magazzini Realised #buildyourownportus

Yesterday, I got the Lego bricks I’d ordered last week. So I set about building, to see if I’d got my LDD (Lego Digital Designer) design right. After I’d ordered them, I’d already spotted a few bricks I hadn’t put into the LLD model, and thus weren’t on my order list. But I was disappointed to that there were a a number of pieces – the corner tiles, the 1×4 bricks – that I’d entirely missed when I was ordering.

So I had to raid my boys collection – luckily he had plenty of the right sort of bricks, plus some others (tiles especially) that weren’t available from Lego’s brick order service. so what I’ve ended up with isn’t exactly the model I designed.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In the building of it, I discovered weaknesses in the construction – for example, the solid wall can be pushed down off the model too easily when fixing the upper story onto the ground floor. But of course, the advantage of work with your hands, building with bricks instead of of bits, is that structural improvements are somehow more immediately apparent. The concept of learning styles has been pretty effectively debunked over the last few years, but there does remain the idea that you can learn about different things in different ways. My hands could “see” the model better than my eyes looking at the computer model.

One thing I wanted to check that I’d found very difficult to measure was the height of the two units stacked on top of each other. The archaeological evidence suggests the brick walls of the building were 11 metres high (the roof of course was higher still). Using my rudimentary 1 stud = 1 metre scale, my model should stand 11 studs high. Measuring height is very difficult in LDD, because one standard brick is more than one stud high, and especially because the LLD environment does not come with a vertical scale. Comparing my model with other CAD models of the building, it looks shorter, more squat, less elegant than the CAD ones. However, I was please to see that, when measured with a twelve stud tile, my physical model is just about eleven studs high.


So I’m going to deconstruct the model and rebuild it, physically and in LDD, with the bricks beside my screen. My aim is to make it stronger, and use less bricks. I’m not sure we are going to be able to build an entire model during the Festival of Archaeology (especially at standard list prices), but I still want to build the most efficient, model I can.

Which I’m sure was the aim of the Roman builders of the Grandi Magazzini, nigh-on a couple of millennia ago.

The Magazzini Simplified #buildyourownportus

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Yesterday I returned to the Lego model of the Grandi Magazzini, that I was building in Lego Digital Designer last year. We’ve got an idea to do a day of modelling during the upcoming 25th Festival of Archaeology. Obviously, we’ll cover the “proper” modelling (CGI and 3D printing for example) as well as Lego, but I thought it would be fun to enable every visitor to the department to make at least one of the “warehouse units” and, over the course of the open day, build up more and more towards the complete Grandi Magazzini.

But to do that, I need to redesign my model. Not all the pieces I used in Lego Digital Designer are actually available. For example, my first model made extensive use of a “BRICK WITH BOW 1x6x2” arch, which isn’t currently available – but more on that later. I needed to redesign the model using only bricks (and colours) that are available on Lego’s pick-a-brick custom order service.

But not only that, I wanted to make it slightly easier to build physically – my previous model would not have allowed for building a single unit and then plugging it on to the main model, at least not without some deconstruction. I alos wanted to use fewer bricks. They are not cheap on the pick-a-brick service.

With those three aims, I set about remaking the model, sticking as much as possible to the dimensions of my previous attempt which, a little bit through judgement, but also with a lot of luck, just about managed to keep to the one stud per metre scale I’d decided upon.

I lost some of the detail in the bricks I couldn’t use, but the most missed brick was the BRICK WITH BOW 1x6x2, which was a lovely Romaneque arch. I had to replace it, in most places with two half-arches. In some places it actually worked better the arches of each floor’s colonnade are now closer to the 5.2 metre width that the evidence points to. The 1x6x2 brick restricted each opening to a width of just four metres. Inside though, the “vaulting” on the rearmost room looks distinctly “gothic”. I decided I could live with that, but the same thing happens on top floor of the rear external walls. Those half-arch bricks are relatively efficient, cost-wise, so I’ve retained them on that rear wall for the time being. But I fear their impact in multiplicity, across the exterior might give the wrong impression, it might make the building look like a monastery, more ecclesiastical than mercantile.

Its funny isn’t when visualizing something, how you have to be aware of the interpretations that people bring with them to the visualisation. If people had never seen gothic architecture, I might be happier to leave these arches as they are. But I have another idea involving a shallower arch, which while still not “Roman” in shape, may be less of a compromise. This solution will look more 19th century industrial, but perhaps that “industrial” interpretation is closer to what we think was the original use of the building.

Right now though, I’m leaving it as is. Its time to move away from the computer and the theory, and try to build what I’ve designed in real life. So I’ve ordered the required bricks from Lego (for £25 including postage) and when they arrive I’ll see how easy it is for my boy (our target market for this I’m sure) to put together.

A Lego Magazzini #buildyourownportus

My post a couple of weeks back on the Portus MOOC, and trying to model Building Five in Lego aroused some visits from my fellow students, a few comments in the MOOC itself, and at least one other attempt to use Lego Digital Designer to as an archeological tool.

It so encouraged Graeme Earl that he wrote about it on Southampton’s MOOCs blog He also provides a link there to some plans and drawings of the Grandi Magazzini Di Settimio Severo that he persuaded Grant Cox (he of the astounding computer models) and Christina Triantafillou to create.

The challenge is evident. Can we, the MOOC’s students, rise to it and build our own models of this enormous building?

One could of course, use the drawings themselves as building blocks, reproducing them to the correct scale, sticking multiple copies to card, and assembling them with glue.

Or, of course, I could turn to Lego again.

This is another huge building. Bigger even than building five. In videos from Week one and week three of the MOOC, Simon Keay strides down the remains of the corridor as though it’s a street. (EDIT: or am I confusing that with the Portico di Claudio?) So in the end I’ll resort to digital designer again. But first let me get a feel for the shape by getting my hands around some real bricks.

Looking at the plans, it’s apparent that many of the storerooms are the same structure, repeated again and again across each wing and two floors. There are other spaces, stairwells etc that don’t conform to the pattern. But to begin with, I’m looking for a modular design for the storerooms.

First of all I lay out a simple version of the design on a baseboard:


Here, I’ve made a very unscientific decision about scale. After my attempt at building five, I’m less interested in building it to minifigure scale. I’m not sure even LDD has enough virtual bricks (!) and anyway I don’t want to place them all. So instead I’m experimenting with the smallest scale possible, and here I’ve decided I can get away with one stud = one meter. Of course the plans show varied decimal fractions of a meter in the metrics, so I’m rounding up and down arbitrarily. Romans – if you find this blog through some sort or temporal anomaly – do not scale up my Lego measurements. You’ll be very disappointed.


Even without the correct scale, the act of modelling makes one think about how the spaces go together, and really interrogate the plans. The picture above shows one of the arches which looked out over the Claudian Basin and the sea beyond. Now though I’m wondering – is it open to the floor? Or does it have a sill? For the time being I’m leaving it open to the floor.



Then there are decisions to make that aren’t about an absence of information, but rather the limitations of the Lego System. The plans show domed interior ceilings, almost like vaulted pillars in medieval cellars, but with Lego I can only have arches. So should I put them across the room, or down its length, because as the images above show, it could work both ways. In the end I decide to put them across the room, and fake the vaulting with some inverse roof tiles. Like so:


“Minifigure scale” is well known among adult fans of Lego, but there is a smaller scale, based on the pieces used in some of Lego’s board games such as Heroica. Sadly these “microfigures” are still too big to populate my building, so I resort to a minifigure film star’s Oscar statuette to give the building a sense of scale. Talking of which, I know the width of this interior doorway but the plans don’t show the height:


Finally, I want to get rid of the baseboard. Having got this far in plastic, and got an idea of the size of pieces I need, I’ll be moving onto virtual bricks. Then I’ll need to create repeatable module that clicks together, so I’m better off creating a “baseboard” that goes on top of the structure.



That’s enough for tonight. Next time, the virtual model.