Excavating the CA Archive: Hadrian’s Wall

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Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

Some of the CA issues mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, starting 5 April. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual issues, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI326, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.

Joe Flatman is Head of Listing Programmes at Historic England and the former County Archaeologist of Surrey. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman

Hadrian’s Wall has a special place in British archaeology and especially so in the history of Current Archaeology, being a place that the founders of CA knew and loved before they launched the magazine and to which they have returned repeatedly over the years. Indeed, it was when Andrew Selkirk toured the frontier on the Hadrian’s Wall ‘pilgrimage’ in 2009 that he met the present-day editor of CA, Matthew Symonds, who was acting as one of the guides. Given this overlap, it is a special pleasure that this month’s excavation of the CA archive charts the magazine’s forays to Hadrian’s Wall over the years.

The best place to start an exploration of the reports on Hadrian’s Wall comes from one of Andrew’s blogs, which periodically appear on the CA website. As he writes, ‘the Hadrian’s Wall pilgrimage is one of the great events of British archaeology. It began in 1849 when a group of young men decided they would “walk the Wall” and it has continued every ten years since then except for the war years: this is now the 13th pilgrimage. For me it is my fourth. I did the first in 1969, I missed out the 1979, but I did the 1989 and the 1999, all recorded in Current Archaeology’. While the decennial pilgrimages are not the only times CA reports on the Wall, the dedicated issues devoted to them provide a handy framework on which to build an appreciation of how exploration and understanding of the Roman frontier has evolved over the years.

The first pilgrimage report arrived in CA 15 (July 1969): this was the 9th pilgrimage, Andrew Selkirk’s first, and the whole edition is dedicated to reporting on work at or near the Wall, including at Corbridge, Carrawburgh, Housesteads, and Vindolanda (then still known as ‘Chesterholm’). CA 15 also mentions a name later to become synonymous with the Wall: David J Breeze. As CA notes: ‘the Durham University Excavation Committee, with the ready consent of Mr Richard Du Cane, the owner, decided to excavate in the fort [at Carrawburgh], and appointed Mr David Breeze, a recent Durham graduate, to be in charge of the work’. We will be hearing more from this promising newcomer shortly…

Before the remarkable collection of inscriptions discovered at Maryport fort was rehoused in the splendid Senhouse Museum, they were stored nearby on land belonging to the descendants of the original finders.


As CA missed the 10th pilgrimage in the summer of 1979, the next major report came in CA 116 (August 1989), which covered the 11th pilgrimage. By that time, the Wall was a very different place. The longstanding historiographical approach to disentangling the development of the frontier had been mortally wounded by David Breeze and Brian Dobson’s celebrated Hadrian’s Wall. It could not have been more appropriate, therefore, that David Breeze himself provided an overview of the current situation along the frontier. CA also explored one of the most astonishing of all discoveries along the Wall: the Vindolanda writing tablets. The first one was unearthed in 1973, and by 1989 over 1,000 had been recovered. These tablets were mostly written by soldiers serving in the fort and they provide a potent impression of life on the edge of the Roman world. This edition of CA is also notable for the appearance of another name familiar to anyone interested in Hadrian’s Wall: Tony Wilmott. Back then he was leading the trailblazing English Heritage excavations at Birdoswald, but this was only one of the enviable list of sites along the Wall to receive his attention. The most recent of them was Maryport, alongside Newcastle University’s Ian Haynes (see CA 259 and CA 289).

A section cut across the Wall ditch, Turf Wall, and Vallum near Birdoswald fort is inspected by the Pilgrims in 1999.

Hadrian’s Wall also cropped up in CA 153 (July 1997), when the magazine celebrated its 30th birthday and the Selkirks took the opportunity to feature some suitably stunning sites. Among them was Vindolanda, where an additional cache of writing tablets had recently been discovered, adding some 300 to the 1,300 or so already known. The article also provided an opportunity to examine the fruitful relationship between the Birley family and the site – which is still going strong – and to celebrate another achievement, that of Robin Birley being awarded an OBE in the January 1997 New Year’s Honours list. Two years later, CA was back on the Wall, this time in CA 164 (August 1999), celebrating the 12th pilgrimage with visits to, among other sites, Wallsend, Birdoswald, Carlisle, and South Shields.

Further coverage of frontier sites followed thick and fast in the early 2000s: CA 200 (November/December 2005) included detailed reports on Arbeia (South Shields) and Segedunum (Wallsend) forts; while CA 206 (November/ December 2006) used a new geophysical survey from Birdoswald showing extensive settlement beyond the fort rampart as a vehicle to delve into military–civilian relations on the border. Although it had long been appreciated that buildings had grown up outside the military bases, the extent of the built-up area traced by the surveys revealed that the forts were only the most visible tip of the settlement iceberg. It was a powerful demonstration of the multigenerational impact of the Wall on local communities. CA 220 (July 2008), meanwhile, coincided with a major exhibition on the Emperor Hadrian at the British Museum, and saw David Breeze invited to reconsider the Wall 30 years after the first publication of his and Brian Dobson’s revolutionary history of the Wall. CA 236 (November 2009) had Andrew Selkirk reporting back from the 13th pilgrimage, which was swiftly followed with a full-length special on walking Hadrian’s Wall in CA 240 (March 2010).

Andrew and his daughter Fiona in the unfinished stretch of the Wall ditch at Limestone Corner in 1970s.

What of the Wall more recently? CA 259 (October 2011) and CA 289 (April 2014) provided new perspectives on familiar sites such as Maryport and South Shields, but recent years have also brought broader perspectives. CA 277 (April 2013) is crucial in this regard, reporting on how development control archaeology has rewritten our understanding of the upheaval the new border visited on the indigenous groups living in its shadow. In particular, the taxation or disruption of cross-border travel seems to have taken a heavy toll (pun intended) on established local communities. CA’s own Matt Symonds followed this up in CA 293 (August 2014) with his exploration of the impact of the wider landscape on the border, both to the north and south. Meanwhile, the Wall’s protrusion into the realms of national narratives, culture, and even Game of Thrones offered a new angle on its legacy for Richard Hingley in CA 274 and Rob Collins and Stacy Gillis in CA 321. For the most recent assessment of the current state of play, you need look no further than this very issue. To conclude: I’m hoping to see you all in the summer of 2019 on the next (14th) ‘pilgrimage’ – after all, you never know who you might end up walking alongside and where that path could lead! It will be my first pilgrimage (and my daughter’s too she’ll be aged seven, so the ideal age to take her along), but it is in my diary already.

All images: A Selkirk

Discover old issues
Read a selection of issues discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the links to the individual articles in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. The articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 5 April.  Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI326’.

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