The Antonine Wall

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Congratulations to David Breeze on having the nomination of the Antonine Wall accepted by UNESCO as a valid application for World Heritage Site status.

It has been a long process, for the World Heritage procedure is very complicated. Two years ago Historic Scotland asked him to move from his position as Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments to concentrate on the World Heritage bid, and on 25th January 2007, the UK government put in its formal nomination to UNESCO. It will now be evaluated and if successful, will go to the World Heritage Committee meeting in July 2008.

The Antonine Wall is in fact only part, though a crucial part, of a vision to have the whole of the boundaries of the Roman Empire accepted as a World Heritage Site. The first Roman frontier to be placed on the list was Hadrian’s Wall, which was accepted in 1987. In fact, not all Hadrian’s Wall is included in the World Heritage Site. Only the scheduled parts are included, which means that as much as one-sixth of the Wall is not in. Then in 2005 the German Limes, the defensive structure that ran some 300 miles between the Rhine and the Danube only to be abandoned in the AD 270s, was inscribed. At the same time, a new concept of a transnational WHS was introduced, called the Frontiers of the Roman Empire WHS, with Hadrian’s Wall as part 1, and the German Limes as part 2. Other parts are to be added in due course, and already Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and Croatia have expressed their intention to put forward their sections of the Frontier. The third wall to be proposed for inclusion is the Antonine Wall, and David Breeze and his fellow enthusiasts along the frontiers of the Roman Empire hope that eventually the entire Roman frontier — all 3,000 miles of it — will become one big World Heritage Site.

The Antonine Wall is not so well known as its southern neighbour and, as it was built in turf, does not possess the spectacular stretches of stone wall which give Hadrian’s Wall its unique quality. And, as it runs through central Scotland, its remains have often been damaged by the towns along its line. As a result, one-third of its length is obscured by modern developments; the remaining two-thirds are scheduled. Nevertheless, in a new initiative, the whole of the Wall line has been proposed for inclusion within the World Heritage Site, as UK legislation will allow the protection of belowground archaeology in urban as well as rural environments. The Site has been defined as a corridor 50m wide to include the rampart, ditch and Military Way, this corridor to be widened to include forts and fortlets, for 37 miles from Bo’ness on the Firth of Forth to Old Kilpatrick on the river Clyde.

The Antonine Wall was 37 miles long and is still visible in some form for 14 miles of this length. Nearly five miles of the Wall are in state care (a similar length as on Hadrian’s Wall) and all or parts of five forts (compared to four on Hadrian’s Wall). Other sections are owned by the five local authorities along the frontier, so that a total of 10 miles — over a quarter of its entire length — are in the ownership or care of either central or local government.

Today’s tourist can visit all of the 10 miles of the Wall in public care and plans are in preparation to improve the presentation and interpretation of the Wall. These plans include a new display of the internationally important distance slabs in GlasgowUniversity’s HunterianMuseum, where an Antonine Wall Interpretation Centre will be created by the university. Once, as we hope, the WHS application goes through, the way should be open for what could be a most magnificent achievement, that of making the entire boundaries of the Roman Empire into a World Heritage Site.

This opinion comes from CA issue 210

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