The Roman Wall

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Let us give a great welcome to the archaeological publishing event of the year: the 14th edition of J Collingwood Bruce’s Handbook to the Roman Wall.

This is one of the great glories of British archaeology, originally published in 1863 by J Collingwood Bruce to accompany the decennial pilgrimage of Hadrian’s Wall. It has gone through successive editions, revised by a succession of distinguished archaeologists including R G Collingwood and Ian Richmond. The 13th edition by Charles Daniels was published in 1978; who would take on the awesome task of carrying it forward? The answer was, I suppose, obvious: it just had to be David Breeze, who despite being the chief archaeologist of Historic Scotland is still our foremost authority on Hadrian’s Wall. He has done a magnificent job in updating it, while at the same time retaining the period charm and many of the old illustrations that have come from so many distinguished archaeologists. It remains, as it has been for a century and a half, the essential book for walking Hadrian’s Wall. It is published by the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne and is available for £18 from Oxbow.


I fear that discussion will focus on the mundane matter of its size. It is now over 500 pages long, and is bound in a very substantial binding, and will scarcely fit in the back pocket of even the stoutest behind (The oldest edition I possess, the 11th, is a mere 248 pages). What is to be done? One suggestion is that they should issue it in a paperback form, and that everyone should then buy two copies, one of which should be preserved while the other should be cut up into daily walking chunks (am I the only archaeologist who cuts up guide books into suitable chunks? It always feels a terrible sacrilege to cut up a book, but I note that the Rough Guides now appear to leave an extra page at the end of each chapter to enable their books to be cut up conveniently.) The other suggestion, I fear, is that the opening two chapters which provide a general account of the wall should be omitted or published separately. Yes, another sacrilege I know, they have always been there, but they occupy over 114 pages – Uncle Ian did it in 38 pages. My only other comment is one that will make matters even worse; but it would be nice if future editions could include just a little bit of information about the later history of the wall. What, for instance, is the date and history of the crenelated building that occupies the corner of Birdoswald fort and is now I think a visitor centre? But this would make it even longer! Still I urge you all to go out and buy two copies of this book, and take a knife to one of them when you next visit the Wall. It will make your walk so much more interesting and productive.


This opinion comes from CA issue 207

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