Review – Hadrian’s Wall: a life

3 mins read
Richard Hingley
Oxford University Press, £36.99
ISBN 978-0198707028
Review Matthew Symonds

The name Hadrian’s Wall may conjure up expectations of an opportunity to immerse ourselves in the Roman past, but it is a sensation that sells the archaeological monument short. The very fact that so much of it remains well preserved today emphasises that the Wall did not simply vanish at the close of the Roman period. Although attempts have been made to strip away later activity and present Roman – usually specifically Hadrianic – ruins to modern visitors, traces of the Wall’s afterlife still endure: a 17th-century house protruding from Housesteads fort, and medieval shielings on Mons Fabricius. Such sparse survivals, though, do not reflect the rich legacy of Hadrian’s Wall. That is the story that Richard Hingley, Professor of Archaeology at Durham University, sets out to tell in a fascinating volume that leads us from the Roman period to the 21st century.

Successive generations have found ways to make the Wall their own. When the Christian writer Gildas penned a 6thcentury account of the Wall’s origin, he placed it in the post- Roman period, with southern Britons helped by returning Romans to raise the rampart. While fanciful from a historical perspective, Gildas cannily burnished the Wall’s Christian credentials by attributing it to the later – Christian – Roman empire. Equally, having the Romans and Britons labouring together on the project neatly established them in opposition to Picts and Scots. Little wonder, then, that the Wall went on to play a role in concepts of English nationhood.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the Wall seemingly contributed to local security long after the close of the Roman period. Excavations near Peel Crag revealed what appears to be a medieval tower built into the ruined Roman curtain. Pottery suggested a 14th-century origin, and it is possible that this modest fortification was part of a surveillance system designed to quell lawlessness in the restless border zone. By the mid-16th century a formal ‘night watch’ was in place. These men, like their fictional Game of Thrones brethren, were strung along portions of the ancient Wall. As Hingley observes, ‘the distinction between “fact” and “fiction” in the study of the Wall’s history is not always clear-cut’.  

This review appeared in CA 353.

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