Review – Hadrian’s Wall: a study in archaeological exploration and interpretation

5 mins read
David J Breeze
Archaeopress, £19.99
ISBN 978-1789691672
Review Edward Biddulph

David Breeze’s new book on Hadrian’s Wall began as a series of lectures to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Even wonderful lectures do not always translate well to print, but there are no such fears with this volume, a (forgive the pun) breezy tour of the Wall and its study.

In the first chapter, which looks at the historiography of the Wall, we meet such luminaries as John Collingwood Bruce, who could be described as the father of modern Wall studies and whose enduring legacy, his Handbook to the Roman Wall, is now in its 14th edition. Then there is John Hodgson, the scholar who correctly identified the Wall as Hadrian’s, even if others took some convincing. Another notable figure is John Clayton, who excavated Chesters fort and other sites, and later bought long stretches of the Wall and preserved them for posterity. As David Breeze observes, such figures advanced knowledge about the Wall, but also effectively stifled further research: judgements on it were passed and that was the end of it. Public disagreement on Wall lore became possible only after the death of Collingwood. Though all no doubt worthy, scholars were, for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, to evoke modern parlance, male and pale, if not a little stale. The first woman mentioned in connection with Wall interpretation is Mrs Hodgson (we are not told her first name) on p.42.

Despite the pronouncements of past scholars, problems of the Wall that had slumbered were awakening, and questions of, among others, chronology, construction sequence, and function occupied archaeologists throughout the 20th century and beyond. Breeze takes a judicious view of the evidence and competing theories to present a clear and concise narrative of the monument.

In what has been termed Plan A, the Wall comprised in the beginning a linear barrier, along which were strung milecastles and turrets. In front of the Wall, to the north, was a ditch. Before too long, though, the plan had changed. In Plan B, some of the forts to the south of the frontier were abandoned and replaced by new forts on the Wall. A big ditch, the Vallum (a misnomer) was dug behind it, and it was also narrowed. As to its purpose, Breeze persuasively argues that, far from keeping ‘barbarians’ to the north out, the Wall was built for frontier control. It was also a grand statement, a barrier that physically defined the limits of the empire and was worthy of a great emperor. Debate goes on, however. There remains, for example, disagreement about whether soldiers patrolled its top. (For the record, I am with Breeze on this one: no wall-walk.)

After an interlude while the army moved north and established another wall, Hadrian’s Wall was reoccupied in the late 2nd century AD. But it was not exactly business as usual. Turrets were removed, outpost forts were established, and mobile army units arrived. This was Plan C. There was further change – Plan D – in the late 3rd or 4th century, when the Wall was run down and maintained by little more than a token force. David Breeze turns to the people in another chapter, looking at the evidence within the wider frontier zone, the extramural settlements, and the forts themselves to discover a dynamic relationship between soldier and civilian. Here material culture has been key. Citing work by Lindsay Allason-Jones, Breeze suggests that the number of women who lived inside Vindolanda fort increased in the late Roman period.

The final chapter looks at issues relating to the Wall today, focusing particularly on conservation to combat a modern threat: the destructive power of human feet belonging to the mass of tourists who visit the monument each year.

This is a superbly written book that tells a story as exciting as any work of fiction. One name is conspicuously absent from the list of the eminent Wall scholars mentioned though – that of the author himself.

This review appeared in CA 353.

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