Review – Borderline funny

4 mins read
Among the many Hadrian’s Wall-inspired cartoons in the exhibition are postcards created by Peter Philip for Vindolanda. (IMAGE: Vindolanda Trust/Peter Philip)
As an immediately recognisable monument, Hadrian’s Wall has long proved a rich seam of inspiration for cartoonists. Lucia Marchini visited a new exhibition exploring how the frontier can be funny.

Segedunum at Wallsend, Tyne and Wear, is the most extensively excavated Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall. Notably, excavations at the site (whose name is thought to mean either ‘strong’ or ‘victory’ fort) have revealed details that helped settle the matter of cavalry housing arrangements – particularly, where horses were kept. In the cavalry barrack blocks, rooms were found to have large latrine pits (which would have been covered) indicating that this row is where the horses resided, while the men and their kit occupied the rooms immediately behind.

The set-up of these barracks is recreated inside the Roman gallery of Segedunum’s on-site museum, housed in the former premises of a shipbuilding firm and now boasting a 35m-high tower, which offers a lofty vantage point over the fort and the Tyne. With displays featuring cavalry equipment and a range of other finds, the museum explores life at the fort, covering food and drink, medicine, and beliefs. The exhibits look beyond military duty to offer a snapshot of what Romans got up to in their moments of leisure, in both the fort and the surrounding settlement, with a gaming board, counters, and dice on view.

In 2014, a community archaeology project, WallQuest, uncovered the remains of a vital hygiene and leisure facility, the bathhouse, just 120m south of the fort. This was built in the AD 120s and has a layout that is similar to other bathhouses at forts along Hadrian’s Wall, but is otherwise unusual in Roman military contexts. The different rooms are arranged in a ring so that the bather could circulate without retracing their steps, and this floorplan seems to have been specially designed for use along the Wall.

The bathhouse uncovered by WallQuest volunteers to the south of Segedunum in 2014. (PHOTO: L Marchini)

The bathhouse, which was probably abandoned in the late 3rd century, had been identified by historian John Hodgson in the 19th century, but its location was then lost until the recent WallQuest project. An inscription unearthed within the fort in 1998 recorded the rebuilding of the baths, and so offered a hint of its presence nearby. Indeed, the excavated bathhouse, close to the Tyne, had been rebuilt to a more compact plan, with two apses on the side where the original caldarium (hot room) once stood, before it had broken away, slipping into the river.

Historic humour

As well as bathing and gaming, another pastime apparently enjoyed by Romans on the Wall was carving images into masonry. Two examples of graffiti depicting hunting scenes from Housesteads and Chesters are on show in Segedunum museum’s temporary exhibition Borderline Funny, which offers an unusual look at the famous frontier.

Curated by the Friends of Segedunum in celebration of the 14th Pilgrimage of Hadrian’s Wall (see CA 353), the exhibition brings together a selection of comic takes on the Wall from the 19th century to the present day. That the past can be a source of inspiration for comedy is no surprise. Readers may be familiar with (for a younger audience) the Horrible Histories books and subsequent television series and now film, while, for older viewers, there is the excellent (if gory and graphic) Norwegian show Norsemen, following a group of marauding Vikings.

A Roman graffito from Chesters, depicting a man with a trident hunting a boar. (IMAGE: Colin Davison)

The iconic status of Hadrian’s Wall has made it a particularly fruitful subject for cartoons and light-hearted works. A distinctive approach to the Roman frontier can be seen as early as 1852 when, in a flippant footnote in The Comic History of England from Julius Caesar to George II, Gilbert Abbott à Beckett writes: ‘the remains of this wall are still in existence, to furnish food for the Archaeologians, who occasionally feast on the bricks, which have become venerable with the crust of ages.’

Many of the cartoons have a political edge. Some, particularly after the Second World War, address the issues of barriers and divides, while others tackle more local issues (such as the A1), reflecting how the Wall can function both as an international emblem for borders and as a local monument. One of the early works on show is from John William Chater’s 1872 Canny Newcassel Diary and Remembrancer. It includes a cartoon by John Linneus Marcke illustrating the ‘Great Newcastle School Board Scandal’, when schoolmaster and Hadrian’s Wall scholar John Collingwood Bruce, who led the first Pilgrimage in 1849, was not elected to the school board. This figure is shown excluded from the group of board members, sitting in the corner on the ‘Roman Wall’ – in what is possibly the Wall’s first appearance in a cartoon.

The cartoons highlight the many ways in which one can engage with the Wall, including through travel. An image published in Punch in 1932 reveals a rather outdated sense of humour: a tourist informs his wife that they are looking at Hadrian’s Wall, only to be told in response ‘You must put a coat of creosote on the fence when we get home!’. In 1956, Hadrian’s Wall provides the setting for an adventure for the comic-book character Young Marvelman, who saves the Wall from the pesky Picts. Elsewhere, the emperor Hadrian himself is a source of amusement, depicted as a child building walls with blocks or as a participant in an ‘Obsessive Anonymous’ support group (as seen on a postcard from Vindolanda).

Archaeologist Roger Oram’s posters for the annual Arbeia Society conference feature his cartoons, including this one from 1998.(IMAGE: Roger Oram/The Arbeia Society)

The witty work of the late Roger Oram (1951-2016) features particularly prominently. An archaeologist who studied fine art, Oram spent 20 years at Segedunum, and led the drawing office of the Tyne & Wear Museum’s Archaeology Department. His delightful and detailed designs adorn the walls of the staircase of Segedunum’s viewing tower, and appeared in the magazine of the Arbeia Society (which he edited) as well as on the posters for the Society’s annual conference.

For those wanting to follow in Roger Oram’s footsteps, there are materials available to try your hand at drawing your own cartoons, and to help make Segedunum not just a strong fort, but a funny one.

Further information

Borderline Funny runs at the Segedunum Roman Fort, Wallsend, until 22 September 2019. Tickets are £5.95 for adults (concessions are available). Visit for more details.

This review appeared in CA 354.

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