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Tales of the Frontier: political representations and practices inspired by Hadrian's Wall

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


This project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council from 2007 to 2011. Hadrian’s Wall is the one of the most evocative and powerful ancient monuments in Britain and the most famous frontier system (materially and culturally) of the Roman Empire. Its international significance is secured by a long tradition of scholarly study and its designation as a World Heritage Site. Since the late C16, the Wall has provided a major focus for antiquarians and archaeologists, with surveys and excavations providing respected and authoritative knowledge of its structure and chronology. But understanding the sequence of its construction and use is only one chapter in this monument’s biography. During the C18, the Wall became a tourist attraction and its popularity continues to grow, providing a significant locus for visitors from the UK and overseas. Like all monuments, the Wall promotes contradictory readings, including ideas of permanence and decay, domination and resistance, stability and mobility. This project investigated how this cultural prominence developed through time. How do various individuals and groups, including visitors, locals and scholars, view it? How do the ideas and beliefs of these individuals and constituencies differ? It provided a ‘post-colonial' reading of the visual and material texts of the Wall, undertaking an exploration of the significance of the Wall and its landscape as both monument and icon from the time of Gildas (C6) to today. What role has it played in ideas about the origins of ‘civilization’ and the identities of self (English, Scottish, British) and others? How has its monumentality shaped the work of scholars and artists and the experiences of locals and visitors? The methodology assesses divergent individual and group claims, including: scholars, local people and foreign visitors.

Tales of the Frontier has resulted in a variety of publications, including a number of academic articles and a book (R. Hingley 2012, Hadrian’s Wall: a life, Oxford University Press). A museum exhibition entitled ‘The Archaeology of Race’ toured a number of museums in northern England during 2009-2011.

Continued work through an AHRCH-funded Cultural Engagement project in 2013 has begun to address public appreciations of the Wall in more detailed terms and further work on this topic is proposed. Meanwhile, Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Studies funded a cross-disciplinary theme on ‘Life of the Frontier’ in 2011-2013 and it is intended also to build on this perspective to pursue the materialization of frontiers from a cross-temporal perspective.


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