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Durham Centre for Roman Cultural Studies

Hadrian's Wall: A Life

Hadrian’s Wall: a life 
Richard Hingley

This webpage outlines the contents of my book which was published in October 2012 by Oxford University Press. The research derives from a substantial project, entitled ‘Tales of the Frontier’, which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

A living Wall

My work draws upon the idea of Hadrian’s Wall as a living thing. Having said that, the Wall is clearly not animate like a living creature. Despite this, I would argue that it is useful to imagine the Wall as a living entity—a giant person or serpent. It ‘lives’ today because it remains deeply relevant to many people. It is not a desiccated and defunct Wall, precisely because so many people visit its remains to experience and admire its monumentality at first hand.

This is a milecastle on the Wall at Cawfields. Visitors are exploring this small Roman fort, which had entrances that gave access across the curtain Wall of Hadrian’s rampart. The curtain Wall itself runs along the ridge beyond the milecastle at the top right of the photograph and then turns towards the foreground. The break with the gate just this side of the milecastle is later in date. The curtain Wall extended between Wallsend (Tyne and Wear) in the east to Bowness-on-Solway (Cumbria) in the west. It was at least 3.5 metres high and would have functioned as a massive impediment for people trying to cross its line, and it remains difficult to cross in places today. (© Richard Hingley, 2010).

Hadrian’s Wall was constructed in the AD 120s, on the orders of the Roman emperor Hadrian. It served as a boundary marker and protection for the borders of the Roman province of Britain for almost three centuries and probably ceased to operate in this way during the early fifth century with the collapse of Roman rule. But this detracts from the notion of the Wall as a living thing.

For centuries, poets and novelists have brought the Wall to life, by reconstructing it and writing about human activity on the living Wall. This is apparent in those instances where artists have ‘rebuilt’ the Wall. For instance, H R Miller imaginatively reconstructed the curtain Wall and its towers near the Roman gate at Hunnum (Halton Chesters) in an illustration for Rudyard Kipling’s novel Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906).

This image, which helped generations of school children to understand Hadrian’s Wall, reconstructs it as far too substantial, exaggerating the scale of the curtain Wall. There are too many turrets—those that occur every half a mile along the Wall would not have been able to support the balistae. Nevertheless, this image provides a lively idea of the monument, its place in the landscape and the people who lived alongside it.

Modern novelists and poets have also animated the Wall to demonstrate its significance for this own time. Although Rudyard Kipling’s tales of the Roman Wall in Puck of Pook’s Hill have become unpopular due to their imperial sentiments, the relevance of the Wall is still explored by creative writing, such as the recent volume Writing on the Wall (Chettle, S. [ed. 2006]. Writing on the Wall: An International writing project for Hadrian’s Wall 2001-2006. Newcastle upon Tyne, ARTS UK.).

Every spring and summer, re-enactment groups, such as the Ermine Street Guard and Quinta (an auxiliary unit recruited in South Shields), bring places along the Wall to life.

The Living Frontier event, May 2009. This substantial variety of events at several sites along the Wall drew attention to its living history. (© Rob Witcher).

Rebuilding the Wall

Taking such an approach to the Wall suggests that it did not cease to be relevant after the collapse of the Roman empire in the fifth century. The Wall continued to survive as a substantial monument in the post-Roman landscape. Its complex remains—the curtain Wall, milecastles, turrets, forts, the northern ditch, the military way and the Vallum—have continued to mark its course throughout time.

In the medieval period, the boundary between the kingdoms of England and Scotland lay close to (but not along) the line of the Wall. When King James combined the two kingdoms of Scotland and England in 1603, the Wall’s ruined state became symbolic of the growing unity of the people to the south and north of its line.

In 1745, Charles Edward Stewart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) raised a rebellion in Scotland and marched across the line of Hadrian’s Wall, conquering Carlisle. He was beaten back and defeated the following year and, in the early 1750s, a military road was built along the line of the Wall from Newcastle to Carlisle. This operation damaged the Roman remains but it was also seen by a number of contemporaries as a re-edification—a reconstruction—of the Roman Wall.
During the mid nineteenth century the antiquarian John Clayton cleared and refaced substantial parts of the Roman curtain Wall.

The ‘Clayton Wall’ just to the west of Housesteads. This reconstruction can be recognized by the turf on the top of the surviving remains of the curtain Wall. (© Richard Hingley, 2011)

Clayton’s work uncovered the remains of a Roman rampart that appeared to be a tumbled earth bank with facing stones surviving in places. Clayton rebuilt the Wall to display its remains to visitors in a comprehensible way and this approach was continued for over a century.

During the early 1970s, the travel writer Hunter Davies came across a group of men who were clearing and consolidating the impressive remains of the curtain Wall. They were removing the tumbled stones and earth from both faces of the Wall and rebuilding it with a concrete top. Additional Roman turrets were being uncovered that had been buried by the collapse of the Wall in post-Roman times (see H. Davies [1974] A Walk along the Wall. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 155). Observing this clearing and restoration, Davies noted that ‘Hadrian’s Wall is a living wall, not just for the local inhabitants, but for tourists and archaeologists, a living, breathing, expanding, growing wall’.

The human lives linked to the uncovering and consolidation of the Wall still emphasize its living spirit. Reconstructed Roman buildings at Wallsend, South Shields and Vindolanda have continued this tradition.

The southwest gate at Arbeia (South Shields). This structure was excavated and rebuilt from its foundations, being opened to the public in 1988. It gives a clear idea of the way that a Roman fort gate would have appeared soon after its construction and also of the scale and magnificence of the Wall and its installations. (© Richard Hingley).

Revealing the Wall

A highly significant part of the living history of the Wall involves its rediscovery since the sixteenth century. Initially, knowledge of the Wall was drawn from the Roman inscriptions that were found along its line, but antiquaries and archaeologists began to study and understand its remains.

One of the stones that commemorates the building of Hadrian’s Wall. Many centurial stones have been found inscribed with the names of Roman military units who helped to build the curtain Wall. Five stones have been found indicating that the civitates, or people, of southern Britain were also involved in the construction work. This stone names the Civitas Dumnoni, a people of south-western Britain. (from J.C. Bruce 1863, The Wallet-Book of the Roman Wall. London, Longman).

Hadrian’s Wall on Housesteads Crags. The wall immediately in front is a modern dyke on the site of the original rampart but the stone curtain Wall can be seen snaking across the crags to the east. (© Richard Hingley)

Click here for an AHRC article on Hadrian's Wall: a life