Life of an Ancient Monument: Hadrian's Wall in History

By Hingley, Richard; Witcher, Robert et al. | Antiquity, September 2012 | Go to article overview
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Life of an Ancient Monument: Hadrian's Wall in History

Hingley, Richard, Witcher, Robert, Nesbitt, Claire, Antiquity



Hadrian's Wall is one of Britain's most evocative archaeological monuments and has been a source of scholarly fascination since medieval times (Birley 1961; Ewin 2000; Hepple 2003; Shannon 2007; Hingley 2008; Nesbitt & Tolia-Kelly 2009). As a result of over three centuries of antiquarian and archaeological investigation we now have a detailed understanding of the origin of this frontier work (Breeze & Dobson 2000; Symonds & Mason 2009): it was built in the AD 120s, during the reign of the emperor Hadrian (see Breeze & Dobson 2000). Our confidence in the modern chronology and the depth of our understanding of the component parts have created a situation in which this is perhaps the best-understood frontier of the Roman empire (Symonds & Mason 2009; here Figures 1 & 2).

However, in this paper we will argue that such certainty is constraining our view of the monument, focusing narrowly on its short Roman history rather than its full cultural biography (Witcher et al. 2010). We aim to stress the value, for both research and heritage, of looking at ancient monuments as long-lived structures rather than treating them only as monuments surviving from the past. Recent studies have explored the biographies of other great monuments, such as Stonehenge and the Parthenon (Bender 1998; Beard 2002); the new depth of knowledge about the afterlife of Hadrian's Wall makes it an attractive subject for this treatment.



Sources and objectives

Historical references and antiquarian observations about the Wall have been traditionally studied with the aim of developing knowledge of the 'Roman' monument (Birley 1961). But more recently scholars have begun to value these sources for their exposure of the Wall's post-Roman history, exploring its changing physical form and cultural resonance through time (Jolly 1996; Breeze 2003; Griffiths 2003). For example, Woodside & Crow (1999) document the extensive restoration of the upland central section of the Wall by John Clayton during the mid nineteenth century, an act which helped to create the visual presence of the most impressive part of the Wall (Witcher 2010a; Figure 3). This highlights the narrowness of viewing the Wall as a purely Roman monument (cf. Barrett 1994: 14). However, simply repositioning it from a Roman to a Victorian context does not adequately capture the complexity of its structure or its long-term sequence, from Roman military frontier to heritage monument.


The Wall did not cease to be significant with the end of Roman rule (cf. Bender 1998: 9). Its very substantial remains persisted in the landscape and had a significant impact on local people and travellers. Since at least the end of the sixteenth century, the Wall has been drawn upon as a powerful source of inspiration. Scholars have focused on documentary and visual evidence to explore the way it was perceived (Merriman 1984; Smiles 1994: 142-46; Griffiths 2003; Hingley 2010). In this paper, we turn to the material evidence from the Roman monument to explore the monument's biography and address issues of the authenticity of reconstruction. In particular we emphasise two issues: firstly, the idea that much of the Wall's present physical structure is neither Roman nor Victorian and, secondly, that many of those who rebuilt the Wall claimed a justification for their actions through invoking the power of Rome. Various rebuildings of the Roman Wall have reworked original 'Roman' materials, reconstructing it on its physical foundations as well as building metaphorically on current antiquarian and archaeological knowledge. On the other hand, not all physical interventions into the fabric and structure of the Wall have been motivated by an appeal to the concept of Rome. It is evident that for centuries people have pillaged and destroyed the Wall with no ideological motivation--to build stone walls, roads and houses (cf.

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