Hadrian’s Wall is one of Britain’s most famous ancient monuments. Built on the orders of Emperor Hadrian in the AD 120s, this Roman frontier is set into the landscape for 73 miles, spanning England’s peninsula from east to west. The Wall most likely served as a frontier until the end of Roman rule in the fifth century; now, it is a popular tourist attraction. But what happened to the structure in the centuries in between?
“Archaeologists almost always focus on the Roman structure and its Roman character,” says Richard Hingley, Professor of Archaeology at Durham University. “I thought it was important to look at what happened to the Wall from the fifth century up to the current age.” The result is Hadrian’s Wall: A Life, the product of an AHRC research fellowship. Hingley’s book grew out of another AHRC-funded project, Tales of the Frontier, which allowed researchers at Durham University to explore the different, often contradictory, ways the Wall has been viewed and portrayed over the years.
This emphasis on the Wall as something that was experienced, rather than simply as a structure in its own right, was informed by Hingley’s interest in chorography, a term that originates in the early Mediterranean world. On a simple level, “chorography is a focus on place, and what that place means to people,” explains Hingley. “All the stories and things people think about the wall are part of the nature of the monument.” Unlike traditional archaeological approaches, chorography connects past and present, taking into account how encounters with ancient artifacts can link with contemporary ideas. “To understand how we might think differently about monuments such as Hadrian’s Wall, it is essential that we understand how our thinking has been framed,” says Michael Shanks, Professor of Classical Archaeology at Stanford University.
According to a sixth-century account by British cleric Gildas, the Wall was constructed in order to hold back invading Picts from the north; Bede picked up a similar theme in the eighth century. “Increasingly the interpretation has been in modern times that the Wall is more to do with controlling movement, and observing people to the north and south,” says Hingley. “That story about it being defended from its ramparts doesn’t come from any Roman text that survives. It’s probably come from stories people told to Gildas. Bede then picks that information up. That was the dominant explanation for the function of Hadrian’s Wall right down to the 1930s. Some people today still believe it.”
From the late sixteenth century onwards, the structure caught the imagination of English antiquaries, including William Camden, who produced the first real account of a visit to the wall in 1600. According to Shanks, academia has traditionally treated antiquarianism as “a dusty backwater of academic history”. But, says Shanks, this attitude is changing: “We’re beginning to understand just how sophisticated they were. One of the reasons we’ve misunderstood antiquarianism is because it’s pre-disciplinary, and therefore outside our academic experience.” These antiquarian accounts were often influenced by chorography, which became popular during the English Enlightenment. “These chorographers were interested in family history and genealogy, and they combined natural history with geology and histories of agriculture. Their accounts are extremely interesting as experiments in interdisciplinary approaches to the way people live in the land,” notes Shanks.
The popularity of Hadrian’s Wall grew. “If you were a member of the landed aristocracy and had leisure, in the eighteenth century it almost became an alternative to going to Rome, on the Grand Tour,” says Hingley. Many accounts from this period are coloured as much by contemporary politics as writers’ impressions of the structure. For example, Hingley explains, during the turbulence of the relationship between England and Scotland in the late sixteenth to mid-eighteenth centuries, Hadrian’s Wall became “a major metaphor for the way the English and the Scots related to each other”. While the English tended to see the wall as a reflection of their own identity, for Scottish thinkers, the structure was more a metaphor for suppression, with the English cast in the guise of Roman ‘invaders’.
Preservation efforts began in earnest in the mid-nineteenth century, beginning with landowner John Clayton, who sought to uncover and conserve the Wall. By this time, much of the structure had fallen into disrepair and was no longer visible. Clayton unearthed several Roman forts and partly rebuilt the central Curtain Wall, starting a preservation process that has lasted until today. According to Hingley, past thinking about the Wall played an important part in the conservation of the structure: part of the reason Clayton started work on the Wall at all was because “it seemed so significant in terms of English nationhood. So all these local stories that relate the Wall in some way may have some bearing on the way monuments are preserved”.
The idea of examining the many contexts of the Wall is very much in line with modern preservation. Dr Nigel Mills, World Heritage and Access Director at The Hadrian’s Wall Trust, says that a key objective is to persuade potential visitors that the structure is more than just a wall. Activities to this end include a gallery that puts Hadrian’s Wall in the context of modern frontiers; and an art installation in 2012 that saw the entire structure lit with balloons transmitting messages from the public through colour, to remind people that the Wall was also a communications system. “Hadrian’s Wall has many different meanings for many different people; it can actually inspire people to think about those different meanings, and inform not only their understanding of the past, but also their understanding of the modern world, and how that world has come to be,” Mills says.
As an object of historical and archaeological interest, myth and artistic portrayal, Hadrian’s Wall was and remains, in a sense, a ‘living wall’, given life by the people for whom it holds relevance. As Mills says, “Hadrian’s Wall has a creative power that goes beyond its simple fact as an iconic piece of heritage.”
For further information, please the Durham University Website (opens in a new window).
Article by Hannah Davies
Images by Richard Hingley