Thirty years ago, David Breeze and Brian Dobson wrote a history of Hadrian’s Wall from the archaeological evidence. Still in print in a revised edition, it is one of the most successful archaeology books ever written. With a major British Museum exhibition devoted to Hadrian opening this July, we asked David Breeze to take a fresh look at the emperor’s greatest monument in the light of 30 years further research.
Exactly 40 years ago, I published my first article about the building of Hadrian’s Wall. A couple of booklets and other articles followed, mostly written with Brian Dobson. Then my wife suggested that we put it all between two covers — in short, write a book on Hadrian’s Wall. This was done in 1973-1974, and the book was published by Allen Lane in 1976. The initial 3,000-print run sold out in six months, and the book was reprinted, again in hardback. A paperback edition by Penguin followed in 1978, and the book has remained in print ever since, now in its fourth edition.
One Wall archaeologist, Nick Hodgson, has described Hadrian’s Wall as revolutionary in the way that it challenged the views of the time. It might also be regarded as revolutionary because it was the first book to be published offering a history of the Wall; whereas previous books had been mainly on the guide-book model, this was the first devoted to the history of the Wall.
Modern research on Hadrian’s Wall can be said to have started in the 1890s with a series of excavations at turrets, milecastles, and forts, as well as on the Vallum. The pattern of milecastles and turrets was elucidated, the relationship of forts and wall investigated, the turf sector examined, the place of the Vallum in the building programme determined, a civil settlement excavated, and the basics of the history of the Wall laid down. In the 1930s, Ian Richmond, who excavated extensively on Hadrian’s Wall in the 1920s and 1930s (later becaming Professor of the Archaeology of the Roman Provinces at Oxford University), stated that all the main problems of Hadrian’s Wall were now solved, while the celebrated Mortimer Wheeler remarked that all that was left was to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.
And so it remained for 30 years. In the 1960s, however, archaeologists working in Durham and Newcastle Universities began to challenge different aspects of the old-school consensus: Breeze and Dobson’s Hadrian’s Wall was the physical manifestation of this rethink.
How, then, is our understanding of Hadrian’s Wall different from 40 years ago? Perhaps the greatest difference is in the way we study the monument. This is characterised by more openness and discussion — by acceptance that more than one view is possible. In practically every area the old certainties have gone, to be replaced by competing views. This in itself is healthy. For the authors, however, putting aside our pride at having had a book in print for 32 years, it is daunting to have written the basic text-book against which new theories are measured. Even now, four editions on from 1976, the book reflects the period in which it was written.
There still appears, however, to be an impression that Ian Richmond and Mortimer Wheeler were correct: that the problems of Hadrian’s Wall have been solved. As one of a pair of authors who has had to struggle with incorporating new discoveries on Hadrian’s Wall over the last 32 years into their book, I can affirm that this opinion is palpably wrong. In so many areas, new work in the field or the study has challenged existing views. Hadrian’s Wall is an exciting topic of research with much to offer (and surprise) the excavator, as well as those who are interested in colonialism or ethnicity or simply the task of trying to understand a complex monument which even today stands as a visible icon as well as a source of cultural inspiration. There is still a lot to find out about Hadrian’s Wall. Most excavations have concentrated on the military elements. With the honourable exception of Vindolanda, very little work has been undertaken on civil settlements. We have not examined any cemeteries. Further, there is an enormous amount of existing information which can be re-examined with new conclusions reached — budding researchers, note!
Finally, our modern view of Hadrian’s Wall, it must be emphasised, is not the work of two scholars, but rather was created through the work and ideas of many archaeologists and historians working over decades. Our book was never meant to be the new orthodoxy, simply an attempt to put forward a working hypothesis, to be strengthened, modified, or superseded by fresh evidence.
For the full article and for information about work on Hadrian’s Wall over the past 30 years, see Current Archaeology 220.