The Arbeia Society and Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, £35
Review Edward Biddulph
Archaeologists do not often get the chance to excavate Hadrian’s Wall. The monument is well protected by law (rightly so) and spared from development, meaning that invasive investigations are few and far between. While that is good news for the preservation of the Wall, it can make resolving long-standing questions about, say, construction or chronology difficult. The exposure of a length of Wall at Wallsend between 1988 and 2015 in a series of excavations ahead of the creation of an archaeological park was therefore an exciting prospect.
The results show that, even after the many excavations of the past, the Wall still has secrets to reveal. It was apparent, for instance, that maintaining it was challenging. The curtain wall at Buddle Street, where the excavations took place, suffered collapse and subsidence and required several episodes of repair during its use. Remarkably, here the Wall did not utilise mortar initially, except within its foundations. Mortar was added for good measure in a later phase, though. The excavations also shed light on a lesser-known aspect of the Wall: rows of obstacles – probably tree-trunks with sharpened branches – were planted on the berm to the north of the Wall. We learn, too, about activity immediately north of the wall and prior to its construction: furrows, ditches, and structures remind us that this was a place of farming and settlement, both before and during Roman occupation.
What of everyday life at this end of the Wall? Amphorae from south-western Italy, for instance, tell of wine-drinking, and religious practice is suggested by a sculpture of a dog. Much of the pottery came from the Thames Estuary, testament to the pull of the Wall beyond the frontier zone. (I would have liked to have seen quantification of pottery form, as well as fabric, but this is a minor concern.)
The volume includes a chapter on the reconstructed length of Wall that stands beside the excavated section. It is rather technical and not the easiest reading, but it offers valuable insight into aspects of its construction (it seems that the height of the Wall given by Bede is more-or-less accurate) and the problems faced by the original builders.
Reporting, as it does, on a rare, modern investigation of the Wall, this volume is hugely welcome and will doubtless be much consulted in the future.