03 December, 2016

Hadrian's News in Brief

Any archaeologist will tell you that dealing with press is always fun; you may get all the right words—but not necessarily in the right order, so I am reasonably happy with results of a recent press briefing to my local paper,  The Hexham Courant.  I am not sure if maverick is an upgrade on controversial, but perhaps after 7 years I've earned it, although I'll be sticking to structural archaeologist for the time being.
They had previously reported my work on the Hadrian’s Wall and I wanted to bring them up to date with my latest discovery that the idea of a “Turf Wall” –  a Roman Wall made from turfs - was scientifically unsustainable.[1] Once I had managed to get the absolute untruths edited out of the final copy, I am reasonable relaxed about the minor factual inaccuracies, and some of it is spot on.  
However, I have never learned the lesson of producing a nice crisp press release, which does most of the hard work for you, although it has prompted me to try and produce a summary of my view of the evidence for an early Wall in succinct a form, at least as it differs from traditional accounts.
Hadrian's Wall in 400 words.
It is my understanding of the evidence, that at the beginning of Hadrian’s reign, after a period of warfare, the Roman army built a timber rampart and ditch across Northern England as part of wider policy of frontier consolidation.
Behind this timber Wall they built the infrastructure that would house the Legionaries, auxiliaries and probably slaves that would construct the stone frontier.
Hadrian’s Wall was subsequently built immediately behind this rampart, which was then dismantled and the timber recycled.
This was an active military frontier, and the Wall was built a permanent barrier to defend Roman assets in the South from the threat of raiders from the North.
As part of this plan, behind the Wall, a construction trench for a paved road running was dug, except across the bog at White Moss where an inverted trench was built up to accommodate a wooden corded road.  The road was never completed, as initial priority was given to building the Wall and forts.
This was constructed from East to West, with gangs of specialist legionaries working ahead, prioritising the more complex aspects, particularly the gateways of the milecastles and forts.
At a point when the work had reached the North Tyne and central sector construction was disrupted by what is known as a “dislocation”, which are thought to have been caused by a resumption of warfare.
When construction resumes after the dislocation[s]; [2]
  • The wall is built narrower gauge;
  • The technical quality of the stonework is significantly poorer;[3]
  • The plan to build a road is abandoned;
  • New forts are added in the central sector;
  • Even at this lower standard, the Western end of the Wall takes a long time to complete; [if it was fully completed];
  • The original timber rampart of the Wall to west of the Fort at Birdoswald, [“Turf Wall”], had rotted in situ, presumably because it was in no fit state to be recycled by the time construction reached this sector.

All of the above argues for a major military setback, with a significant loss of manpower, particularly among the legionaries. It is consistent with a successful attack on the central sector when the disposition of the Roman forces was at its most disadvantageous. 
After end of Hadrian’s reign the project was abandoned in favour of a shorter more easily defended frontier closer to enemy and further away from Britannia.
Thinking outside the guide book
The force that built the Wall was probably based around 3 legions, which as a block of fighting men 1000 metres wide with auxiliary infantry in front and cavalry on the flanks was in terms of the British Isles in this period probably invincible.  When deployed in depth, with in their ”normal” legionary bases, with room and time to manoeuvre, the Romans could counter any attack on the Wall, but spread over an 117 km front they are at a huge disadvantage.  As I have concluded that the frontier plan was much more ambitious than previously thought, the scale of the disaster represented by dislocation could have been serious.  
 “... under the rule of your grandfather Hadrian what a number of soldiers were killed by the Jews, what a number by the Britons”
Marcus Cornelius Fronto, letter to Marcus Aurelius, AD162
I think by the mid 120’s the plan was in ruin, in addition to the evidence of the dislocation, we know that London was burnt in this period [4]; [at some time the bronze statue of the Hadrian commemorating his visit was knocked about a bit and thrown in the Thames]; it thought Aulus Platorius Nepos, the governor brought with him by Hadrian in 122, was back in Italy, out of favour and public life. Little is known of his successor, [Trebius Germanus], but he is replaced by Sextus Julius Severus, well known as a top general and trouble shooter; significantly, he was transferred to the Palestine to deal with a rebellion in AD 133.
We know a lot more about the series of wars in the East ending with the conflagration of Bar Kokhba rebellion, but as in Britain, the actual levels of casualties and even the units involved is still a matter of speculation. It is the fact that the two situations are considered comparable that is telling. 
It is clear that Hadrian’s Wall was not a strategic success, perhaps even a disaster, which is not to say that it did not become of value in later periods, or was not a remarkable engineering achievement.
Archaeology, censorship and the politics of ideas.
It is 7 years since I first briefed the Courant about my work on the Wall, it coincided with the Congress of Roman Frontier Studies or Limes Congress 2009 at Newcastle, where this work could have been presented, if it had not been branded worthless by a colleague, although it might have been considered a courtesy to read it first. [5]
Their principle contribution to Wall studies has been to suppress my research into the evidence for an early rampart, which gives rise to a very different narrative than that sold by universities, English Heritage, Tyne and Wear Museums, and other stakeholders.   Clearly, it is not in the financial interests of institutions to support any research that challenges their product. In addition, commercial pressures to dumb down, have replaced reasoning and interpretive skills with a dependent belief in a text based narrative.  
This is perfectly illustrated by the idea of a “Turf Wall”, first mooted by amateurs in the 1890’s,[6] and confirmed by English Heritage archaeologists as recently as 2009 [7] where adherence to the existing text based narrative completely subverted all the meticulously collected scientific evidence.  
This is a peer reviewed report by England's premier tax payer funded archaeological agency on a World Heritage Site, - but it’s only heritage, nobody died, and frankly, who cares about archaeology beyond the availability of funding, certainly none of the above.   
Unlike science , where innovation and discovery is seen as good, faith based academic subjects like archaeological are dependent of belief in the narrative, so tend to be regressive, and naturally suppress any evidential challenges to conventional wisdom.   The ideas that postholes should contain posts or soil contain stones is challenging for the text based narrative, which has arisen largely independently of the evidence, a product of an academic system too often denuded of any practical understanding of the subject.   
While this is bang on the zeitgeist of a venal post-truth low cost base mediocracy, it's long way from an academic meritocracy.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”― Edmund Burke

Sources & further reading
Previous articles on the Wall; here
[1]  Deturfing Hadrian's Wall; 
[2] Breeze, D.J. 2003. "Warfare in Britain and the Building of Hadrian's Wall." Archaeologia Aeliana 32, 13 –16
[3] Hill, P. R. 2006. The construction of Hadrian's Wall. Tempus
[4]. G. C. Dunning, 1945,  Two Fires in Roman London', Ant. J. 25
Roskams, Steve & Watson, Lez 1981 `The Hadrianic fire of London - a reassessment of the evidence' London Archaeol 4, 1981 62-6
[5] [above] The Armstrong Building when it was part of Durham University; for my Father and Grandfather, entering this building marked the beginning of their careers, but for me it was the end, ironically,because my use of simple engineering rather than “cosmology” to model ancient structures could not be understood, a shocking betrayal of our intellectual and regional culture.  If the concept of a 'load bearing wall' is now too advanced for academic staff at PhD level, what is the point of higher education.
[6] see; Hodgson, E. 1897. "Notes on the Excavations on the line of the Roman Wall in Cumberland in 1894 and 1895," Trans Cumberland Westmorland Antiq Archaeol Soc, o ser, 14, 390-407. And Haverfield, F. 1897. "Report of the Cumberland Excavation Committee, 1896," TransCumberland Westmorland Antiq Archaeol Soc, o ser, 14, 413-433
[7] Wilmott, T. (2009)  Hadrian's Wall: Archaeological research by English Heritage 1976-2000. English Heritage.
 p. 114 the pollen  James Wells
 p.116 The plant macrofossils,  Allan Hall,

see also;
Bidwell, P T, 2005 'The system of obstacles on Hadrian's Wall; their extent, date and purpose', Arbeia J, 8, 53-76. 

Graafstal, Erik P.: 2012,   Hadrian's haste: a priority programme for the Wall. Archaeologia Aeliana, 5th Series, vol 41, 123–84

Simpson F. G. and I. A. Richmond I.A., 1935, The Turf Wall of Hadrian, 1895-1935, 
The Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 25, (1935), pp. 1-18

Welfare, H. (2000). "Causeways, at Milecastles Across the Ditch of Hadrian’s Wall". Archaeologia Aeliana. 5 (28): 13–25. And Welfare, H. 2004. ‘Variation in the form of the ditch, and of its equivalents, on Hadrian’s Wall’. Archaeologia Aeliana, ser 5, 33, 9-24


Anonymous said...

Spelling nazi suspects it should be "no fit state" in that Birdoswald bullet point. Please burn after reading, etc.
Sorry can't remember my fake ID, so "anon" it stays.

Geoff Carter said...

Thank you, Secret Agent of Good, for taking the time to reading it much more carefully than I what wrote it; it's bin sorted.
I suspect the Spelling Nazis declared me verboten years ago, or perhaps sent me to a virtual Isle of Man. I do miss my editor.

Anonymous said...

Encouraged by my pedantic onslaught, my interrogators have discovered another tiny blemish of purely ritual function, as the ancestors insist.
Four lines down : ".. in favour of a shorter .. " militarily logical limes at the Forth-Clyde isthmus.
I vaguely recall "dustbubble", but it's been a while, and I am old ..
.. how any non-invested mind could discount your excellent ockham-like explanations for the apparent dithering chaos of the (usually anally-retentively completist) Roman State over a simple matter of military engineering, their very special interest, I do not know. Keep it up, Geoff, if only for my sanity.

Geoff Carter said...

Ahah - I thought it was you [- the ip suggested someone further south].
Thanks again, you contributions are always incisive - I have amended - but not to - "in favour of a shorter frontier also built of turf because the Romans could not see the wood for the trees" - that would be to impute the standard of scholarship of that Limes.
PS. SH, WH, etc. resolution, as promised, soon...