Mapping the inscriptions of the Wall
For the last year or so, PLV has been tweeting and blogging the geolocated inscriptions of Hadrian’s Wall, revealing something of their spatial, social, and historical context. As we went on our merry way, they were mapped in chunks onto Google Maps. However, when it comes to showing you a map of all of them, it is not so easy.
Google Maps only allows a certain number of placemarkers on the screen at any one time. Their new Map Engine Lite will allow all of them on the screen (see above) but cannot be embedded here on wordpress.com, so that image is just a screenshot.
Likewise, Geocommons, which provides a really stylish map, cannot be embedded here. However, both can be embedded on the sister Per Lineam Valli atlas website, so they have been put there and you will have to content yourselves with these screenshots.
Think of the inscriptions of Hadrian’s Wall as being like those plastic ducks (and other buoyant bath-time fun chums) that were washed overboard from a container ship in 1992. They are markers. The ducks revealed the subtleties of worldwide ocean currents, and the inscriptions from the Wall zone reveal how that former frontier defence has been spread around the landscape. Field walls, farm buildings, religious houses, and outbuildings all have their fair share of these manuports.* I am frequently asked where Hadrian’s Wall has gone and my standard response is that it is still all around, just slightly rearranged.
Of course, they are also an invaluable primary record of the activities of the people of Roman Britain. Their accomplishments, lives, and loves are writ large on the local stone. Like the roughly squared facing stones of the Wall themselves, they are competent, if not outstanding, in their execution. Some are touchingly crude, whilst others are haughtily formal. Before the Vindolanda Tablets became a much-loved treasure, these were the nearest we got to knowing how the local people around the Wall thought and communicated. The stilted, formal phraseology contrasted with the struggles with spelling and grammar that are so often evident.
The back-breaking labour of constructing the Wall is relayed to us in the abrupt shorthand of the centurial stones, whilst the observances of the military calendar of the garrison units is conveyed through countless commanding officers dedicating altars to the standard, and some not-so-standard, deities. At the same time, the superstitions of the population are hinted at in offerings to minor deities. The ethnic mix of the Wall population is also clear to see, both in names, places of origin, and deities worshipped.
It is also worth recalling what we do not have. The organic epigraphy from the initial construction of the Turf Wall is one of the major missing components. One tiny fragment of a monumental inscription on wood survives from Milecastle 50TW, hinting at what is missing from 30 miles on the western side of the Tyne-Solway isthmus. At the very least, that is 60 milecastle and 24 fort gateway inscriptions, as well as all the intervening centurial records (if they too were in timber). The archaeological record is inevitably biased towards stone inscriptions, but it also presents us with the occasional ‘uninscribed’ item, such as the milestone still to be seen to the west of Great Chesters fort. Finds from Jordan show us that milestones could have painted inscriptions alone and the date distribution of British examples (largely 3rd to 4th century AD) suggests they may also have been just painted in this manner in the first two centuries after the Roman invasion and not inscribed into the surface of the stone until later.
So, with these things in mind, head out to one of the museums where you can see some Hadrian’s Wall inscriptions and let the Romans talk to you.
You can find some goodly chunks of mural epigraphy at a number of museums:
- Great North Museum
- Chesters Roman Fort and Museum
- Housesteads Roman Fort
- Tullie House Museum and Gallery
Until now, users of RIB have had to content themselves with the hard-to-obtain hardback books or some rather indifferent texts on the web. Now a full online version is in preparation. I have seen it and it is gorgeous, does lots of things a book just can’t do (calm down, book fetishists!), and promises to be an invaluable tool to all lovers of epigraphy. Hold yourselves in readiness …
* A manuport is something that has been carried away from its place of origin by hand. Thus each stone of Hadrian’s Wall starts out as a manuport, having been brought from a nearby quarry, but then has to suffer the further indignity of being moved again when reused, and yet again when carted off to a museum!