Reading Hadrian’s Wall: 1

This is a list of twelve books that for me epitomise Hadrian’s Wall. This is not because I think they are the twelve best books on the subject (although they are certainly not the worst books), but I do feel that they are representative of the whole gamut of good literature on the subject (life is too short to read bad books, so I have not included any of those – and they do exist, trust me). All are easily obtainable; some are hideously pricey, one is completely free.

Archaeological publishing is a funny old world, and one seemingly least understood by archaeological publishers (although they will generally tell you otherwise). There is a tendency to lump books into either the popular (which they feel they can’t charge too much for) or the academic (where they believe they can charge whatever they think they can get away with), although in my experience, readers are far more sophisticated. Popular books try to avoid difficult words or concepts and have ‘further reading’ suggestions, whilst academic ones have foot- or endnotes and feature a ‘bibliography’, but are not renowned for the number of laughs per page. All of which is a shame, as it is completely possible to write an academically sound book that is also accessible and verging on a jolly good read; blame the publishers, not the authors, folks.

As a footnote (naturally), I will merely add that I have not included anything I have written about Hadrian’s Wall (with one unavoidable exception, which I will explain when we get to it). I have included links where you can get hold of the books, usually both Amazon (fast and often – but not always – the cheapest) and Hive (almost as fast, but who also benefit your local bookshop financially and can be even cheaper than Amazon, surprisingly). Outside the UK, your mileage/kilometerage may vary.

So, six today and six tomorrow; let’s get started with the book you must confront for your first literary test per lineam valli (see what I did there?). Pass this, Luke, and the force will indeed be strong in you.

1. Breeze and Dobson Hadrian’s Wall Penguin

Written by David Breeze and the late Brian Dobson, this is the ur-text, the one must-read for all Hadrian’s Wall students. It is sometimes accused of being dry and difficult to read. Now I’ve read some pretty dire books in my life as a reader, writer, and publisher, but this is not one of them. There is also no getting away from the fact that it is the book against which all others will be judged (as you’ll see when we get to No.12) and if you are serious about reading up on the Wall, you must include it. In an age of video games and channel surfing, publishers are often truly terrified that people have in some way devolved from being able to read serious books, and some of the comments on Amazon may be thought to lend weight to that view (but they should not be read without comparing Ben Kane’s short but pithy review of it, also on Amazon). If you really can’t hack it (in which case you’re already sliding down in my estimation) then go straight to No.5, English Heritage’s numpties’ guide to the Wall (also cunningly written by David Breeze, just to show his versatility). Amazon  Hive


Reading Hadrian’s Wall: 5

5. Breeze Hadrian’s Wall EH Souvenir Guide English Heritage

This very much does what it says on the tin (to borrow an overworked and inappropriate phrase), although its origins lie in the gentlemanly (but oh-so-real) struggle over the central sector of the Wall between the National Trust and the shape shifting beast that has been the Ministry of Works/Dept of the Environment/ English Heritage (and to some extent Historic England). In 19##, the National Trust (who own much of the old Clayton estate in the central sector) brought out a beautiful, carefully designed and specially photographed colour souvenir to the Wall to sell to visitors. Not to be outdone, the newly created English Heritage hastily threw together a bunch of archive photos with some text by David Breeze to produce a rival publication. By itself it would have been okay, but next to the NT booklet, it all too plainly sucked, but in an endearing way. Now it has evolved into something altogether more attractive and informative, albeit firmly aimed at the lowest common denominator market (like most EH publications, you can almost smell the sweat of the focus groups). Neither Amazon nor Hive have it at the moment but you can get it at most EH sites along the Wall.

Reading Hadrian’s Wall: 2

2. Richards Walking Hadrian’s Wall Path Cicerone

If you’re going to walk the Wall you need a good guide book, and Mark Richards’ comes complete with a chunk of Ordnance Survey map to make your task that much easier (the current OS map of the Wall is a cumbersome, badly designed beast, compared to its forebears). The book (which is almost – but not quite – like walking with Mark himself) is a guide to walking the Hadrian’s Wall National Trail, not the actual course of the Wall (the two, you may be surprised to learn, are not necessarily the same thing – in fact for over 12 miles the Trail shyly ignores the Wall) but contains hints on how to get to see most of the the bits you would otherwise miss by sticking to the recommended route. I’ve never been a fan of the official guide to the Trail (which is too much of a ‘product’ dreamed up in a boardroom; basically impractical in the field, it is best treated like an exhibition catalogue and browsed once you get back home) and the alternatives are less appealing (and typographically messier) than the Cicerone book (from a publisher who specialises in walking guides – that gives you a clue to what lies within). Mark has the extra endearing party trick of producing his ‘linescapes’, monochrome drawings of his subject matter, which make a change from endless stock photos of the same bits that you’ll find elsewhere and owe much to his mentor, Alfred Wainwright. Stick this one in your backpack, but make sure it is easily accessible. Amazon Hive

Reading Hadrian’s Wall: 3

3. Hill The Construction of Hadrian’s Wall Tempus

How did the Romans actually build Hadrian’s Wall? Peter Hill can tell you why, and better still will tell you how we know how they did it. A stonemason himself, he explains why you shouldn’t use the term ‘ashlar’ to describe the stonework of Hadrian’s Wall, and he will also helpfully tell you how they got the the stone, what they had to do with it, and what a pig’s ear they occasionally made of the whole process. A classic example of a specialist elucidating an area that jacks-of-all-trades archaeologists often pass over or get wrong. Amazon  Hive

Reading Hadrian’s Wall: 4

4. Leach and Whitworth Saving the Wall Amberley

This is a book that tells two stories, both equally riveting. One is how legislative oversights almost led to the loss of large chunks of the central sector of the Wall, and comes complete with a villain (boo!) and an unlikely ministerial hero (hooray!) who finds the sort of compromise that politicians today seem completely incapable of achieving. The second tells the tale of the uncovering and preservation/consolidation of substantial lengths of the Wall under the former Ministry of Works chargehand Charlie Anderson. A bunch of guys with a dumper truck and some mortar in the middle of nowhere. Their work, once vilified as much as that of metaldetectorists used to be, is fascinating in the context of its time. Amazon  Hive (ebook only)

Linking to inscriptions in Clauss-Slaby

If you want to make a direct link to just one inscription in the magnificent Clauss-Slaby database, here’s a way to do it. I should point out I found this out ages ago (I know not where, sadly, so anonymous credit is due), lost it, then rediscovered it!

Tombstone of Classicianus

The information on the inscription is conveyed to the database in the format of

= corpus
B = year/volume
C = number

like this (note that the %20 is essential in each case to pass a ‘space’ character – you can’t have spaces in URLs).,%20C

Thus the diploma listing units discharged in Britain in AD 122, CIL XVI, 69 is,%2000069

Alternatively,  let’s try the inscription to Iulius Classicianus from London, AE 1936, 3,%2000003

All you need to do is form your URL in a text editor, copy it, and paste it into the address bar of your browser. You can even use a URL shortener on the resulting page for posting in Twitter.

Easy when you know how 😉

Hadrian’s Wall by R. H. Forster

Published in 1903 in his collection Idylls of the North, R. H. Forster‘s poem Hadrian’s Wall is typical of its time and probably exactly the sort of thing Edward Thomas disliked amongst Edwardian poetry (although, so far as I know, he never reviewed it). Nevertheless, it is what it is and at least has the virtue of having been written by somebody who had actually excavated on the Wall. Having performed it at the Late Shows 2016 several times (no small feat), I’ve grown rather fond of it and make no apology if it is not to your taste.


Hadrian’s Wall

Robert Henry Forster

Wave upon wave of tawny autumn moor, –
A sea of rolling upland, flecked and seamed
With here a crag, and here a monstrous stone,
Here a gaunt patch of heather, half in bloom
And half new-faded to a sickly white.
Yonder a blue lake edged with waving reeds,
Where wildfowl love to nestle, and the wind
Makes wistful music; by the western shore
A fringe of pine trees, – stems of ruddy brown,
Straight as a smoke-wreath on a windless morn,
Like pillars of a woodland shrine, upholding
A deep and solemn verdure. Over all
Lower the grey-pillared foreheads of the cliffs,
Hill ranked by hill, a marshalled battle-line
Of brother giants frozen into stone
Even in the onset; and upon their heads,
Wreathing those foreheads with a mural crown,
The wasted relics of an empire dead
Still brave the storm and sunshine, as they braved
The warrior-tempests of the ancient North.

A silent ruin on a silent waste,
Now rising to the tallness of a man,
Now lost beneath a natural mound of turf,
Like one whom time has laid in sepulture.
A silent ruin, silent to the sense,
But to the finer hearing of the heart
Still vocal: echoes of a life forgot,
Strange notes of far-off music here resound
Above the wind that whistles in the crags.
Some dying whisper of the alien tongue,
Which once spake sternness to a subject world,
Shall linger here, where erst it rang aloud,
Backed by the brazen trumpet notes of power.

Oh that some Muse would wander o’er the hills,
And voice the fainting echo! ’Tis a spot
Almost as quiet as those hidden dells
Amid the woodland heights of Helicon,
Where the Nine Sisters, when the world was young,
Sang to the music of Apollo’s lyre.
A lone bleak wilderness beside the charm
Of those enchanted uplands, like the brow
Of an old shepherd, weather-tanned and grey,
Beside the rosy softness of a girl:
Yet here is more than outward eye can see;
Here lurks the pathos of a buried past,
The glory of endeavour and success,
The bitterness of failure; joy has led
Triumphant revel o’er this sward of green,
And grief has swelled yon murmuring brook with tears,
And love has whispered yonder by the trees;
Here pleasure held her riot in the town,
A handsbreadth space from hunger: everywhere
Has life seethed manifold, everywhere has death
Claimed new a single victim, now a score,
Now the full hundred, and at last the whole.

Come, let us climb to yonder pointed hill,
Which, jutting out toward the naked North,
Captains its basalt fellows. East and west,
Northward and southward, all is pastoral peace,
Or sleepy marsh and moorland: the few sheep,
That nose among the rushes for a meal,
And yon grey heron, winging o’er the waste
To keep his fishing-vigil by the mere, –
These are the only visible things that live.
The few lone farms that speck the southward view,
Sparse as the ships upon a winter sea,
Seem almost relics of a younger past,
Less shattered, scarce less desolate and still.

But come, O Muse of Memory, and tread
With quickening feet this solitary waste;
Stretch out thine hand, and turn the wheel of time
Backward, yet backward to the misty dawn,
The infant years of Britain: bid the charm
Of solemn music breathe upon the moor;
And lo! as sweetness of Amphion’s lyre
Drew stones to rear the battled walls of Thebes,
Here shall a mightier fabric rearise,
Stretched o’er these summits like a monstrous snake
With scales of stone and, dorsal crest of spears.
See, how the moorland seethes again with life!
Hark, how the stillness iof the autumn air
Vibrates with all the myriad sounds of man!
The trumpet blows a warning from the tower;
The measured tramp and clang of weaponed men
Floats upward from the fortress, and the wheels
Creak harshly through the grey dusts of the road.
And yonder, where the little city basks
Behind the cosy shelter of the Wall,
A hum of many voices intermixed
Swells up, and seems to hover like the smoke,–
A murmur of the market and the street,
A snatch of song from one whose work is done,
The clamorous anger of a tavern brawl,
The shrill impeachments of disputing wives,
The noisy comments of a boyish game,
The plaint of children’s lightly wakened grief.

So lived and rung this shred of rugged moor
For some three hundred summers. Who can stand
On this hill-head, and see no more than hills,
Bare moorlands, marshy hollows, fit for sheep
And not for human minds to browse upon?
Nay, let us listen with the soul, and catch
Each moment some lost music of romance,
Some strain of wordless poetry to thrill
Hearts capable of feeling. Here the wind
Shall whistle out a stirring tale of war,
Of clamorous nights when blaze of beacon fires
Brought the grim Tungrians in the nick of time,
As painted thousands from the barbarous North
Came seething upward with a murderous roar
Against this gateway or yon lonely gap,
Or scaled the pillared basalt, thick as flies,
And slew the watch that slumbered in the tower.

Nor shall a strain of softer note be dumb;
For love-tales murmured in a score of tongues
Shall wake our fancy, claim our sympathy,
Or, it may happen, wet our eyes with tears.
Three hundred years, and twenty thousand men
Of twenty diverse races; – stolid folk
From the cold confines of the northern sea
Made neighbours here to some whose hotter blood
Could boil with passion of the amorous south.
Ten thousand common episodes of love,
But surely something greater, something strange,
Some love more fiery than the wonted flame,
Has left the embers of a tortured heart
To move our pity. Many a thrilling tale
Is whispered faintly by the waving grass,
Or muttered by the lapping of the mere:
And some have happy ending, like the calm
Of a pure sunset after hours of storm;
And some end softly with a gentle moan,
And some in blood and throes of tragic pain.

Here in this sunny hollow of the hills
Mayhap some crass Batavian long ago
Has dallied with a maiden of the south,
Toyed with her ebon tresses, sunned his soul
In the deep blaze of dark and passionate eyes;
And after, wearied by her fulsome worship,
Passed with a laugh and proffer of his purse,
And left her with strained eyes and parted lips,
Hands clenched, voice frozen, and a heart on fire, –
Passion of love transformed to passion of hate,–
And but one thought, one hope, one prayer, – revenge.
And soon another meeting in the dusk;
A torrent of reproaches, checked and changed
To soft persuasive blessing as of love,
Still strong though unrequited, and a prayer,
Timidly breathed, for one memorial kiss,
A clutch, a stab, – and so the story ends.

Even thus about a hundred lonely spots
Might Fancy weave the garland of her thoughts
To deck the graves of those who loved and died
A thousand years ago. These massive stones,
Which once upheld the iron-studded gate,
Mayhap could whisper of a summer night,
When some Delilah of the northern moors
Witched the lone sentry to her arms and death.
And here, where once a villa wooed the sun,
A British youth, made hostage for his clan,
Perchance has voiced the passion of his soul,
And pleaded for a Roman maiden’s love;
Or it may be that fury of assault
And lurid menace of devouring fire
Have here shot terror through a woman’s heart; –
A tribune’s daughter, haply, – till at last,
When death has all but gripped her by the throat,
A trumpet-note of rescue, and a man,
Who long has loved her with a bashful love,
And often prayed for such a chance as this,
Leaps with strong arms to hear her through the press,
And wins the homage of a grateful heart,
Which ripens to the harvestage of love.

Nor only love shall whisper out the tale
Of joy or sorrow. Here as everywhere,
Through every region of the Roman world,
Hangs the dusk cloud of slavery. The word
Is poignant in itself: what depths of woe,
What pangs of yearning, and what tales of shame
Are summed in those few letters! Aye, and here
The moan is surely more pathetic still,
Which rises from the captives who of late
Were free barbarians of the northern wilds,
And now are slaves almost in sight of home.

See yon slight figure of a growing boy,
Who longs to weep, but will not weep for pride,
And burns to curse, but dare not curse for fear.
’Tis but a month since in the flush of youth,
A chieftain’s son, he ruled his fellow boys,
And raced in sport across the summer hills,
Shouting with joy to feel the leaping blood
Of young existence and the dawn of strength,
Or plunged and splashed the river into foam,
Clomb forth and waged mock battles on the bank,
Till wind and sunshine dried his naked limbs
And kissed the water from his waving hair.

Or see this weary maiden, who must spin,
That he who slew her lover may he clad
Against the northern winter. Were e curse
In every tear she drops upon the wool,
Not Nessus’ robe were deadlier. But alas!
There is no venom mingled with her tears;
They only scald the fountains whence they rise,
And only mar the smoothness of the cheek
O’er which they chase each other as they fell.
And he, mayhap, her master and her shame,
This very while, luxuriously couched
Beside the seasoned dishes and the wine,
Revels and riots with his drunken friends,
And boasts of things he ought to tell with tears

A mist of weeping hangs about the moor;
A scent of blood steals upward from the grass,
And everywhere a savour as of death
Pervades these relics of a dying age.
Here at the climax of imperial power
This Wall was built; and here within the space
Of one man’s life that power began to die.
Like some death – stricken giant here it lay,
And writhed, and sobbed, and passed from fit to fit,
Now smitten unto semblance of the end,
Now rising with a paroxysm of life,
But never to the pitch of life that was.
Here came a night of pillage and of flame,
Of blood and ruin and barbaric hate,
When the red fury of the rebel north
Burst without warning like a summer storm
Upon the fortress and its slothful guards:
And here a day of vengeance and repair,
A building up of shattered tower and wall,
A cleansing of the rubbish-cumbered street,
But never to completion. Year by year
Worse follows better: year by year the work,
Of old so strong, so thorough, so immense,
Is patched and clouted with a feebler hand;
And all the arts and energies of life
(The stones bear record); wane to something worse,
Something less vigorous, something less exact.
The lamp is dying: ever and again
There leaps a flicker of its wonted flame,
But every flash is lower than the last,
And as it sinks it leaves more smoke behind.

So the smoke thickens and obscures the end, –
The latest and most lurid scene of all;
And dimly through the vapour and the mark
Appear vague shapes of agony and shame,
And shrieks of inarticulate distress
Ring out half stifled through the choking air.
Then darkness and the quietude of death
Succeed, and close the tragedy of Rome.