Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Roman Wall

Two sketches of the remaining Roman walls at Housesteads fort

Not, interestingly, Hadrian’s Wall, because, when the two books I’m blogging about today were written, it was not certain which emperor was responsible for the sea-to-sea landmark. It was in fact their author, John Collingwood Bruce (1805–92), who produced the definitive arguments in favour of Hadrian rather than Septimius Severus.

Although Bruce, the son of a school proprietor in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, trained for the Presbyterian ministry after attending the university of Glasgow, he seems never to have a sought a call to serve a congregation, and succeeded his father in 1834, retiring from teaching in 1863.

Bruce’s passion was the archaeology and ancient history of Northumberland. (According to the OED, the first uses of the word ‘archaiology/archeologie’ in the seventeenth century were as synonyms for ‘ancient history’. Its specific use for study by excavation seems to have arisen in the nineteenth: Whewell’s History of the Inductive Sciences, Wilson’s Prehistoric Annals of Scotland, and Tylor’s Primitive Culture, all use it in the modern sense.)

The Roman Wall, the first of Bruce’s two books, was published in 1851. The subtitle describes it as ‘A Historical, Topographical, and Descriptive Account of the Barrier of the Lower Isthmus, Extending from the Tyne to the Solway, Deduced from Numerous Personal Surveys’. Bruce uses both the writings of medieval and recent historians, and his own and others’ field surveys and excavations to describe the route of the wall from Wallsend  to the Solway, and the surviving structures such as forts and milecastles along its length. Bruce also discusses and illustrates the Roman artefacts discovered around the wall, from pottery and nails to funerary monuments, which give insights into the lives of the soldiers from across the Roman empire who were stationed along this often damp and dismal northern outpost.

The second work, published in 1863, is called ‘the wallet-book of the Roman Wall’ because it was intended as a walker’s guide, to be tucked into the travelling bag, knapsack, or capacious pocket of the energetic antiquarian. As Bruce explains in his preface, ‘now, the general diffusion of knowledge, the interest felt by Englishmen in the history of their own country, and a better appreciation of the value of antiquarian research, have awakened a desire in many carefully to examine the Barrier of the Lower Isthmus from sea to sea’.

The book ‘does not profess to describe the various objects visited, but to inform the traveller what he is to look for, and to assist him in examining it’. Bruce refers the reader seeking more information to The Roman Wall, ‘a third edition of which has been some years in preparation, and will ere long be reissued’. The wallet-book itself – renamed The Handbook of the Roman Wall – was regularly revised and updated. Its fourteenth edition, completely rewritten and updated by Professor David Breeze, was published in 2006 by the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne (of which Bruce had been secretary and vice-president), and offers ‘a durable weatherproof cover and the compact pocket size shared by all previous editions’.

The guide is also east-to-west, starting from Wallsend and ending 73 miles later at Bowness on Solway. The walking bit is preceded by a short history of the wall, including medieval and more recent accounts, and then ‘a general view of the works’ – an overview of the structure itself. The ‘local description’ is divided into sections, with maps and many line drawings of buildings and finds.

Bruce does not restrict himself to antiquity, but describes modern developments: for example, the mining operations at Wallsend itself, where ‘that which was so long known as Mr Buddle’s house … is just within the line of what was [the Roman station’s] western rampart … Mr Buddle used to say, that when bathing in the river, as a boy, he had often noticed the foundations of this wall extending far into the river.’ (John Buddle (1773–1843) was a mining engineer and colliery manager who is regarded as the pioneer of modern coal-mining practice: his circle of friends included William Buckland and Harriet Martineau.)

Near Drumburgh, north of Carlisle, where the castle was constructed of masonry from the wall: ‘In cutting the canal (now the railway), in the vicinity of Glasson, a prostrate forest of considerable extent was met with. “Although the precise period when this forest fell is not ascertainable, there is positive proof that it must have been prior to the building of the Wall, because the foundations of the Wall passed obliquely over it, and lay three or four feet above the level of the trees.” Much of the timber was sound; some of it was used in forming the jetty at Port Carlisle.’ A  startling example of industrial recycling over millennia!

What would now be seen as vandalistic despoiling of ancient sites, rather than virtuous recycling, was not confined to castle-builders and industrialists: ‘The ornamental cottage in the valley [near Vindolanda] was built by the late Rev. Anthony Headley, an earnest and able antiquary. With the exception of the quoins and lintels, it is constructed of stones chiseled only by Roman hands.’

Bruce led two ‘pilgrimages’ of enthusiasts along the wall, in 1851 and 1886, and these apparently still take place every ten years or so. A walk along the wall using Bruce’s first edition as a guide might go on the bucket list: and we can be inspired by William Hutton (1723–1815, and coming soon!), bookseller, paper-maker and historian, whom Bruce frequently quotes. He set off in 1801, at the age of seventy-seven, to walk from Birmingham to Penrith (his daughter and a servant accompanied him on a horse). He then walked to Carlisle (while she visited the Lakes), and from there walked the length of the wall and back, and then home to Birmingham – 601 miles in 35 days, in the height of summer. An example to us all!

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