Hadrian’s Wall: exploring its past to protect its future

Review by Matthew Symonds

Ever fancied a behind-the-scenes tour of Hadrian’s Wall? While there are many ways to explore its Roman past on the page or in the field, securing an insider’s peek at the day-to-day management of the monument has always been more of a challenge. Until now. In the preface of this fascinating and engaging volume, editors Marta Alberti, of the Vindolanda Trust, and Katie Mountain, of Pre-Construct Archaeology Durham, promise ‘a candid discussion of Hadrian’s Wall, warts and all: a mirror held to what the Wall is now, rather than what it should be.’ In this, the contributions making up the volume certainly do not disappoint.

The contents are impressive both for the breadth of subjects tackled and for the editors’ success in securing contributions from a series of key figures. Leafing through the volume lays bare how much thought and hard work goes into protecting Hadrian’s Wall and presenting its archaeology to the public. Along the way, readers can dip into subjects as varied as the monitoring of archaeological deposits, the value of remote sensing, and how both individual artefacts and entire landscapes are being digitally captured. Several contributions focus on interpretation, be it in the museum, the field, through living history, or via the internet. There are many gems to savour, with one re-enactor likening his role to that of a swallow, expected to ‘reappear every summer!’ We are also told that museum permanent displays tend to skirt cutting-edge interpretations as ‘the latest theories may be rejected or become outdated very quickly.’

There are many examples of such candour. A contribution on the National Trail covers the response to stinging criticism of damage published in 2005, while a chapter on collections management features a frank discussion about the impact of a wider national crisis. Such honesty is one of the volume’s great strengths. And what of the future? Two contributions ponder what lies in store for the Wall and the wider Frontiers of the Roman Empire World Heritage Site. Both find some grounds for optimism, which is all the more encouraging in a book that is not afraid to tell it as it is.

Hadrian’s Wall: exploring its past to protect its future
Marta Alberti and Katie Mountain (eds)
Archaeopress, £28
ISBN 978-1803272740