Do we need another book on Hadrian’s Wall? The answer in this case is a resounding ‘yes’. The authors curate the magnificent collections derived from several centuries of research, excavation, and antiquarian collection along the frontier. Their expertise and knowledge are demonstrated by their selection of illustrations, but this is not a mere catalogue. Each object has been chosen to illustrate a particular aspect of the lives of the people – men, women, and children; military and civilian – who lived along the frontier and in its shadow.
The introductory chapter briefly sketches the building and history of Hadrian’s Wall. The following chapters each consider an aspect of frontier life. ‘Communities and homes’ examines the three types of community within the frontier landscape: military, urban, and rural. It also briefly considers the diverse nature of the frontier population. The chapter on ‘dress and appearance’ has possibly the most varied set of evidence, from a child’s cloth sock and a woven-moss wig, both from Vindolanda, to cosmetic pots and every kind of jewellery. The painted label from the neck of an amphora from Carlisle that had contained North African tunny relish is the star object in the section on ‘eating and drinking’, while the section on ‘security’ includes not only arms and armour, but also personal security: locks, keys, and seals. Under ‘business and pleasure’, tools and evidence for literacy occupy one end of the scale, while toys, the ivory gladiator from South Shields, and the famous Vindolanda birthday party invitation occupy the other. The many cult practices, the range of deities worshipped, and the evidence of tombstones again cast light on the diversity of the population and their ‘belief, in life and death’. In the ‘last days of the Roman Wall’, the range of objects diminishes, but the study of what little there is has advanced our understanding of this phase. In a further chapter, the authors consider the ‘unknowns’, objects whose function remains a mystery to be solved.
It is rare that an archaeological book can be described as beautiful, but this one truly is. It is an essential book for anyone with an interest in the material culture of the Roman frontiers in its wider context.
Living on the Edge of Empire: the objects and people of Hadrian’s Wall, Rob Collins and the curators of Hadrian’s Wall, Pen and Sword Archaeology, £25, ISBN 978-1783463275.
Review by Tony Wilmott.