CA Letters August 2022

Your views on issues raised in Current Archaeology.

Back to the Wall

CA 389 contained two excellent articles on Hadrian’s Wall, the first concerning the Ilam Pan, and the second posing the query of when exactly the Wall was constructed – AD 122 or earlier? I wondered whether the answer to that question may be partially found in the first article.

The Ilam Pan commemorates the four forts between the Solway Firth and Lanercost, thus guarding the lowland gap between the Firth and the inhospitable high moors to the east (an obvious route for raiders from the north). Perhaps the references to Picts coming by boat reflects them crossing the shallow waters of the Firth – that would certainly explain the presence of the two western forts at Bowness and Drumburgh.

The eastern coast was a much more settled area, with farmland stretching north to at least Berwick-upon-Tweed. This, presumably, was part of the territory of the Votadini, who had good relations with the Romans and provided foederati troops for them, so it would have been a much less vulnerable frontier.

PHOTO: M Symonds.

One could imagine that the Wall with forts was started in the west to control the lowland gap, and then extended eastwards as the raiding Picts shifted their attention eastwards to get around the Wall. That would fit the theory that the Wall was commenced before Hadrian’s visit in AD 122 but was ‘completed’ or extended after his expedition to temporarily quell trouble in the north, recognising that such trouble could never be stamped out but that a period of peace could be secured in which the Wall could be completed.

I suspect that more knowledgeable others will explain why this theory is flawed, but I feel it needs thinking about.

Robert Britnell
Canterbury

CA asked Dr Matthew Symonds, editor of our sister-magazine Current World Archaeology, and an expert on Hadrian’s Wall, for his thoughts. He said:

‘The impact on Hadrian’s Wall of variations in terrain and the attitudes of the local communities living nearby are really important questions. While the eastern two-thirds of the Wall were built of stone, the western third – from the Irthing to just beyond Bowness-on-Solway – was originally built of turf, earth, and timber (with stone turrets). This is a close fit with the stretch between the Solway Firth and Lanercost that Robert Britnell identifies as significant. Why this stretch of Wall was initially treated differently has been the subject of much debate, but one explanation is that the population living in the west were more hostile to Roman interests. Using turf rather than stone would allow the barrier and military posts to be put in place much faster.

‘Unsurprisingly, more building inscriptions survive from the stone than the turf stretches of the Wall. One fragment of a timber building inscription from milecastle 50, though, indicates that it was constructed during the governorship of Aulus Platorius Nepos. He arrived in Britain in 122, and is also named on numerous inscriptions from the stone portion of the Wall. On that basis, the stone and turf elements were being constructed at roughly the same time (with the turf part presumably completed first). Interestingly, two of the stone installations that can stake the strongest claim to being constructed before 122 are milecastles 47 and 48. They lie in the Tipalt-Irthing gap, which is a 2.55km-wide bottleneck of land that creates a natural junction in the landscape. Controlling it was key to controlling regional movement, suggesting that the Roman army took a keen interest in the terrain – and how people moved through it – when building Hadrian’s Wall.’

(Matthew has also written a special feature on how warfare shaped Hadrian’s Wall in issue 129 of CA’s stablemate Military History Matters, which is on sale now.)

Sharp observations

On a recent visit to the wonderful Sutton Hoo exhibition, I was fascinated by the ‘sceptre’ that had bearded faces at one end and clean-shaven faces at the other. The item seemed to me to look more like a whetstone, with a handle at the top and a flat base to rest on a surface.

Could it be a ceremonial type of barber’s tool? The quirky addition of the little moustache on the helmet could add credence to this thought that the wearer liked his facial grooming.

Hilary Gullen
Surrey

CA contacted The National Trust about the sceptre and Laura Howarth, Archaeology and Engagement Manager at Sutton Hoo, said:

‘The object in question is the “sceptre” from Mound 1 (the Great Ship Burial) at Sutton Hoo. The original is part of the British Museum’s collection, but a master-crafted replica is on permanent display in our Exhibition Hall. Also referred to as a whetstone, this enigmatic object made from greywacke has eight different intricately carved faces, four faces at each end. Some are clean-shaven, others have facial hair. Who do the faces represent – gods? Ancestors? A cast-bronze stag crowns a twisted iron ring at the top. For more information, please see the British Museum’s collections website: www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/H_1939-1010-160.’

Remembrance at Butser

I look forward to receiving my copy of Current Archaeology each month and this August’s edition (CA 389) was certainly a page-turner – I hardly knew which article to read first.

PHOTO: Butser Ancient Farm

‘Butser Ancient Farm at 50’, however, brought back a very warm memory of the Farm’s first director, Peter Reynolds. Many years ago, I accompanied a friend from work on a visit to Butser as part of her A-level Archaeology course. It was Saturday 11 November, and we were privileged to be shown around Butser by Peter himself. We were inside the Pimperne roundhouse [pictured under construction in the 1970s, above] when Peter suggested that we stop and observe the two-minute silence there. It was for me the most memorable Armistice Day I have experienced. Peter asked us to remember not just those who died in the First and Second World Wars, but those who died in other wars throughout the ages in the British Isles.

Ruth Herd
Cornwall

Edible archaeology

We recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of Butser Ancient Farm [see CA 389] with this amazing and very tasty (chocolate) cake. There was a tour of the Farm with updates on various projects, and many friends both old and new.

Karen Hill

CA Online

SAVEBritainsHeritage @SAVEBrit
A 9-page review of our Canterbury Take Care! publication in the latest edition of @CurrentArchaeo Purchase a copy here: www.savebritainsheritage.org/publications

Daniel Omar Pascoe @DanPascoe79
Want to understand what it is like to excavate the best-preserved 18th-century warship in the UK, then this podcast is for you. Thanks @calum_mh and Carly @CurrentArchaeo

Current Archaeology @CurrentArchaeo
On the latest episode of the @read_the_past podcast, Current Archaeology editor Carly Hilts and @calum_mh spoke with @DanPascoe79 about the fascinating wreck of HMS Invincible, a Georgian time capsule. Listen here: https://anchor.fm/the-past/episodes/HMS-Invincible-excavating-a-Georgian-time-capsule-e1kq466

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