The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 102

Issue 102

Sept / Oct 2008



Windfarm dig finds boat in style of Sutton Hoo

Prehistoric village under Isle of Man runway

Rare house continues first farmers debate

In the press

In Brief & Phase 2


Hadrian in London
The 'Hadrian: Empire and Conflict' exhibiton is impressive

Hadrian's Wall
Abandoned after three centuries, but still alive

New WHS, the Antonine Wall
David J Breeze tells how to make a successful bid to UNESCO

THE BIG DIG: Stonehenge
Mike Pitts sorts out the technical data

additional content
Reading about the Archaeology of Stonehenge

The Stonehenge Olympics
Plans for the stones to get the new facilities ready for 2012

on the web

Recommended websites
Caroline Wickham-Jones explores the realms of archaeological fiction and a look at Barwick-in-Elmet Historical Society's website


your views and responses


a piece about Bonekickers with no archaeological puns!


Seeking what is best for buried bones, Sebastian Payne looks at new leglislation

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Gill Chitty on the stones, the bill and beyond


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Hadrian in London – Main cover story: His show, his wall, his boyfriend...

The emperor returns in triumph (with friends and relations). "He built something in almost every city". Hadrian: Empire and Conflict is the second exhibition at the British Museum to tell stories about the past through the lives of autocrats. Mike Pitts is impressed.

Hadrian's face appears

Hadrian's face appearing in an excavation at Sagalassos, Turkey, in July 2007. The colossal marble head, seen publicly for the first time, is a highlight of the British Museum's exhibition. Image used with permission.
The headline quotation is from the C4thAD Historia Augusta.

English-speaking tourists sometimes journey out to Rome's southern suburbs, where in a green, northern-looking cemetery are the tombs of Keats and Shelley. Beside the cemetery a huge, grassy mound rises above the river Tiber. Known as Monte Testaccio, it is composed entirely of carefully layered sherds, the fragments of 25m amphorae that brought an estimated 1.7bn kilos of olive oil into ancient Rome.

The first recorded excavation at this giant heap of potsherds was directed by the German Heinrich Dressel in 1872 (if you can afford the fee, you can dig there yourself this autumn. His finds informed a classification of Roman amphorae that is still in use, and in the British Museum's exhibition about Hadrian you can see six complete vessels identified as Dressel 20.

What is significant about these jars, and the two fragments also displayed that show an impressed and a painted label, is what they tell us about ancient Rome. Stamps and inscriptions detail oil producers and owners, kiln owners, oil weights, traders and state trading officials: in the words of exhibition curator Thorsten Opper, the hill is a "gigantic archive of Roman economic history".

The amphorae take the story back to many hundreds of riverside kilns in Baetica, southern Spain. Not all Spanish olive oil went to Rome (one of the exhibited jars was found on Hadrian's Wall), but over 80% of Monte Testaccio came from Baetica. The local elite prospered from empire, and used their wealth to enter Roman politics. Among the benefiting families was Hadrian's: some suggest that his father may actually be named on amphorae from one estate (though Opper is sceptical). Whatever the case, a great leader of an empire whose legacy is profoundly felt even today, was ultimately brought to power by Spanish oil.

This story, told in the exhibition and the accompanying book, is an insight into how this stimulating, ambitious project works. The BM uses artefacts, and the results of excavation and archaeological science, to underpin biographies and historically-recorded events. This is not a display of antiquities as art. Neither is it literary history. It is not, as a superficial sight of the lavish publicity might encourage some archaeologists to think, blockbuster inanity – and it is certainly not boring. I will return to these issues: but first, more on the protagonist.

The events that actually led to Hadrian becoming emperor began with the assassination of Domitian in AD96. When he succeeded Trajan 11 years later, he executed four senators and created a public bonfire of records of overdue state taxes. Meanwhile he saved the empire froma huge financial commitment in the east, by relinquishing Trajan's newly acquired provinces of Armenia, Assyria and Mesopotamia – or, in the opening words of a BM video, "His first act as emperor was to pull the Roman army out of Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq)".

Hadrian came to Britain in 122. There may already have been a war here during these first five years of his reign, with a second soon to follow. He had decided to build a rampart defining the empire's most northern boundary, 45km of it in turf (between Bowness-on-Solway and the river Irthing) and 72km in stone, continuing the barrier along the line of the existing Stanegate road to the river Tyne in the east. Every Roman mile (1.6km) was a small guard post or castle, and between each of these were two towers; the line of towers continued a further 32km down the Cumbrian coast without a rampart.

This plan, however, was changed before it had been completed. Forts were built to house troops moved up to the wall. A large earthwork known as the vallum, with fewer breaks than in the wall itself, was constructed to the south. The width of the wall in progress was reduced slightly, and a start was made on converting the turf section into stone. The resulting wall between Bowness on the Solway Firth and Wallsend on the Tyne (its 117km happily echoing Hadrian's accession date of AD117) was a monumental construction, passing through landscapes that are sometimes spectacular and were always long-settled. Though much decayed (leaving questions such as whether or not it had a walkway and crenellations open to much debate), it has been a significant and defining feature of the very north of England ever since (see feature by Hingley and Nesbitt in this issue).

Hadrian's Wall was not the only frontier barrier in the Roman empire. The Upper German-Raetian Limes (like Hadrian's Wall, and now the Antonine Wall in Scotland, part of the Frontiers of the Roman Empire world heritage site: see feature by Breeze in this issue) stretched to more than 550km between the rivers Rhine and Danube. Built of earth and timber with timber or stone forts and around 1,000 towers, the German limes was extended and altered over more than a century and a half. Hadrian may or may not have had a hand in any of its construction, but excavation has shown that at least one of three sections of fossatum Africae was built during his reign. This was a series of mudbrick walls adding up to over 200km and laid out remarkably like Hadrian's Wall, discovered by French officers in Algeria and Tunisia.

Earlier this year, as I looked across the dramatic but bleak Northumberland moor that sweeps away from Hadrian's Wall at Housesteads fort, I listened to Thorsten Opper talk about why the wall was built. In the course of visiting colleagues as he put together the exhibition, he had travelled through much of the former empire. The conflict zones of Hadrian's time, he said – the Balkans, Mesopotamia and Judea among them – are scenes of strife today. He was struck by the Israeli West Bank barrier, a model, he said, for Hadrian's Wall.

The Israeli wall – already longer than Hadrian's Wall, and growing – is described by its creators as a defence, keeping Palestinian terrorists on one side away from Israeli civilians on the other. Its effects, however, are more complex. A 2005 UN report noted the problems the wall causes for ordinary Palestinians. People who have lived in the area for generations have restricted or no access to their traditional farmland. Schools, universities and hospitals have been taken out of their everyday routines. Communities have been broken up, and the very wall has destroyed land and property. On the other hand, gates are not to allow soldiers to make sudden defensive assaults in unoccupied territory, but to give Palestinians – with the correct permits – access to Israel.

"It is difficult to overstate the humanitarian impact of the barrier", concluded the report. Furthermore, uncertainty over its course while it is still under construction "has led to considerable anxiety amongst Palestinians about how their future lives will be impacted". The sheer presence of the wall "has significantly affected Palestinian life" (see 2007 update).

This is a quite different vision for the world in which Hadrian's Wall was built and manned, from the one most often depicted in popular books and guides – and in academic texts. Yet the idea that the wall might have been designed less as a frontier to a civilised land, to separate Romans and barbarians, than as a disruptive force within an alien and uncontrollable population is seductive. I rubbed my blue knuckles for warmth, and thought about the people who must once have walked back and forth along tracks permanently cut by the wall, who lost fields to its construction and the needs of the army, who must, sometimes, have seen their homes and livelihoods wiped out in its path. What would they have said?

It would be a mistake to dismiss Opper's enthusiasm for making such comparisons between Hadrian's times and our own as mere flights of fashion, or a lack of conviction in the power of history on its own to captivate a public. Hadrian pulling out of Iraq, and building divisive walls, are two such analogies he makes – from, and with, conviction. There are more.

In AD132, Hadrian bloodily suppressed a Jewish revolt in Judea (with Britain's governor Severus in charge of operations), and afterwards renamed the province Syria-Palestina. One of Hadrian's key legacies was a "sustained building boom", which culminated in his own mausoleum in Rome; the design of the Pantheon reaches through time to shape the dome of the Reading Room now housing the exhibition. The book's chapter on the emperor's relationship with the young Greek Antinous opens defiantly with the simple sentence, "Hadrian was gay". With all these themes, Opper draws contemporary parallels, challenging us to think anew about both past and present. It can be misinterpreted: the culture of Rome was not the same as ours. But below the headlines, it works. Superb exhibits are grouped together not for the reverential gaze of the art historian, but for narrative power and sheer visual awe. By rising to its stated challenge to depict four "great rulers who shaped the world in which we now live" – Qin Shihuangdi last year (feature, Nov/Dec 2007), the Persian Shah Abbas next year and the Aztec Moctezuma II into 2010 – the BM is already on the way to creating its own, great legacy: an entertaining and intellectually invigorating blast to the worlds ofmuseums and archaeology. Which brings us back to the nature of the exhibition.

Underlining the links between the four planned shows, the first two accompanying books are of identical design, and one imagines some visitors will collect the set (The First Emperor, edited by Jane Portal, was in this magazine's Amazon top four over a period of eight months – that does not, of course, include sales at the BM). They are beautiful books, and their content is accessible, informative and current. But they are not catalogues: the "list of exhibits" occupies 12 pages in The First Emperor, and 10 in Hadrian.

Compare this with other major archaeological exhibitions. In the Royal Academy's fabulous Aztecs book (2002), 96 pages of "scholarly catalogue entries have been written by curators from 66 lending institutions". The catalogue in Yorkshire Museum's Constantine the Great (2006) fills 139 pages. The BM's own Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia (2005) is a true catalogue, in which each chapter consists of a scholarly essay preceding detailed object descriptions.

This is the traditional, academic approach still followed in art galleries where the show itself can be shamelessly populist. But with these "great rulers", the BM has created exhibitions that people will engage with, and books that people will read, that tell relevant, well-researched stories, and redefine the concept of public archaeology. See Hadrian. And, if you are an archaeologist or curator, you should go twice: once to enjoy the show, and again to see how it is done.

Hadrian: Empire & Conflict closed Oct 26. The CBA London weekend (Oct 17–19) included an exhibition visit and a lecture on Hadrian by Thorsten Opper.

See also Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project, Turkey.

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