ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 55, October 2000


Roman PoWs

From Mr Roy Blackman

Sir: I'd like more compelling evidence for the circular buildings found at Vindolanda Fort on Hadrian's Wall being for POWs (News, August). Why would the Roman administration want to hold up to 2,000 British prisoners? Why not house them in existing buildings or stockades?

Why, if new accommodation was necessary, build roundhouses for them rather than `normal' rectilinear Roman buildings? Wouldn't the prisoners have to be exceptionally favoured (or exceptionally useful) to be treated in this way? Could they have been hostages? Is it even certain that these buildings were dwellings?

Yours sincerely,
Roy Blackman
11 August

World War II remains

From Mr Bob Clarke

Sir: William Foot looks forward to the advent of adequate protection for military monuments in the near future (`Landscape of War', August).

Your readers may be interested to learn that one such monument does already have the same protection as `such famous prehistoric jewels as Neolithic Avebury or Skara Brae' - albeit by default. This is at the MoD airfield of DERA Boscombe Down near Salisbury. During the construction of the airfield's defensive network in 1940, a pillbox was built on the bank of a disc barrow. This barrow is now scheduled, and included within the notice is the pillbox. Curious bedfellows!

Yours sincerely,
Bob Clarke
DERA Field Archaeologist
21 August

From Mr Andrew Simpson

Sir: Your photograph of the Sussex anti-aircraft position in 1943 is one of the most atmospheric WWII shots I have seen for some time.

However, the finest aircraft recognition brains of Hendon point out that the `target' is not a German bomber - as stated in the caption - but actually an RAF Douglas Boston light bomber, one of those aircraft acquired on lend-lease from the USA from 1940. (Or possibly a USAAF cousin - the wing markings aren't too clear.)

Pedantically yours,
Andrew Simpson
RAF Museum Hendon
18 August

Numerous eagle-eyed readers pointed out that the plane in the illustration to William Foot's article was not an enemy aircraft but an RAF Douglas Boston.


From Dr James Dyer

Sir: May I correct the caption to the photograph of the reconstructed Little Woodbury roundhouse (Great Sites, August)? There were no TV programmes in the 1940s!

The shot was taken from a brilliant 45-minute film called The Beginning of History, made jointly for the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Information by the Crown Film Unit in 1944. The archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes wrote the script and acted as advisor to the director Graham Wallace.

In spite of the difficulties of the war, the film unit travelled all over England, Wales, Scotland and the Isle of Man to obtain stunning photographs of field monuments and artefacts, as well as using models and reconstructions. Demonstrations of techniques such as bronze casting or flint knapping were cleverly filmed so that only the hands were seen. Jacquetta Hawkes was adamant that no incongruously dressed humans should appear.

For the Little Woodbury reconstruction, Graham Wallace spent a long time interviewing the excavator, Gerhard Bersu, then interned on the Isle of Man. The farmstead itself was rebuilt at Pinewood Studios as faithfully as the excavation plan would allow.

With regard to the roof of the roundhouse, Jacquetta Hawkes has recorded that `At the time of the excavation Dr Bersu had inclined to the belief that this was thatched, but subsequent evidence gained in the Isle of Man convinced him that the covering had been of turf. For better or worse, therefore, turf was used in the reconstruction, and the roof was made as a low dome running with little break into the earth-piled walls' (Antiquity XX, 1946). The farmstead had storage pits, drying frames and granaries, and was surrounded by a stockade. It was inhabited by Soay sheep, goats, and a couple of New Forest ponies.

An accompanying set of 12 photographic wall charts, models and a filmstrip were provided when the film was hired for showing in schools. It was on the CBA's recommended list for schools well into the 1970s, and although the commentary has obviously dated, it is a remarkably optimistic summary of British prehistory, made at a crucial time in the history of our country more than half a century ago.

Yours sincerely,
James Dyer
10 August

Rail widths

From Mr Mark Bell

Sir: The idea that the modern railway gauge is a direct descendent of the Roman road width is a myth (Letters, August).

Roman roads varied in width but were much wider than 4 foot 8.5 inches - how could you march a whole legion down a road so narrow? The medieval roads that succeeded the Roman ones were not narrow rutted tracks, but broad paths, sometimes hundreds of feet wide, made up of a number of parallel trails. Any cart following slavishly in the exact wheel ruts of another would quickly bog down.

The truth is much simpler. In the early 19th century, a different company built each railway line and though some visionaries could see the day when they would join up to form a national network, there was no incentive to use a uniform gauge. George Stephenson used a gauge of 4 foot 8.5 inches by increasing the gauge of his local tramway by half an inch.

This `standard gauge', as it was to become, spread because Stephenson built the best locomotives. America's first railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio, used the 4 foot 8.5 inches standard. However other American railways used different gauges. 4 foot 10 inches was popular, and in the South a round 5 foot was often used. Between New York and Washington, trains of `compromise cars' were run that could run on both standard and wider gauge rails.

In Britain, the Great Western railway used a broad gauge of 7 foot, giving it the fastest and most comfortable trains in Britain, but could not exchange rolling stock with any other company. There were many attempts to solve this problem involving locomotives and carriages with three wheels to an axle, or with multi-railed track.

Eventually Parliament was forced to do what it should have done in the first place and passed the Gauge Act in 1846, specifying that 4 foot 8.5 inches was to be the maximum width of track to be used in England, Scotland and Wales. The act exempted Ireland, which had already built most of its track on 5 foot 3 inches. The Gauge Act only set the maximum width of the track and there are still a number of narrow gauge railways in Britain.

Yours sincerely,
Mark Bell
24 August

From Mr Arthur Smith

Sir: In his letter, John Malam linked the diameter of the solid rocket boosters on the Space Shuttle with the standard railway gauge of 4ft 8ins.

I have no idea whether all the evolutionary steps described by Mr Malam are correct as far as railway history is concerned. But I am sure that the actual diameter of the SRBs of 12.17ft has only a fleeting relevance to railway gauges. Its design and dimensions were actually decided by the necessary power to be obtained from the SRBs in order to place into orbit the maximum designed payload of 65,000lbs. I'm inclined to think that the fact that the SRBs would pass through the railway tunnel was purely coincidental and if the designers had been forced to increase the diameter they would have found another route.

Yours sincerely,
Arthur Smith
11 August

We welcome letters from readers. They may be emailed to Mike Pitts the Editor at or faxed to 01904 671384. They may be edited.

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