Editor Mike Pitts
Roman Empire: World Heritage
David J Breeze asks UNESCO and countries across Europe to celebrate defences that once rivalled the Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China is 6,000 km long.
A similar length of fortifications protected the Roman empire and survives in three continents—Europe, Asia and Africa—and over 20 modern countries. At its greatest extent, the empire stretched from the Atlantic to Iraq, from the Scottish Highlands to the Sahara. In its expansionist days the Roman state did not need frontiers, but from the time of the emperor Claudius in the mid-1st century AD, its boundaries increasingly came to be protected. Forts were supplemented by fortlets and towers and eventually by linear barriers. Today traces of such barriers survive in Britain and Germany, built in timber, clay and stone. Elsewhere we possess a rich legacy of military installations along the Rhine and Danube and along the Carpathians in Romania.
Several of these sites—Housesteads on Hadrian’s Wall, The Saalburg in Germany, Carnuntum in Austria, Aquincum in Hungary, Porolissum in Romania—are icons of a civilisation that still inspires our imagination, not least in literature and film. Roman frontiers are also one vast archaeological database, steadily growing from before the first scientific excavations in the 1890s. This is a wonderful tool for studying the function of frontiers, Romanisation and relations with indigenous people, supply, ethnicity and other subjects of wide interest to archaeologists and historians.
Hadrian’s Wall is the only Roman frontier inscribed as a World Heritage Site, since 1987. When it was proposed recently to nominate the German Limes for such status, complications soon became obvious.
Firstly, it could be assumed that the nomination would be followed by similar proposals from other European countries. This has indeed happened. One of the first was from Scotland: at the beginning of 2003 the then Deputy Minister of Culture and Sport, Dr Elaine Murray, announced that she would be proposing the inscription of the Antonine Wall as a World Heritage Site.
The second problem was that such nominations would clash with UNESCO’s stated intention of restricting the number of World Heritage Site nominations from Europe.
The solution was to create a single multi-country World Heritage Site to encompass all the European frontiers of the Roman empire. This might later be extended to cover the frontiers in Asia and Africa. That required two separate actions, both now achieved.
Firstly, the UK Government has agreed that further parts of the European frontier can be added to the existing Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site. Secondly, UNESCO has agreed to change the way it lists World Heritage Sites which cover two or more countries. In future, such Sites will appear under a new heading of Transboundary Sites but each Site will also be listed under the individual country.
In UNESCO language a ‘phased serial transboundary World Heritage Site’ will be created. Each new section of the frontier, nominated by each European country, will be added to the existing Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site. This might formally be known as Roman Frontiers, but within that title each country will retain its own name for its frontier, for example, Hadrian’s Wall, the German Limes and the Antonine Wall. To date, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, and the UK for the Antonine Wall, have all declared their intention of proposing sections of the frontier as part of the World Heritage Site.
World Heritage Sites require Management Plans. We are all conscious of how traditions of research, and monument care and management differ across Europe. There is no intention of forcing all these into a straight-jacket. We are therefore considering not the creation of a single plan to encompass the whole World Heritage Site, but a philosophy for the conservation, management and display of Roman frontiers. Each country could create its own Management Plan reflecting both its own traditions and values, and the general management philosophy.
Management Plans recommend the formulation of research strategies. In 2002 the European Archaeological Association established a working party to consider ways in which research strategies for all the European frontiers of the Roman empire might be created. It was decided to seek European funds to further the proposals, and an application is currently being prepared for the Culture 2000 programme.
The bid will encompass the creation of a website and the preparation of a travelling exhibition. There will be guidelines for the formulation and linking of national databases, for the recording of frontiers, and for their conservation, management and display.
There will be pilot projects in each area. Museums cannot become World Heritage Sites and generally the process ignores artefacts. We hope the pilot projects will help to bring archaeological sites and artefacts closer together.
Such a project, which will occupy both English Heritage and Historic Scotland, will not be the only task facing Scottish cultural resource managers. A nomination for the Antonine Wall has to be prepared for submission to UNESCO. This will involve considerable discussion with the local authorities and other stakeholders through whose areas the frontier runs. It is hoped to start both processes in the next financial year.
We cannot re-create the Roman empire. Roman archaeologists and cultural resource managers can, however, establish new standards for international co-operation for the preservation, study and display of monuments. The greatest of these stretches across no less than 12 European countries.
Breeze is chair of the European Archaeological Association’s Working Party on Roman Frontiers and Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments in Scotland. He is the author (with B Dobson) of ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ (Penguin £11.99)
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005