The first Wall scholars

Hadrian’s Wall was not forgotten in the centuries following the Roman rule of Britain, and writers and scholars across the centuries continued to investigate the Wall. The understanding of the Wall and its purpose evolved through this work, as did approaches to Wall preservation.

In the 6th century, Gildas claimed that the Wall was built by the British to protect themselves from the Picts and Scots after the Roman army had abandoned the island in the 5th century. This view prevailed for nearly 1,000 years.

It was not until the 16th century that the Wall began to attract the attention of more scholarly writers. The first major account was written by William Camden in Britannia, following his visit to the Wall in 1599. However, this was a period of intense border strife between England and Scotland, and Camden avoided the central sector of the Wall because of ‘the rank robbers thereabouts’. But subsequent editions of Britannia added more information until Gibson’s 1722 edition provided the first account of the whole line of the Wall.

These first scholars identified that the Wall was a Roman monument, but did not agree on which emperor built it. Septimius Severus was the favoured builder.

More people began to visit Hadrian’s Wall following the Acts of Union in 1706/7. These visitors often published a record of their journey, for example William Stukeley (1776) and William Hutton (1802).

In 1812 the Reverend John Hodgson included an account of the Wall in The Picture of Newcastle upon Tyne; he followed this up with a fuller discussion in the last volume of his History of Northumberland (1840). Significantly, it was Hodgson who convincingly argued that it was the Emperor Hadrian who had been responsible for building the Wall.

Crucial to the advancement of Wall studies was the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne (SANT), formed in 1813. This society provided a forum that encouraged the exchange of scholarship and stimulated new investigations, many of which were focused on Hadrian’s Wall.

The earliest excavations on Hadrian’s Wall were carried out by founder member John Hodgson and Anthony Hedley, who joined in 1820 to investigate ‘the stationary economy’ of the Romans. The Society was instrumental in the 1852-55 excavations at High Rochester fort which produced the first surveyed plan of the interior of a Roman military site in Britain. SANT remains active today and owns one of the most important collections of antiques on the frontier.

It was, however, a local nonconformist minister, John Collingwood Bruce, who largely popularised the study of the Wall. His first account inspired two significant traditions in Wall studies. First, Bruce led the first pilgrimage along the Wall; second, his handbook, The Roman Wall, was regularly updated through his lifetime to keep abreast of the latest discoveries. Both traditions – the Pilgrimage and the Handbook – continue to this day!

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Hadrian's Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier

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