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The Great North Museum: Hancock, Newcastle upon Tyne

Displaying information at the Great North Museum
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The study of Roman Britain, and particularly Hadrian’s Wall, is underpinned by the quantity of primary evidence that is available for us to study. The Great North Museum, in Newcastle upon Tyne, is the home of the collection of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne and represents over 200 years of collecting zeal. Given the amount of material available to us, it has always been difficult to decide what to display. Our visitors vary, greatly, in their age, knowledge, and interests. What fascinates one person may not interest another. However, we hope the current displays allow people to appreciate the great richness of material from the Roman frontier in Britain.
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Many years of survey have revealed the line of Hadrian’s Wall, as it crosses the country– as seen in this model, in the museum. Further survey and excavations have uncovered the plans of the milecastles and turrets that were placed along the wall, as well as the dwellings of the soldiers’ families and the local population. The study of Hadrian’s Wall does not concentrate solely on the buildings. Excavations have uncovered a wealth of military equipment– both weapons and armour. These help us to imagine what the legionaries and auxiliaries who built and manned the wall would have looked like. One of the strengths of this collection is the number of building inscriptions, altars, and tombstones that have been amassed, over the years.
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At first sight, these may seem rather overwhelming, but they tell us a great deal. It was the Romans who first brought a written language to Britain, and, for the first time, people were able to record their achievements, offer their devotion to a named deity, and express their grief at the loss of a loved one. It is through these inscriptions that we know that people were coming to the frontier from all over the Roman Empire– and a great deal about them, as individuals. These incomers did not only bring, with them, their personal possessions; they also brought, with them, their religious beliefs.
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Many of the deities named are familiar to us from sites in the Mediterranean; these are the classical deities of the Roman world, such as Jupiter, Minerva, and Venus. Some, like Mithras, have come from further east, travelling with the army as they conquered new provinces. Others are Celtic deities– gods and goddesses encountered by the army when in Gaul and Germania, whilst others are native British deities. Here in Newcastle, we have our very own Roman god– Antenociticus– whose temple is at Benwell and whose head oversees the Hadrian’s Wall collection in the Great North Museum.
The Great North Museum is much, much more than just another regional, university museum (magnificent as these often are). Its archaeological collections have been built up by several centuries of collecting, much but not all of which was undertaken by the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle Upon Tyne, an august body which celebrated its two hundredth anniversary in 2013.
This history explains why the Great North Museum is often referred to as the ‘Gateway Museum’ for Hadrian’s Wall. It holds, on display and in its extensive research collections, archaeological material from every major site on Hadrian’s Wall. To give an example of the extent of these collections, the Great North Museum holds more Romano-British inscriptions than any other museum (the British Museum included). It is a superb teaching and research resource.
There are many excellent collections on Hadrian’s Wall that we would strongly recommend. You have already encountered some of them (Chesters, Corbridge, Housesteads, Maryport , South Shields, Wallsend, Vindolanda) and there are other fine examples, such as Tullie House Museum, Carlisle, that offer a very rewarding experience, but the range of the Great North Museum collections and their long association with pioneering scholarship on the Wall make our discussion of them here essential.
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Hadrian's Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier

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