Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.03.37

G.D.B. Jones, D.J. Woolliscroft, Hadrian's Wall from the Air.   Stroud/Charleston:  Tempus, 2001.  Pp. 160.  ISBN 0-7524-1946-3.  $24.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Kai Brodersen, Universität Mannheim (
Word count: 1127 words

"Like the Great Wall of China, the central sector of Hadrian's Wall can be seen and recognised from a modern airliner flying at an altitude of several thousand metres" (18). It is from far smaller planes, though, that Barri Jones and his student, friend and colleague David Woolliscroft (who, after Barri's untimely death in 1999, completed what had started as a collaborative effort) have surveyed Hadrian's Wall and its wider surroundings for this book: "To anyone used to the calm routine of passenger flights in a large jetliner, low level work in light aircraft can come as something of a shock. My wife came close to the mark when she commented that 'They don't so much fly as flutter.' [...] It is not a job for the faint-hearted" (8) -- but, as the book amply demonstrates in 64 black-and-white and 32 colour photos taken from such light aircraft, it is well worth the effort.

The book starts with a lucid introduction, explaining why air photography is useful for archaeological studies and how shadow marks, crop marks, and soil marks discovered by aerial survey can point to ancient features below the soil which are invisible from the ground. It also explains the history of aerial archaeology, and its rise "as the emphasis shifted from individual sites to whole landscapes" (17). It is not surprising, then, that Hadrian's Wall "has tended to act rather too much as a magnet to those who do practice air photography in the area" (145). While not neglecting the Wall, then, the book aims to redress the balance and thus includes studies of archaeological features in the nearer and even wider vicinity of the Wall.

Thus, a long and detailed chapter, entitled "Before the wall", deals with the Stanegate frontier; it also includes a brief survey of the Gask frontier in southern Perthshire, between Doune on the Teith and Bertha on the Tay (for which see now Woolliscroft's interim report on the Roman Gask Project 1995-2000: The Roman frontier on the Gask Ridge Perth and Kinross, British Archaeological Reports British Series 335, Oxford: Archaeopress 2002). Individual sites along the Stanegate are described and presented in air photographs, with useful explanations referring to markers added to the photos themselves and/or to plans which are given next to the photos: Washing Well, Corbridge, Newbrough, Chesterholm (Vindolanda), Haltwhistle Burn, Carvoran (Magna), Throp, Nether Denton, Castle Hill Boothby (for which a photo by J.K. St. Joseph is presented, as the site is "generally in pasture" now and "tends not to produce cropmarks": 57), Old Church Brampton, Carlisle (Luguvalium), Burgh-by-Sands and Kirkbridge are thus discussed, and the running defences, as well as Old Carlisle (?Maglona) as "backing the emerging second defensive line behind Stanegate" (72), are ably explored.

A shorter chapter is devoted to Hadrian's Wall itself, which, in the authors' view, "should not be pictured as some form of vast scaled up version of a city wall, designed to withstand major assaults [...] Nor was it an early version of the Berlin Wall, for it was never designed to be uncrossable" (76). They also add interesting thoughts on, and splendid photos of the Vallum south of Hadrian's wall, eventually admitting that "what purpose it served still remains something of a mystery" (81). The individual sites are then presented and described in the same manner as the ones on Stanegate: South Shields (?Arbeia), Wallsend (Segedunum), Newcastle (Pons Aelius), Rudchester (Vindobala), Halton Chesters (Onnum), Chesters (Cilurnum), Limestone Corner, Carrawburgh (Brocolita), Housesteads (?Vercovicum) and the milecastles to the west of this fort, Great Chesters (Aesica), Birdoswald (?Banna), Castlesteads (?Camboglanna) and finally Stanwix (Petriana), explaining that "aerial archaeology has so far been able to make only a minor contribution to Wall studies to the west of Carlisle".

A last chapter presents "the outposts and coastal defences", starting with the latter on the Cumberland coast, where the droughts of 1975 and 1985 have made successful aerial surveys feasible -- though the authors freely admit that some linear features visible from the air in 1975 at Silloth proved, on (their own) excavation, to be modern pipe trenches (128). On the other hand they demonstrate how the fort at Beckfoot (?Bibra), which is "virtually invisible on the ground, is one of the most responsive crop mark sites in the entire frontier area" (128), and they pursue the coastal defences up to Maryport (Alauna). Finally, the outpost system is described, with the sites at Risingham (Habitancum), High Rochester (Bremenium), Bewcastle (?Fanum Cocidi) and Birrens (Blatobulgium) being singled out. An appendix presents "the anatomy of a Roman fort" for the general reader, followed by a bibliography, a list of useful websites, and a good index.

Given the distribution of the material in the book -- of 140 pages, only 46 deal with Hadrian's wall (and even several of these are, in fact, devoted to the Antonine Wall), while 54 describe the earlier Stanegate, 24 the outposts and coastal defences -- one could argue that the title of the book is slightly misleading. However, as the authors show, Hadrian's Wall itself is "one of the most closely studied archaeological monuments on Earth", and its line is "such an awesome sight from the air that it is hard to break away from it" (145), which can lead to an unfair concentration on the Wall. Their book successfully demonstrates how "a tremendous amount [is] still to be achieved, particularly in fields such as the study of vici, the Cumberland coast, native activity and the Stanegate", when aerial photography and archaeological survey study the regions north and south (and west) of Hadrian's Wall more closely.

In view of the intended (general) readership, the scholarly documentation is minimal, which only sometimes presents a problem: When an example for the use of crop marks in air photography is given from southern Germany, the place is not even mentioned, and there is no further detail in the bibliography, making this example difficult to trace for the non-specialist reader (13). Also, the bibliography provides no hint that there is more than one volume of "The Roman Inscriptions of Britain" now (152). And, while I'm nagging, a phrase like "imperium sine fines" (21) should not have been allowed by a publishing house who uses a Latin word as its imprint.

In sum, the book provides a very readable account and presents, often for the first time in print, magnificent photographs which are well reproduced in the volume. Thus the volume is a fitting tribute to Barri Jones' "infectious enthusiasm" (8) for aerial archaeology and the "almost filial affection" (7) and energy of his pupil David Woolliscroft. It also amply demonstrates the enthusiasm and affection of both authors to someone they describe as a "grand old lady" who "still has plenty of surprises left" (19), Hadrian's Wall.

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