BMCR 2007.08.36

J. Collingwood Bruce’s Handbook to the Roman Wall. 14th edition

, J. Collingwood Bruce's Handbook to the Roman Wall. 14th edition. Newcastle upon Tyne: Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne, 2006. 512. $45.00/£18.00.

John Collingwood Bruce wrote the first edition of his guidebook to Hadrian’s Wall one hundred and forty-four years ago. It has been twenty-nine years since the book was last updated, the longest dormant period in the text’s history, and this edition is long overdue. Previous editions typically added to or reduced the text as needed based on new discoveries, keeping as much as possible of the original wording and format. Each edition was like revisiting an old friend. Upon opening the fourteenth edition updated by David Breeze and perusing the Table of Contents, one would find the same format and be under the impression this edition would be no different. However, that is where the similarities with all previous editions end. This edition is a fundamental reworking and modernizing of the book. The Handbook is and always has been specifically designed for a general audience and is meant to accompany visitors of the Wall in the field. As such, it is more descriptive than analytical, and what analysis that does appear is generally brief and provides only generalities for a specific site. It also lacks footnotes or citations, which may be particularly troublesome for the more serious scholar. However, the bibliography is an excellent resource for those who wish to know more. In essence, this is a valuable “entry level” book for those interested in Britain during the Roman period in general and the frontier zone around Hadrian’s Wall in particular, though it does have some minor problems in a few areas.

The modernized elements of the book are indeed a welcome change. As mentioned, the text has been completely rewritten, and little if any of Bruce’s original text remains outside of isolated quotes. This is particularly important given recent advances in the quality and quantity of information gleaned from the Wall and its associated sites in recent decades. By starting afresh, the new text provides an integrated and clear description of the frontier zone based on modern scholarship. Most of the nineteenth century pen-and-ink drawings have been removed and replaced by modern illustrations and, for the first time, photographs, including geophysical survey images. While this diminishes the antiquarian charm of the book, it is another appreciated modernization. The nineteenth-century maps have also been removed and replaced by modern maps drawn to a common scale of 1:400 for turrets, towers, milecastles; 1:800 for small forts; and 1:2500 for forts. Quality pen-and-ink drawings remain for select artifacts and inscriptions, but these are usually of very high quality and thoroughly modern. There are two notable exceptions, however, where the illustrations are quite sophomoric. An illustration of the Corbridge Lion on page 425 and a legionary inscription on page 166 are not of the same high caliber as the rest of the book. Overall, the modernizing of the book has once again made this venerable old classic relevant.

The book is organized into five chapters. The first chapter is an introduction that provides an overview of the types of evidence available to understand the Wall and its supporting elements. Breeze provides a general history of investigations and descriptions of the Wall since the sixth century and the problems associated with both literary and archaeological evidence. This is a well-written chapter that concisely summarizes approaches and limitations to understanding Roman Britain as a whole and the Wall in particular, though the lack of footnotes will be frustrating to some.

The second chapter provides a general and overarching description of the Wall and the entire frontier zone. As it is a summary chapter that attempts to prepare the reader for how the elements of the subsequent and more detailed chapters fit into the broader scheme of Rome’s frontier defense in Britain, it is somewhat more complex and analytical than the other chapters. Breeze rightly describes the Wall as but one part of a “deep military zone, stretching over 240 km from the most northerly outpost fort at High Rochester to the Southern Pennines,” all of which need to studied in context of one another (p. 102). Breeze describes how the forts both north and south of the Wall, the ditch, the vallum, sites along the coasts and the Stanegate frontier interacted with one another in the scheme of frontier defense. Each element is described on its own and then shown how it interplayed with the others. Not all elements are treated equally, however. For example, the Stanegate, a road from Corbridge to Carlisle that was perhaps the original frontier before the Wall, is given a brief four paragraphs of description in Chapter 2 despite having a full chapter later in the book (Chapter 5).

Hadrian’s Wall itself receives the greatest attention in Chapter 2 for obvious reasons. Breeze describes not only the overall nature of the wall but also the various incorporated elements such as towers, turrets, milecastles and forts. Construction of the Wall itself, including the turf section, is described in great detail, attempting to explain how changes in planning, logistics and construction techniques resulted in different widths and masonry quality. Breeze states that the Romans modified their original plan after construction began, resulting in different spacing of milecastles and towers as well as the width of the wall. However, little specific evidence is given, and the lack of citations again will frustrate those wanting further clarification. Particularly important but not fully developed is the explanation of why Hadrian’s Wall was constructed of stone when the German limes were primarily of wood or turf. When explaining the possible reasons for the turf section of the wall, Breeze states that the rest of wall may have been constructed out of stone because suitable turf and timber, the preferred materials, were not otherwise generally available elsewhere along the wall (p. 102). A more explicit comparison with the German frontiers would seem useful. Breeze also includes the vallum, a ditch and rampart complex that runs the length behind the Wall and served as “the second century equivalent of barbed wire” to define the limit of the military zone (p. 86).

The last three chapters formulaically describe the sites and features of the frontier zone in a sequential manner. Chapter 3, the longest, details the Wall and its associated sites starting in the east at South Shields and goes west to Bowness. The Wall is described and accompanied with a series of maps to place forts, settlements, towers and milecastles into their context. Each site is described in varying levels of detail depending on the quality of excavation. Forts are given significantly more detail and accompanied with maps and often geophysical survey images. Associated civilian settlements are also described as are graveyards, tombstones and other artifacts and features. Breeze also mentions museums that hold important collections for each site. Receiving particularly laudatory and special mention is the Newcastle’s Museum of Antiquities, operated by the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne, the publisher of the Handbook, which comes across as a blatant sales pitch.

Overall, Chapter 3 provides a valuable site-by-site guide to the Wall itself, though not without some minor problems. The use of images usually helps reinforce the descriptions of the sites, though for Briswold the geophysical map of the site has numbers on various features but no explanation of those numbers (p. 306). Another image of an inscription from Milecastle 38 (MC 38) is not translated and appears to be added arbitrarily (p. 255). At Chesters, what would appear to be a valuable image is lacking. Breeze discusses how aerial photographs reveal important road patterns (p. 209), but the photograph in question is not provided. Occasionally complex issues are introduced, such as the self-governing status of the civil settlement at Housesteads, without explanation of what that was or how that fit into the governing structure of Britain during the Roman period (p.245). This is particularly interesting since the possible civitas status of Carlisle along the Stanegate frontier is never mentioned at all in that town’s discussion within Chapter 5. Occasionally Breeze is also given to extraordinarily subjective descriptions such as near MC 37 when he states “this is one of the most beautiful and evocative stretches of Hadrian’s Wall where, of anywhere along its whole line, it is possible to feel the most empathy with the Roman soldiers maintaining watch and ward over the country to the north” (p. 250). These minor criticisms aside, the largest element lacking from Chapter 3 is the failure to incorporate information regarding access to the newly established National Trail along the Wall. According to the preface, this was intentionally excluded (p. 9), even though it would seem to make the book even more valuable, especially to the general reader.

Chapter 4 discusses in the same fashion sites along the Cumbrian Coast, starting north at Bowness and continuing south to Ravenglass. Chapter 5 describes the Stanegate sites starting at Corbridge and moving west to Carlisle. This chapter, omitted in editions 11 and 12 but reinstated in edition 13 was wisely included in the current edition. Both of these chapters follow the same general format as Chapter 3 but are much shorter given the smaller number of sites located along each. For the serious scholar, the bibliography will be one of the most useful aspects of the book; however, given the lack of citations in the text, specific bits of information will require some substantial research work.

In general, reading this book will not be like visiting an old friend as previous editions were. It is more akin to visiting that friend’s descendant. The modernizing of the book has long been overdue. The work is accessible in writing and style and provides a wealth of information for the general reader and is useful for scholars despite some obvious limitations. The biggest flaw is that it is particularly biased toward the Romans with little or no mention of how the indigenous population of the region interacted with them in the frontier zone other than being “watched and warded” over by the Romans. Still, this should not detract from an otherwise well conceived and executed book for the general reader and useful book for the scholar, so long as the latter remembers that it is more descriptive than analytical.