Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Hadrian's Wall: A History of Archaeological Thought by David Breeze. CWAAS. £18
To the layman, archaeology seems like working on one giant jigsaw puzzle. It's great fun and perhaps more fun because you only have a few of the pieces and only have a vague idea of what the never-to-be-completed picture might look like. The archaeologist knows that as you painstakingly match piece with piece someone will find some more pieces and say the finished picture will not look like that. All those pieces you'd placed so carefully on the board have to be looked at again and perhaps fitted in somewhere else.
David Breeze knows all about jig-saws. Forty years ago, with Brian Dobson, he wrote a book, called Hadrian's Wall and changed the picture and since then archaeologists have been doing his jig-saw.
William Camden, in Elizabethan times, had seen the wall "over the high pitches and steep descents of hilles, wonderfully rising and falling", but he believed the Wall to be the Picts Wall and to have been built be Septimus Severus. The confusion over the contradictory Roman sources and references to the Antonine Wall and the Wall and the vallum was cleared up by John Hodgson. He argued that Hadrian built the Wall and John Collingwood Bruce popularised the view in his Guidebook and that set the picture for the next eighty years.
The archaeologists in the early twentieth century, men like F.G.Simpson, Francis Haverfield, and the eminent philosopher, R.G.Collingwood, dug to a purpose solving the major structural problems of the Wall and sought to establish its dates and purpose. With Ian Richmond, they felt that "the principal periods in the history of the monument were firmly fixed."
Fresh digs and new evidence challenged the received wisdom. The wall had a complex life. It had been built over a long period, plans had been modified and it had served in varying roles as military defence and frontier control.
The archaeologist needed to be "picking over the minutiae of the foundations . . . crawling through the dust with a microscope", but he also needed to understand the Wall as the construct of a vast empire, as a military frontier.
In a series of essays David Breeze examines the discoveries and the evidence for most of the current views on Hadrian's Wall. How does the Vallum relate to the Wall? Can the sequence of building and later modifications show how the function of the Wall changed over time? Did Hadrian design the Wall? He was said in one source to have inspected all the garrisons and forts and abolished some, moved others and built new ones. Was the Turf wall rebuilt? Evidence of use, abandonment and repair in different forts indicates something of the Wall's history. Who manned the Wall and where did they come from? How did the Wall function? And when did it end? Even here the answer is uncertain. A "reasoned guess" would see the occupation of Birdoswald continuing into the second half of the fifth century.
The jigsaw has grown over the years. Where once there were a few pieces and the answer seemed clear and the picture near-complete, today there are dauntingly more pieces and the picture which needs to be completed is far more challenging and complex.
When David Breeze studied the Wall under Eric Birley in Durham in the sixties there was a received view that could be barely challenged.
In this book, the man who overturned that position and offered a new picture is asking where the next challenge will come from. History constantly needs to be made afresh.
This is an important book, detailed and demanding, but it is shaking the pieces in the box, looking for someone to create a new jigsaw.