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Antonine Wall Set To Take Centre Stage

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« on: July 09, 2008, 07:03:09 am »

                                           Antonine Wall set to take centre stage

The Roman wall that Hadrian didn’t build doesn’t get a lot of attention,

but it’s poised to become a World Heritage Site

Richard Wilson
The Sunday Times
JULY 6, 2008

It begins in Old Kilpatrick, on the River Clyde, and ends in Bo’ness on the Firth of Forth. It runs inconspicuously by cemeteries, schools and rows of shops, along streets where pedestrians walk, probably unknowingly, along its spine.

In some places railway tracks and roads cross it, in others the trains and traffic race alongside. The Antonine Wall is Scottish history’s forgotten legacy.

Yet when members of Unesco’s World Heritage Committee meet in Quebec tomorrow, the wall — built by the Romans in AD142 — will be on their agenda. Having applied for World Heritage Site status, it is on the verge of being recognised as a landmark to be ranked alongside the Great Wall of China and the Egyptian pyramids.

In the haughty Glasgow suburb of Bearsden, through which the Antonine Wall passes, householders might soon be able to lean over their privet hedges and compare their own pieces of World Heritage land. In an area boasting street names that include Roman Road (which follows the route of Military Way, the road that ran parallel to the wall), Roman Court and Antonine Road, residents have found Roman coins while tending to their shrubs.

“A lot of it runs through people’s gardens and the people of Bearsden are really rather pleased that they’ve got it,” says David Breeze, head of special heritage projects at Historic Scotland, which led the nomination bid.

At nearly 40 miles long, the wall is half the length of, and 20 years younger than, Hadrian’s Wall, the barrier the Romans erected 80 miles south in Northumberland, which was named a World Heritage Site in 1987. If granted similar status, the Antonine Wall will combine with Hadrian’s Wall and part of the Upper German and Raetian border to be jointly considered frontiers of the Roman empire as a transnational World Heritage Site.

The Antonine Wall has long suffered in comparison with its English neighbour. Where the stone construction of Hadrian’s Wall still marches grimly across the countryside, interspersed with forts, milecastles, temples and turrets, the original Antonine Wall consisted of turf ramparts built on a stone base. One still resembles a kind of hewn statement of intent, while the other is now a series of grassy hillocks, rueful mounds that can often appear natural to the untrained eye. “The Antonine Wall has a strange relationship to the Scottish historical psyche,” says Breeze. “It’s not got into the soul. That may be down to the fact that Scottish history wasn’t properly taught in schools. Or is it because it’s not as visibly exciting? It suffers because it’s not built in stone, so it’s not so obvious.”

In theory, the Antonine Wall casts a bold shadow. Its 10ft-high turf walls looked down on a ditch 12ft deep and 40ft wide, recent excavations revealing that the areas between the base of the wall and the trench were potted with holes that may have contained pointed wooden stakes. There was a series of forts dotted along the wall, which would have housed up to 7,000 Roman soldiers.

The idea that both walls acted as barricades against marauding, kilted and growling Scots is popular, yet might also be flawed. For one, the walls were too narrow for soldiers to fight from and the Roman legionnaires were equipped to battle on the ground rather than from a height.

Breeze believes the walls were created to protect territory rather than for military defence. “It’s like the ones the Israelis are building, or the Berlin Wall,” he says. “The Romans were similar to us in some ways. They were very regulatory, including \ how people came into the empire, so they were modern in that respect.

“It’s not necessarily the political boundary, it’s just the most convenient line — there were forts north of the Antonine Wall. Yet there’s an element of Scotland that wants to believe that they stopped the Romans conquering the whole country.”

The Antonine Wall was, most likely, the result of political manoeuvring rather than military posturing. When the Emperor Hadrian died in AD138, he was succeeded by Antoninus Pius, a senator who was an experienced administrator but had no military background. It is thought that to emphasise his credentials, he sought to make a grand gesture and so changed the frontier of the empire in Britain, moving it 80 miles north and commissioning the construction of the wall that bears his name.

Sections of the turf ramparts are visible in Bar Hill, Croy Hill, Westerwood, Castlecary and Watling Lodge across the central belt. Remains of forts are identifiable in Bearsden, Bar Hill and Rough Castle, while the Roman bathhouse that Breeze discovered and excavated in Bearsden allows a unique insight into the eating habits of Roman soldiers.

“We found the sewage which flowed out of the fort latrine,” he smiles. “\ sterols survive in the soil, and from this we were able to work out that the soldiers had a mainly vegetarian diet. That had never been done before and has never been replicated.”

The Romans abandoned the Antonine Wall after only 20 years, retreating south to Hadrian’s Wall. Breeze believes this was due to circumstances elsewhere in the empire demanding a redeployment of troops, rather than as a response to doughty, fighting Scots.

If it becomes the fifth World Heritage Site in Scotland — along with New Lanark, the old and new towns of Edinburgh, the heart of neolithic Orkney and St Kilda — there is hope at Historic Scotland that the profile of the Antonine Wall will be raised.

The wall remains Scotland’s largest historic monument and almost two-thirds of it is intact in some form. Whether it lies in somebody’s garden or across a field, it may have far-reaching effects, says Breeze, adding:

“We can use it to illustrate modern citizenship, history and, ultimately, Scotland’s place in the world.”
« Last Edit: July 09, 2008, 07:06:15 am by Bianca » Report Spam   Logged

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