Muscle Memory

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Hiking alongside Hadrian’s Wall. Photo by Aline McQueen

Today we hiked westward along Hadrian’s Wall from Cawfields Milecastle to Birdoswald. Retracing the steps of the Roman soldiers who patrolled this stretch of land makes one think about the power of repetitive action and its roll in remembrance. As a class, we walked along the dirt path worn into the ground next to the Wall, adding our footprints to the thousands that came before. Our tracks reinforced an already beaten path. It is hard to imagine the high level of traffic such a calm, quiet trail has seen but the evidence stretches out before us in stone and packed earth. We walk just as the field school classes did before us and the Romans did before them. Just like that, our actions contribute to a centuries-old pilgrimage and through this pilgrimage we remember those who came before us.

It is in these times of action that we realize remembrance does not have to be purely intellectual. It is not always quiet contemplation or moments of stillness set aside during the day. Sometimes, remembrance is physical. The term muscle memory denotes the process of repeating a motion until it becomes part of our memory. Perhaps, the pilgrimage along Hadrian’s Wall, an action that has been repeated over and over since its construction, has become part of a collective memory. By repeating these motions, we can connect with others who have also done so and contribute to the collective remembrance of an empire that irrevocably changed the world.

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Crossing the burn. Video credit: Prem Sai Ramani

But not all experiences of Hadrian’s Wall were created equal. The cleanliness of our hiking boots reveals our inexperience and the rustle of granola bars in our backpacks speak to our time of pre-packaged food. As we gaze out at a landscape of rolling green hills, crooked stone walls and roaming sheep, it is easy to believe that this sight is absolutely timeless. However, this is a romantic illusion. Nothing in this world is immune to the passing of time. The Wall has crumbled and stones have been carted away to serve other purposes. Even the river has altered its course as evidenced by the ancient bridge that now stands several meters away from water. By repeating their actions, we are not reliving the experience of the Romans but, perhaps, this is the closest we will ever feel.

They say that walking a mile in someone else’s shoes can lead to a greater understanding of their perspective. Today we walked several Roman miles in our own hiking boots and although we cannot say we truly understand what it was like to live in Roman Britain, perhaps we are one step closer.

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Single file across the skyline. Photo by Aline McQueen

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