Today we had our first “day off” with nothing official planned from the syllabus. Myself, along with Prem, Victoria, and Sam (field school alumnus joining us this week), took the opportunity to explore the East Coat of England by the North Sea. Here are a couple of my personal highlights from the day.
1. The Roman sword with the preserved bone handle still in tact: This was at the Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibit at Wallsend Fort
Part of the Cavalry exhibit case with the bone handle dagger at the back
Group photo at Wallsend
2. My delicious veggie pita at Tynemouth Market: a quaint little market set up right on the platform of the metro station and we explored the various booths for a little part of the afternoon
3. Tynemouth Priory and Castle: the view was just incredible and it was enlightening to see how England’s more modern history is displayed and remembered.
4. Cartwheels on the beach: some of us more experienced than others
Today was particularly memorable for me because it was nice to switch gears a little bit from Roman wall/fort history to a taste of a new side of England’s heritage. I definitely appreciated the stop at Tynemouth Priory and Castle. This settlement has a very long history extending back two thousand years beginning as an Anglo-Saxon settlement, becoming an Anglican monastery, royal castle, artillery fort, and coastal defence. It is incredible to see the architectural development, changes, and modifications made throughout the years which are clearly still visible in the remains today. During World War Two, much of the monastery was destroyed in order to turn the site into a military coastal defence. We were all pretty amazed at how the fort had been modified through the years and repurposed for current requirements. We learned all this week about how the Romans repurposed their previous buildings, but today’s example of a building being modified for the second world war still hits close to home considering there are still surviving veterans and victims. It makes what is an ancient practice, more relatable because we can see how it takes place contemporarily. Additionally I think it was a great experience to explore a different city for the day, expose ourselves to culture, and simply let loose and relax, not to mention taste test all the wonders of the British world. For example, look at the amazing ice cream we got at the end of the day!
What a beautiful day it was to begin our second hike along Hadrian’s wall! The sun was shining through the few clouds adorning the blue sky as we ventured west from our cottages in Haltwhistle to Birdoswald. Not only was this a great learning opportunity, but also a great group bonding activity because we all struggled to push through the humid and hot air. We began our journey with a trip through Great Chesters fort where we stopped to look at the remains (still buried) as well as a preserved altar within it.
This is an interesting site to see because it is a good example of how archaeology can provide clear details about human action. On our way out, we got a visit from the animals of Hadrian’s Wall and what a happy surprise it was! It is always exciting to make new friends (especially non-human ones) along the way, and more so when they follow you through the fort.
Unfortunately we had to say goodbye to our new friends to continue on our hike as we had a time to keep! The dark clouds were ominously looming behind us and helped us keep pace. We powered on through the heat and humidity, triumphing over large hills, as some stopped to take in the beautiful sites down below.
One of the most iconic parts of the hike was the stunning remains of Thirwall Castle. Here we see the remaining stones that made up the castle. It was built in the 12th century, and later strengthened using stones from Hadrian’s Wall, which is nearby, The castle, however, began to fall into disrepair in the 17th century. This is an example of how the Roman stones were repurposed into later architecture and we see evidence of this not only here, but in other sites along the wall, including objects such as modern field walls or farmer’s houses.
Nearing the end of our hike, we stopped to see the large Poltross Burn milecastle. This is a special milecastle for many reasons. It has the inclusion of an oven, stairs which indicate the existence of a second floor (which otherwise doesn’t remain), and the structures of its north gateway. This was the largest milecastle we have seen so far.
Further on, we stopped once more to view the remains of the old bridge (at Willowford), and some even decided to experience what it would have been like to be the River Irthing, which flowed through here at one time, before the river changed it’s course.
Avery (left) and Aline living like the River Irthing
Overall, the hike was a success (even in the heat and humidity), having learned a lot while at the same time all having fun together, enjoying this beautiful landscape that Hadrian’s Wall runs through.
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.
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.
Hello again! Today was an exciting day for us, as we headed out to South Shields to see the Roman fort Arbeia, before heading out to Newcastle at the Great North Museum (Elizabeth’s blog post will focus on the Great North Museum in detail, so make sure to read her post too!).
Our first stop of the day was the site of the Roman fort Arbeia. While this site was not as fully excavated as some of the sites we have visited, such as Chesters, what made this site unique was its reconstructions. Arbeia houses a reconstruction of the West Gate with its double arches, the praetorium—commanding officer’s house—with its painted walls, and the barracks for the soldiers. These reconstructions are incredibly helpful in order to visualize just how large these military structures would have been. While the West Gate and the praetorium were much more spacious than I expected, the barracks were tiny. Can you believe that eight men would have been housed in one of these rooms?
We followed a tour of the site with a visit to the museum. One particular noteworthy artifact was an inscribed gravestone. This inscription demonstrates the extent of travel that was possible in the Roman Empire, and instilled in us the importance of detailed observation in interpreting artifacts. The inscription reads “to the spirits of the departed (and) of Regina, freedwoman and wife of Barates of Palmyra, Catuvellauni by birth, died aged 30.” This tells us that the gravestone was for a woman who was from a native British tribe and was set up by her Palmyrian husband. Furthermore, beneath the Latin inscription was a Palmyrian one. As Dr. Meyer explained, the inclusion of both inscriptions can give us a great deal of information about the intended audience. The deliberate inclusion of inscriptions in two languages may indicate that there were individuals capable of reading such an inscription in Roman Britain, and/or individuals potentially incapable of reading the Roman alphabet, which could potentially indicate the presence of a Palmyrian community in Britain. This raises interesting questions about travel and identity in the Roman empire, and certainly gave us much to think about on our way to the next stop of the day.
Of course, before leaving South Shields we had to capitalize on the photo opportunities presented by the reconstructed two story tower over the West Gate. To the left, you can see the inner edge of the platform between the two towers of the gate, the excavated area of the ground behind the gate, the reconstructed barracks in the distance, (some residential housing of the modern city even further in the distance), and of course, our senior student Prem modelling the Western flag as a cape.
Our next stop was the Great North Museum in Newcastle. While the Great North Museum had some wonderful alters including ones for Mithraism (a mystery cult from the Middle East that spread throughout the empire) and an impressive replica of Hadrian’s wall, my favourite items were the more personal ones: the jewelry and the cooking equipment. Below is a compilation of my favourite pieces of jewelry, and I think you could even wear these pieces today. Please comment below and let us know if you have a favourite from these pieces too.
Likewise, it’s fascinating to think that certain household objects haven’t changed at all in 1800 years. Look at these keys and colanders! For the colander especially, you can see the fine holes if you look at the pattern of shadows beneath the artifact.
After finishing this second museum visit and third stop of the day, our class spent several hours exploring the city of Newcastle. We greatly appreciated the beautiful buildings- from historic Medieval towers to churches to modern architecture. Today has been one of many days this week that have provided us with the opportunity to learn about Roman history and the modern cities in England, which truly is a unique learning experience.
After reading Stephanie’s struggle in the last blog post, I decided to do some hunting and actually found the manual for our tumble dryer! It turns out in Field School, we don’t just learn new things about archaeology on Hadrian’s Wall. I’ve attached the relevant pages in this post for future fieldschoolers and readers to follow along, but I wanted to highlight some of the more interesting symbols with which we had to grapple. Try guessing what they are before reading the answer.
Here’s the symbol, our interpretation, and the actual meaning.
“Cabinet” – this actually just means medium heat
“Medicine cabinet” – the plus just signifies high heat
“Sunrise” – air dry (no heat) cycle
“R running away from the sun” – quick dry (even though there’s not even an “R” in the actual name!!!!!)
“Wizard Hat” – this one is the most puzzling but is the symbol for synthetics and permanent press
To make matters even more confusing, the alarm sound OFF is the one on the RIGHT, and the alarm sound ON is the one of the LEFT. Completely counter intuitive!
It turns out that interpretation of the Whirlpool Hieroglyphs is more difficult than the interpretation of Roman artifacts. All in all, I think the take home lesson is: always use words.
For your Vindolanda Scholars, this has been a week of museums. From Vindolanda to Tully House to John Clayton’s awe-inspiring collections at Chesters, we have explored, read and analyzed a multitude of finds from along Hadrian’s Wall, creating for ourselves a picture of life on the northern frontier. Today’s visit to Newcastle’s Great North Museum, under the guiding hand of Dr. Rob Collins, was expected to be no different.
Winding model of Hadrian’s Wall
What insights can artifacts offer on the faces of the past?
Happily some aspects of history are “set-in stone”!
What came to light, however, was something new. After a week of developing our own narrative of Hadrian’s Wall , Dr. Collins threw a curveball at our understanding of the past. Although all week we had critically examined primary and secondary sources on Roman Britain, understanding authors and their biases, he asked us to question the avenues of the information themselves: museums.
As one of the best ways of portraying history for the general public, museums choose how to tell the story of the past, and what specific story to tell. However, museums face the challenge of integrating materials and collections from a number of sites and eras, selecting the best interpretation of ambiguous material, and dealing with exhibit spaces that are constantly changing. Their exhibits are designed to appeal to the public, often ascribing more importance to areas and events which have greater mass appeal. In addition, most museums are working with constrained budgets. Even the simple expenses associated with changing a display case (switching artifacts, ensuring safe and adequate lighting) can quickly add up, and place heavy limitations on what museum staff can do.
There is no question that museums are invaluable in sharing history with the public. But as a center of learning, people trust the information they are given and buy into the narrative they are presented. As we wrapped up our explorations of the Great North Museum, Dr. Collins encouraged us to be careful when constructing our image of Hadrian’s Wall. Who is missing from these accounts? Are we projecting images of ourselves when we construct images of Roman life? In the same way Romans attempted to “Romanize” the locales of Britain, are we trying to modernize the legends of Roman Britain to contextualize them in a way which we understand?
History is at its best a story, a tale of the past from a certain perspective. However, as the Parthenon Marbles have demonstrated in recent news, there is no fixed or right outlook on who can present history to the world and how. As next week heralds the beginning of our archaeological adventures at Vindolanda, we have the opportunity to add our own perceptions of life at Hadrian’s Wall to the current narrative. With today’s Newcastle adventures providing a fresh mindset going forwards, perhaps the most important thing to remember is this: the history of Roman Britain is not my story, or your story, or even our story. It is the story of people from long, long ago, and we owe it to them to tell it right.