Was Hadrian's Wall built in the nineteenth century?
I am at a conference this weekend. It's called From Plunder to Preservation and it's organised by our Victorian Studies Group. In fact right now I should be at the conference dinner, but I begged off. It was bound, I thought, to be a Bacchanalian affair -- and, as I am not drinking, I feared that I would either get irritated at everyone else's jollity or else too tempted to have a glass myself. So I came home to write a review, which I've half finished now.
The idea of the conference is to explore the relationship between heritage and empire. There hasn't been a duff paper so far and there are too many highlights to go through them all. I particularly enjoyed Maya Jasanoff, who raised the issue of how far (or not) we ought to see the human plunder of empire, in the form of slaves, as analogous to the plunder in the form of art works. (In the course of this she talked interestingly about slave trade tourism in Ghana, and the different treatment of the monuments of the slave trade between Ghana and Sierra Leone).
On the classical/Greek side, the husband talked about the Anglican cathedral in Khartoum, designed by Robert Weir Schultz, an Arts and Crafts architect who had started his career drawing and recording Byzantine monuments in Greece (the Khartoum church is based on the church of St Demetrius in Thessaloniki). This paper fitted extraordinarily well with Simon Goldhill's on the work of another Arts and Crafts-man, C. R. Ashbee in Jerusalem. Meanwhile Ed Richardson had spoken of the classical presentation of the Crimean War (with warships called things like "Agamemnon").
I looked instead at Roman Britain. The aim of my talk was to knock a nail into the coffin of the fashionable view that Roman British archaeology in the nineteenth century was a handmaiden of empire, that it was practised by classically trained public schoolboys, imbued with the spirit of empire. Archaeology was, in other words, imperialism pursued by other means. For Hadrian's Wall, read the North West frontier and vice versa.
My line is that this is a politically correct, but unthinking, approach to the study of Roman Britain in the nineteenth century. In short, it's wrong.
What exactly is the matter with it?
In part, the supposed imperialist character of Romano-British archaeology is based on selective quotation. Of course, you can find a whole range of examples where nineteenth-century archaeologists use comparisons with the British empire, and laid end-to-end these look pretty impressive. But if you read the original material itself, there's really not that much of it and it's not the driving force behind the archaeological interpretation. If anything, they are much more aggressively interested in the role of Christianity in the province.
More important though is the role of classical texts. There's a common view that these classically trained archaeologists had somehow inherited an imperialist view of their subject from the classical texts they had read. That would, of course, be possible if those texts really were straightforwardly imperialist in outlook. But in fact Roman writers expressed deep ambivalence about the effects of the empire, and correlated Roman moral decline with the expansion of its imperial territory. More to the point, Tacitus' Agricola -- the key literary text for understanding Roman Britain -- is also the text in which that ambivalence is expressed most clearly (this is the "make a desert and call it peace" text). Anyone brought up on the Agricola would be encouraged to take a wry, not an enthusiastic, position on imperialist endeavours.
Another factor is the striking mismatch territorially between the British and Roman empire. Until the final dismemberment of the Ottoman empire, there was hardly any overlap between the two (Cyprus, Malta, Gibraltar). This meant that British archaeology was quite unlike its French equivalent, in the French colonies of North Africa -- where Roman archaeology really did go hand in hand with imperial expansion. There was no such thing in the nineteenth century as Roman archaeology in the British empire.
Except, of course, in Britain itself. Indeed the paradox at the heart of Roman Britain for its nineteenth-century practitioners was just that: the province which had been the most distant in the ancient empire, was the metropolis of the modern. Was Britain centre or periphery?
In the course of this I looked at Hadrian's Wall and its Victorian history. Two men were clearly crucial in its rediscovery (patriotic northerners, and hardly part of the British imperial project). First there was John Collingwood Bruce, who conducted 'pilgrimages' to the Wall and wrote the standard guide books. Second was John Clayton, who preserved miles of the central section of the Wall from 'native" depredation (in fact he bought up a lot of it to keep it safe).
The more I read, though, the more I came to realise that Clayton's interventions were considerably more significant than simply preservation. Over miles and miles, Clayton had his labourers rebuild the Wall and in the process he created for us those all the most impressive sections that tourists now love -- several courses of dry stone masonry, topped with turf, scaling windy ridges. Without Clayton's work, Hadrian's Wall today would look more like Offa's Dyke.
Another 'ancient' monument built by the Victorians then. There's hardly any that weren't, it sometimes seems.
So that's what I've been up to this weekend. And -- oh yes -- I've also had a piece in the Guardian that you might be interested in (it's to be broadcast on Radio 3 in a week or so). It has a certain relevance to the Jade Goody story/saga/tragedy (however you choose to look at it).