We’ve been hearing a lot about walls these days. What is the purpose of a wall? Should a wall be celebrated or condemned?
Hadrian’s Wall was built in Brittania, in what is now Great Britain, in 122 CE at the command of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. The 84-mile-long wall was constructed to mark the northern border of the Roman Empire, but scholars disagree as to whether or not the wall was intended to keep the Picts on the other side from passing into Roman territory.
Walking those 84 miles across England along Hadrian’s Wall, from the North Sea to the Irish Sea, has been a dream of mine since I learned about the wall. I have traveled to many places marveling at the vestiges of the Romans. Some of the things they left behind are fabulous but others are reminders of an empire spreading its control beyond its boundaries.
This past July I started walking in Newcastle and was immediately greeted by a metro station covered with Latin signage, a project established with the intent of connecting the past with the future. Along the way, I visited six Roman forts and marvelled at the artifacts that give insight into the lives of women and children, as well as helping us piece together the lives of all those who lived and worked along the wall. I was peeking into a world I had only previously read about. Through their clothing, weapons, jewelry, and religious shrines, the people who lived 2,000 years ago spoke to me.
Auxiliary soldiers were conscripted from what is now Europe and Asia to serve in the Roman army, and they served in an often hostile and unfamiliar climate. These soldiers left the comfort of their homes and families with the hope of receiving Roman citizenship, and they learned Latin in order to communicate and be safe. Entire villages cropped up around the various military forts built by the Romans. Archaeologists have found game pieces, dozens of different types of shoes, and an entire shipment of dishes. We even have actual writing by both men and women etched into wooden tablets. There are birthday invitations, complaints about the weather, and even shopping lists. But where are the people who were there before the Romans arrived? Though I appreciate being able to tap into the world that existed along Hadrian’s Wall, I am also sad about what hasn’t been saved, the languages forgotten, and the cultures subsumed.
We need to think carefully before putting up walls, and we need to ask the right questions to guide us in making decisions. Is there a threat from which we need protection? Whose land is taken to make room for the physical wall? There is also the impact of a wall on the natural landscape to consider. In my teaching at Dana Hall and personal research, I plan to use the objects made available through museums and in their online catalogs, as well as the tablets unearthed by archeologists. As we dig through layers of history, I hope we can learn the lessons that will eradicate the need for building new walls.