Hunterian #MuseumFromHome – Antonine Wall

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A student post by Julian Quinault, Hunterian MuSE guide.

Welcome, my name is Julian. I am a MuSE (Museum Student Educator) at The Hunterian, and I’d like to talk you through some of the Museum’s amazing highlights from the Antonine Wall. The Antonine Wall runs across Scotland just north of Glasgow, from the Firth of Clyde to the Forth. Construction of the Wall started in 142AD and for around 20 years, it was the Roman Empire’s northern frontier. Around 160AD, for reasons we don’t fully understand, the Romans abandoned it and consolidated on Hadrian’s Wall, further south.  

One wonders what the soldiers who built it thought about it being abandoned so soon! We do know, however, it was soldiers who built it and which legions they came from, because we have their distance slabs, built into the wall, that they used to mark the section they had constructed.  

The Hunterian Museum houses sixteen of the nineteen distance slabs excavated and are reckoned to be the best surviving relief sculpture from any Roman frontier. The slabs have different decoration, but the inscriptions record similar information. This includes a dedication to Antoninus Pius, Emperor at the time of construction and after whom the Wall is named, the numeral and title of the legion which constructed that section and the distance of the section (measured in paces or feet). The decoration looks to me like propaganda: for example, the triumphant message conveyed by the Hutcheson Hill slab (GLAHM:F.1969.22) is explicit. It is suggested that the architecture is styled after the many triumphal arches which had decorated Rome (often commemorative structures were commissioned following military victory). Such overt images of Roman superiority noticeably demonstrate the Roman occupation of Scotland which occurred on and off during the period 100AD to 400AD. Distance slabs serve as a well- rounded preservation of the ‘Romanisation’ of Scottish land or as a material reminder of the Roman conquest.  

We expect stones to survive but amazingly sometimes materials like leather have survived too! The Hunterian holds a fragment of a leather tent (GLAHM:F.1936.148) and wooden tent pegs (GLAHM:F.1985.284/1); objects related in function though not found in the same location. This acts as a reminder that the soldiers would have stayed in temporary camps while building the Wall. The tent is incredibly like the modern model made from rectangular and triangular panels joined to make waterproof seams. Tents were designed to sleep eight men; modern scholars have estimated it took the skins of thirty- eight calves to create each one!  

This is not the only extraordinary example of conservation. The collection also includes the leather shoes of a man (GLAHM:F.1936.126), woman (GLAHM:F.1936.123) and child (GLAHM: F.1936.124), just three examples of over five hundred shoes found in either rubbish pits or ditches at Bar Hill Fort on the Antonine Wall. The type of shoe is known as a Calceus, made with a leather upper, heel stiffener, insole and studded hobnails- not unlike the modern slipper! However, the cross- lacing decoration (seen especially on the male shoe) indicates possible status or hierarchy within the community. The ornate male shoe is thought to have belonged to a Commanding Officer of the “Equestrian Order”. The presence of families is not unexpected as the commanding officer was entitled to bring his children and slaves on campaigns and more senior officers could marry locally.   

Although Infantry level soldiers were not permitted to marry, naturally relationships were formed and children resulted.  Indeed, such a family is at the centre of a recently developed story telling learning resource, “Ebutius’ Dilemma” .  Before 140 AD such unions would be recognised on the soldier’s completion of his 25 years of service when both father and children (not the wife) would gain citizenship. Under Antoninus Pius, the law was changed so that citizenship did not extend to these illegitimate children, possibly to encourage illegitimate sons to join the army too. Not until 212AD was citizenship granted to all the free men in the Roman Empire (still no joy for the women!).   

Despite the relatively short Roman occupation of Scotland on the Antonine Wall, this unique collection and remarkable presentation of objects form a ‘material world’ demonstrating their remarkable culture. My focus on longevity also ties in with the aim of #MuseumFromHome, demonstrating another form of preservation. Other students have also posted about some brilliant highlights of the Hunterian collections; go to #HunterianTour on Twitter. Enjoy!   

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