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landscapes: museums and archaeology along hadrian's wall

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Bianca Carpeneti

on 19 September 2011

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Transcript of landscapes: museums and archaeology along hadrian's wall

the united kindom landscapes: museums and archaeology along
hadrian's wall South Shields Wallsend • • • Housesteads • Roman Army Museum • Tullie House Bowes Museum Bede's World York Easby Abbey • • • • There were limited excavations on-going in one corner of the site, separated from the road by a chain-link fence. There was no buffer zone between the site and the urban landscape; in fact, the excavation was really only visible from outside the fences. I visited with Rob and Dave, and—passing by on the sidewalk—we were able to chat briefly with the workers. The work was quite concentrated, and in a small area outside the fort walls in the vicus.

From a non-specialist visitor’s perspective, the most striking feature was the reconstructed main gate. This structure contained several small floors of exhibits, each covering a different period of the forts history. Most memorable was the “Snifforama” exhibit, featuring notable odors from the Roman period. Site also included rebuilt barracks and head-of-fort living quarters, furnished accordingly. These elements were left open and unstructured, relying on visitors to make their way through on their own.

Children’s groups reserve time with an interpreter to show them through the project site where they conduct a mock dig in the rubber “dirt.” They collect, clean, and process finds using the tools provided. Various stations set up to guide/direct the work. When the facilities are reserved, the space is closed to museum visitors. I went to Wallsend with a friend who was also interested in exploring the site. My impression (both personally and from anecdotal evidence) is that while people often visit museums in groups, the actual tour of the exhibit is an independent process. I found myself wondering about solo versus group tours, and what a truly communal tour of an exhibit would look like. I imagined a space designed to be experienced only in the company of others—for example, the information might only be accessible with >1 person. Admittedly, I could see that set-up as a bit awkward for people who came for solitude. On the other hand it could also enable visitors to forge meaningful connections in a social, learning environment.

Similar to South Shields, Wallsend is in the middle of the city. It is situated just between the urban and industrial landscape of Newcastle. Both seem designed to target young visitors and tourists. Just up the road from Binchester (along Dere Street, that is) is Corbridge, the Roman garrison town. David Mason put me in touch with Georgina Plowright, who works in the museum and visitors center at Corbridge. We discussed the outreach programming at Corbridge, which is organized with significant involvement of English Heritage.

English Heritage is an important entity, one we need to consider when thinking about the region and the museum landscape. This is the public body of the British government responsible for managing—conserving, advising, registering, and promoting—historic places. It is a large organization and as such has the attending strengths and weaknesses: cohesive, articulated management strategy; generous funding; support and publicity; cumbersome bureaucracy; more regulations to navigate and comply with. Certainly, English Heritage does not manage all sites (eg: Vindolanda), but it is one of the major players. The site was excavated in select, isolated pieces—as opposed to open-plan excavation. Each section had its own independent entrance, which allows visitors to pick and chose which element (or elements) of the fort to explore. Maintaining the modern ground level has another effect on the experience: it makes you appreciate the change over time of the physical landscape and the scope of time that has elapsed. To some extent, the set-up contributes to a fragmented feel, the satellite trenches divvied up the site into discreet, unconnected units. Which was a bit disconcerting. It made it less immediately apparent just how massive the fort was. At the same time, the great green spaces left unexcavated forced my mind to come to terms with the fact that the site was large enough to fit a soccer field within its boundaries, no problem. And the occasional peeks at small portions lent mystery to the site. Peel back time for one moment here or there—always realizing that our glimpses into the past are necessarily shuttered and filtered, if not by dirt then by some intangible. • English Heritage touts Housesteads as “the most complete example of a Roman fort anywhere in Britian.” Of course, every site has its own superlative, but beyond the remains, the setting itself was quite breath-taking. Housesteads is situated on the natural rock escarpment known as the Whin Sill. To reach the site requires a bit of a hike (maybe 1/4 mile) through sheep grazing land. The remains of the site start mid-way up the hill and stop at the edge of the escarpment, giving a spectacular view of the landscape beyond.

The on-site museum was modest, featuring a model of the site. Shannon and I discussed the virtues of models. For her, the macro view that a model provides is necessary to her understanding the site; also, it puts the fort into a manageable context. For me, I prefer 2-D maps—or aerial shots—that give spatial relations; the modeling somehow trivializes the site to me. Chesterholm (commoly known as Vindolanda) is significantly different from the others along the Wall for a couple of key reasons. First, it is not owned and managed by the public but by a Trust. As a result, there is a whole different set of issues to contend with when excavating and running the site. Second, because of anaerobic soil conditions, the level of preservation at Vindolanda is unparalleled—eg the Vindolanda tablets. Third, one family (the Birley family) has continuously led and shaped the project, giving it a distinct and cohesive approach throughout its excavation.

On my visit, I spoke with Andrew Birley (the current project head) to discuss the site. Being interested in the public facing image of an excavation, I think that Vindolanda’s history presents an interesting case study. We discussed how to design the public “face” of Binchester, and he emphasized the need to start early yet be patient for the plan to come together. I was not prepared for the extent to which our discussion focused on the business aspect of heritage management. This is an area where I have a lot to learn about--he flagged up essential issues for me to keep in mind.

Applying some these ideas to Binchester may not be feasible. For instance, one thing Birley stressed was the importance of being able to move quickly in response to market pressures, trends and opportunities. Given the nature of the Binchester's organization (international, multi-university, etc.), would we be able to do so? I'm still learning how a project runs, but it seems to me that big projects--like BIN--are not designed to do so. On the other hand, there are aspects of the Binchester project that could prove very useful, such as the international nature of the team and the backing of two influential academic institutions. How we go about making the most of these resources and connections will be crucial. Following charming, country roads (windy with lots of fields, sheep, old fences) through picturesque landscape emphasized the remoteness of Birdoswald. Parking is at the bottom of a hill, the fort situated at the top on the edge of a bluff. There’s a youth hostel on-site, a good spot for backpackers hiking along the Wall. Roman, post-Roman, and medieval periods are represented.

There is a two-storey museum, quite modest. The single room on the first floor contained a model of the wall, which lit up various sections. The wall behind this featured a painting of the Wall (as it would have originally appeared) with a painted, semi-transparent screen (as it looks now) superimposed. By altering the lighting, the display controls which image is visible. An audio tour describing elements and history of the Wall ran on a continuous loop.

Upstairs, a small gallery contained exhibits covering the standard topics: Roman soldiers diet, life on the Wall, archaeologists “discovering” the past, and (of course!) a model of the fort. I can’t help but think that each fort/museum is trying to cover the same material, but the resulting displays for each site, because there is a lot to address, end up quite limited and (I thought) ineffective. Check out the link to the Hadrian’s Wall Management Plan here. Managed by the Vindolanda Trust, the Roman Army Museum is located at the site of the Roman fort at Carvoran (Magnis). Compared to the site at Vindolanda, the RAM seemed less vivid; an impression that was borne out in the subdued lighting and cold, subterranean feel. The exhibits were downstairs, organized thematically along familiar lines: Religion in the Roman Army, Coins, Leatherwork, etc. There was also a large model (perhaps 8 by 12 foot) behind glass, accompanied by an audio presentation describing the Roman Army. They are slated to begin redevloping several elements of the exhibit, including the video, which seems appropriate and timely (the current “Eagle Eye View” video presents a rather Romantisized image of Roman Britain). The new material should be up for summer of 2011--looking forward to seeing how it comes together. extent of the Roman empire a.d. 117 Newcastle * * * Chesterholm Birdoswald • Binchester How does Binchester fit in here?
Andrew Birley told me to begin thinking about the public face of Binchester. Along those lines, I’ve been trying to see how Binchester fits in, what niche it might fill. Geographically, here is the setting: Twenty odd miles to the north lies the Wall, which is encountered through a series of forts, museums, and trails. To the south lies the Bowes Museum, where a large part of the finds from Binchester are housed. Dere Street, primary supply route from York to the Wall, runs right through the site, both the fort and the associated civilian settlement.

Binchester is not on the Wall, so the classic tourists visiting/hiking the Wall won’t—unless they put in extra effort—necessarily see it. Which means, if we want to attract that audience, we need to work for it. Who will see it? Local students, families, volunteers, “extreme” users (diehard enthusiasts), there are others to identify. We need to be mindful of and ready to work with these stakeholders as we progress.

My work in 2010 focused on the larger region. In 2011, I will turn to the local scene: Bishop Auckland (24,000), Spennymoor (20,000), and Binchester (271), Durham (90,000). The team stays in the city of Durham, which means the Durham perspective is readily accessible. I’d also like to get beyond the Durham scene and check out the areas just around Binchester. Some potential contacts: local supplier of clay (Melissa Chatfield is already in contact with them); church that owns the Binchester land; afternoon “pub chats” in the area (more informal); Bowes Museum curators. • Carlisle location: in the north of England along the borders of the Roman empire purpose: understanding the regional resources, sites, and museums in order to put project at Binchester into proper context project • Corbridge Chesters Wallington Estate dates back to the 17th century. Home to the Blackett and then the Trevelyan families. Extensive collections and furnishings grace the interior of the Hall. The most impressive of these is the Central Hall. This room features a series of eight William Bell Scott murals commemorating the "history and worthies of Northumbria," of particular interest to use was the first piece, which depicted the construction of Hadrian's Wall. Executed in the 19th century, Scott's piece gives insight into the reaction to and reception of Roman history in Britain, as well as contemporary views on running an empire and imperial policy. The grounds of the estate are also notable, especially the gardens. • • Belsay Estate includes a hall, castle, breathtaking gardens, and extensive grounds. Sir Charles Monck designed the Hall in the early 19th century, inspired on his recent honeymoon to Greece and Rome by the monumental architecture he saw. The details, statues, and proportions all have authentic Greek precedents--the Neoclassical obsession with geometric perfection in proportions was definitely one (if not the only!) of Monck's "beacons."

Stunning as the Hall was, it was the grounds that were truly captivating. The quarry on the estate that provide the sandstone for the Hall was then turned into fantastic gardens, complete with grotos, ravines, jurassic pools, arches, and all manner of encanting scenes. The grounds were clearly engineerred to communicate a very particular aesthetic (here, I'm thinking of the Picturesque and the Romantic movements and their respective notions of the landscape). Above all, they were ment to retain their wild, countryside feel while presenting a charming pastoral composition.
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