6.2 Early Modern and Modern Research

Our modern era of research on the Wall began with the work of the Glasgow Archaeological Society in the 1890s (GAS 1899), which established that the Wall was built of turf, and also with excavations on the forts by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Castlecary: Christison et al 1903; Rough Castle: Buchanan et al 1905). The excavations at Rough Castle in particular were significant firstly for the discovery in 1903 of a building inscription from the headquarters building showing that this was called a principia (Roman Inscriptions of Britain 2145). Until this point, scholars had been referring to it as a praetorium. The second important discovery was the defensive pits outside the northern entrance to the fort, which were called lilia by the excavators, after Caesar’s pits at Alesia.

Research continued in the early 20th century (Bar Hill: Macdonald and Park 1906; Balmuildy: Miller 1922) with Sir George Macdonald undertaking numerous excavations and producing a magisterial synthetic overview in 1911, much expanded and improved in its second edition (1934). Macdonald also provided information to the Ordnance Survey, leading to their production of folios of maps of the Wall (held in the Archives of Historic Environment Scotland; McKeague 2020).

Image of an annotated map showing the plan of the antonine wall using lines and dotted lines across the image.
Extract from the 1980 Ordnance Survey 1:1250 map folio (sheet NS 8979 NW) depicting the course of the Antonine Wall to the west of Callendar House, Falkirk © HES; background mapping © Ordnance Survey

In 1882, the Ancient Monuments Protection Act enabled prehistoric and early historic monuments to be legally protected for the first time. However, it was not until 1926 that the first portion of the Antonine Wall was scheduled.

In the interwar period, significant excavations included Mumrills (Macdonald and Curle 1929), Old Kilpatrick (Miller 1928; Macdonald 1932) and Cadder (Clarke 1933). Further excavations took place at Rough Castle (Macdonald 1933), in addition to Macdonald in particular conducting excavations on a range of sites.

Development on or in the vicinity of Antonine Wall sites increased after the Second World War, with excavations at sites including Duntocher (Robertson 1957), Mumrills (Steer 1961), Bearsden (Breeze 2016a) and Croy Hill (Hanson 2022 a).

Picture of eight people digging in a trench with buckets, trowels and a wheelbarrow. The trench is surrounded by large trees.
1970s excavation at Bearsden © David Breeze
Oblique aerial photograph of a large excavation trench, with 15 people standing, kneeling or crouching. Some are digging while others survey the ongoing work. The trench is next to shed buildings and trees.
Trench during the 1970s excavation of Bearsden © David Breeze

Much of the theoretical framework for the Antonine Wall has been in the shadow of its larger southern neighbour, Hadrian’s Wall. As well as being dominated by historical narratives (such as the importance placed on Cassius Dio), attempts to understand the wider chronology of the Antonine Wall, especially its abandonment, hinge on developments on Hadrian’s Wall. Modern narratives have been built on a number of assumptions, some of which have recently been challenged. 20th-century theories have included proposals for two or three sequences of occupation (substantially challenged by Hodgson 1995), changes in the building sequence (Gillam 1975) with further debate on what was originally planned and what were just phases in the building sequence (Graafstal et al 2015; Hanson 2020b). In addition there has been substantial work on coinage (Robertson 1975) and pottery sequences (eg Hartley 1972 and Gillam 1974). Other key pieces of research include Swan’s work on the coarse wares (Swan 1999) and Campbell on paints and pigments on the Distance Stones (Campbell 2018; see Distance Stones). Research on the Wall in the later 20th century and early 21st century has been dominated by a quartet of Roman scholars: David Breeze, Bill Hanson, Lawrence Keppie and Gordon Maxwell, as illustrated by their more synthetic publications (Breeze 2006; Hanson and Maxwell 1986; Robertson 2015).

Future research should involve re-evaluation of some of the key 20th-century excavations, reassessment of artefacts, and questioning some of the narratives around dating and chronology for the Wall.

Research issues

  • Review the contribution of key antiquarian, early modern and modern archaeologists, and of local historical societies, to Antonine Wall studies.
  • Re-evaluate and re-assess artefact collections in the light of improved understanding of such material, and question conventional narratives around dating and chronology.
  • Undertake a critical re-evaluation of key 20th-century excavations in relation to questions around dating and chronology.



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