6.4 Methodological Issues

The challenge of fieldwork

The Antonine Wall is part of the Frontiers of the Roman Empire World Heritage property (FRE WH). Much of it is designated as a Scheduled Monument and many sections of the Wall are looked after by public authorities. Making any changes to the designated areas requires permission from Historic Environment Scotland (HES).

Many modern interventions are the result of developer-funded archaeology, where the relevant local planning authorities place conditions on developments that require archaeological recording prior to development. Supplementary Guidance is in place to help developers, decision makers and the public in managing the impact of development on the FRE WH property: The Antonine Wall. This Research Agenda provides a useful framework for identifying key questions to be addressed in such work.

Archaeology undertaken in the face of development should be properly funded through to completion, including archiving and dissemination. However, some gaps in knowledge still exist with incomplete or unpublished excavations resulting in knowledge being locked away and inaccessible. In addition, commercial contractual units rarely use excavators with specialist expertise on the Wall, which can result in final reports lacking critical analysis and in research opportunities being missed, though this could be remedied by using Roman specialists as advisors. It is extremely important to set all new information into the existing framework of knowledge and to make it accessible to both researchers and the wider public.

Legacy and Backlog

Whilst many excavations at key sites along the Wall have been published in recent years, or are nearing publication (eg Bailey 2021; Hanson 2022 a), the 1970s excavations at Camelon remain outstanding, though discussions on combining the work with later excavations on the site are ongoing. The periodic review of excavations along the Wall, which used to be published quinquennially in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, has fallen into abeyance and could usefully be revived.

Through Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy, there is an initiative to encourage incomplete projects to be handed over to enable them to be written up by researchers and unlock previously hidden information. This could provide a stimulus to encourage new research on the Antonine Wall and develop new approaches to the data.

Image of a collection of textbooks and academic books on a bookshelf. They are arranged with the tallest book in the centre and each book is relevant to the Antonine Wall.
A selection of books on the Antonine Wall © HES

Access to information

The National Record of the Historic Environment can be accessed online through a portal known as Canmore; it provides a wealth of information about the Wall, together with indices of the material in its collections. Both the Hunterian Museum and the National Museum of Scotland have some of their objects accessible in online databases, as do some of the local museums along the Wall, though this work is far from complete. Additional information is held in Local Authority Historic Environment Records. Detailed mapping of the Wall and interventions along its line was undertaken in advance of the World Heritage Site inscription and the resulting map is available for consultation in HES and the Local Authorities (McKeague 2020).

Remote sensing

A programme of geophysical survey has been undertaken in key areas along the Wall yielding some interesting results (eg Jones et al 2006; Hanson and Jones 2020) and is ongoing through the auspices of HES. However, much data languishes in grey literature, that is materials, principally reports, found outside traditional commercial and academic publishing (but see Hanson et al forthcoming). An airborne laser scanning survey (LiDAR) was carried out across the Wall for the Scottish Ten project and has been analysed as part of a PhD programme at the University of Canterbury (Hannon 2018). More LiDAR is also becoming available through other sources, such as the Environment Agency, as a result of the Scottish Government’s Open Government Licence. Together these provide an invaluable source of information ripe for further research and analysis.

A woman wearing a red long sleeve top and a white backpack walks through  heather-filled field holding a surveying rod which is a foot taller than her.
Ms G Brown from RCAHMS surveying at Seabegs Wood Roman Fortlet on the Antonine Wall

Specialists and expertise

The number of specialists with expertise on the Wall is dwindling, particularly in the university sector. No university in Britain currently employs an expert in Roman Scotland on a permanent contract. This is bound to have a detrimental impact on research on the subject as well as the ability to inspire future generations of researchers. This contrasts with the long association between HES (and its predecessors Historic Scotland and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland) and various partners along the Wall, culminating in the World Heritage nomination and its subsequent management. The quality of the Wall collections makes them ripe for further study, synthesis and analysis, as demonstrated by the late Vivien Swan (1999). Given the accessibility of digital information and the tight chronological range of the Collections, the Wall would benefit from an overarching distribution and analysis study similar to those undertaken by Professor P M Allison (eg Allison 2013).

Public engagement

Interpretation boards have long existed at specific sites along the Antonine Wall, particularly those in care of HES and other public authorities. Given the wide interest in the Wall and the popularity of the Romans amongst the general public, the Heritage Lottery Funded project ‘Rediscovering the Antonine Wall’ is extremely welcome and is widening interpretation of and interest in the Wall through the creation of playparks and replica Distance Stones.

A playpark with a Roman soldier statue standing at the gate, red and yellow fort wall details on the slides and climbing frame, and enclosed in a wooden fence.
Auchinstarry Roman Play Park © HES

The availability of digital replicas through the Antonine Wall website and App are bringing sites and artefacts together, with funding support from Creative Europe (ALApp project 2016–19; Dobat 2020). The interpretation used in the App and new digital game (GoRoman) is based on advice from specialists on Roman Scotland. This makes the need for university-based expertise to train the next generation of students even more imperative.

Logo for the A L App, with a soldier on a horse and a fort tower in blue and green.

Museum collections

UNESCO’s 2015 Recommendation concerning the Protection and Promotion of Museums and Collections recognises the importance of Museums to UNESCO’s mission and their role as custodians of cultural heritage. Of critical importance for the Antonine Wall is the continued access by researchers to the various collections for the Wall held in local and national collections. Guidance on Roman material is available for those museums where no specialist expertise exists.

New discoveries of artefacts in Scotland should be reported to the Treasure Trove Unit (TTU) based in the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh. TTU has delegated authority from the King’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer (KLTR) to determine whether an object should be claimed as Treasure Trove. If claimed, and Roman artefacts are likely to be claimed, then the object appears before the Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel (SAFAP) to decide on bids for allocation to accredited museums. TTU provide particular guidance for finders, but metal detecting is illegal on scheduled monuments without permission in advance from HES (Metal Detecting and Scheduled Monuments). Illegal metal detecting is included in the remit of Scotland’s Heritage Crime group (see Robbed of Our History: Heritage Crime).

Intangible values

Connected to but distinct from public engagement is research about the intangible values of the Wall: those cultural, social and political values that different individuals and communities assign to the Wall in the process of interacting with it online or offline. These intangible values have been researched more substantially for Hadrian’s Wall, for example in the context of political discussions about Brexit, the US-Mexican border debate and the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum (Bonacchi et al 2018; Mac Sweeney et al 2019; Hingley 2020). There has been much less research which draws on heritage studies and public archaeology approaches for the Antonine Wall. Undertaking it has become critical in order to generate a fuller understanding of the Wall’s contemporary significance. Importantly, this research should be combined with audience research and its outcomes could powerfully inform conservation and interpretation practice (see Contemporary Values of the Antonine Wall).

Research issues

  • Encourage the adoption of some form of specific guidance to managing the impact of development on the World Heritage Site if Supplementary Guidance is removed.
  • Encourage commercial contractual units either to use staff with relevant specialist expertise when working on the Wall or involve those with such expertise on the Wall as advisors, both in excavation and post-excavation work.
  • Encourage curators and contractors to make use of this Research Agenda to identify key issues and questions in advance of developer or publicly funded investigations, and to ensure adequate provision for post-excavation analyses; and seek help from Roman specialists where necessary.
  • Encourage the publication of backlog excavations of key sites and the re-instatement of the published periodic review of small-scale excavations along the Wall.
  • Steps should be taken to increase the accessibility of the detailed mapping of the Wall and interventions along its line through the websites Canmore and PASTMAP, keep these up-to-date and link the various databases online, bringing finds and sites back together.
  • Keep the geographical information system (GIS) of the Antonine Wall up-to-date and develop its use further.
  • Encourage full publication and digital accessibility of the many geophysical surveys of Wall sites currently lost in the grey literature.
  • The Wall zone should be earmarked as a key target for further research if further-refined remote sensing survey techniques become available in Scotland.
  • Encourage the university sector to appoint someone with expertise in Roman Scotland as a matter of urgency in order to inspire undergraduates, nurture post-graduates and stimulate research on the WH property, one of only six in Scotland.
  • Encourage other relevant specialists in the university sector to make use of this Research Agenda to inspire research into the Antonine Wall.
  • Actively promote the Wall as a research area and improve access to relevant information and collections to encourage more research to be undertaken, particularly in relation to on-site finds distribution.
  • Encourage the promotion of an adequate level of knowledge of Roman material amongst the staff of museums and local authorities, through the appointment of specialist staff or through targeted training, as is currently being explored and delivered through Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy Museums Working Group together with the Museums Galleries Scotland and National Museums Scotland.
  • In line with UNESCO’s recommendations, audit what is held in museum collections and locate objects that have gone missing; and update and digitise the existing dataset of Roman objects from non-Roman contexts to make the information more widely and readily accessible.
  • Encourage research of intangible values of the Wall as distinct from audience research and informed by heritage studies, public archaeology and contemporary archaeology approaches.
  • Encourage engagement with a diverse range of groups who may have an interest in aspects of the Wall and its use.
  • Encourage links between all sectors engaged in the curation of the Antonine Wall and its associated artefacts, in particular: HES, Local Authorities, Museums, Treasure Trove and Universities; promote further research on stray finds recovered in the vicinity of the Wall.



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