For the last few weeks, I have been proofreading and indexing my forthcoming book, Ancient Botany (co-authored with Gavin Hardy). These tasks are far from my favourite. In fact, I really dislike them. Some authors would say that proofs are the end of the tunnel: you are so close to getting a nice shiny publication. True enough, but I suffer from a very bad case of ‘sore feet in the last mile’ – so to say, except that it is my eyes and back that suffer. At the beginning of last week, I was hitting a wall: words were dancing in front of my eyes, and I feared I would utter botanical Latin names in nightmares. P. decided it was time for me to have a break. We chose to go to Hadrian’s Wall and the Lake District (well, I chose, but it was a very good choice!)
Visiting Hadrian’s Wall is perhaps a bit of a busman’s holiday for an ancient historian, but it was exactly what I needed. It reminded me of why I decided to study the ancient world in the first place. I had been to visit the Wall with my parents and one of my sisters when I was sixteen, but my memories were quite vague. In any case, the site we had visited then was towards the east, while this time we went west. We visited Vindolanda, Housesteads, Chesters and Corbridge. We also did two longish walks along the Wall: the first from Housesteads heading east; the second from Steel Rigg to Housesteads.
Little Boy G (age 3) and Big Boy T (age 8) really enjoyed their time. G decided he was a ‘Romant’ and T was a ‘Barvarian’. P liked the walks but got slightly fed up looking at ruins: ‘once you have seen one, you’ve seen them all’. There is some truth to that: a Roman fort does look very much like another Roman fort. But then again, Hadrian’s Wall is slightly different. The sheer madness of the enterprise (the wall is 117 km long; 80 Roman miles, with a ‘milecastle’ at each mile) is breathtaking. Obelix was quite right: ‘they are mad those Romans’. To appreciate that madness, one really needs to see several archaeological sites on the Wall. That said, I actually felt the major sites we visited were very different from each other. And that was particularly striking when visiting the little museums at each site: they all had a very different selection of artefacts.
As often, it was the religious aspect that interested me the most. I met divinities I was not particularly familiar with: the three maters and the three hooded divinities at Housesteads; the god Sol at Corbridge; the water nymphs and the goddess Covventina at Chesters. That last goddess looks like a fish-siren (ancient sirens were birds with the head of a woman!). I know that she actually has feet, but still she looks siren-y to me!
But, even at the edge of the (Roman) world, one longs for familiarity. And, I must say I was glad to find at Housesteads, my favourite goddess: Diana/Artemis, flanked by a stag. How fitting a place for the goddess of the hunt, transitions, and wilderness. By building the Wall, the Romans attempted to mark the boundary of their ‘civilised world’. But ‘civilisation’ cannot truly exist without its counterpart: wilderness, unforgiving landscapes, and what lies beyond the Wall.