University of Nottingham

Tales of the Frontier: political representations and practices inspired by Hadrian's Wall

Project outline

Hadrian's Wall is the one of the most evocative and powerful ancient monuments in Britain and the most famous frontier system (materially and culturally) of the Roman Empire. Through an evaluation of ideas about the linearity and permeability of the monument and its landscapes, this project addressed the historical context within which the Wall has been interpreted, publicised, visited and displayed from the time of Gildas (C6) to today. Hadrian's Wall is a particularly high profile site today because of increased accessibility and the regional development agency's branding campaign.

Hadrian's Wall at Walltown. Photo: Claire Nesbitt.  Hadrian's Wall at Walltown. Photo: Claire Nesbitt 


The project has explored the significance of the Wall and its landscapes as both monument and icon, considering its role in ideas about the origins of 'civilisation' and identities of self and others. Using histories, handbooks, maps, excavation reports, novels, poems, works of art, photographs, museum displays and websites, alongside embodied practices and engagements with Hadrian's Wall (dwelling, surveying, excavating, walking, touring and pilgramage) the project has explored how understandings of the Wall have developed and been interpreted, publicised, visited and displayed.

A detailed case study in the critical assessment of a major ancient monument has been completed, alongside the development of an advanced methodology for assessing linear monuments/landscapes. The project has also made contributions to the development of a critical Roman archaeology which is designed to deal with the complexity of past and present interpretations.

A website, lectures and publications have communicated the results of the project in an accessible manner to a cross-disciplinary audience of individuals and groups, regionally, nationally and internationally (USA, Spain, Sebia and Brazil).

The project exhibition 'Archaeology of race' (directed by Divya Tolia-Kelly and Claire Nesbitt) toured northern England, attracting over 11,000 visitors between 3rd July and 25th August 2009. The exhibition's production advanced creativity and understanding between members of the project team and museum curators in Wallsend and Carlisle, and included new maps, drawings and innovative dissemination through sensory elements: scents, fabrics, aesthetics and format.


Ongoing influence

The agenda set by the project has been impacting significantly upon the revisions that are currently underway as part of the fourth iteration of the Hadrian’s Wall and the Frontiers of the Roman Empire World Heritage Site Management Plan that is to be implemented in 2015. The project team is working to ensure that the issues of the valuation of the historic and contemporary landscape addressed by the ongoing project at included in the new Plan, enabling the continuing broadening out of the narrow Roman military-focused agenda for Hadrian’s Wall. Contacts made between the project team and a number of organisations involved in the protection, management, interpretation and economic development of the Wall-region (Hadrian's Wall Trust, Tyne and Wear Museum Services, Tullie House Museum, English Heritage, Northumberland National Park, World Heritage Committee), are ongoing as part of the revision of this Management Plan.

Publications arising from the project have included the substantial monograph, Hadrian’s Wall: A Life (R. Hingley 2012). Professor David Breeze has commented that in this book Hingley ‘has written the historiograpical account of Hadrian’s Wall for this generation and, I suspect, beyond: it is one of the most important books ever to have been written on Hadrian’s Wall.’ The book has also been identified by the AHRC in its Annual Report for 2013 as an example of an agenda-defining work.

Richard Hingley and Rob Witcher were awarded a Cultural Engagement Fellowship from AHRC (March to June 2013) to develop the impact of the project and explore ideas for further work relating to contemporary valuations. The team is also hoping to continue the development of a cross-disciplinary focus on frontiers through the Institute for Advanced Studies at Durham University.

The project exhibition was received with much enthusiasm and interest so more venues (Durham University, 2010-2011, Royal Geographical Society 2011) were added to the exhibition using funding from the Geography Department at Durham and the Ethnic Minorities and Travelers Achievement Scheme of Durham County Council, serving to communicate the results of the project to a wide public audience, including substantial work with schools. School visits to Tullie House have encouraged pupils to reflect on their local landscape and national heritage when thinking about race and territory. Divya Tolia-Kelly was awarded a Beacon Fellowship that has further developed these aspects of the project, whilst engaging schools and the wider public in archaeological geographical and museological scholarship.

Dr Darrell Rohl has received a PhD for a thesis on the Antoine Wall (January 2014) that adopted and adapted the approaches used in Tales of the Frontier. Ideas from the project are being actively integrated into the Department's curriculum, and a number of undergraduate and postgraduate students are pursuing topics derived directly from the project.

Contacts made during the project led to the development of a major jointly-organized field project at Binchester, County Durham which involves partners from the USA (Stanford, Claforian and Texas Tech) and is taking forward some aspects of Tales of the Frontier and has a seven year programme that will be completed in 2016.

The legacy of the project will be ensured through lecturing and a virtual exhibition (live as of December 2013) alongside other outreach activities connected with the Hadrian’s Wall Management Plan.

Award details

Duration: 2007-2009 (26 months)

Principal Investigator:
Professor Richard Hingley

Higher Education Institution:
Department of Archaeology and Department of Geography, Durham University

Project team:
  • Dr Robert Witcher, Durham University
  • Dr Divya Tolia-Kelly, Durham University

Selected publications

As well as a monograph by Hingley, the PI and project team have contributed to collected editions and published in peer review journals, including the following:  

Hingley, R. (2012). Hadrian's Wall. A Life. Oxford Univeristy Press.

Hingley, R. (2012).Living Landscape: Reading Hadrian's Wall. Landscapes. 12(2):41-62.

Tolia-Kelly, D. P. (2011). Narrating the postcolonial landscape: archaeologies of race at Hadrian's Wall. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 36(1):71-88.

Witcher, R. (2010). The fabulous tales of the common people. Part 2: Encountering Hadrian's Wall. Public Archaeology. 9(4):211-238.

Witcher, R., Tolia-Kelly, D. and Hingley, R. (2010). Archaeologies of landscape: Excavating the materialities of Hadrian's Wall. Journal of Material Culture. 15(1):1-24.

Tolia-Kelly, D. P. and Nesbitt, C. (2009). The Archaeology of 'Race': Exploring the Northern Frontier in Roman Britain. Exhibition catalogue. (Durham: Durham University Press). Available online.

Hingley, R. and Nesbitt, C. (2008). A wall for all times. British Archaeology. 102:44-59.


Related links


Landscape and Environment Programme

School of Geography
University Park
University of Nottingham
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

telephone: +44 (0) 115 84 66071