One of the first things a classicist does after moving to Durham is, obviously, to pay a visit to Hadrian’s Wall: the wall begun by the Roman emperor Hadrian in 122 CE to mark the northern frontier of the Roman empire in Britain, whihc now runs across Cumbria and Northumberland. Housesteads is one of several forts along the wall that can be visited today – in fact, the best preserved of the forts, with remains of the four gateways, commander’s house, soldiers’ barracks, the hospital, granaries, and the famous toilets. Of course, in Roman archaeology, ‘best preserved’ still generally means a series of low stone walls marking the outlines of the buildings. Right now, though, Housesteads is looking a bit different – and more colourful – than usual:
As part of “Hadrian’s Wall 1900” – the celebration of 1900 years since the wall was begun – artist Morag Myerscough has created a new (temporary) gatehouse for the fort’s northern gateway. Called “The Future Belongs To What Was As Much As What Is“, the structure is made up of scaffolding on the inside and 300 neon-painted panels on the outside. Some have patterns inspired by Roman designs; others have words and phrases contributed by poet Ellen Moran and by local people living near the wall talking about what it means to them. These range from the cheerful – “love”, “freedom”, “everybody’s welcome” – to the thoughtful – “memories”, “liminal”, “on the edge of the unknown” – to the more depressing – “desolate”, “cold wet stone” – and they include at least three languages: English, Latin, and (in a couple of references to the Berlin Wall, and maybe also to the Germanic origins of many of the soldiers stationed here) German.
In a video about the project screened in the site’s museum, Myerscough talks about wanting to let people stand where the soldiers on watch would have stood and looked out over the landscape: so you can climb up inside the gatehouse to the level of the wall’s original height and peer out of narrow windows southwards, into the fort, or northwards, out beyond the frontier. For me, though, it was from the outside that the gatehouse made the most impression. Obviously the first things that strike you, even from all the way across the valley, are the colours and the size: whatever direction you look from, the gatehouse looms over the low stone walls that remain of the original fort, giving a much more tangible impression of how much the fort’s walls and towers – and the Wall itself – would have dominated the landscape.
Once you get closer, you can start to see the more intricate details of the designs and read the slogans painted on the boards. Of course, the original gatehouse wouldn’t have been neon; but nor would it – or the whole of the rest of the fort – have been just bleak grey stone. Outside walls would have been whitewashed, roofs would have been tiled, inside walls could have been painted in bright (if not neon!) colours, people would have had colourful clothes and belongings – and although there probably wouldn’t have been slogans reading “just get on with life”, “surreal” or “kaleidoscope wall”, the place would have been full of inscriptions, from the official ones put up to commemorate the building of the wall and the fort to graffiti scratched in the walls (I just bet the original gatehouse had plenty of “Marcus was here” type graffiti left by bored soldiers).
I found Myerscough’s gatehouse to be a fantastic engagement with, and addition to, the site. It’s a recreation and yet totally modern; it consists of bright neon colours and words from 21st-century people and yet manages to evoke aspects of life in Roman Housesteads that are otherwise largely invisible. It’s also part of an ongoing series of academic and artistic demonstrations that ancient art (and architecture) was not just plain white (or grey) stone – and although this isn’t something this particular project seems to be talking about directly, I think it’s important to say that these demonstrations frequently also provide pushbacks against the use of that mistaken image of the ancient world by racist and white supremacist ideologies (content note: linked article contains direct quotations of racist, anti-Semitic and white supremacist statements). And even if you don’t want to (over)analyse your art installations as much I as do, it’s visually an incredibly striking and – I think – stunning addition to the fort in its landscape, and I definitely encourage anyone in the area who wants to see a different way of looking at the Roman Wall to go visit!
The art installation is scheduled to run until October 30th 2022. Housesteads Roman Fort is managed by English Heritage; see their website for prices, opening times, and access information. Public transport to the site is via train to Hexham or Haltwhistle and then the AD122 bus, which runs along the wall every 2 hours. Other events for Hadrian’s Wall 1900 are taking place on and around the wall until late December: see the event information page. And if you go to Housesteads or to any other of the events, or if you’ve already been, let me know what you thought in the comments!