Curator's Choice: Professor David Gaimster on slabs of Iron Age Scotland at Glasgow's Hunterian

David Gaimster interviewed by Ben Miller | 20 September 2011
A photo of a man in a suit staring at the camera with a slab of Roman stone behind him
© The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2011
Curator’s Choice: Professor David Gaimster, Director of The Hunterian in Glasgow, on a slab of Iron Age Scotland at the museum’s new Antonine Wall gallery...

“The Antonine Wall is one of the UK’s foremost Roman monuments, but its precise purpose and short lifespan remains somewhat of an enigma.

Constructed in the AD 140s at the beginning of the reign of Antoninus Pius and stretching some 60km from the Firth of Forth to the River Clyde, it was the most northerly border in the Roman Empire and the final frontier in Britannia.

Our gallery tells not only the story of building and abandonment of the Antonine Wall, but reveals something of the impact, both political and cultural, the monument had on those living in Iron Age Scotland.

The arrival of the Romans not only altered the structure of local society, but also changed the landscape itself.

The Hunterian aims to enhance our appreciation and understanding of Scotland’s long cultural heritage and first encounter with the classical world.

The imposing columns which form the entrance to the new gallery come from the headquarters of the Roman fort at Bar Hill.

They were excavated from the well where they were dumped when the fort was dismantled no more than two decades after its construction.

Roman architecture, in particular the dressed stone buildings with glass windows, columns and architectural ornament, would have looked and felt very alien to the native Iron Age population.

Together with the Wall, they represent a dramatic transformation of the horizon – both physically and mentally.

Architecture, sculpture and domestic artefacts combine to explore the encounter between Mediterranean and northern European Iron Age society.

The brutal reality of that clash of cultures is represented in the scenes depicted on the Antonine Wall “Distance Slabs”, which are displayed here together for the first time.

Designed to record lengths or “distances” of the Wall completed by each legion, their carving celebrates the Roman military victories which precede the construction of the Antonine Wall.

Placed on the south side of the Wall and looking into the Empire, the sculptured scenes served as powerful political propaganda for a civilian Emperor who needed to acquire a quick military reputation.

The Wall, in marking the culmination of a successful campaign by the Romans to extend the limits of their empire, acts almost as the equivalent of a triumphal arch, celebrating the army as victorious and the native population in defeat.

The gallery asks as many questions as it answers, but should also encourage debate and new research.

This is our role as a university museum and gallery service – to create new resources for the study and teaching of history and to stimulate new lines of enquiry.

There are no interactives in this gallery. This is quite deliberate. The collections have the power to tell the narrative and must be given prominence.

The objects form the primary evidence for the building and abandonment of this remarkable but enigmatic monument."

  • The Antonine Wall: Rome's Final Frontier gallery is open at The Hunterian now. See our Preview.
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