Antonine Wall

The Antonine Wall in its best-preserved section at Rough Castle Fort (Falkirk), from Rohl 2014The Antonine Wall is imperial Rome's one-time northwest frontier, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has been the primary focus of my research from the time of my postgraduate studies at Durham University to the current “Hidden Landscape of a Roman Frontier Project,” which I lead in collaboration with Historic Environment Scotland (HES), supervising a co-funded PhD researcher (Nick Hannon). This project—at the forefront of current Antonine Wall scholarship—focuses on the multi-period synthesis of Antonine Wall LiDAR data (provided by the Scottish Ten Project) with additional remote sensing datasets, and is contributing impactful insights for heritage management and a future Antonine Wall Research Framework; we are developing this as a possible REF Impact Case Study. Although the project primarily focuses on landscape-level analysis and the development of innovative spatial archaeometry techniques, it also integrates smaller material culture objects from museum collections, including the Antonine Wall Distance Slabs (most of which are in the collections of Glasgow's Hunterian Museum). Our first major output, published in the Journal of Roman Archaeology in November 2017 and co-authored with Nick Hannon and Dr Lyn Wilson (of HES), is a strong example. We believe that this paper will be deemed internationally significant or world-leading as a model for analytical applications of LiDAR in archaeology, integration with material collections, and transformational insights into what has been described (within the Antonine Wall's World Heritage Site Nomination Document) as “the most highly developed frontier of the Roman empire.”

This current project represents just one phase of my long-term career commitment to active research on the Antonine Wall, building upon my PhD thesis and extensive content that I wrote (following the completion of my PhD) for the Antonine Wall World Heritage Site website (see especially the “Visiting the Wall” and “Research Resources” sections). My research is progressing from a large-scale theoretical re-framing of the Wall as a “place“ of significance and meaning in the present (my PhD thesis, Rohl 2014), through our current landscape-scale synthesis of data from previous excavations and newer remote sensing datasets (the Hidden Landscape of a Roman Frontier Project; see Hannon, Rohl, and Wilson 2017), to future detailed analyses of individual structures and objects (including those features that are being newly identified in the current project). One ambitious medium-term aim is the production of a comprehensive monograph that updates and matches the scale and influence of Sir George Macdonald’s (1934) magisterial synthesis. An important departure from Macdonald, and most other Antonine Wall scholarship, is that my work consciously moves beyond the view that the monument is significant primarily for its initial period of construction and functional operation as a Roman military frontier. Instead, I continue to be concerned with the Wall's full history and periods of re-use and re-imagination from the Roman period onward. This will require increased collaboration with scholars who have regional expertise in a range of periods and will continue Prof. Lawrence Keppie's valuable contributions to the Wall's antiquarian historiography (e.g. Keppie 2012).

Distribution of medieval mottes along the Antonine Wall, from Rohl 2014My planned monograph is currently being outlined in three key parts, conceptually framing the Wall under three separate titles:

  1. Vallum Antonini: the Wall in the Roman period, as a functioning military frontier.
  2. Grymisdyke: the Wall in the post-Roman centuries, adopting the name (later "Graham's Dyke") first recorded by John of Fordun in the fourteenth century.
  3. The Antonine Wall: the Wall as an object of modern scientific research and public presentation, beginning with the Glasgow Archaeology Society's Antonine Wall Committee.
This framework (partially inspired by Hingley 2012, on Hadrian's Wall) seeks to separate these aspects of the Wall's life in order to better understand the complex relationships between them, and to ensure that materials and ideas of post-Roman periods are not confused with the actual Roman period frontier. The long-standing research tradition that has focused on what I term the Vallum Antonini has developed our knowledge and understanding deeply, with particularly important contributions by (for example) Macdonald (1934), Hanson and Maxwell (1986), Breeze (2016), and others (including Geoff Bailey and Anne S. Robertson). This has been important and valuable work that I will continue to build upon, but a consequence of focusing primarily on the Wall's initial period of construction and functional operation (only about 20 years) has been the artificial elision of time between the present of modern investigation and the past of the Roman period. This has, unfortunately, left the long Grymisdyke period comparatively unexplored and largely absent from both academic discourse and public presentations of the monument's contemporary significance. The Wall's current Statement of Outstanding Universal Value, for which it is an inscribed UNESCO World Heritage Site, focuses exclusively on its short-lived functional Roman frontier status, and I argue that this limited presentation (driven by the bounds of the traditional academic discourse) impoverishes opportunities to make the “Antonine Wall” more fully meaningful and publicly valued as a place of significance within the present (e.g. sadly, not everyone is interested in the Romans!). My proposed conceptual separation under these three monikers, thus, may allow for the original Roman Wall (i.e. the Vallum Antonini) to continue to be fully explored in line with more traditional research agendas, while also engaging the evidence and experts of later periods in order to re-present a new expanded vision of the “Antonine Wall” that will more deeply and broadly resonate with diverse audiences.

This new presentation of the present-day “Antonine Wall” as a combination of the Vallum Antonini, Grymisdyke, and both traditional and emerging research will require extensive engagement and reconsideration of the Wall's material remains (most significantly within the collections of The Hunterian Museum), but also the development of a new multi-period collaborative project (tentatively called "The Grymisdyke Project") that brings together the expertise of numerous specialists (within and beyond Archaeology) to further unravel the Wall's Grymisdyke centuries; this will build upon my own PhD thesis (Rohl 2014), Keppie (2012), and Maldonado (2015), as well as (hopefully) a range of features that will be newly identified by the present Hidden Landscape of a Roman Frontier Project. There are numerous opportunities here for doctoral and postdoctoral research that will initiate a new phase of exciting Antonine Wall scholarship, with new access routes beyond traditional Roman Frontier Studies, and I welcome enquiries from interested researchers.

Works Cited

  • Breeze, D.J. (2016) Bearsden: A Roman Fort on the Antonine Wall. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
  • Hannon, N., Rohl, D.J., and Wilson, L. (2017) The Antonine Wall's Distance-slabs: LiDAR as Metric Survey. Journal of Roman Archaeology, 30: 447-468
  • Hanson, W. and Maxwell, G.S. (1986) Rome's North-west Frontier: the Antonine Wall, second edition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Hingley, R. (2012) Hadrian's Wall: A Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Keppie, L.J.F. (2012) The Antiquarian Rediscovery of the Antonine Wall. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
  • Macdonald, G. (1934) The Roman Wall in Scotland, second edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Maldonado, A. (2015) The Early Medieval Antonine Wall. Britannia, 46: 225-45.
  • Rohl, D.J. (2014) More than a Roman Monument: A Place-centred Approach to the Long-term History and Archaeology of the Antonine Wall. PhD thesis, Department of Archaeology, University of Durham. Available at Durham E-Theses Online:

Image Credits

  • Rohl (2014). The Antonine Wall in its tallest-surviving section, Rough Castle Fort (Falkirk).
  • Rohl (2014). Distribution of medieval mottes along the Antonine Wall, as a brief example of how the Wall might offer opportunities for research of non-Roman periods.

This page was last updated on 6 November 2017.