Rob Collins, Living on the Edge of Empire (Pen & Sword, 2020)
Hadrian’s Wall conjures up images of an imposing barrier cutting across the northern English landscape, populated by stern-faced Roman soldiers prepared for the next barbarian attack. That isn’t completely wrong, but it is not the whole picture: Hadrian’s Wall became a community hub almost from when the Romans laid the first stone. Rob Collins has put together a book full of fascinating photographs of artefacts, illustrating the many facets of military and civilian life along Rome’s most permanent frontier.
Collins divides his book into eight chapters, encompassing all aspects of life along Hadrian’s Wall, and each lavishly illustrated with colour photographs. He starts with communities and homes, from farmsteads to military tents and barracks. This incorporates a little studies on demographics and furniture and lighting. How the people dressed, and their appearance are next, though perishable materials come mostly from the earlier period of the Wall. Some of the jewellery exhibited here is exquisite, but even the mundane artefacts are extraordinary in their way given how they shine a light on people’s everyday lives. What they ate and how they stored food follows, revealing how even this far off frontier was connected to the whole Empire. We should not forget that Hadrian’s Wall was primarily a military installation, and with that in mind, Collins turns to security, both personal and military, including weapons and armour. But the Wall also acted as an economic centre, so implements for trade and administration are covered here, with a section on leisure items included. Religion played a major role in antiquity and for those living on the Wall. Collins covers the full panoply of the Gods and religious practice in this chapter. Then comes a chapter of unknowns; oddities that we are not quite sure as to their function. All good things come to an end, depending on whose side you were on, and Collins’ last chapter surveys artefacts from the last days of the Wall as it transformed into an Anglo-Saxon zone. Appendices on where all the artefacts were found and museums in which you can see them concludes Collin’s book.
Living on the Edge of Empire is more than a collection of photographs of finds from Hadrian’s Wall; it serves as a useful primer to the Wall as a focal point for community life in all its variety. Collins has assembled an impressive range of materials, which reveal that sometimes the most significant finds come from the most commonplace items. Vindolanda features heavily in the array of objects, which is appropriate given how much has been carried out there. That might skew the picture of the whole Wall, but I think there is enough from other sources to provide balance. Collins’ text matches the artefacts in its clarity, with the final result being a neatly organised and illuminating book. If you cannot visit Hadrian’s Wall, this book might be the next best thing.