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The Planning of Roman Roads and Walls in Northern Britain by John Poulter

Book Review by Melvadius

What you get inside this book is much more than what it says on the cover; it contains a detailed investigation into the probable directions of planning and building of Dere Street, the major Roman road on the Eastern side of the Roman frontier, plus Hadrian’s Wall, the Stanegate and the vallum as well as the Antonine Wall. All this is done in a systematic way which effectively overturns, or at least calls into question, much of the previously generally accepted theories on the direction(s) in which this was done by the Roman’s

In his introduction Poulter cites his life-long interest in roads, railways and canals and the questions he asked about their locations including ‘why they were built here and not there’. This interest included questioning how Roman surveyors could follow straight lines for extended distances yet still ‘know where they should be going, and with such accuracy’. His expertise as a systems engineer, even if not that of a civil engineer, led to several years of research attempting to answer these questions.

The first route he chose to research was that of Dere Street, the main Roman road from the Vale of York up into Scotland, in the north of England but following representations from several leading archaeologist and Roman period experts he extended his methods to research the planning of both Hadrian’s and the Antonine Walls. He has published a formal treatise on his findings (in 2009) which those seeking more details are referred to but the current book is intended to explain both his reasoning and findings for a more general non-specialist audience and as such provides much food for thought in the conclusions he draws.

The main part of the book consists of thirteen chapters; the first three providing background into the methods used to establish bearings and the direction in which roads were planned. The ten remaining chapters in the the book comprise; five chapters addressing different aspects of three case studies and a further five outlining the underlying methodologies used in writing this book and suggestions for further work.

Of the five ‘Case Study’ related chapters; one looks at the planning of Dere Street while two chapters each are devoted to the planning and interpretation of respectively Hadrians’ Wall and the Antonine Wall.

The remaining five chapters each address important related issues; one making comparisons with other Roman roads and another similar comparisons with the eighteenth century military roads in Scotland. In some respects however I found the remaining three chapters to contain some of Poulter’s most insightful comments; the first raises possible questions for further research with the second outlining at the broad methodology that he used in his research when deciding possible scenario’s for the various structures sequence of construction and interpretation of their original purpose.

However possibly the last of the chapters (although 6th in sequence) title of ‘Loose Talk and Woolly Thinking’ in many ways encapsulates how different Poulter’s attitude has been to much of what has been written about how such emblematic Roman structures in Britain were planned and built in the past. By going back to basics and actually looking at what is visible on the ground Poulter has used a surprisingly simple but effective methodology and in doing so raised effective arguments against several of the theories espoused in several recent books on related topics. In fact Poulter’s findings go a long way to re-writing what has long been accepted about the Roman passion for road building and construction of the British sections of the Roman limes (frontiers) and compliments separate research undertaken by Wooliscroft (published in 2001 as Roman Military Signalling).

The book is well illustrated and referenced, comprising 32 colour plates and lists 96 figures although some are in multiple parts to depict different aspects of the same topic. The Appendix extends the methodology outlined in the book to provide some analysis of the spacing of turrets and milecastles along Hadrian’s Wall.

Overall I found this a very well written, well referenced, occasionally funny but always informative book which never lost sight of the fact that there may be more than one way of interpreting the ancient remains which the author has studied. Poulter is not afraid to say where further research may change the interpretations he has come to or cite the circumstances where even his methodology cannot provide a definitive answer for sequences of construction. However, given how determinedly he appears to have carried out his own research, I suspect that any such new discovery is unlikely to make a major difference to his findings.

If the topic interests you at all I would recommend this as a genuinely ‘new’ interpretation and one which should be read by anyone considering undertaking research on Roman roads or linear features in the future.

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The Planning of Roman Roads and Walls in Northern Britain - Related Topic: Roman Road Construction


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