Books about Gilsland and its environs are few and far between, so I was pleased to see this plush new production on sale at Birdoswald. The contribution made to our understanding of this site by Tony Wilmott’s many years of excavation there are commemorated by a life-size model of him in the fort museum, just one of the quirky and original manikins on display there.
The guide-book relates how, as well as the familiar buildings of a major Roman fort, he discovered traces of continued occupation after the Roman administration had abandoned Britannia. This is of great interest to historians as the ensuing period (“The Dark Ages”) was important in the development of an English identity but is poorly recorded historically and archaeologically. In particular, events immediately after the Roman withdrawal are not clearly understood, and could have had great significance in the subsequent appearance of chiefdoms and kingdoms. Was, for instance, King Arthur a Roman commander, abandoned by his distant government and forced to fight to maintain a civilised way of life against barbarian incursion ?
As would be expected, the description of the major finds and interpretation of the buildings are first-class and are accompanied by vivid reconstructions familiar to visitors to the fort. The logic behind the reconstructions is carefully explained within the confines of the limited space available and artefacts from other parts of the empire are drawn in where appropriate. Also included are a tour of the site, walks in the immediate area and a fascinating analysis of the archaeological insights derived from excavation of one complex area around a gateway. A history section, starting with a bang in AD43, follows the site from the building of Hadrian’s Wall to the present day.
Unfortunately, English Heritage’s designers have been given free rein, and have gone some way towards making the booklet more difficult to use than it needs to be. Why is it too tall to fit on the shelf with my other books ? Is this a cunning plan to ensure that it is always on the coffee-table ? The wide margins house microscopic illustrations, clearly influenced by web page design - but this is a book, and we can’t click on the pictures to see a bigger version. The illustration of an altar on page 5 is totally unintelligible, even with a magnifying glass.
When reading books about the area, we usually have to search for the chapter relevant to Gilsland, in this case the “History” section. Disappointingly, including the later periods was clearly an afterthought, and as we approach Georgian and Victorian times, so important in understanding the modern cultural and architectural landscape, it descends into farce. The section on “Walter Scott and the Victorians” (he wasn’t one) consists of two paragraphs, and virtually every word of the first is wrong or worse - e.g. “He set part of his novel Meg Merrilees in the area”. The disdain with which students of so-called classical periods regard later (or “sub-Roman”) history is well known. However, to include such material, hastily gleaned from unsourced commercial guidebooks, is simply disrespectful, both to the region and to the people who buy the book in good faith as a reliable source of information.
Despite this minor wobble, the vast majority of the booklet is packed with authentic detail and is attractively presented despite my nitpicking. It is certainly worth its £3.99 to anyone interested in the site or in Roman Britain.