Hadrian's Wall

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd April 1958.

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Photo of Sir Eric Fletcher Sir Eric Fletcher , Islington East 12:00 am, 2nd April 1958

I was hoping that my hon. Friend would be flattered by the suggestion that Swindon was in the vicinity of Salisbury Plain. However, it is in the vicinity of Avebury and Stonehenge, to which he referred, so it is in the vicinity of two of the greatest prehistoric monuments in this country and, perhaps, in Western Europe. I should be glad to accept the invitation he has kindly offered, though I assure him that I have some familiarity with Roman roads, particularly the Fosse Way in the neighbourhood of his constituency, to which he also referred.

After that digression, perhaps we may return to what Mrs. Jacquetta Hawkes said in her most recent Observer article, "Back to the Wall". Unlike the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth, I have the honour of knowing Mrs. Jacquetta Hawkes, and I have the greatest admiration for her scholarship, her criticism, her knowledge and her views on any archaeological subject.

I do not think that it is a bad thing that, by a happy accident, we should have the opportunity this evening of ventilating the subject to which her articles have drawn attention and, indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon suggested, of discussing other aspects of the work of the Ancient Monuments Division of the Ministry of Works. The subject is by no means unimportant. Is it of great interest to both students and the general public of this country, and it has an increasing interest for overseas visitors. Every day, it is being more clearly realised that everything which helps to illuminate the past helps us to understand better the present and the problems of the future.

It may, perhaps, seem a trivial matter whether or not the Minister is acting in accordance with the best archaeological principles in the particular methods he is adopting in the preservation of Hadrian's Wall. I am certainly not in a position to judge. If there was one sentence which the Minister uttered on 25th February with which we all agreed, it was that There are often two opinions on every, object."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th February, 1958; Vol. 583, c. 180.] and this is particularly so in archaeological matters.

I do not think that it is for the House to judge between, on the one hand, the criticisms of Mrs. Jacquetta Hawkes and, on the other, the opinions of Professor Birley, Professor Richmond and others in the North, for whose opinions I also have the greatest respect. What is of wider significance is that we should appreciate the problem which often confronts the Ministry of Works not only in relation to Hadrian's Wall, but in other matters of preservation.

There is the problem of whether or not the Department should preserve a monument in the precise form in which it is found, with all the accumulation of debris, and so forth, which has grown up around it since it was built, or whether there should be not a radical reconstruction, but a renovation in such a way as to make the monument more easily intelligible to, and appreciated by, this generation.

I can understand the conflict that has arisen in the past on a number of important sites between the Ancient Monuments Board and other archaeologists represented in the Society of Antiquaries of which the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. N. Nicolson) is a distinguished Fellow. It is right that in this House we should take the opportunity of paying a tribute to the work that the Ancient Monuments Board has done in recent years in connection with the preservation of our ancient monuments and in laying them out in a manner which makes them not only places of beauty, but places in which people can take an intelligent interest to enable them to appreciate the work that is done.

May I, in passing, refer to places which I have seen in the last few years—for example, Richborough, Pevensey, the ancient Anderida. To come to mediaeval times, I can think of Goodrich Castle, Castle Acre and many others. I am impressed by the way in which these monuments of antiquity and great national interest are preserved by the hon. Gentleman's Department. It may well be that in the course of preservation something is done which necessarily or inevitably disturbs the original nature of the ancient fabric and the way in which the stones were placed. But I noticed—and I must say this in justification of the Minister—that Mrs. Jacquetta Hawkes points out in her article in the Observer of 30th March: It would be unfair to say that historical evidence is being lost in this way, but indisputably it could be. There is a very slight risk of that, but I think that what is more important is that in dealing with a monument like this Wall, unlike, for instance, the Temple of Mithras, we are dealing with a long section of the countryside of northern England, and the significance of the Wall is in its siting from place to place, in its general appearance and in its relation to the milestones.

To the examples given by the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central, may I add my appreciation of the way Corstopitum has been preserved. I am bound to say that in dealing with a long stretch of Hadrian's Wall, it is obviously impossible to deal with the whole of the face, but it is appropriate that a certain section of the face of the Wall should be dealt with in the way in which the Minister's Department is dealing with it, in spite of the criticism of Mrs. Hawkes that some stones have been displaced.

It is one of the curiosities of this subject, as Mrs. Hawkes herself recognises from her photographs, that owing to the peculiar lichen-marked stone, of which she gives two photographs, one can see how the lichen-marked stone which was formerly in the lower course is now in a slightly raised course. Therefore, if it was necessary to make that adjustment in the position of the stones, one has not only preserved for posterity the evidence of how the Wall was originally built, but one has preserved also the evidence of how this generation has thought it desirable to reconstruct it. There is, therefore, no possibility of future generations being deceived. That is not unimportant.

I would have thought that the same principle should apply to a work of this kind as is applied in the case of Stonehenge, to which my hon. Friend has referred, where we are reconstructing the trilithon. I am sure that that is a right decision to have taken. The mere fact that it is being done, and that there is current literary and pictorial evidence of how it is being done removes any possibility of future generations being misled about the subject.

One of the difficulties of archaeology in the past when excavating prehistoric, Roman or Anglo-Saxon sites has been that there is no literary evidence to indicate what changes have been made in successive generations. Today, however, we are living in an age of archaeological work and restoration, when everything that is done is photographed and recorded, so that future generations may be able to detect any changes that have been made from the original status of any monument.

I fear that I have spoken for too long, but I wanted to pay this tribute to the work of the Department and to say that we are all anxious to hear what the Minister has to tell us.