‘Pop Culture Picts and the Imaginary Hadrian’s Wall’

Published on: Author: Megan Leave a comment

On 17 January, 2017, the Centre welcomed Dr. Adrián Maldonado (University of Glasgow) to discuss  ‘Pop Culture Picts and the Imaginary Hadrian’s Wall’. Adrián began by stating that, while this is not a typical topic for archaeologists, it is worth studying the messages that history-themed movies and video games convey to the general audience. While sometimes considered “low culture”, these art forms play a part in creating future experts.

Centurion Olga pictish stone screencapsbest

Currently, it is thought by researchers that Hadrian’s Wall was as much political as defensive in purpose. By the end of the Roman period, the wall’s original meaning, and even those who had built it, were already forgotten despite the multitude of Roman inscriptions lining the wall. It wasn’t until the modern period that its history was rediscovered. Adrián stated that during the 1000 years during which Hadrian’s Wall’s origins had been forgotten, it was simply a wall that separated “us” from “them”. In the months leading up to the 2014 Scottish Referendum, many jokes were made about having to rebuild Hadrian’s Wall if the referendum succeeded. This offers insight into how the public perceives Hadrian’s Wall.

In this lecture, Adrián highlighted several films which feature Hadrian’s Wall during the Roman occupation which were particularly offensive to his academic sensibilities. These films claim some degree of historical accuracy (see interviews with The Eagle’s director Kevin Macdonald here and Centurion‘s director Neil Marshall here), but Adrián argued that these films do not actually tell the story of the Picts, they focus on the Roman historical perspective; in some ways, these films actually tell us more about modern America and the American army.

When he discussed King Arthur (2004), Adrián did concede that some of the archaeological features of the film were largely correct, like the Late Roman barrow-field. An actual Late Roman barrow-field can be found in High Rochester, Northumberland, and while there are some discrepancies, their depiction was largely correct. The main issue here is that the “Picts” in the film were called “Woads”, even though the film takes place in 467 AD when we actually have evidence for the Picts during this time period. Adrián stated that this was a denial of history: while there were attempts to make the film historically accurate, the director then “invented” the Picts when it would be more historically accurate to have Picts. This was unnecessary and offensive.

In the case of The Eagle (2011), there are at least two native groups opposing the Romans: the tattooed Pict-equivalent sporting Polynesian-inspired tattoos and “The Seal People”, a non-Pictish tribe from Argyll who appear to be full-on Northwestern American Indians, although with a few red-heads thrown in to emphasize their Scottish lineage. These native cultures from different areas of the world were seen as interchangeable by the director, and the result is a mish-mash of famous native groups. This depiction is a denial of the individual histories of these cultures simply to produce the feeling of “otherness”.

There are some positive aspects of Centurion (2010): it features Pictish symbol-themed stones (although these are not exact replicas of any known Pictish stones) and the lead antagonist is a female Pict instead of a burly, male Pictish warrior. Throughout (and in the previously mentioned films!), the casting shows an active choice to ignore the Scottish resource, especially when lead actors are American or British. In this case, the female Pict is played by a Ukranian actress in an attempt to make the past more exotic than it needs to be.

When discussing their historical research (see the interviews with the directors above), most of these directors are drawing from Roman classical sources. It is important to realize that during this time period, these “ethnographical accounts” were embedded with Roman propaganda and incorporated only minute bits of truth. Adrián cited Greg Woolf (Tales of the Barbarians, 2011), who stated that “ethnography had become a new species of myth in Classical sources.” Earlier in the occupation of Britain, coins depicted Britannia as a pile of rocks, suggesting that the Roman view of Britain was not free of disdain. In the 4th Century, “historical” sources regarding the Picts are heavily biased to the official imperial line, and so paint the inhabitants of Scotland with broad strokes and described the Picts as people to be feared. These sources emphasized the perceived outside threat to distract from the political issues that were arising at home in Rome.

Today, the heritage sector seems keen on emphasizing the Roman military perspective at Hadrian’s Wall by focusing on reconstructing the wall. This interpretation is subsequently influencing popular culture. Neil Marshall and George R. R. Martin both stated that they were inspired by visits to Hadrian’s Wall, and their subsequent depictions of “The Wall” clearly sympathize with the Roman experience. Adrián stated that the materiality of the wall is itself mythogenic; if a wall is that big, it is seen as keeping something out, even if now it is suggested by academics that Hadrian’s wall was simply a Roman emperor’s political statement.

Is this the Hadrian’s Wall that we deserve, or can we tell a better story? Adrián gave examples of several archaeological questions that could be answered about the indigenous people during the Roman occupation of Hadrian’s Wall. The moulds used for the manufacture of the “door knob spearbutt”, a piece of Scottish indigenous material culture alluded to in Classical sources, are found only in high status settlements and (by that period) ancient monuments. What does this say about how metalworking practices were viewed by the inhabitants of Scotland during this time? How would the people wearing the various metal objects created in this fashion (magic?) feel about wearing them? Aren’t these stories worth telling?

Summary by Megan Kasten (PhD Researcher)

Our seminar series continues next week on 24 January 2017 with Prof Gerard Carruthers (University of Glasgow) to discuss ‘Robert Burns, Glasgow, Song’ with music by Alison and Fiona McNeill. This will be held in Room 407 in the Boyd Orr Building at 5.30pm. All welcome!

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