an early contender for the year’s best history book

an early contender for the year’s best history book

Picture him at daybreak walking across the fields, eyes on the ground, sucking mud on his boots; he stops, sometimes squats down and studies the shadows cast by the low, blazing sun. A farmer he meets thinks he’s crazy. Christopher Hadley is not the slightest bit insane and has a magnificent, even noble, obsession; He “proves the line”, searches for a lost Roman road.

The road (known locally as RR21b) ran from Braughing in Hertfordshire to Great Chesterford in Essex. Today it’s a quiet, hidden part of the countryside, but it was once the busy heart of Roman Britain. The road is the spine of this wonderful book. We follow him through space and go north with the author. In a less linear way, we also follow him through the centuries. The road is a “time machine”; Things encountered along the way evoke history, bridging the gap between them and us, giving “a sense that the past might seep into the present and the present into the past like ink through tissue paper.”

We are shown the Romans; how they built, used and thought about the road. But we also meet many of those who have traveled and pondered the road over the past centuries. We meet antiquarians, schoolboys, a blacksmith, priests, a miller, detectorists, local researchers and archaeologists. All the tools of the latter are vividly explained: stratigraphy in excavations, field surveys, geophysics, numismatics, epigraphy, aerial photography and LiDAR (3D modeling of the ground by “bouncing laser pulses off objects and measuring their reflection”).

Hadley expands the usual evidence base to include “poems, church walls, and witch stones; Oxlips, Killing Places and Rebecca West; spirits and immortals and things buried too deep for archeology”. As in a novel, a major revelation is withheld until the end, when Hadley provides an exciting and utterly compelling explanation of why the Romans built the road first (and as is courteous in reviewing fiction, I won’t spoil the ending).

The tone of non-academic honesty makes us reflect on how we make history. At one point in the delightfully clear endnotes, Hadley quotes a “Display label at Vindolanda Roman fort,” at another he admits, “I can’t remember or find out where I read that.” Every historian must sympathize with the latter, but try to get past either the supervisor or the anonymous readers of a specialist press. Such openness challenges the endless multiplication of references in much of modern history. Why are they here? Do they add something, or are they often just a form of rhetoric – look at how many works I’ve consulted, how many languages ​​I can read – aimed at coercing readers into assent?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *