Saturday, 1 August 2009

The Wall on the Web

The story so far ...

It is now two years since the Antonine Wall was confirmed as the UK's 2008 nomination for World Heritage Status. (I blogged about it here.) Of course, we know that, a year later, the 32nd session of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee sat to consider the nominations for 2008. (I blogged about it here.) And the Antonine Wall went on to achieve inclusion as part of the "Frontiers of the Roman Empire" World Heritage Site. (I blogged about it here and here.)

Back then, I noted that Historic Scotland's management plan had promised "a web site for the frontiers of the Roman empire in Europe", but -- mea culpa! -- I forgot to follow up. So, when I recently looked at the Antonine Wall leaflet (with its link to the official web site), it jogged my memory. And now that I have finally looked at the official web site, I can truthfully report my imperial impressions.

Antonine Wall Web Site Logo

1. Home Page

In the opening blurb, Professor David Breeze ("Antonine Wall Co-ordinator") hopes "that this website will provide the visitor with a useful source of information on the Antonine Wall, and encourage exploration and discovery of the sites and associated museum collections". But is it a useful source of information?

2. Visiting

As far as "exploration and discovery" are concerned, the web site's Visiting page displays an "interactive" map of the frontier, with a clickable red cube representing each fort. The background appears to be the scan of an actual map, so it is peculiar to see Dumbarton mis-spellt as "Dunbarton" (an understandable mistake). For accommodation, the page lists only one hotel, which visitors may find rather limiting.

3. News

Unfortunately, the web site falls into the same trap as many others: a failure to keep it fresh and up-to-date. The News page has a list of hyperlinks, the most recent of which (a call for "Spring cleaning" volunteers) relates to an event that ended on 30 April 2009. It is a pity that, in this first year of World Heritage Status and before the excitement dies out, some publicity events could not have been organised for the summer months, like those which English Heritage regularly organises for Roman properties in England, or those which the CBA include in their annual "Festival of Archaeology".

4. History

The History page presents a rather short and simplified description of the frontier, easily digested by those with a short attention span. But what about those with a longer attention span?

5. Research

Rather more promising is the Research page, which currently gives access to four PDF files. Unfortunately, this page appears to have suffered the same neglect as the News page, but hopefully will eventually be updated, if the intention is to give public access to the latest research.

6. Resources

The Resources page gives access to a selection of five links, some of which are rather odd. The first one, "Educational Resources", seems to have been lifted from the Hunterian Museum web site, and is clearly aimed at primary school age children. So the fact that the gold coin legend has not been explained quite correctly probably doesn't really matter. And children probably won't question why some of the illustrated objects are variously dated to "AD 142-180", "AD 142-163" and "AD 139-161". The second one, "Search online for Roman images", is more promising, with links to the Hunterian Online Photo Library, Historic Scotland's Image Database, and RCAHMS's invaluable Canmore database. The third link, to the "Roman Scotland Archive held at the Hunterian Museum", is another odd one, displaying a motley collection of memorabilia from the excavations at Bar Hill. The fourth link, "Merchandise", is there solely to enable the purchase of the new Ordnance Survey map of the Antonine Wall, through the rather clumsy method of printing out an Excel spreadsheet order form; it is not clear how payment is supposed to be made, except that it "must be made in sterling, payable through a British clearing bank"! And the fifth link, "Guides", gives access to some downloadable PDF guide leaflets (including the back page of an "Old Kilpatrick" leaflet that lists items 16, 17, 18, 19 -- where are items 1-15? -- and a walk around Rough Castle, which appears as "Roughcastle"). Very odd.

7. Preservation

After the rather simplistic documents in the other sections, the Preservation page enables the downloading of some fairly high-brow official documents, such as the text of the "Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act, 1979" (all 84 pages) or "Planning Advice Note (PAN) 42" (only 24 pages). But there should, perhaps, be some warning of the sizes of these documents. The 80-page full colour "Antonine Wall Management Plan" could take a few minutes with a dial-up connection (if anyone still has those).

8. Forum

I leave the Forum page till last, as (I confess) I never managed to make it work. It seems that "the forums here can only be viewed by invitation after registration" ..., so that's helpful. And welcoming.


All in all, I feel that an opportunity has been missed. I'd expect a World Heritage Site to have a rather slicker, more attractive web presence with far more interesting features. The excellent Vindolanda Trust web site is a good example to aspire to.

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