The Killing Ditch
‘When we speak of “shooting” with a camera, we are acknowledging the kinship of photography and violence.’
- Teju Cole, When the Camera Was a Weapon of Imperialism. (And When It Still Is.)
Inspired by English and American topographical survey photographers of the mid to late nineteenth Century, Damien Wootten is carrying out his own photographic archaeological documentation of a man-made ditch that runs along sections of the Roman Wall in northern England.
On the northern frontier of the Roman Empire the ditch was dug immediately to the north of Hadrian’s Wall as a first line of defence. The wall itself ran the width of the country, and as history tells us, was built to defend Roman ‘Britannia’ from the northern tribes. It certainly marked the Roman’s failure to conquer the inhabitants of northern Britain.
Incredibly, after almost two thousand years, long sections of the ditch have survived relatively intact and are still visible today running parallel to the Military Road in Northumberland. The Military Road itself was constructed in the mid Eighteenth Century, directly on top of long stretches of the Roman Wall. It was built to move troops more quickly across the country, to fend off Jacobite attacks from the North.
Other sections of the ditch have all but disappeared under farmland, or have been built over by roads, housing, gardens, farms and a pub car park! Some parts of the ditch run into woodland and it’s traces can still be found if searched for. It has also created channels of bog and marshland, providing a habitat for frogs, insects and birds - and a watering place for sheep, cattle and deer.
The Roman’s desire to assert control and signify strength through territorial boundaries has been given renewed currency by present-day geopolitics - from the Israeli-Gaza Strip barrier, the Turkey-Syrian border wall and Trump’s Mexican wall, through to Scottish independence, Brexit and the Irish border.
Contemporary thinking suggests that the construction of Hadrian’s Wall was about far more than a solid fortification, separation and violence and that this zone of contact was a more complex one. The border was far more fluid than once thought, with people moving to and fro. As well a demarcation of empire and for defence, the wall also acted as a customs border for trade; a way of monitoring and controlling who passed through - and possibly a way of collecting taxes.
Photography itself was a tool of imperialism, playing it’s part in the global expansion of European and American power. It was an important instrument of scientific exploration - mapping and recording unknown territories - while also serving political and commercial ends (which inventively ended in the displacement and genocide of indigenous peoples).
These immersive topographical photographs of the sculptured ditch and it’s enveloping grey landscape resonate with the past - echoing with notions of the ‘frontier’ and everything that conjures up: colonisation, conflict and death. But they also speak of the complexities of identity, cultural and religious tolerance and cooperation - and the inevitable decline of empire. And as with Berlin, walls always crumble.
Like the visible remnants of the ditch today, we are intrinsically linked to that same past. Our purpose now is in how we respond to the social and political shifts of our own time - and it is by that ‘history’ we will be judged.
‘No matter how strongly those in power tried to enforce division and separation between different cultures, history suggests that ordinary people often have other ideas and natural tendencies to find ways around or through artificial barriers, and a desire - or even a need - to forge links and connections, rather than weapons and armour. Human nature it seems, could be stronger than even the mightiest of boundaries.’
- Dr Eleanor Barraclough, Department of History, Durham University
‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.'
Karl Marx, From The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852