Falkirk Wheel, Panoramic view.

Falkirk Wheel, Panoramic view.
Image by Cameron Lyall, GNU license Wikimedia

01 July 2011

Roll over Hadrian, and tell Antonine the news

When I think of logistics and roads, I think of three things: the Eisenhower interstate system, the autobahn, and the Romans. All of those have direct connections to each other and to war machines. Romans built roads to rapidly move troops and supplies. The autobahn was designed to move troops and supplies—and was based on the Roman roads. Eisenhower pushed for and designed the interstate system to rapidly move people and material across the US, and it was based on the autobahn.

However, before highway systems were introduced in Scotland, the canal systems and rail lines fulfilled those needs. Those needs were not a military need, but an industrial need; they moved raw goods from producer to processor and refined goods from processor to consumer.

At the Falkirk Wheel, all three—roads, rails, and canals—of those transport systems come together. Directly south of the Wheel are the remains for the Antonine Wall, a Roman wall build in around 140 AD to be a more northerly boundary of the Roman empire, ostensibly to replace Hadrian’s Wall. Along parts of the wall—and not far from the Wheel—the Romans build a road, most likely used to patrol the wall. Because the Romans were excellent civil engineers, when the Scottish built a railroad, they used part of the old Roman road, which ran next to Antonine Wall.

When British Waterways was looking for a way to reopen the Scottish canal system—which had lain fallow for decades—they considered the novel solution of the Wheel. To make the canals connect, however, they needed to tunnel under the rain line, which followed an old Roman road, and under the Antonine Wall. This got me thinking.

The canal connected to the Wheel is used for mostly tourist purposes. If you own your own boat—or can rent one—you can use the wheel to traverse Scotland via canal. And the area around the Wheel has been made into a park, complete with playground equipment, food vendors, and picnic areas. They even rent out those giant hamster balls for people to play in on the water. An impressive engineering feat used to re-create an industrial transport system into a park for families and school groups. What would the Roman’s think?

Less than a mile from the Wheel are the remains of a Roman fort. If the Romans could see the modern roads, modern rails, and the Wheel, I wonder what they would see. True they would see the same physical characteristics that we see, but how would they envision it? When we see a canal, we have a conception of what the canal can do and what it means and what is does. It is fair to assume that the Romans—who most likely did not see modern canals—would have a different vision and understanding of what the Wheel was for and what it could do. What would it mean to them that it breaches the very wall they fought to establish and hold?

We went to a place to see a Wheel: an engineering triumph and a postindustrial re-purposing of highly industrial technology and systems. But the Wheel is only part of that place. That place is also directly on top of ancient Roman remains and sites. The confluence of history, history making, and history being that is at the site—place—of the Wheel confuses and complicates. Confusion and complication are useful when we want to examine and better understand how society works and interacts. The Wheel is not used for industrial reasons; it is used for pleasure and entertainment. That conflicts with the history of the site and the history of the technology used to create it and the canals it uses. To some degree, parts of the history have been turned on its head. How apropos.


1 comment:

John said...

I've seen a number of discussions on the Falkirk Wheel before, but not one that engages in historical juxtaposition like this. Thoroughly enjoyable.