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July 1, 2021

from Walking Hadrian’s Wall, by Bob Royalty

Religion, many have argued, . . . [is] the “sacred canopy” placed over our social world to provide meaning and prevent chaos. We build religions to build connections with each other, to make our societies function, to connect our lives to the vast universe. 

Hadrian’s Wall is fake in that sense, a reconstruction of the Roman wall that is a tourist destination rather than a border; there is England on both sides of the wall wherever it crops up. I was participating in a ritual of sorts, a faux ritual, perhaps, walking the wall from Wallsend to Bowness-on-Solway. . . Ritual is part of the many social constructions of religion, just as Clayton’s Wall is part of the many constructions of Hadrian’s Wall, since all of it has been rebuilt at one point, either by emperors after Hadrian or by archaeologists. None of these different functions, for the wall or for religion, are bad. They just are. As a scholar of religion, I try to peel back the layers of meaning to see the different ways religion is formed and how it functions over time and within a society. In many ways I work as an archaeologist works on the wall, looking for layers, dating objects and repairs, describing the function in different times and places, trying to decide what was and what might have been, peeling back the appearances and the practices for the origins. Since I work on living religions, in particular Christianity, this often bothers people. Religion as a rule has not wanted this story told or its origins revealed. . . Religion wants the past as a beautiful image, not a messy reality.

—Bob Royalty, Walking Hadrian’s Wall