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Vindolanda

Vindolanda—meaning (probably) white lawn or field—is a Roman fort and civilian settlement that predates Hadrian’s Wall. Vindolanda was first a conquest fort and then a frontier fort, settled between 74 and 85 C.E. The garrisons would have been tasked with keeping a Roman presence and sphere of influence in the middle of the country. Vindolanda became a major construction base for Hadrian’s Wall in the early 120s. Vindolanda then formed a part of the Wall garrison, even though the Wall itself was located nearly a mile north.

There have been a number of different civilian settlements and forts built and rebuilt over the Vindolanda site. There have been 9 different forts in the area. The early forts were mostly made of wood and the majority of them were at least twice the size of the stone fort (the 9th fort) whose ruins can be seen today on the site.

At its height, Vindolanda numbered 3,000-4,000 people. Only 1,000 of that number would have been soldiers. The community contained the soldiers’ families (wives, children, other relatives), their servants or slaves, freedmen, veterans, and traders and merchants. The community would have been made up of people from all parts of the Roman empire (soldiers and civilians alike) in addition to native Britons. People from as far away as North Africa, Syria, Germany and France would have made for a diverse, multicultural community.

Roman officers were often transferred every few years between different postings. The villagers would have followed them. At times, Vindolanda would have periods where there was no one living on the site. Between 280-304 C.E. Vindolanda was abandoned and grew derelict. However, the arrival of new occupants in 305 saw the site rebuilt.

This constant renewal of the site to meet the varying needs of its different occupants allowed for special preservation conditions. Vindolanda is rich in archeological discoveries from all the different phases of fort and town settlement. In some places, archaeologists have had to dig up to 7 metres beneath the present ground level to find the field that existed here in pre-Roman times, carefully digging through each layer of buildings and occupation as they do. Waterlogged and anaerobic conditions (with little to no oxygen) means that everyday items dropped by their owners more than 2,000 years ago have been found in more or less the same condition today as they were when they were lost.

Vindolanda is a site of ongoing archeological excavation. It is estimated that it will take 200 years or more to excavate the site. Conditions are fair enough between April and August to continue digging, and the dig is supported by a field school from a University in Western Ontario!

Below is a reconstruction of the civilian settlement (the vicus) and the fort as it would have looked in 213-280. Notice that the town itself does not have a wall. In times of danger or attack, the villagers would have sought protection inside the walls of the fort.

Another view with another model.

A diagram.

Below is one of the current investigation sites, at rest because it runs Monday-Friday.

The dig is taking place below the water table so it is a wet endeavour, but they don’t mind because it helps with the preservation process. I think the little tags indicate where something was found, so it’s a busy site! Apparently it can also be a little stinky because the oxygen-free environment traps the smell of Roman Vindolanda within the soil as well!

A series of aqueducts took fresh water from the wells and water tanks outside the town down to the village and towards the fort. Some of them were lined with stone, others were made from timber pipes.

A typical village house.

Standing in the ruins of the civilian settlement, looking toward the ruins of the fort.

Inside the Headquarters building.

Just South of the settlement are replicas of Hadrian’s Wall. A length of stone wall with a turret, and another section of turf wall with a timber milecastle were built in 1972/4 as part of a research project to determine what it took to build these structures. They also give a scale to the size of Hadrian’s Wall. The turf wall has sunk considerably since it was first put together.

Below is the timber milecastle and a section of turf/timber wall.

Below is the stone turret.

It was fun to walk up here and explore!

The reconstruction of the stone wall.

More stone wall, as well as what I believe is another part of the research project where they recreated the deep ditch that would have been put North of the wall and South of the military zone (the Vallum).

The outer wall of the fort.

The Tavern. Buildings were taxed on the amount of frontage they had on the main street, so a lot of them were built long instead of wide to save on their taxes. Here, the occupants and soldiers would have enjoyed locally brewed Celtic beer, wines, and spirits from across the Roman empire as well as food. The front of the building would have been the bar, a small kitchen would have been just behind, and in the back of the building there would have been accommodation and living space. It’s possible the back of the building had a second floor with more bedrooms upstairs.

Standing in the fort, looking across the ruins of the village, toward the replica fort and wall.

The Severan circular huts. Built sometime between 208-211. Around 250 of these stone huts, domestic dwellings, may have been built here outside of the North gate. No other military site in the Empire has yet to find anything like these circular huts, suggesting that this may have been special to Vindolanda and may have been a unique community. These buildings were standard native dwellings for the more rural farming communities in the North of Britian at this time. They may have been a work camp, built by the Roman army for a largely native workforce made up of pro-Roman natives.

I think this was a latrine.

Looking into the Headquarters building.

The Commanding Officer’s house, with his raised floor.

A number of military workshops were found on the site with large furnaces. The workshops made brooches, tools, weapons and armour, as well as coins. It was illegal to produce copies of Roman coins, but evidence from the site suggests that some people were “minting” them from time to time. Little piece of metal would be “clipped” from authentic coins, melted down, and then used to make the new coins.

The bathhouse.

Chesterholm was the name given to the cottage below built by Vindolanda’s first excavator, Anthony Hedley, in 1832. In 1974 it was converted into a museum to display Vindolanda’s many finds.

6,000 Roman shoes have been discovered on the site so far, with an estimated 1,000 more expected.

Studded shoes and boots were worn outside while thick skinned slippers, made from a single piece of cow hide, were worn inside. Wooden bath clogs were worn on the hot brick floors of the bathhouse. Soldiers wore studded army boots.

Below are some more artefacts from the museum.

Roman coins.

The jet bethrothal medallion is a highlight. A kissing couple is on one side and clasped hands on the other. The pendant dates to the late 3rd century when jet was in fashion and would have been given as a betrothal/marriage gift. Jet was mined and worked on the North Yorkshire coast during the Roman occupation of Britain. This jet was mined in Whitby and probably carved in York.

The Vindolanda Writing tablets are one of the most exceptional discoveries made on the site. The quantity and quality of the surviving written artefacts (about 2,000!) sets Vindolanda apart from many other Roman sites. The tablets consist of personal accounts, lists, and letters, most of them written before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall in the 120s. The people in Vindolanda loved to write, and they wrote on anything they could find: pots, planks, beer barrels, everyday artefacts. There were letters from senior officers and their wives, reports of military activities, lists, communications concerning food, clothing and other supplies, building and transport. The first tablets were discovered in 1973 and more are still being found today.

Stylus pens were used for letters made from pine, with a recessed area filled with a coloured wax. The sharp end of the pen would impress the message into the wax, and a flat edge on the other side of the pen would be used to rub out mistakes. Ink pens were rare, but several of them have been found made of nibs and wooden shafts. The ink pens were used to write on tablets made of birch and alder.

One of the highlights of the writing tablets is a letter written on 11 September, in about the year 100. Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of the commanding officer at Vindolanda, received the invitation to celebrate the birthday of Claudia Severa. This letter is almost certainly the earliest known example of a woman’s handwriting in Latin.

A tablet vault at the museum contains nine of the tablets in a room so dark you can barely see them (and you are definitely not allowed to use flash photography!)

Some of the floor tiles used in the bathhouse contained animal (and the occasional human) prints. The tiles were laid on pallets to dry before being fired in the kilns. Deer, dogs, pigs, cats and birds all ran across them before they had dried, leaving their prints behind.

After the end of Roman occupation in Britain in 410, families and communities continued to live for the next 300-400 years in Vindolanda. The last occupants seem to have left Vindolanda some time in the 9th century. It remained empty until the 17th century when farmers began to clear the scrub bush and forest from the land, till the fields, and to rob stones to make their small croft farm houses (which were actually much more basic than the Roman houses that were here over 1,000 years before!). In 1832 the land first came into the ownership of three successive families (including John Clayton, of Chesters Roman Fort!) that worked to preserve and protect the site.

The information and illustrations I have used in this post comes from The Vindolanda Guide by Andrew Birley.

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