Hadrian’s Wall (2) – Vindolanda

031 Helmet plume from Vindolanda, how in The Roman Army Museum

Vindolanda is my favourite site to visit when we go up to Hadrian’s Wall. It has everything a history lover could want: ancient ruins to walk around – with an ongoing archaeological ‘dig’ during the summer months – and reconstructions of parts of Hadrian’s Wall. There is also an excellent, award-winning museum housing many of the finds from the dig. The scenery around the site and the landscaped gardens and little stream close to the museum are a delight in themselves.

Vindolanda was the longest occupied fort along the Roman northern frontier, built between AD74 and 85 and continuing through to end of Roman Britain in AD410. It is sited pretty much centrally between the eastern  and western ends of the Wall but is not on Hadrian’s Wall itself, being a mile or so to the south of it. These maps aren’t that clear, but they may give some idea of location:

Route of the Stanegate Road.
Route of the Stanegate Road. Author: Neddysegoon. Creative Commons
Approximate location of Vindolanda
The x marks the approximate location of Vindolanda. The photo is of an information board at Housesteads fort.

The fort, and the settlement that grew up with it, were first constructed four decades before Hadrian decided to build his wall. It formed part of a line of a few forts along the Roman road known as the Stanegate (Stone Gate). By the time the building of Hadrian’s Wall began around AD122 there had already been four forts and towns on the site (wood rots!).

At its height, Vindolanda would have supported a population of 3-4000, of which 1000 would have been largely auxilliary soldiers. The rest was made up of the soldiers’ families, traders and merchants, servant and slaves. People from all over the Roman empire would have lived here: from North Africa, Spain, Syria, France (Gaul/Gallia) and Germany and Italy itself. Hence there would be a great variety of customs, diets, dress and dialects.

395 Map - Roman Empire (2)

While Hadrian’s Wall was under construction, Vindolanda became a sort of ‘base camp’ for the legionaries and many workers involved. Once the Wall was completed, Vindolanda formed part of the Wall garrison, despite being a mile south of the actual Wall.

But the population of Vindolanda was always on the move, shifting from one ‘posting’ to the next, and the majority of the people would have gone with them. At one point, between AD280-304/5, the site was abandoned and lay derelict, and was rebuilt in AD305. Excavations have unearthed remains of a large bonfire on the site. It had been used to destroy all the household goods of the prefect/commanding officer at that time as his household prepared to move on to another site. At he bottom of the huge pile of remains, many letters and other communications had survived: wonderful archaeological evidence of life up on the Wall at that time.

All this construction and rebuilding work meant that in places it has been necessary for archaeologists to dig down as much as 7 metres below the original ground level to reach many of the ‘finds’.  But the constant renewal of the site also helped to create the excellent preservation conditions (anaerobic/anoxic levels) where there is little or no oxygen.

Photo of excavation work at Vindolanda from a display board inside the museum.
Photo of excavation work at Vindolanda from a display board inside the museum.

The ruins need to be viewed in two parts. First there is the fort. Although there is still a lot of it to be excavated, some buildings are clearly identifiable. Most of the outer walls and gates are visible, as well as both the NE and SW corners and a latrine. As all Roman forts, this one had the typical playing-card shape (rectangular with rounded corners). It also had the three central and most important buildings of every fort: the headquarters building; the commanding officer’s/prefect’s house and the granaries. Then there were the other usual buildings such as the soldiers’ barracks, latrines and so on. I don’t intend to describe all these here because my next post is about a single fort (Housesteads) and I’ll be talking about that then.

What I’d like to focus on now is the vicus at Vindolanda  – the settlement that grew up outside the walls of the fort.

066 Model of Fort and Vicus on Entering Vindolanda
Model of the fort and vicus at Vindolanda in the entrance to the site.
Plan of Vicus at Vindolanda
Plan of Vicus at Vindolanda

The present day ruins are quite incredible and give us plenty of insight into everyday life in a Roman settlement at this time.  I couldn’t possibly describe all of the different remains in a single post but they included everything from temples and mausolea, shops of various types, a tavern and workshops to a military bath house, wells and water tanks.

Finds from the dig have produced the most important archaeological discovery of the last 50 years: the writing tablets. They are currently housed in the museum – on loan from the British Museum in London – and displayed in an hermetically sealed case, protected from the decaying effects of oxygen, moisture and humidity.

The first writing tablet from Vindolanda was unearthed over 30 years ago. It was one of the most important archaeological discoveries in Britain since 1945. The collection of about 2,000 documents is an invaluable source of information about life in the Roman army on the northern frontiers during the years immediately before the building of Hadrian’s Wall. The tablet I always loved is one from Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina, the wife of the garrison’s commanding officer in AD100, inviting her to her birthday party. But the largest tablet is a four page one from Octavius to Candidus, listing business transactions between Vidolanda and Catterick Roman fort in Yorkshire, roughly 68 miles away. It contains the amusing phrase ‘the roads are awful’!

Other ‘finds’ from the dig include armour, shoes, socks, wigs, wood and leather items, textiles, glass, pottery, ironwork, inscriptions and sculpture. One of the most impressive finds is the hair-moss crest from a helmet, now housed at the Roman Army Museum at Carvoran, where we photographed it. That museum is also run by the Vindolanda Trust (so, unlike some of the other sites along the Wall, these two are not run by English Heritage or National Trust).

031 Helmet plume from Vindolanda, how in The Roman Army Museum

This was made from a type of moss that grows nearby, simply referred to as ‘hair moss’. It is believed these crests would have been in several colours, but the only one I found on Wikipedia was red:

Reconstruction of a centurion helmet with crest made of hair moss. Photographed from a show of Legio XV from Pram, Austria, No details about author. Creative Commons
Reconstruction of a centurion helmet with crest made of hair moss. Photographed from a show of Legio XV from Pram, Austria, No details about author. Creative Commons

Here’s a selection of other finds on display at Vindolanda. Most were displayed behind glass and in bright lights …sorry about the glare:

To finish with here a a few photos of the Temple to the Water Nymphs and a couple of altar stones outside . . .

. . . and some photos from inside the reconstructed house and shop nearby:

Following the Roman period the Vindolanda site was of little importance to anyone other than farmers and those needing stone to build their houses. Odd artefacts turned up occasionally, but the reality of what lay beneath the soil remained a mystery. When more and more finds were made, in 1832, the Reverend Anthony Hedley built his new house on the site and called it Chesterholm. The house is now an integral part of the museum. He also made the first real steps in preserving the site.

Yet it wasn’t until 1929 when young scholar, Eric Birley, bought the property that the amazing potential of Vindolanda came to light. He ran the first series of excavations, but the Second World War put a halt on things for a while. After the war, excavations continued, and the site stayed in the hands of the Birley family until 1970 when Eric’s son, Robin, handed it over to the Vindolanda Trust on behalf of the nation.

I haven’t done credit to the Birley family here as this post is rapidly becoming a book! But if you visit Vindolanda during the summer, you may catch a glimpse of one or the other of this awesome family, still happily digging away.

437 Wooden and stone turrets at Vindolanda