Since the Hadrian’s Wall Pilgrimage last visited Vindolanda in 2009, three major and many minor research projects on the site (which lies just south of the Wall) have yielded an astonishing wealth of finds. Spanning the 1st century to the 9th century, these discoveries provide deeply personal (and sometimes startling) evidence about the daily lives of this frontier community. From writing tablets and gaming boards to shoes, boxing gloves, and swords, the deposition of these diverse objects helps us to build up a sophisticated image of daily life both inside and outside the walls of the forts that occupied our site. There have been so many exciting developments that it is difficult to summarise them all in a few pages, but what follows is a brief account of the major research campaigns and a sample of a few of the wonderful artefacts that came from those excavations.
At the time of the previous Pilgrimage, excavations at Vindolanda had just revealed the remains of a temple to the god Jupiter Dolichenus within the northern ramparts of the last stone fort (see CA 240). Three of its original altars remained in situ, though they were badly scarred by the zealous pickaxes of the then Christian garrison that occupied the site in the late 4th century – while the building had been stripped down and the ground burned before the ramparts were reinstated, two of the altars still stood defiantly upright in their original positions, resistant to the destruction that had raged around them.
Their unlikely survival, which provided so much joy to a modern audience and knowledge about a long-lost religious cult, is perhaps the perfect metaphor for Vindolanda. It is a site that wants to tell its tales and to enable the stories of the people of Vindolanda to be shared (thanks in no small part to the approximately 4,500 volunteers who have taken part in excavations and post-excavation work between 2009 and the present). Yet, in rediscovering the altars, we had also left them at the mercy of the Northumberland sun, wind, and rain. Leaving these structures exposed to the elements would have enabled the environment to finish the work of the original destroyers of the temple – clearly something had to be done, and in order to preserve the altars for the future they were removed from the site and rehoused in a purpose-built display in the newly renovated Vindolanda museum (see box below).
These efforts ensured the altars’ survival, but their removal left the temple bereft, shorn of the stones that recorded the names of the men and women who had patronised the building and who were devoted followers of the god to whom it was dedicated. As a consequence, last year we took casts of the altar stones in the museum so that exact replicas could be placed back into their temple landscape – recontextualising both the altars and the temple, and giving the building back its character.
Like the Vindolanda writing tablets (CA 43), which provide the fort ruins with such an evocative essence of the lives of their owners, many of the other finds from the site are vivid reminders of the people of Vindolanda. The challenge for the next decade will be to make sure that the connection between the site and its erstwhile inhabitants remains as strong as possible. The day the replica altars went back on site, the sun shone – the day after that, Vindolanda was covered in snow (rather aptly, as the meaning of Vindolanda can be interpreted as ‘white lawn’ or ‘white field’). It is very difficult not to believe that somehow the people of Vindolanda, or Jupiter Dolichenus, were showing their appreciation.
Deities, diversity, and a murder mystery
Between 2009 and 2012, we ran a research project called ‘The Fort Wall: a great divide?’, which involved exploring two large areas, one inside and one outside the walls of the 3rd- and 4th-century Roman fort. It was hoped that by looking at the fort and town at the same time, under the same archaeological conditions, we might get a better appreciation of the relationships between both. To do this, we chose an area on the western edge of the extramural settlement, and on the north-western quadrant of the fort – and what was really interesting was that we had as much military kit coming from the vicus as from the fort, and as much evidence for non-combatants inside the fort as in the town.
A more poignant discovery came in 2010, though: the remains of a 9- to-11-year-old child, buried below the foundations of one of the barrack rooms under excavation (CA 249). The body had been unceremoniously dumped into a hole dug in the corner of the room in the AD 250s, before flagstones were placed to conceal the grave. The considered opinion of the specialists involved in researching the remains is that the child was buried under suspicious circumstances and had probably been murdered. Isotopic analysis of two of their teeth showed that he or she had been born in the Mediterranean area, possibly as far south as Libya, and had travelled to Britain at the age of around 7. Perhaps we should view this anonymous child as another unknown victim of the Severan wars in Britain.
Further evidence of the diverse nature of the Vindolanda community emerged during extramural excavation to the west of the site, when we discovered traces of a previously unknown Roman deity. Fragments of stone bearing a partial inscription had been cast into a fort ditch in front of a Romano-Celtic temple; this referenced Ahvardua, the goddess of water and the Ardennes mountains, and had been set up by the 1st cohort of Tungrians (from modern-day Belgium).
Close to this were the well-preserved remains of a wattle-and-daub wooden settlement that had once stood outside the northern walls of the pre-Hadrianic forts. There, timber roundhouses of native design shared the same space as Roman-style rectilinear buildings. Wooden combs, shoes, and both ink and stylus pens, as well as a fragment of an ink-inscribed writing tablet, came from the native-style buildings – there was little evidence of a great divide between Roman and Briton outside the walls of Vindolanda’s early forts.
Christian clues and organic finds
Moving into the period spanning 2013-2017, we launched ‘A Frontier in Transition’, a new project that saw work continue both under the remains of the 3rd-century extramural settlement, and inside the south-eastern quadrant of the last stone fort. This investigation yielded a wealth of evidence of the site’s later use, including the religious life of its inhabitants; clear remains of post-Roman occupation emerged as we dug inside the fort, as did some wonderful late- to post-Roman artefacts, including a strap end (part of a belt) decorated with a Christian figure, probably a bishop holding a crook.
There were more Christian clues to come: two church foundations, with apses respectively facing north and south, had been built over the remains of large 4th-century cavalry barracks, blocking local roads. Below those were traces of 3rd-century barracks, Severan period (AD 208-212) roundhouses, and Antonine period (AD 180-200) stone barracks. The greatest surprise, though, was the survival (in a deep depression in the clay) of the remains of a cavalry barrack dating to just before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall after AD 122. This building had been abandoned in a hurry, and in their haste to leave the people who had used it left numerous objects on the floor, including writing tablets, shoes, two complete swords, and a unique find: two Roman boxing gloves (CA 338). These latter objects, stuffed pieces of leather that would have protected their wearers’ knuckles (indeed, one is so well preserved that the imprint of a boxer’s knuckles can still be seen), show signs of heavy wear and careful repair, and they are the only examples known to have survived from the Roman period.
Outside the walls of the last fort, and deep below the 3rd-century town, our excavations reached the heart of the larger pre-Hadrianic timber forts. In these waterlogged, anaerobic layers, many thousands of wonderful individual items had been preserved, but perhaps most notable was a wooden toilet seat last used by Tungrians in the early 2nd century. Marble or stone toilet seats are known from across the Empire, but surviving wooden examples are much more rare – at the time of its discovery, we suggested that this material, while less visually impressive, might have been more comfortable to sit on in the colder climate of Britannia (CA 296).
Nearby, in ground made up to support new buildings, we made another significant wooden find: a deposit of over 20 writing tablets from the archive of the first commander of Vindolanda, Julius Verecundus of the 1st Tungrians (CA 330). Four of these tablets will shortly be published in the 2019 issue of the journal Britannia, and more will follow – watch this space!
Another organic material that has survived well in the site’s anaerobic environment is leather: from just one ditch (the southern ditch of the Severan fort) in the period of 2016/2017, we recovered more than 500 shoes. Around 50-55% of them had belonged to non-adult males, which suggests that the garrison, even at this time of conflict, was at best only half made up of military personnel. Even in a time of war, the community at Vindolanda remained a vibrantly mixed population.
And what of our latest work at Vindolanda? The current research programme, ‘Communities in Conflict’ began in 2018 in an area to the north of the fort and the 3rd-century bathhouse. We are focusing on the Severan fort and its northern rampart and ditches, with the ultimate aim (in our 2020-2022 excavation programme), to explore the c.30 Severan roundhouses lying below the last stone fort.
This investigation has already thrown up some surprises: in 2018, the northern Severan ditch was found to run far further out than expected, partially buried below the modern line of the Stanegate road which runs to the north of the site. Inside the ditch, we discovered part of a human skull, possibly a trophy displayed on the rampart as a reminder of what could happen to ‘nasty little Britons’ – as mentioned in one of the Vindolanda writing tablets – who opposed Roman rule. More benign finds included another clutch of Severan-period shoes and a beautiful native-style brooch in the shape of a duck, but the summer of 2018 also produced a timely reminder of how close our excavations were to the location of the temple of Jupiter Dolichenus found a decade ago. From the marshy soil to which it had been consigned almost 1,800 years before emerged a copper-alloy hand, thought to represent the god, with a socketed base indicating that it had once been attached to something else. Although only 10cm high, it has been crafted with amazingly realistic attention to detail, including the lines of its palm and carefully formed fingernails (CA 342).
Once the Severan levels have been explored, our next plan is to contextualise this period by examining earlier fort defences. The Antonine and pre-Hadrianic ditches are mostly preserved in anaerobic and oxygen-reduced conditions, which should yield yet more material culture to support the archaeological interpretation of the site. The past decade has seen half a 3rd- and 4th-century fort excavated and consolidated, but while so much has been achieved between 2009 and 2019, the Vindolanda team remains humbled by the size of the task still at hand. Only some 25% of the site has been explored so far – it is very likely that the best of Vindolanda is yet to come.
Redesigning the museum at Vindolanda
Aside from excavations, the decade from 2009 to 2019 has seen great transformations at the museums associated with Vindolanda. In 2011, with grant aid from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the regional development agency One North East, the museums at Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum (at the fort of Carvoran) were transformed into first-class 21st-century exhibition spaces. Central to the design ethos was the desire to fully connect the material culture from the Vindolanda excavations with the archaeology of the site, and the Trust has ensured that continuing investment will enable new material to be placed on public display.
An undoubted highlight of the Vindolanda museum is the exhibition of nine of the Vindolanda writing tablets, which returned to the site on loan from the British Museum in 2011. They are displayed in a specifically designed and monitored environmental case in a designated secure room with audio interpretation. A supplementary touchscreen display at the entrance to the room encourages visitors to explore the Latin texts and translations of the late Dr Robin Birley’s 20 favourite tablets in multiple languages.
In 2017/2018, the museum was extended with the support of a £1.2m grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund specifically to house and exhibit some of the wonderful large wooden objects that we have recovered. These displays include inscribed wooden door panels, Roman work benches, barrels and buckets, a grain scoop, baskets, tools, hair combs, a toy dagger, and, of course, the toilet seat mentioned on p.39.
In 2017, three buildings in the picturesque gardens of the Vindolanda museum were refurbished with the support of the Arts Council England. This project created the ‘Locus’ – a space for temporary exhibitions – and the ‘Domus’ – a walk-in storybook introducing younger visitors to life at Roman Vindolanda. Our replica Roman temple was also refurbished, and a working replica Roman pottery kiln has been constructed and is ‘fired up’ throughout the main visitor season. Site paths and signage have all been upgraded, with an element of Latin introduced to signage where appropriate.
The Roman Army Museum revolutionised
The Roman Army Museum, the Vindolanda Trust’s sister museum at Carvoran on Hadrian’s Wall, has also been completely refurbished with the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund and One North East. The spacious museum reopened for the 2011 season with a dramatic new look, telling the story of the soldiers of the Wall and of the Roman army itself, aiming both to inform and to challenge perceptions.
Three main galleries contain more than 500 Roman artefacts, 60% of which were not on display before the refurbishment. The museum now houses the only surviving helmet crest from the Roman Empire, a complete set of hipposandals (horseshoes) from the 2018 excavations at Vindolanda, and many more unique and precious artefacts.
Visitors can experience a journey that takes them from the adjacent fort of Magna (Carvoran) along Hadrian’s Wall to Vindolanda via an award-winning 3D film from the comfort of the museum theatre. This breathtaking view from the air reveals the Roman landscape in magnificent detail and incorporates state-of-the-art virtual reconstruction of the main Roman features. Meanwhile, other more conventional films and interactive displays introduce the Roman army, the Hadrian’s Wall garrisons, and the lives of individual soldiers – the Roman classroom, where a holographic Roman teacher gives a basic Latin lesson, covering Roman maths, citizenship, and morals, is particularly popular with visiting schools.
The Vindolanda Trust is committed to investing in this museum as part of its forward and continuing strategy to research, preserve, and interpret its two major sites on the Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site.
Andrew Birley is CEO of the Vindolanda Trust and Director of Excavations on the site.