Just south of Hadrian’s Wall, half a century of excavations at the Roman auxiliary fort of Vindolanda have yielded a wealth of wooden finds preserved by the site’s fortuitously anaerobic conditions – not just the celebrated Vindolanda writing tablets, but objects that illuminate all aspects of fort life.
Many of these artefacts are now being showcased in an online exhibition that will be hosted on the Vindolanda Trust’s website until the end of January 2022, and which has been created as part of a wider project to digitise the fort’s wooden collections. Vindolanda staff, volunteers, and trustees, as well as colleagues from Teesside University and University College Dublin have selected their favourite objects from this assemblage, and these are used as springboards to explore aspects of life in Roman Britain, and to suggest links with the present and evoke memories from modern observers. Absorbingly detailed digital images by Teesside University allow you to rotate artefacts and explore them from all angles, while themed videos, audio clips, and written descriptions help you to learn more about individual items and share stories about their excavation or analysis. For those who want even more detail, there are links to longer webinars and blog articles discussing other aspects of the fort’s archaeology, such as the Vindolanda shoe collection.
Some of the featured objects are solidly practical and immediately recognisable: a barrack-room door still carved with the number III; a toilet seat (pictured below); and the network of wooden pipes that once supplied fresh water to Vindolanda’s military and civilian inhabitants alike. Military equipment also proliferates – unsurprisingly for a fort site, perhaps, but the chosen objects illustrate the diverse roles that Roman soldiers fulfilled while they were on campaign. In lieu of more commonly seen metal weaponry and leather horse equipment, we encounter a pointing trowel with mortar still clinging to it, tent pegs, and a grain scoop once used for measuring out rations.
Other items are rather more personal – was a comb that seems to have been later refashioned into a hair ornament a gift for a soldier’s sweetheart? What games did a 2nd-century child play with their wooden sword? Who was the individual called Atto who carved his name into a workbench? And what should we make of the wooden clog, worn to protect the foot of its wearer when crossing the hot floor of a bath house, which had been augmented with little incisions to make it look like it had toes? Perhaps this is a distant echo of a 2,000-year-old sense of humour. Meanwhile, rather more elegant artistry is displayed by the sliding lid of a box decorated with a finely carved image of a peacock.
Taken together, this exhibition is an absorbing insight into Vindolanda’s remarkable wooden collections – and, epitomised by a wooden spoon that could easily be an implement offered by many eco-conscious establishments today, a vivid reminder that the people who inhabit the past are not always as different from us as they seem.
Digging up memories will be hosted at www.vindolanda.com/Listing/Category/digging-up-memories until the end of January 2022.
All images: Vindolanda Trust / Teesside University.