Last week, my father-in-law and I started the new year right with a New Year’s Day trip to Vindolanda Roman fort and Hadrian’s Wall. Here I am at Vindolanda:
And here I am at Hadrian’s Wall:
Vindolanda excited me because it is a fairly well-preserved Roman fort, and it is the source of some very remarkable archaeological finds. There were Roman forts at Vindolanda from about the year 85 (all these dates are AD), around the time of Agricola (made famous by Tacitus’ work of the same name) until the Romans left 395? 410? Three main forts have been found, but they estimate that as many as nine were built on this spot.
The first thing that should be said of Roman forts in Britain: Most of them are little more than waist-high foundations. They have excavated some parts of Vindolanda more deeply than that, but this is mostly what you will see. This is the case of the other Roman remains I’ve seen here, such as Bearsden, Cramond, Chesters, and Corbridge. I have seen nothing Roman as spectacular as Ostia Antica or Pompeii in Britain.
Here’s a shot of Vindolanda:
Vindolanda is not right on Hadrian’s Wall but about a mile to the south on the Roman military road with the mediaeval name of the Stanegate. I’ve visited another Roman fort on the Stanegate at Corbridge. Like Corbridge, Vindolanda had a civil settlement, or vicus, connected with it as well. When you approach Vindolanda from the West today, you pass through the vicus on your left, and a few military buildings on your right — the military buildings include some of the praetorium from the Severan fort (so, c. 200).
The buildings of the vicus are long and narrow because, apparently, you were taxed based upon the amount of streetfront you took up. One of the last buildings before you reach the walls of the fort is the tavern. Somehow that makes sense — a place for both civilians and soldiers, after all. They suspect that it would have had some upper floors for rooms.
The wall of the fourth-century fort isn’t bad:
They are still excavating inside the walls. Here you’ll find the usual suspects, such as the granary with its raised floors to keep the grain dry:
And the strongroom in the principia (HQ), which is underground in the small temple where the standards of the legion would have been stored along with the image of the emperor.
Of interest is the temple to Jupiter Dolichenus (Dolichenum). Jupiter Dolichenus is a cult popular with soldiers. He is an adaptation of a god from ancient Syria (now southeastern Turkey), and he turns up at a number of places in Britain. This is a reminder of the varied nature of the people living in Britain under Roman rule. The Dolichenum was destroyed in the later fourth century, presumably as a result of Christianisation and the closure of public temples and the rescinding of public funds for non-Christian religions.
Of interest were the foundations of some round houses of the Severan era. At that time, there was a rebellion, and these houses are built in local fashion, so it is supposed that they were built to house Roman sympathisers who were targeted by their neighbours.
And there was a bath house, as always. I like hypocausts:
Eventually the Romans left, but Vindolanda seems to have been inhabited until the ninth century. So I find myself interested in post-Roman Vindolanda: Who lived here? What various changes did they make besides a church in the praetorium? What artefacts did they leave behind?
For it is for its artefacts that Vindolanda is chiefly famous. And, amongst these, the Vindolanda Tablets are the famousest. Vindolanda’s site preserves an extraordinary quantity of organic material — shoes, wooden tablets, animal bones, etc. The shoes took me by surprise:
I was most glad, however, to see the Vindolanda Tablets. These are wooden tablets covered in writing. Some are letters, some are inventories, some are requests for requisitions. There are comments about beer, about roads, about the local populace. There is a birthday invitation. They are wonderful, and they are one of the greatest finds in twentieth-century British archaeology, for texts can add flesh to the bones dug up by archaeology.
After Vindolanda, we walked part of Hadrian’s Wall near Housesteads Roman fort. Here’s a photo of the stunning countryside with the Wall running along that crag in the distance: