Tag Archives: post-roman britain


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:

There was also a room full of cow skulls in the museum, but I didn’t take a photo. All of your expected pottery is there, too — Samian ware and the like.

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:

Review: Worlds of Arthur by Guy Halsall

Worlds of ArthurWorlds of Arthur by Guy Halsall

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you read one ‘historical King Arthur book’, make it this one. Halsall gives us the lay of the land, providing sophisticated analysis of what little documentary evidence exists for ‘Arthur’ as well as thorough discussions of the archaeology of late and post-Roman Britain. I admit that, since archaeology is not my strong suit, I do not always follow the arguments in that regard (in fact, sometimes I skim them by accident, which doesn’t help), but when I could keep the details about the different types of artefacts in my mind, the archaeological portions seemed sound and plausible, even if not the only available solution.

That last sentence is why I doubt very few people of this book’s target audience — non-academic readers who like King Arthur — will find this book satisfying. The history of post-Roman Britain is extremely poorly documented, and what few documents we do have (Gildas, Bede, welsh Annals, ‘Nennius’, the Life of Germanus of Auxerre) can provide different reconstructions of events. Archaeology, of course, is very much a matter of the most plausible vision of the given material. Those who want to sit down and read a book that tells the story of a Romano-British warlord fighting Anglo-Saxons will be sorely disappointed.

Instead, what Halsall gives us is actually more exciting and interesting. This whole book is, in fact, a good entry into the history and archaeology of late and post-Roman Britain through the sources themselves. Most of what is discussed is, properly speaking, historiography — how we know (or don’t know) what history says. First, Halsall gives us the traditional account of Arthur and post-Roman Britain as based upon our textual sources. I was pleased and interested to know that the ‘Paschal chronicle’ that Elizabeth Jenkins mentions in The Mystery of King Arthur is actually the Welsh Annals and not a paschal chronicle of any sort; Jenkins was working from older historiographical assumptions about the origins of chronicles that Burgess and Kulikowski have recently proven entirely false in Mosaics of Time Vol. 1. The Welsh Annals, with their mention of Mt Badon and Camlann are, thus, not a sixth-century paschal chronicle but eleventh-century, and any material they gain from earlier sources is likely to be ninth-century texts such as ‘Nennius’.

After discussing the traditional narrative from textual sources, Halsall sets it out for us from archaeology. Then he goes into greater depth, applying the scrutiny of the professional historian to this evidence and asking how far we can trust it and whether it actually tells the story we think it tells. By the end of Part III, he has set out for the reader the current scholarly assessment of the evidence c. 2012. Along the way, he deals with many of the myths and falsehoods purveyed by ‘pseudo-histories’ and why we cannot trust them.

Part IV is Halsall’s own reconstruction of post-Roman Britain, itself an interesting read. It is definitely plausible and well-argued, but my own acquaintance with many of the sources comes mostly from his own work, so I am not yet in a strong enough position to critique any of its weaknesses. What he does that I think is vital to post-Roman Britain, and something I hope other historians of the island and period begin to do as well, is make comparisons with the continent in the same period, thus adding nuance to the arguments and showing where the traditional narrative need not be the only approach.

One important aspect of his approach to material culture is something he discussed earlier in Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, which is the fact that a material cultural horizon need not mean that everyone within it is biologically related. People can change ethnicity, especially in the Roman and post-Roman worlds. ‘Anglo-Saxon’ artefacts need not always be evidence of newcomers from the continent. Another important reassessment he used in his earlier work and here applies to the British situation is the interpretation of furnished burials as evidence for local struggles for power, since such burials would be a way to reinforce the power of the deceased’s family.

All in all, this is an excellent book. It could be used by the interested reader to learn the methods and tools of the professional historian, shedding light on how history is itself constructed and not simply the story we tell in the history books. It is also a refreshing corrective to many of the crazy King Arthur theories that are so confident about theories in which we can place no confidence.

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