Vindolanda Roman fort
General view of Vindolanda. Vindolanda is divided into two parts, the fort and the civilian settlement. Running round the middle of the photo is the perimeter walls that encloses the Fort above, while to the bottom and left is the corner of the civilian settlement .         


.   Vindolanda has become the best known of all the forts, thanks to the extensive excavations and display. Yet Vindolanda is not actually on the wall but in the valley behind it, along the Stanegate.  In the 1930s Vindolanda or rather Chesterholme, the property on which it stands, came up for sale and Eric Birley, Professor of Archaeology at Durham University and leading Wall scholar, purchased the fort and began excavating it.  Subsequently excavations continued under his son Robin Birley helped by his brother, Tony. The excavations have now been taken over by the third generation of Birleys,  his son Andrew.    


Vindolanda trenches where tablets found
The original tablets were found in a trench dug for drainage!

Robin did his excavations with volunteers and opened the fort to the public. His big discovery  was of wooden writing tablets preserved in the wet conditions of the underlying ditches. These began revealing the real life of a Roman fort. The first read ‘please send more underpants’ (subligaria).  Further realism followed. Soon after came a letter from the Commandant’s wife inviting the wife of the Commandant in the neighbouring fort to her birthday party.  Interest soared, and the excavations flourished.





Eventually the excavations passed on to the next generation and they are now directed with growing success by Robin’s son Andrew.  They have now become very popular: volunteers for the dig need to apply on November 1st and the list is normally full by the end of the month.  The museum has been greatly enlarged, visitor numbers are increasing,  and thus the Vindolanda Trust is able to carry out major excavations as a fully independent organisation.





.   There are two things particularly interesting about Vindolanda: the first thing is that it was very long lived.  It began well before the building of Hadrian’s Wall —the earliest fort dates to around AD 70 —and it continued in use until right to the end of the Roman period even down into the Middle Ages – the latest occupation could be as late as the 9th century AD.  Nine successive forts have been identified at Vindolanda, the majority of them dating to the period before Hadrian’s Wall when it seems there were many frantic changes of occupation as the Romans tried to decide just what they were to do about setting up a frontier:  many of these early forts were bigger than the later fort. It appears that it was not only a fort but also an important manufacturing base – there are mines in the vicinity, and there is a lot of evidence of metal working.


The other interesting aspect is that it was not just a fort but also a civilian settlement, or vicus.  Thus the excavations have been in the vicus just as much as in the fort, indeed the vicus overlies some of the earlier forts. 






A good example of this is a large set of baths discovered outside the fort which were built at an early stage but then abandoned when it became clear that they were too big, and were replaced by smaller baths on the other side of the vicus. 



Was life different between fort and vicus?


Work in the 1960s and 70s was concentrated in the centre of the fort, exploring the headquarters building and the commandant’s house adjacent to it.  More recently work has been concentrated on the barracks and from 2008 – 2012, they carried out a major research project entitled ‘The Fort Wall: a great divide?’.  The idea was to compare life in the fort with life in the vicus,  and so they explored the barracks which formed the north-west quadrant of the fort, together with a large adjacent area of the extra mural settlement.






In the fort, two sets of barracks were excavated facing each other: the actual excavations were complex, but they have now been laid out in a simplified form of the third century: in the 4th century it became almost an individual community with a chaotic layout.   








Perhaps what is interesting is the area behind the barracks in the central part of the fort.  This backed on to the broad principal road that led from the North gate to the headquarters building, the principia. The north gate faced on to the barbarian territory to the north and any barbarian seeking to do business with the Romans would need to come in through the north gate, and the approach was made deliberately terrifying,  with the blank back walls of the barrack blocks on either side leading up to the headquarters building where no doubt the gates would be flanked by a pair of Roman soldiers in full kit designed to emphasise the majesty of Rome. Barbarians beware!




There was a particular surprise in the north-west corner of the fort. Here they expected to find latrines, as at Housesteads, which are always a big attraction to the public.  Instead they found something completely unexpected: a temple dedicated to the god Jupiter Dolochenus where the god can been seen riding on the back of a bull with a hammer in one hand and a thunderbolt in the other.  The cult centre of Jupiter Dolochenus was in Turkey, but it 250 the cult centre was destroyed by the Persians and rapidly went out of fashion as he had proved himself to be a worthless god.  However he remained in fashion in Britain, for an inscription to Dolochenus was found at Chesters dating  to 286, thirty years after disillusionment should have set in.  Adjacent to the shrine was a small dining room, partly heated by a hypocaust where the worshipers could dine and celebrate the cult.  All this is very odd. Shrines should not normally be found in forts except for the official shrines, so this has opened up the  questions whether the fort wall was such a great divide after all.


The altar has been taken to the site museum, but a replica has now been placed in the original position, deliberately made in a gleaming yellow/ white stone, as no doubt it would have appeared originally.


The fort goes topsy turvey


However the big recent surprise come from the realisation that in the reign of Septimius Severus (208 – 211), when the emperor was campaigning in Scotland, the fort and the vicus changed place.  The problem first raised its head twenty years ago, when a round house was discovered in the fort.  Round houses should not be found in Roman forts — they are the very emblem of the barbarians.  And yet more and more were found in different parts of the fort all underlying the buildings of the 3rd and 4th century, but on top of the earlier structures.   It soon appeared that they were: laid out in a regular  fashion, in rows of five, back to back.  Thirty of these round houses have been explored and there must have been over some 150 in all. 




At the same time the civilian vicus was turned in the fort, being surrounded by a fortification while one of the buildings became the commanding officer’s house. The civilian settlement and fort changed places, the round house settlement being occupied by native workers who were press-ganged into producing  supplies for the army in Scotland


Few finds came from this round house settlement, the only indication of its status coming from an analysis of the grain that was found in the houses showing that the roundhouse dwellers ate barley rather than wheat – and barley makes a very inferior bread:


The fourth century: Christian Vindolanda?


In the fourth century, centralised control seems to have broken down and one gets the impression that the different parts of the fort may have been occupied by different units. The civilian settlement was abandoned – everyone moved inside the fort. In the north-west quadrant, which has been extensively excavated, the regular barracks gave way to individual rooms, all arranged helter-skelter — with the suspicion that there may have been a gambling den in the far corner.

The south-eastern corner however, shows distinct signs of Christianity. It appears to have begun in the commanding officers house – centre right — where an apse was built out into the courtyard, suggesting that a church had been erected there.





Vindolanda Christian church

Does this mean that the commanding officer had become a Christian, perhaps even a priest?


An even larger church was built nearby with a large room big enough to contain 40 or 50 people. It is always somewhat dicey to interpret apses – that is semicircular projections — as being a church, but it does look as if this whole quarter could have been occupied by a Christian unit.










The Museum



But at Vindolanda there are not just excavations, there is also a fine museum,  and laboratories behind it, where the full range of conservation is available, particularly of the very delicate writing tablets.

The museum is in the old cottage where Eric Birley lived which has now been turned  into a magnificent museum with one of the finest collections of Roman material in the country.  Of particular importance are the objects preserved in damp conditions in the ditches – wood and particularly leather.  There are literally thousands of shoes preserved of which a small fragment is on display















Another favourite exhibit is this box of BB ware,  otherwise known as ‘black burnished ware’. This was a favourite form of cooking pot on Hadrian’s wall (it could withstand the fire) but it was in fact made down in Dorset and bought by sea all the way up to Hadrian’s Wall. On the shelf behind is a collection of Samian ware, the fine dinner service ware imported from France.











A recent discovery is this pair of boxing gloves,  here fitted to a mannequin. Boxing was a brutal sport in the Greek and Roman world, and boxing gloves were designed to administer as much physical harm as possible







Another long-standing favourite is this stick figure, presumably originally a tombstone. Could one call it a fine example of Roman-British art? Or should one see it as the worst example of Romano British art, showing the depths to which native artists sank from classical perfection? I think it’s rather fun.












Recently the Museum has received a major grant, principally from the Heritage Lottery Fund, where they have added a new room to display some of the remarkable wooden objects found at Vindolanda – the sort of objects that are absent from most museums, but which are preserved in the damp conditions. Here in the ‘Wooden Underworld’ you can not only see the objects but find out how they can be used in tree ring dating.









Under Andrew Birley, the third generation of Birley (Robin’s son and Eric’s grandson) Vindolanda is now one of the biggest excavations in the country and one of the most impressive sites to visit.  


On to the Roman Army Museum at Carvoran


or on to Birdoswald