Even at this northernmost, and possibly wildest outpost of empire, the Roman legions brought with them their own comforts and concepts of cleanliness. Though, as our guide explained, with great humour, the latter left something to be desired. His descriptions of the spread of infections from suppurating skin cuts in the communal bath house led to screwed-up faces among all the children and not a few of the adults in the thirty-strong group. The toilet facilities, he pointed out, were also communal, and as toilet paper was non-existent, hygiene meant the sharing of wet rags on the ends of sticks.
Our first impression, on entering Vindolanda, some two kilometres south of Hadrian’s Wall, was of its size, which exceeded those of other settlements along this UNESCO World Heritage site. As we explored further, we came to realise its importance, not just during the period of its occupation, but for our understanding of the lives of ordinary soldiers and civilians living here at the time. The excavations that have been carried out here, particularly during the past fifty years, have given us greater knowledge of such than almost any other comparable site in the Roman Empire. And the discoveries continue.
The first of the nine forts to occupy the site was built around 75 AD, to guard the road that linked the towns of Coria (Corbridge) and Luguvallium (Carlisle), and has become known, since mediaeval times, as The Stanegate. Following the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, which began in 122 AD, a series of stone forts replaced earlier wooden ones, while a thriving town grew up alongside. At its maximum, the population of Vindolanda approached 6000, a quarter of whom were soldiers, with the rest being families, merchants, traders, servants and slaves. New constructions were generally built on top of the old, with the result that the various layers of occupation now run to a depth of 7 metres. The anaerobic conditions in the soil, and the dampness from adjacent springs have led to the remarkable preservation of large numbers of 2000-year-old items of everyday use.
During the 17th and subsequent centuries, farmers cleared the land, using many of the stones to build their dwellings and outhouses. In the 1820s, Rev. Anthony Hedley acquired the land and protected it from further depredation. The home he built, Chesterholme, is now the site museum. The land was bought in 1835 by John Clayton, an antiquarian who specialised in the study of the Roman era. In 1929, Eric Birley bought Vindolanda and commenced the major excavations that have continued under the guidance of his sons, Robin and Tony and now grandson, Andrew. These are likely to carry on for many more decades.
After entering the site and passing the remains of wells, water tanks and temples, we arrived at the town, where the foundations of the streets, shops, bath houses, tavern and various workshops are well exposed and documented on display boards. Monuments to the worship of various gods by the soldiers from far parts of the Empire abound, as well as those of local deities. Rome was tolerant of different religions, persuading worshipers that their gods were identical to Roman ones only under different names. South of the town lie the remains of a temporary, but heavily fortified camp built during Emperor Septimus Severus’s campaign in 209 AD to subdue northern tribes.
The stone fort, east of the town, was occupied during the 3rd and 4th centuries. Inside its perimeter wall are the remains of barracks, latrines, granaries, storerooms, headquarters, the Commander’s House and a temple of the eastern deity, Jupiter Dolichenus. Excavations here and in the town have led to the discovery of large numbers of personal items, most important of which are hundreds of writing tablets, which include business documents and letters penned by the men and women of Vindolanda to their friends and relatives. These are among the earliest examples of handwriting in the world, and illustrate, to a unique extent, the everyday life in the fort and town. In the south-west corner, visitors can watch the on-going excavations being carried out by the current squad of archaeologists and volunteers. To the west of these is a reconstruction of a small section of the wall.
Following our exploration of the settlement, we moved downhill to the south-east to Chesterholme museum, in which the valuable finds are displayed. These include 80 of the 7000 shoes found, pottery, textiles, leather and wooden goods, personal artefacts, coins and a representative selection of the writing tablets. Another gallery holds examples of military hardware: weapons, tents, armour and tools. Yet another has trade goods from far reaches of the Empire: a bronze calendar, religious objects, jewellery, glass, beads, combs and wigs. A book shop, gift shop and café brought our visit to Vindolanda to a relaxing conclusion.
While visitors to Vindolanda will learn more about life at the northern limit of the Roman Empire than they would at any other site along Hadrian’s Wall, much is left to the imagination. What did the fort and town really look like during the centuries of occupation? What was the daily routine like for the soldiers, many, perhaps most of whom had come from Mediterranean lands? These and other questions are answered by a visit to the Roman Army Museum, also owned by the Vindolanda Trust, that lies some six kilometres west of Vindolanda.
Our arrival coincided with that of a coachload of well-behaved junior schoolchildren. The exhibition began with a display of life-size models of Roman legionaries and auxiliaries in full uniform. A short film depicted a recruiting officer who encouraged groups of the children to join the army. Further displays showed the weaponry of the time, a map of the Roman fortifications throughout Britain and a short history of the life of Emperor Hadrian.
The most impressive item of the museum is an award-winning, 20-minute, 3D film, Edge of Empire, which depicts the challenges facing a young soldier and his platoon as they patrol the wall, defending it against hostile attack and guarding it during a cold night. A digital reconstruction illustrates an active and thriving Vindolanda, while the flight of an eagle along the course of the wall shows how the site now appears from the air.