Vindolanda - Living it up on the Northwestern Frontier

Review by Lindsay Powell

On an unseasonably hot day during an English spring, Lindsay Powell visited the Roman fort and remodelled museum at Vindolanda and its astonishing collection of riches.

Vindolanda Museum

The famous Wall Hadrian built to separate Romanitas from barbaricum in Britain boasts several of the best preserved military installations from the imperial period anywhere, set among some of England`s most beautiful landscapes. Standing near to one of the highest sections of the Wall at Walltown Crags is one of the region`s must-see destinations, Vindolanda.

When I arrived it was already late afternoon. The soft light of a fine spring day made the stones of the Roman fort`s exposed walls almost glow the hue of a Rich Tea biscuit. The staff at the site were glowing too. Earlier in the day, the Duchess of Northumberland had visited and unveiled a plaque; and the Ermine Street Guard had been there as her honour guard. The reason for all the VIP attention was the multi-million pound make-over of the Chesterholm Museum, which was reopened to the public for the first time on 19 April, the day of my visit.

I had arranged via Twitter to meet Fiona Watson, The Vindolanda Trust`s information officer. Fiona greeted me warmly at the entrance to the museum. Declining the kind offer of coffee I was keen to see the collection in its new display: I had travelled a long way to see it. The museum occupies the old house which was the former home of Eric Birley, who had the foresight to buy the place in 1929; but the twenty-first century designers have totally transformed the rather dark and oppressive arrangement of old. The building has been substantially extended and the new museum laid out as a long room divided into two. One is immediately struck by how light and airy the museum is. The display cases along the walls are large and clear, and some are free-standing with all four sides of clear glass. The accompanying explanatory text and graphics are unfussy and informative. The overall look and feel is akin to the upscale American kitchenware retailer Williams-Sonoma, with its quality objects and attention to detail in their display. This is a benchmark example of how to invest money from the Heritage Lottery Fund of the UK`s National Lottery.

The Chesterholm Museum forms as a natural partner to the remodelled Roman Army Museum a few miles away along the B6318 at Carvoran. Both house items from Vindolanda. While Vindolanda was a military fort first and foremost, it was also home to a large civilian population which achieved status as a town in later years. The museum at Chesterholm presents this civilian aspect of Roman life and culture in a way the other does not. And what a revelation it is!

Some in Vindolanda`s civilian community clearly enjoyed the finer things in life. The first display is a dinner service of glossy red Samian ware. It is remarkable for the fact it is factory-fresh and had never been used. Apparently it was shipped from Gaul to the fort, where, upon opening the box, the recipient found contents to have been damaged in transit and then threw the whole lot into the fort`s ditch. (It is not known if he/she received a full refund or store credit). In another case there is a rare fragment of clear glass painted with pictures of bouts between gladiators, which had come from a workshop in Germany or Egypt.

Vindolanda Museum

The chemistry of the soil at Vindolanda happily prevents degradation of organic and non-organic materials. Leather goods are found in an amazing state of preservation. Fiona explained that even metal objects come out of the ground in near perfect condition. The still shiny yellow brass colour of sestertii of Hadrian`s reign highlight the quality of metal used in Roman coins, and remind us of how impressive they looked in the hand twenty centuries ago. Where brooches at other sites are often made fragile from corrosion or bronze disease, here they are retrieved with their original bright colouration and shine - and even the springs still work on many pieces.

A display case, which could be right at home in a NikeTown or JD Sports, contains a selection of leather boots and shoes. It is a sample of the near 5,000 pairs found at the site. Many reveal intricate workmanship and highly accomplished technical skill. One pair of dainty slippers was made by L. Aebutius Thales son of Titus, who was the Gallic equivalent of Dolce Vita or YSL. Each layer of leather in the sole is stamped with the cobbler`s trademark. Unfortunately for the wearer, the toe strap had broken. It could have been repaired but its owner - Sulpicia Lepidina, the wife of the camp prefect Flavius Cerialis - most likely would not be seen dead in anything less than a perfect pair and so threw the shoes away. Fortunately for us, they have survived to tell their story.

In adjoining cases, there are several examples of pieces of army goat skin tents and shield covers, as well as thumb protectors for all the sewing evidently carried out. A stunning chamfron (decorative headgear for a horse) - still in one piece with its metal appliqués in place - hints at the splendour of the kit of Roman cavalry on parade. Fiona pointed out that even the best attempts at reconstructing the piece could not replicate the fine detail of the original.

Fragments of woven fabrics have survived, including socks, enabling the yarns and their original colours and patterns to be identified. Among them are shades of grey, brown, ruby red, ochre, beige and creamy-white. A complete lady`s wig has been recovered and identified as being made of local moss-hair. It was likely worn to repel the local, and very annoying, midges. (The only surviving centurion`s helmet crest, also made of moss-hair, was found in the ditch of the first fort). Even on Rome`s far northwestern frontier, people paid great attention to how they looked.

Wood is also preserved in the anaerobic soil. Archaeologists have found a boxwood needle case, combs, clogs and parts of wicker baskets. Vindolanda shot to prominence in the 1973 when a series of hand written tablets were discovered. These postcard-size slithers of wood were used to create all manner of documents by soldiers and civilians alike. After careful study, the contents of many have been revealed. They are the rosters and strength reports of the army at the fort, the invoices and request for payment, as well as letters between friends and family. The first to be discovered and translated mentions a delivery of socks and underpants to a soldier. Perhaps the most famous document, however, is the letter from Claudia Severa, wife of Brocchus, commander of a neighbouring fort, to Sulpicia Lepidina inviting her to attend her birthday party on 11 September (probably AD 100) - the first known birthday invitation.

The collection of letters is now in the possession of the British Museum, located almost 300 miles away in London; but nine of them have been returned on a five year loan to Vindolanda - and just in time for the re-opening. These are displayed in a separate, dimly lit room to prevent the ink from fading further. An audio commentary reads the letters in Latin and English. The walls list the names and personal details of some two dozen personalities known from the letters. These are the authentic voices of the people of Roman Britain whose lives have been revealed to us, warts and all, twenty centuries later.

Vindolanda Museum

The letters mostly date to the earliest years of occupation at the site, some three or four decades before the building of the Wall began. The site of Vindolanda itself is exceptional. The latest scholarly opinion has identified at least nine periods of occupation. The earliest has been dated to Gn. Julius Agricola`s time as governor, AD 79-85/90 and was erected entirely in wood by an unidentified unit which was then replaced by Coh. I Tungrorum. The site saw changes in the 90s-100s under Trajan when it became the home of Coh. VIIII Batavorum for almost a decade. A suite of wooden buildings - not on view and now below a layer of gravel - has been dated to the late 110s and proposed as the accommodations of the Emperor Hadrian himself when he visited the region and during which he laid out plans for his Wall. The site continued with the return of the Tungrians, until relieved by the Coh. II Nerviorum. Extensive rebuilding in stone during the reign of the Severan emperors coincided with the arrival of Coh. IV Gallorum who stayed until c.360. The site remained in use into the 400s before finally being abandoned. Fortunately for modern archaeology it was never built on.

Much of the site`s remains from the Severan period have been left exposed so visitors can see the principia, granaries, commandant`s house and the defensive wall; as well as several houses, shops, mausolea, temples and springs outside the camp. The Trust spends around £200,000 a year on its excavation programme. Leather shoes may now be "old hat" but annual digs still produce surprises. A finely carved altar of the Asiatic god Jupiter Dolichenus caused a stir in 2009 when it was found inside the fort - highly unusual in Roman religious observance.

The Trust publishes a fine site guide, but the visitor who is enthusiastic for the period will be well rewarded by purchasing a copy of Robin Birley`s Vindolanda: A Roman Fort on Hadrian`s Wall (Amberley Publishing, Stroud 2009). This 187-page book comprehensively explains the complex history of the site in the light of new information at a level both the general and specialist reader will appreciate. It effectively replaces Birley`s popular book of 1977, which he freely admits has been superseded by discoveries from the site over the last four decades.

Fiona and I parted company and I was left to soak in the site. By 6pm, the site had officially closed, but the Trust allows visitors to linger a little longer in the archaeological park. The bulk of visitors, particularly those with noisy children, had by then departed and, in the light of the setting sun, left undisturbed my imagination could take over. In this twilight time, a certain magic occurs. Standing overlooking the bathhouse, I could almost hear the off-colour banter and playful splashing about of soldiers relaxing in the plunge pool.

For both the casual and the expert visitor, Vindolanda is in many ways the ideal Roman military site. The number and variety of exposed buildings; the full size reconstructions of walls and towers (erected in the 1970s); the ongoing excavations (carried out with the assistance of volunteers); the Chesterholm Museum with its outstanding collection; the sheer beauty of the location; all add up to a very special place. If you visit and can afford to, I urge you to become a Friend of the Vindolanda Trust. The money goes directly to the Trust, which relies exclusively on visitors and Friends for its funding, In return you get regular bulletins, free access to the site and the knowledge you are helping support the best in Roman archaeology, conservation and research. With an estimated 100 years` of work left to do, who knows what surprises yet remain to be discovered?

Entry to the museum costs £5 for adults, with discounts for families, children, students and seniors. A combination ticket affords access at a steep discount to the Vindolanda site and museum and the remodelled Roman Army Museum at Carvoran.

Lindsay Powell is the author of Eager for Glory: The Untold Story of Drusus the Elder, Conqueror of Germania (Pen and Sword Books). He divides his time between Austin, Texas and Wokingham, England.

© Lindsay Powell, All Rights Reserved, 2011.

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