One of my favorite lines in the 1956 movie High Society is when Grace Kelly says to Frank Sinatra, “South Bend. It sounds like dancing, doesn’t it?”
Toward the end of our two-week sojourn in northern England, we arrived at another place with a name that sounded like dancing to me: Vindolanda.
Repeating “Vindolanda” to myself as we filed out of the Mountain Goat Mercedes, I wondered just what was at this place that could possibly merit a three-hour visit. I got my first clue when an archaeologist showed us a roof tile embedded with a dog’s paw print. She told us it had been recently excavated steps away from where we were standing. We were at the site of a Roman fort that predates Hadrian’s Wall by about 40 years.
After the Emperor Claudius invaded England in 43 AD, Roman armies slowly worked their way to the northern part of the country. They arrived in the area around 72 AD, building forts and roads linking towns on the major thoroughfares to Scotland. Around 79 AD, as the Emperor Agricola worked to complete the conquest of northern Britain, the Romans built a fort on a secluded plateau a couple of miles north of the river South Tyne, and about a mile north of where Hadrian’s Wall would later be constructed. They christened it Vindolanda, Latin for “white meadows,” in honor of how the frost gave a white cast to the fields that were shielded by the slopes of a nearby heather-covered hill.
Fast forward to 1814, when an Anglican clergyman named Anthony Hedley purchased the land which included Vindolanda’s remains. Using leftover stones from the fort, he built a home there in 1831, christened it Chesterholm, and embarked on excavating the north and west gates of the fort. An owner or two later, a 23-year-old Classical scholar named Eric Birley bought the Chesterholm estate in 1929 and began a new series of excavations in his spare time. What Birley, his son Robin, and their colleagues have found in the following years has been extraordinary.
Initially, the elder Birley wanted to examine Vindolanda’s civilian settlement, something that had never been attempted before in Britain, to discover what life was like on the northern frontier for the soldiers’ wives and families, as well as the tradesmen and merchants who conducted business with them. Soon, the team discovered that there had been at least three successive sets of stone buildings at the fort. What’s more, below those stone buildings lay as many as six successive layers of foundations for wooden buildings. This was a major discovery, turning the task into a long-term project of excavating ten layers of evidence that the Romans occupied this place from the mid-80s AD until after 400 AD.
In addition to the fort, archaeologists have found the remains of numerous houses, shops and inns, a granary, a bath house, a barracks, and a temple or two at Vindolanda. The foundations were preserved as a result of some remarkable conditions.
Northumbria is a damp, rainy place, and Vindolanda has always been a particularly wet site because of a spring at its western edge. Add to this the Roman practice of building where clay or turf layers were placed above the foundations of demolished buildings to create a level platform for the new structure. Over the years, these layers accumulated so that they were about four feet thick, impenetrable to water and oxygen. Archaeologists dug their way through carpets of twigs, branches, heather, bracken, straw and moss, and unearthed thousands of exceptionally well-preserved objects.
Iron tools, weapons, utensils and nails — made after the Romans mined deposits of iron ore within a few hundred yards of Vindolanda — were found uncorroded. Animal bones showed that oxen were used for target practice. Fragments of wooden furniture, wagon axles, boxes, bowls, hair combs and toy weapons were determined to be made from local birch, alder, oak, ash and yew trees. Bronze objects emerged from the ground gleaming like new. One example is a Roman calendar, a circular disc on which a peg was moved into the next hole every day to indicate the correct date. A little bronze figure of a cavalry horse, originally mounted on a regimental flagpole, has become Vindolanda’s symbol.
Thousands of examples of leather footwear, from marching boots and shoes to sandals and slippers, were uncovered. The most common was the calceus, a shoe with laces that tied at the ankle. An indoor shoe called a carbatina was cut from a single piece of leather, with scallop-shaped holes cut around the outer edge, secured with a lace that crossed over the foot, and worn with colored socks to highlight the scalloped pattern. All of the shoes’ soles were studded with hobnails, either arranged in a pattern or hammered in randomly.
Textiles woven with wool from local sheep range from jerseys, cloaks and tunics to sleeping mats, bandages, socks and insoles for shoes.
A fragment of a glass bowl manufactured in Cologne, Germany and decorated with a painted gladiator scene was found in a fourth-century ditch.
Other finds include dozens of intaglios and gemstones from finger rings, brooches, hairpins, buttons, beads and medical instruments.
Most extraordinary of all are the written items that have been uncovered at Vindolanda. In 1973, excavators found some very thin, oily wooden shavings that were covered with tiny ink hieroglyphics on both surfaces. Infrared photography revealed that the neat cursive script handwriting was in Latin. Now known as leaf tablets, these thin postcard-sized sheets were made from local birch and alder branches around the turn of the first century, were scored down the center for folding, and were especially prepared to take ink writing. These postcards offer a treasure trove of details about daily life at Vindolanda, from invitations to social events to shopping lists. They also provide the names of names of several hundred people who lived there, as well as their correspondents.
In 1992, Robin Birley found over 350 of these leaf tablets on a site at Vindolanda where Roman soldiers burned their commanding officer’s correspondence in a bonfire before they left in 105 AD. The bonfire had been lit, but abandoned after a rain shower, so most of the tablets were singed, but survived mostly intact. A sculpture in the form of a fire ball pays tribute to Robin Birley’s work and celebrates his incredible find. The fire ball depicts cursive Roman writing from the tablets and is lit every year to commemorate what is now considered to be Britain’s top treasure.
While the majority of the writing tablets were transferred to the British Museum, virtually all the material from Vindolanda’s excavations since 1967 is housed onsite, with some on public display in a museum that was created from the original Chesterholm house in 1974. A super store is stocked with Roman-themed items, and a café serves jacket potatoes, toasties, award-winning savory pies, and teatime tray bakes and scones worthy of the Great British Baking Show.
Three hundred yards to the north of Vindolanda, at the side of the Stanegate road, stands the only Roman milestone from Britain to survive intact in its original position. This replica milestone shows what the original might have looked like when it was placed there in 121 AD. Milestones not only served the useful purpose of giving distances to the next important place, but also demonstrated that road-building or repair work had been carried out. They also publicized the name of the Roman emperor.
The grassy expanse at Vindolanda is a reminder of how much more excavation needs to be undertaken. A magnetometer survey revealed that more is likely to be found over at least another 12 acres, most likely including forges, a regimental parade ground and cemeteries. No wonder Vindolanda invites amateur and professional archaeologists alike to apply for the opportunity to dig there. If you’re interested, click here for more information.
When I boarded the Mercedes, I concluded that I could have spent three more hours at this fascinating place whose name still sounds like dancing to me.
For more, see Vindolanda: Extraordinary Records of Daily Life on the Northern Frontier, Vindolanda: A Roman Frontier Post on Hadrian’s Wall, and Chesterholm: From A Clergyman’s Cottage to Vindolanda’s Museum, 1830-2000, all by Robin Birley. Also, check out The Marches: A Borderland Journey Between England and Scotland, by Rory Stewart; and Hadrian’s Wall: Everyday Life on a Roman Frontier, by Patricia Southern. Visit Vindolanda Tablets Online and you’ll find a searchable online edition of the writing tablets excavated at Vindolanda, together with an introduction to their context and a guide to their content.