Latest news from the Border Archaeological Society

Vindolanda: A Fort, A Community And A Frontier In Transition was the title of the well-attended March lecture at the Border Archaeological Society, given by Dr Andrew Birley, chief executive and director of excavation at the Vindolanda Trust.

Saturday, 18th March 2017, 08:00 am
Updated Friday, 24th March 2017, 09:49 am

Coming from a long line of Vindolanda specialists as his father and grandfather excavated there, his emphasis was on change – the frontier moved as different groups and different cultures made their presence felt – as well as new discoveries that have changed our thinking.

Although this is the 47th year of the charitable trust, excavations go a lot further back, and new discoveries are constantly being made as archaeologists are now attempting to find out what is under the visible Roman stone remains. There are at least seven metres of archaeology and nine forts on top of each other. Under it all, there is also evidence of Iron Age farms.

We start with the Stanegate Road, built by the Romans in AD80, some time before Hadrian’s Wall, running from the Solway Firth in the west to the mouth of the Tyne, with Vindolanda situated halfway, in the Tyne Valley. The area was full of desirable minerals, such as lead and iron, there were coal seams, and a series of springs made for an abundant and forceful water supply.

There is evidence of seven Roman forts at Vindolanda, the first being in wood and timber. The reason for this was that the army was in a hurry and constantly on the move, it had no desire to leave a fort behind.

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Roman engineers developed ways of getting water, mines were built and worked. The stone fort we see today was built in AD213 by the Fourth Cohort, from Gaul, and there was a Gallic connection throughout. The year 415 saw the end of Roman Britain, but Vindolanda remained as a British fort, still attached to the previous Roman religion, but beginning to become Christian.

Excavations necessitate going back in time. The vicus, or civilian town, to the south of the fort gets smaller the further down we go. Anaerobic conditions meant the finding of a wealth of artefacts, but some things were lost before they could be preserved.

We now know that there was a large Gallic presence in Britian, and from inscriptions and other evidence, those at Vindolanda came from near Lyon. A statue of Priapus sports a Gallic type moustache, which could have come from an Asterix cartoon. The troops from Gaul married local women, changing the character of the country.

Distribution of beads showed the presence of women in 213-276, but it seems to drop after the third century in the vicus, whereas more are found in the fort in the fourth century. We do not have enough data yet to know why.

In 2013, large fourth century integrated barrack blocks were found under fifth and sixth century buildings and churches. Among the artefacts found were a votive altar to Apollo, a foot amulet of jet (perhaps worn to heal a bad foot) and a late Roman strap end for a nail cleaner.

Digs in 2014 brought an unexpected wealth of artefacts, such as a solid silver crossbow brooch, pins, copper brooches, a bone carding comb, and most spectacularly, a solid gold coin from the time of Nero, circa AD65, which had been in circulation for three centuries until it somehow wound up in Vindolanda.

Also found was a roof tile with a dog footprint, and an inscription reading ‘Fideus’ (Fido), which could refer to a dog or a slave. Other tiles, bricks and building pieces also sometimes have footprints of humans and animals, even one of a chicken.

There are many mysteries. It would seem different areas were used for different purposes, but we do not yet know what.

A series of circular huts arranged in neat rows have been found, which could have been workshops or temporary accommodation as remains there showed poorer diets.

However, we do know that the soldiers were well-paid and spent money on themselves, as finds of luxury items will attest to.

Some 6,500 shoes have been found, ranging from military footwear to highly decorated ‘fashion wear’, to soft slippers. There are spears and daggers, wooden combs and personal grooming equipment, and re-used bits of timber. Part of a barrel from Spain had been used later as a floorboard.

One rare discovery was a wooden toilet seat – only a few have survived throughout Europe. Some 1,800 ink tablets and 400 stylus tablets (wax on wood) have been found, giving us invaluable information on daily life.

Animal remains show a cow skull used as a target in training. Skeletons of pets, from wolfhounds to chihuahuas, have been found, as well as a few cat remains. Many of these skeletons were of healthy animals, indicating they were perhaps ditched as their owners had to leave hurriedly, but we do not know.

One of the latest excavations is of cremation pots in a children’s cemetery, indicating that perhaps children were first just buried and later pots were used. In later years it became a rubbish dump.

The excavation season will soon start again. It takes place from April to September and involves about 500 volunteers, who stay for a fortnight.

Dr Birley underlined that there are many more exciting things to come.