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Vindolanda

Roman Fort at Hadrian's Wall in Britain

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1973 Reconstruction of Timber Fort at Vindolanda

1973 Reconstruction of Timber Fort at Vindolanda

Bryn Pinzgauer
Military Bath House at Vindolanda, I-III Periods

Military Bath House at Vindolanda, I-III Periods

Bryn Pinzgauer
Open Air Museum at Vindolanda (Reconstructed Shrine)

Open Air Museum at Vindolanda (Reconstructed Shrine)

Alun Salt

Vindolanda is a Roman fort in Northumberland, England, near the border of Scotland and a few miles south of Hadrian's Wall. Best known today for the recovery of hundreds of hand-written documents called the Vindolanda Tablets, Vindolanda was one of a half dozen forts constructed by the Romans on the Stanegate Road.

The Stanegate Road was an old road that crossed Britain at its narrowest point (ca 120 km), connecting the North and Irish Seas. It (along with the parallel Hadrian's Wall) would become the northern border of the Roman occupation of Britain, and eventually the northern border of England as it abuts Scotland. Vindolanda is near the mid point of the Stanegate Road, and its ruins are currently open to visitors as part of the Hadrian's Wall World Heritage Site.

The name Vindolanda is from the Celtic language, and it means something like "white expanse" or "shining lawn", a place name that existed long before the fort was built. The site is located at the junction of two streams which together flow into the Chineley Burn, which in turn leads to the South Tyne River. The Celts believed stream confluences were sacred, and Vindolanda may had a sacred grove and temple here, although evidence of this has yet to be discovered.

Roman Forts

At least five successive timber Roman forts were built at Vindolanda before the construction of Hadrian's Wall began in AD 122. Three successive stone forts were built afterward: Vindolanda remained under Roman occupation until the fifth century AD. Some dismantling and reconstruction occurred with each fort, but sometimes the buildings were superimposed after a layer of turf and clay sometimes as thick as half a meter was laid down covering the earlier building ruins.

Such construction methods meant that by the end of the 4th century, the site was above ground by 5 meters, well above the swampy region created by the stream junctures. None the less, the waterlogged conditions of the ditches and earliest forts led to anaerobic conditions, in which organic/inorganic objects could survive, a boon for archaeologists and historians.

Each fort included roadways and defensive structures; each fort also contained an extensive extra-mural component, of workshops and bath houses, lime kilns, wagon park areas, traders' huts and shops, and heaps of coal for heating. What you see when you visit Vindolanda today is an amalgam of remnants from different periods; primarily the later stone constructions.

Timber Fort Chronology

Period I Fort: AD 85-92

The first Roman fort at Vindolanda was built about 85 AD. The Roman governor of Britain Agricola had conquered all of Scotland by 83 AD, but was called back to Rome for other duties. A garrison of Tungrian infantry arrived about 85 AD and stayed about five years. They were originally from the River Meuse region in what is today Belgium, and they had distinguished themselves under Agricola.

Little is known about the first fort, but it probably covered an area of some 1.4 hectares, had defensive ditches on all sides and housed about 480 men.

Period II Fort: AD 92-97

The second fort is a little better known, in part because of the numerous "Vindolanda Tablets" recovered from the flooring. The Tungrians were called away and the Batavian 9th garrison came to Vindolanda. This combination of 800 infantry and 240 cavalry required a larger fort, and so for the first five years, the fort was extensively remodeled and enlarged to 2.8 hectares. In doubling the size of the fort, the defensive ditches were filled in and built on: a turf rampart and timber-paved road were part of the additions to the fort during this time.

Period III Fort: AD 100-105

The timber fort constructed during Period III is the best known of the forts, not the least because over 1,000 Vindolanda Tablets dating to its occupation have been discovered. The prefect of the Ninth Cohort of Batavians who were garrisoned at Fort III was Falvius Cerialis; and some of the tablets recovered are his family's private correspondence. The fort included reconstruction of the earlier fort, including adding a western wing to the commanding officer's house, a latrine and a large stone bathhouse, the foundations of which can still be seen.

During the summer of AD 105, the Batavians were called away to fight in Trajan's Second Dacian War, and Vindolanda was abruptly abandoned.

Period IV Fort: AD 105-120

In December of 105, a replacement infantry garrison of First Tungrians arrived, to discover the fort in disarray. They dismantled the fort, salvaging what they could, blocked the south gate and built a new gate and replaced much of the fort's walls. New buildings included a massive baking oven and a block of barracks. Cavalry from the first cohort of Vardulli out of Spain joined the Tungrians at Vindolanda.

In AD 117, the emperor Hadrian ascended to rule Rome, and widespread revolt grew in Britain; it's possible, but not currently in evidence, that the garrisons along the Stanegate Road including Vindolanda, were attacked during this period.

Period V Fort: AD 120-130

In 122 AD, Hadrian visited Vindolanda himself, and commissioned the construction of Hadrian's Wall, to be built by his legionnaires of the sixth Vitrix led by governor Platorius Nepos. The period IV barrack block was demolished, and a larger barracks with stone drains was built.

As Hadrian's Wall was being constructed, much more substantial and permanent structures were built, perhaps to house the governor; and by the time the wall was completed, Vindolanda was rebuilt as well, but this time in stone.

Archaeology at Vindolanda

After Vindolanda was finally abandoned in the 7th century, it was used as a farmstead and residence off and on for the better part of a millennium. Archaeological interest in the ruins begins with William Camden, who visited in 1594 and wrote about it in the fourth edition of his famous classic work Brittania.

Excavations were first conducted in 1814, by the landowner at the time, Anthony Hedley. Professional excavations were completed by Eric Birley and Ian Richmond in the 1930s; by Robin Birley in the 1960s; and under the direction of different archaeologists supported by the Vindolanda Trust beginning in 1970 and continuing through the current day.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the Dictionary of Archaeology and one of several stories of Roman ruins. See page two for sources for this article.

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