Tablets unearthed at Vindolanda

Vindolanda Trust - Monday, July 10, 2017

An Exciting New Hoard of Ancient Roman Writing Tablets Unearthed at Vindolanda.

On the afternoon of Thursday the 22nd of June, at the Roman fort of Vindolanda in Northumberland, archaeologists made one of their most important discoveries since 1992. A new hoard of around 25 Roman ink documents, known as the Vindolanda writing tablets (letters, lists and personal correspondence), were discovered lying in the damp and anaerobic earth where they had been discarded towards the end of the 1st century AD.

These incredibly rare and fragile wafer-thin pieces of wood are often less than 2mm in thickness and about the size of modern day postcards. The documents were uncovered during the research excavation of a small area of the site (three metres in length) and are likely to represent a part of an archive from a specific period.

As the archaeological team, carefully and painstakingly extracted the delicate pieces of wood from the earth they were delighted to see some of the letters were complete and others had partial or whole confronting pages. The confronting tablets, where the pages are protected by the back of the adjoining pages, are the most exceptional discoveries as they provide the greatest chance of the ink writing being preserved.

Dr Andrew Birley, CEO of the Vindolanda Trust and Director of Excavations spoke about the day the tablets were recovered “What an incredible day, truly exceptional. You can never take these things for granted as the anaerobic conditions needed for their survival are very precise.

I was fortunate enough to be involved when my father, Dr Robin Birley, excavated a bonfire site of Vindolanda tablets in 1992 and I had hoped, but never truly expected, that the day might come when we would find another hoard of such well preserved documents again during a day on our excavations.

I am sure that the archaeological staff, students and volunteers who took part on this excavation will always remember the incredible excitement as the first document was recognised in the trench and carefully lifted out. It was half a confronting tablet, two pages stuck together with the tell-tale tie holes and V notches at the top of the pages. The crowd of visitors who gathered at the edge of the excavation fences were also fascinated to see tablet after tablet being liberated from a deep trench several metres down”.

Dr Robin Birley who also made tablet discoveries at Vindolanda in 1970’s and 1980’s commented “some of these new tablets are so well preserved that they can be read without the usual infrared photography and before going through the long conservation process.  There is nothing more exciting than reading these personal messages from the distant past”.   

A few names in these texts have already be deciphered, including that of a man called Masclus who is best known via a previous letter to his Commanding Officer asking for more beer to be supplied to his outpost. In one of the newly discovered letters he seems to have been applying for leave (commeatus). Other characters and authors of the letters may already be known thanks to previous Vindolanda tablets from the site, and new names will emerge to take their places in the history of Roman Britain, propelled as they now are from total obscurity to sending a direct written message to us about who they were and what they were doing and thinking almost 2000 years ago. This latest discovery is the highlight of an extraordinary excavation season at Vindolanda.

The tablets are now undergoing painstaking conservation and infrared photography so that the full extent of their text can be revealed. It is quite possible that some of the new information will transform our understanding of Vindolanda and Roman Britain and we along with other archaeologists, Latin scholars, Roman experts and interested public alike will have to wait with baited breath for the full expert translation of the tablets to begin in earnest as they complete their conservation process.

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For further information please contact:

Sonya Galloway,

The Vindolanda Trust, 01434 344277

sonyagalloway@vindolanda.com

www.vindolanda.com

Follow us on twitter: @VindolandaTrust

Follow us on Facebook @thevindolandatrust

 

The Vindolanda Trust

The Vindolanda Trust is an independent archaeological charitable trust, founded in 1970. The Vindolanda Trust does not receive any annual funding and relies on the visitors to both Roman Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum to fund its archaeological, conservation and education work.

 

The Vindolanda Tablets

The first Vindolanda tablets were discovered in 1973 by Robin Birley who was a co-founder of the Vindolanda Trust and its former Director and Director of Excavations.  These documents are the very personal accounts, lists and letters of the people of Vindolanda, most of them written before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall started in the AD 120’s.  They form the most important archive of Roman writing from north-western Europe and have revolutionised knowledge of life on the Roman frontier.  They give wonderful details which cannot come to use from any other archaeological source.  In 2003 experts from the British Museum named the Vindolanda Tablets as the Top Archaeological Treasure to come from Britain.

The Vindolanda Tablet collection is held at the British Museum in London. Nine of the tablets are currently on loan to Vindolanda and are on display in a specifically designed vaulted gallery in the museum.

If the shoe fits

Vindolanda Trust - Monday, October 10, 2016

1,800 years ago the Roman army built one of its smallest but most heavily defended forts at the site of Vindolanda, which is now a part of the Frontiers of The Roman Empire World Heritage Site. The small garrison of a few hundred soldiers and their families took shelter behind a series of large ditches and ramparts, while outside the walls a war was raging between the northern British Tribes and Roman forces. Once the war was over (c AD 212) the troops and their dependants pulled out of the fort, and anything that they could not carry with them on the march was tossed into the defensive ditches. The rubbish in the ditches was then quickly sealed when a new Roman town and fort was built at the site, preserving the rubbish in an oxygen free environment where the normal ravages of time, rust and decay, crawled to a halt.


In 2016, the Vindolanda archaeologists excavated the ditch and discovered an incredible time capsule of life and conflict, and amongst the debris were dog and cat skeletons, pottery, leather and 421 Roman shoes. Visitors who were lucky enough to come to Vindolanda this summer watched in amazement as shoe after shoe was found in the ditch, each one a window into the life of type of person who might have once worn it. Baby boots, small children’s shoes, teenagers, ladies and men’s boots, bath clogs, both indoor and outdoor shoes. What has been uncovered conceivably represents more than one shoe for every person who lived inside the fort at Vindolanda at that time. Dr Andrew Birley, the Vindolanda Trust’s CEO and Director of excavations was thrilled with what he calls ‘an unbelievable and unparalleled demographic census of a community in conflict from two millennia away from today. The volume of footwear is fantastic as is its sheer diversity even for a site like Vindolanda which has produced more Roman shoes than any other place from the Roman Empire’.

The shoe hoard also gives an indication of fashion and affluence of the occupants in AD 212 with some very stylish and well-made shoes, both adults and children’s, a fact which has captured the imagination of football fans with one child’s shoe in particular being likened to a modern Adidas Predator boot. Sonya Galloway, The Vindolanda Trusts Communication Manager noted that ‘the popularity of just one of the shoes has given great exposure to our collection here. It is one of the great assets of Vindolanda’s Designated collection that many of the artefacts are everyday items, things that we can directly connect with, it is the fact that they are so well preserved and almost 2000 years old which is simply extraordinary’. 


The shoes are now being conserved on site with a specifically re-adapted building to cope with the quantity of finds. The Trust’s Curator Barbara Birley noted ‘the volume of footwear has presented some challenges for our lab but with the help of dedicated volunteers we have created a specific space for the shoe conservation and the process is now well underway’ Barbara went on to say ‘The Vindolanda Trust is committed to the excavation, preservation and public display of its finds although each shoe costs between £80 and £100 to conserve. Finding so many shoes this year has resulted in significant additional costs for the laboratory’.  In light of the cost associated with the shoe hoard the Trust has launched a fundraising campaign asking for support from the public to ‘conserve a shoe’.  Dr Andrew Birley commented the Trust does not receive any external funding towards the excavation programme and we exist as a result of visitors to the site and through the support of our volunteers and Friends of Vindolanda. This year has been exceptional and we hope 421 generous people will come forward and donate £80 to help us specifically with the cost of conserving these shoes’.  All those who conserve a shoe will receive a numbered Certificate of Conservation full details of how to conserve a shoe can be found on the Vindolanda website. www.vindolanda.com/conserve-a-shoe

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Shoe Press release

For further information or hi-res photographs please contact:

Sonya Galloway,

The Vindolanda Trust, 01434 344277

sonyagalloway@vindolanda.com

www.vindolanda.com

Follow us on twitter: @VindolandaTrust

Follow us on Facebook @thevindolandatrust

Notes to Editors

The Vindolanda Trust

The Vindolanda Trust is an independent archaeological charitable trust, founded in 1970. The Vindolanda Trust does not receive any annual funding and relies on the visitors to both Roman Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum to fund its archaeological, conservation and education work.

Vindolanda was originally constructed as a conquest then Stanegate frontier fort, Vindolanda became a major construction base for Hadrian’s Wall in the early AD 120’s when one of the largest forts was in use at the site.  Once the Wall was completed Vindolanda formed part of the Wall garrison, in spite of the fact that the main curtain wall of Hadrian’s Wall was a mile to the north of the site.  The fort continued to play an active role throughout Hadrian’s Wall’s history. In periods when other Wall forts were abandoned, such as in the AD 140’s-160’s, Vindolanda was maintained, its strategic position regarded as a vital part of the frontier system.


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