Exquisite collection of Roman cavalry finds.

Vindolanda Trust - Sunday, September 10, 2017

Swords, arrow heads and ballista bolts amongst a cache of artefacts discovered during cavalry barrack excavations at Roman Vindolanda.

 

During the past few weeks archaeologists at the Roman fort of Vindolanda have made one remarkable discovery after another in what has been an exceptional year for the research excavations.

 

Test pit excavations, below the stone foundations of the last stone fortress revealed a layer of black, sweet smelling and perfectly preserved anaerobic, oxygen free, soils in an area where they were completely unexpected. Hidden in this soil were the timber walls and floors, fences, pottery and animal bones, from the abandonment of a Roman cavalry barrack. The excavated rooms included stables for horses, living accommodation, ovens and fireplaces.

 

While excavating the material from the corner of one of the living rooms a volunteer excavator made an outstanding discovery.

 

The earth surrounding the object was slowly pulled back under careful supervision to reveal the tip of a thin and sharp iron blade, resting in its wooden scabbard. As the archaeologists excavated further the shape of a hilt and handle slowly emerged from the black soil and it became immediately clear that the Romans had left behind a complete sword with a bent tip. It was the ancient equivalent of a modern soldier abandoning a malfunctioning rifle.

 

Dr Andrew Birley recalled the moment as “quite emotional” and went on to say, “you can work as an archaeologist your entire life on Roman military sites and, even at Vindolanda, we never expect or imagine to see such a rare and special object as this.  

It felt like the team had won a form of an archaeological lottery.” Rupert Bainbridge, the volunteer who made the initial discovery described the moment as overwhelming, commenting, “I was so excited to excavate such an extraordinary artefact, especially something that resonated so much with the fort setting that we were digging in.”

 

A few weeks later, Vindolanda archaeologists accompanied by a new team of volunteers were finishing working on a room adjacent to the one in which the sword was discovered.  Here they remarkably discovered a second sword, this time without a wooden handle, pommel or scabbard, but with the blade and tang still complete and sitting on the floor exactly where it had been left thousands of years before.

 

Dr Birley commented, “You don’t expect to have this kind of experience twice in one month so this was both a delightful moment and a historical puzzle. You can imagine the circumstances where you could conceive leaving one sword behind rare as it is…. but two?” Both blades came from separate rooms, and are likely to have belonged to different people. One theory is that the garrison was forced to leave in a hurry, and in their haste they left not only the swords but also a great number of other perfectly serviceable items which would have had great value in their time.

 

The swords are truly remarkable, but they form only part of an outstanding collection of artefacts left behind in those cavalry barrack buildings. In another room were two small wooden toy swords, almost exactly the same as those that can be purchased by tourists visiting the Roman Wall today.

Roman ink writing tablets on wood, bath clogs, leather shoes (from men, women and children), stylus pens, knives,  combs, hairpins, brooches and a wide assortment of other weapons including cavalry lances, arrowheads and ballista bolts were all abandoned on the barrack room floors.

Quite spectacular are the copper-alloy cavalry and horse fitments for saddles, junction straps and harnesses which were also left behind. 

These remain in such fine condition that they still shine like gold and are almost completely free from corrosion.

 

The swords and other objects form a remarkable discovery of one of the most comprehensive and important collections of this type of material from a Hadrian’s Wall site.

Visitors to Vindolanda will be able to see this cache of cavalry finds displayed in the site museum this autumn, just as a major Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition along the line of Hadrian’s Wall comes to a close another has arrived!

 

 

Historical facts:

 

The Garrison at Vindolanda at this time (cAD120) was made up of a combination of peoples including the 1st Cohort of Tungrians who heralded from modern day Belgium. They were joined by a detachment of Vardulli Cavalrymen from northern Spain.  It is likely that the base held more than 1000 soldiers and probably many thousands more dependants including slaves and freedmen, representing one of the most multicultural and dynamic communities on the Frontier of the Roman Empire at the time.

The new finds give an intimate insight into the lives of people living on the edge of the Roman Empire at a time of rebellion and war before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall in AD122.

 

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.

-ends-

                       

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.


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"Very interesting and informative. Saw a spade excavated - very exciting!" SH, England - Vindolanda