Rare Ancient Roman Boxing Gloves Uncovered at Vindolanda.

Vindolanda Trust - Monday, February 19, 2018

During the summer of 2017 Vindolanda archaeologists enjoyed one of their most successful annual research excavation seasons to date with one remarkable discovery after another coming to light. A small hoard of wafer thin Vindolanda Writing Tablets, many full of ancient cursive script, was quickly followed by a cache of material culture uncovered during the excavation of a pre-Hadrianic cavalry barrack.

 

The finds included complete swords, copper alloy horse gear, more precious writing tablets, leather shoes, bath clogs, combs, dice and two very unusual and distinctive pieces of leather. These two unusual leather objects have very similar attributes in terms of style and function, although they are not a matching pair, and they could not be likened to any of the many thousands of leather items previously discovered at Vindolanda.

 

 

Research of the objects at Vindolanda along with the considered observations by Roman leather and other experts has indicated that these leather objects are in fact boxing gloves and probably the only known surviving examples from the Roman period. 

 

 

Unlike the modern boxing glove these ancient examples have the appearance of a protective guard, designed to fit snugly over the knuckles protecting them from impact. The larger of the two gloves is cut from a single piece of leather and was folded into a pouch configuration, the extending leather at each side were slotted into one another forming a complete oval shape creating an inner hole into which a hand could still easily be inserted. The glove was packed with natural material acting as a shock absorber.  This larger glove has extreme wear on the contact edge and it had also undergone repair with a tear covered by a circular patch.   The slightly smaller glove was uncovered in near perfect condition with the same construction but filled with a tight coil of hard twisted leather.

 

The two gloves can still fit comfortably on a modern hand. They have been skilfully made, with the smaller glove retaining the impression of the wearer’s knuckles. It is likely that the gloves functioned as sparring or practice caestu each has a stiffened contact edge being a softer representation of the of the more lethal metal inserts used in ‘professional’ ancient boxing bouts.  It is thought that the larger glove may have been unfit for purpose due to prolonged use and may have survived alongside the ‘newer’ model resulting from a personal attachment given to it by the owner. 

 

Boxing was a well-documented ancient sport that preceded the Roman era.  In the context of the Roman Army it was a recorded pursuit, a martial activity designed to increase the skills and fitness of the boxers.  Boxing competitions also took place with crowds and supporters and it was also the sort of activity that the Roman garrisons would have gambled on.

 

Dr Andrew Birley, CEO and The Vindolanda Trust’s Director of Excavations commented “I have seen representations of Roman boxing gloves depicted on bronze statues, paintings and sculptures but to have the privilege of finding two real leather examples is exceptionally special.” Dr. Birley went on to say “what really makes Vindolanda so unique is the range of organic objects that we find. Every one of them brings you closer to the people who lived here nearly 2,000 years ago but the hairs stand up on the back of your neck when you realise that you have discovered something as astonishing as these boxing gloves.”

 

The boxing gloves will be on display in the museum at Vindolanda from February 20th, 2018 along with other finds from the cavalry barrack excavations.      

ENDS.

For further information or hi-res photographs please contact:

Sonya Galloway,

The Vindolanda Trust, 01434 344277

sonyagalloway@vindolanda.com

www.vindolanda.com

 

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.

 


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