History

Introduction to the history of Vindolanda.

Vindolanda was here before Hadrian’s Wall was built, it played a big role in its construction, became a garrison for the Wall and then continued on for hundreds of years after the Wall was abandoned by its Roman garrisons. Its history is long and rich, its legacy to the study and history of Roman Britain unquestionable.

Between the mid 70’s AD and AD85 Roman soldiers and their affiliated communities came to Vindolanda to build the first of what would become a whole series of Roman bases at the site. By the time they left over 300 years later they had completely transformed the landscape at and surrounding the site, with no fewer than nine Roman forts built on top of one another, leaving an incredible archaeological and cultural legacy which we are still enjoying and exploring today.

The name ‘Vindolanda’ is poetic, and it can be translated to mean ‘white field or white moor’ and it gives us two important clues about life and landscape in the 1st century in the area. The first is that the first Roman forts was likely built upon a farmer’s field. This field sat on a promontory surrounded by steep sides and streams, a good defensive position. The second clue, later to be reinforced by later discoveries, was that fort building was a winter activity, and the white of the ‘white field’ may have been in reference to snow or frost.

The first forts built at the site were constructed in timber, and many of those were much larger than the stone remains you see when you visit today, some being 2-4 times the size and holding garrisons of over 1000 soldiers. By the end of the second century the forts had been reduced in size and were built in stone, their associated towns constructed over the remains of the demolished timber forts. Each layer of new building at the site sealed the previous levels creating anaerobic or oxygen free conditions. These conditions mean that most of the rubbish, demolished buildings and artefacts left behind by the earlier garrisons remain almost perfectly preserved without any decay. This has made possible some of the most remarkable discoveries from anywhere in the Roman Empire, over 6000 items shoes, 800 textiles, thousands of wooden objects and the writing tablets. Writing tablets are small post-card sized pieces of wood which are covered in ink handwriting and form one of the earliest - most important and complete archives of written material from Western Europe. The earliest surviving female handwriting, demands for beer, party invitations, requests for holidays, rude names for the Britons and vibrant cast of real people who once made the site their home.

Vindolanda was not abandoned at the end of Roman Britain, it continued to be occupied for the next 400 years, transforming itself from a Roman fortress and community into a British one. Each year the excavations continue to uncover more information about the people of Vindolanda, each year the history and story of the site becomes richer. The Vindolanda Trust was founded in 1970 and has been caring for and researching the site ever since. It is estimated that it will take well over another 100 years of research before all of the secrets of Vindolanda have been revealed.


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