When excavating at Vindolanda, the archaeological team uses the position of the standing remains of the fort wall to identify and refer to the areas that are under investigation.

The South Western quadrant, or the rectangular portion of ground between the Vindolanda granaries and the southern fort wall, is the area we are currently busy researching and one we will be working on until 2023.

While the standing remains of the last stone fort at Vindolanda, constructed in circa AD 213, are helpful in locating just where on the grounds of Roman Vindolanda the team are working, each quadrant is so much more than the buildings contemporary to the fort walls. In other words, each Vindolanda quadrant contains a small, buried world of its own, which was lived in and used by the Romans and their successors in different ways.  Just like stars, moons and planets in a galaxy, each quadrant is related to the others, but also unique in its features and in the ways they have changed through time.

Come with us on a journey through time, and explore what buildings and finds have been uncovered in the South Western quadrant so far. We will approach this in chronological order, from the most recent buildings dating to AD 409 and onwards, down to the deeper layers of the excavations.

The sub-Roman and post-Roman period- AD 409 onwards

Vindolanda, like many other sites on the northern frontier, did not just stop existing because the Roman Empire had formally withdrawn from Britain. In fact, in the South Western quadrant, archaeologists uncovered plenty of evidence for sub-Roman and post-Roman occupation.

We call 'sub-Roman' occupation the period of history immediately following AD 409, when some of the soldiers who (only a few years before) had been paid to do their duty on Hadrian's Wall, now lived civilian lives, farming, trading and cultivating the land. The sub-Roman period was characterised by a sort of respect for Roman structures. Buildings made out of stone foundations and timber elevations were erected within, or leaning onto traditional Roman building. A great example of this, in the South Western quadrant, are the many little rooms, ovens and standing structures which were erected inside what had previously been a barrack.

We call 'post-Roman' period the period of the history of Vindolanda which is characterised by a generational change. The new inhabitants of Vindolanda were perhaps descendant of those living on site in the sub-Roman period, but they did not feel any connection to their, now quite far removed, Roman ancestors. This was the time in which post-Roman structures, like the two churches found so far in the South Western quadrant, began blocking Roman roads and cutting out Roman buildings.

Distance from their Roman origins does not mean that the people living at Vindolanda after AD 409 were uncouth, illiterate and unsophisticated. Finds from post-Roman levels, like the 2019 chalice, suggest quite the contrary! In 2021 an incredibly well preserved copper alloy lid was found in a post-Roman context. The lid, which was backed by an iron plate, showed a triskele pattern composed of three spirals swirling away from one another into a triangular shape, and was decorated further with three enamelled blue cavities. The triskele originated as a Celtic symbol, but was later adopted by Christianity to indicate the holy trinity.

The 4th century - AD 300-408

One of the objectives of the work undertaken in the South Western quadrant was to explore whether or not more cavalry barracks, similar to those uncovered in the 2013-17 excavations, would emerge. The cavalry barracks are thought, so far, to be occasional but not temporary accommodation for the comitatenses, a troubleshooting field army travelling along the line of the Wall. In other words, the cavalry barracks were built of solid sandstone and, with their self supporting officers' quarters located near to the site's gates, they would have been waiting for the field army to come and go as they pleased. However, the field army would have not been permanently based at a single site, and, when empty, these cavalry barracks could be reclaimed by the limitanei, or the stationary border force, who normally lived in the small chalet barracks in the northern half of the site.

4th century evidence from the South Western quadrant included a well constructed north-south oriented barrack, divided in 4 rectangular rooms. To the south of the barrack, the remains of potential officers' quarters started to emerge at the end of the 2021 excavation season. Another building, originally rectangular, and located in the middle of the excavation area, was modified in the late 4th century to assume a square plan. It was in this building that two long-serving Vindolanda volunteers uncovered a sandstone altar to a cavalry god. With a plain obverse and sloping top, the altar would have perhaps been slotted into an aedicula, a small portable shrine shaped like a house, or in a niche in the wall. The altar represented a naked god-like figure, embracing their horse, and carrying a spear and decorated helmet.

Another 4th century feature, which survived and was re-used all the way to the sub-Roman and post-Roman period, was a large cobbled courtyard crossed by a drain, accessible via the main road which departed from the back of the granaries. 

The 3rd century - AD 213-300

The 3rd century occupation of Vindolanda was marked by tidily constructed sandstone buildings, two of which have been uncovered during the 2021 excavations. These two buildings were long, over 30m east to west, and thin (circa 4 meters north to south). The northernmost of two buildings was fully investigated in 2021, and has been interpreted a schola. 

A schola is an officers' mess and club, where middle ranks would meet to dine, socialise and exchange information. The building was divided in at least three rooms. In the westernmost room, a massive oven occupied the majority of the space. It is in this room that a large and ovoid shaped stone weight was found, with its iron connection still in situ. The weight could have been used for many purposes: as a bellows' counterweight, to pound down on ingredients, or to counterbalance measuring of foods. The middle room had a lovely mix of pebble dashed and flagged floor, and on this floor many finds including belt buckles, brooches and pins were uncovered.  The rooms to the east featured another oven, a smaller fire point and evidence that the building would have had, at some point in its history, timber partitions.

The Severan period -AD 200-212

Back at the dawn of the 3rd century, during the troubled reign of Septimius Severus, what is now the fort platform was occupied by a roundhouse settlement. One of the objectives of the excavation in the South Western quadrant was to identify more roundhouses, and to try and learn about the relationship between their occupants and the soldiers posted in the nearby heavily fortified fortlet.

During the 2021 excavation, the team learned that, if any roundhouses had ever been within the excavation area, the 3rd and 4th century occupants had done a thorough job of demolishing them. Towards the end of the excavation, the foundations of a stone roundhouse began to emerge from under the rubble of a 4th century courtyard. Interestingly, the badly bashed foundations of the stone roundhouse were cut by the remains of a timber circular structure. 

Timber roundhouses are not completely new at Vindolanda. The last one was excavated in 2013, but dated to a much earlier period than the Severan one. The 'stone' roundhouse settlement in the South Western quadrant at Vindolanda has not revealed any of its secrets just yet. In fact, it may have posed new questions which can only be addressed with further excavation.

The Antonine period- AD 160-200

The Antonine period is one of the most complex and mysterious periods in the history of Vindolanda. The original Antonine fort, which dates to AD 140, was still constructed in turf and timber, like its predecessors all the way from AD 85. However, the withdrawal from the Antonine Wall in Scotland and the re-settlement of the army on the line of Hadrian's Wall meant that Vindolanda was equipped with its first stone fort.

The Antonine period sits somewhere between aerobic (rich in oxygen) and anaerobic (lacking in oxygen) conditions. This means that, while most building excavated are made of stone, finds show an improved degree of preservation when compared to their later counterparts. At the end of the 2021 season of excavation, a large building with many rectangular rooms began to appear under the foundations of the 4th and 3rd century barracks. While the function of this building remains unclear, finds from it and its surrounding road surfaces were astounding. A millefiori brooch, with intricate enamelled patterns resembling a flower meadow, and a fragment of armlet in the shape of a snake head were only two of the most spectacular objects. 

What will we uncover next in the south western quadrant? Will it be more roundhouses? Or will the Antonine and 3rd and 4th century buildings continue to dominate the scene? What awaits under the foundations of the Antonine first stone fort at Vindolanda? And will we uncover the remains of earlier buildings, and more Vindolanda Tablets?

You can watch our 2021 excavation video summary.

Excavations resume on the 28th March 2022, and you can be part of the story.

Learn more about Excavating at Vindolanda