Date published 13/10/ 2020

Ian Haynes:

Of course, the reason this entry comes so much later than those of many of my Vindolanda colleagues is that I have had a terrible time making up my mind.  With so many fantastic things to choose from, it was always going to be difficult to find a top five, and the longer I thought, the graver the problem came.  Do not get me started on the tablets, by the way, I would be hard put to narrow it down to my first twenty. Others, swifter off the mark, pounced, albeit decorously, on much loved objects first, and I really felt that I should write of something else.  And then came an awkward moment at a Directors’ meeting.  One of my fellow Trustee Directors observed that there was a marked gender divide with regards to contributions to the top five.  Why, the question hung in the air, might that be?  The response was swift, pointed and filled me with new resolve, ‘men are rubbish..’ said a voice.  I might of course have misheard, it must have been something wrong with the ZOOM, but it sounded suspiciously like this indictement came from none other than our very own Dr Andrew Birley.  It was clearly time for action.

I have taken advantage of this time to redefine a little what is meant by favourite.  Some of my favourite things are beautiful and joy filled, others are, well, anything but, but they are absolutely intriguing; they make me (and others) look at things differently, and that is why they are included here.

In the number one spot, and yes, I know one of my colleagues got here first too, is Skull 8658.  The importance of this find, recovered by Alex Meyer while excavating the Severan Ditch, is profound. It is horrific, hacked about and, from the trauma at the base of the skull quite possibly fixed on a stake, a savage testimony to the hard realities of life and death at Vindolanda 1800 years ago.  What I find fascinating, however, is what the analysis of the skull reveals. Oxygen and Strontium analysis of tooth enamel and dentine by Chenery and Evans, strongly suggests that the deceased had grown up Britain, and potentially no great distance from the fort.  Indeed, the results could be compatible with a childhood in the area north and west of Vindolanda, though an area north and west of Annan (Dumfries, Scotland), or the south western Lake District would have given similar results. Either way, the balance of possibilities points to someone who grew up in Britain. Yet before the temptation to drape a familiar, albeit overly simplified, narrative of Roman intruders locked in conflict with battered indigenous resistance fighters carries us away, it is important to look at the other data too.  DNA analysis of the skull by Dr Eleanor Graham of Northumbria University pointed to Italian ancestry.  Given the relative rarity of written references to Italians on the Wall, this is particularly noteworthy, but it is also a necessary reminder, that human stories are often complex, and the Wall was ultimately a very cosmopolitan place.

Human skull soon after it was excavated from the site

My second choice is also unsavoury, you will start to see a theme here. It is a helminth, a human intestinal parasite, recovered from a drain associated with one of Vindolanda’s latrines.  I say a helminth, but the site has produced a great many helminths, including roundworms, whipworms and tapeworms – take your pick!  Why the fascination?   Well as Patrick G. Flammer and Marissa L. Ledger explain in their blog, the study of these parasites can tell us a huge amount from their hosts, illuminating not only hygiene and diet, but also witnessing to their diverse origins. When you combine the sorts of results from the skull with the sorts of work, Patrick and Marissa are doing, you get a much better grasp of the diversity of Vindolanda’s population.

Staying with drains, an alarming archaeological proclivity, brings me to my third choice: a marvellous dedication to the goddess Gallia.  Now the focus of the dedication is fascinating in her own right, as Tony Birley mentions in a fine article in L'Antiquité Classique, there is no other known reference to her anywhere in the Empire.  She is one of those divine patrons and personifications (the two blend together very well in the Roman cosmos) who emerges under the empire.  Her British counterpart is much better known; indeed you may well have a likeness of her in your pocket, Britannia.  The dedication to Gallia is offered by cives Galli … concordeque Britanni.., Gauls and their British concordes, the phrasing suggests harmony, which had its own divine patron Concordia. Yet, did harmony reign, or is this one of those public statements made in an attempt to start afresh following conflict between Romans of different origins, a phenomenon richly attested across the ancient world.  As part of a family that straddles the Channel, I naturally want to believe that any such attempt would end agreeably, but then again, the altar did end up upturned in a drain…

Drawing of the Gallia inscription 

Many of my colleagues have drawn attention, quite rightly, to shoes. Well I do have a favourite shoe, one as significant in its way as the celebrated Lepidina slipper is in its.  What is striking about this item is that it had two copper alloy studs put under the heel. The intention is surely to help the wearer with chronic pain, most probably resulting from a form of arthritis. It is perhaps too easy to forget just how many, even in the robust frontier communities of Vindolanda, would have lived with one form of disability or another.  Other colleagues, of course, spotted the significance of this shoe long before I did.  Barbara Birley, our Curator, first introduced me to it, and Beth Greene of Western Ontario, a scholar who has also worked extensively on the Vindolanda leather collection, has also described it as one of her favourite shoes. Indeed, an important aspect of current research project on the Vindolanda footware assemblage is to look at them as a key source of data on disability.

L2001-49 Sole with wheat sheath stamps and copper alloy studs

I still have lots of other favourites to go, but I would have to end here with my last favourite find being the view of the site from the high ground to the east. There are several fine ways to approach Vindolanda, many visitors will, of course, head south from Hadrian’s Wall, but I also enjoy heading up from the A69, and taking the marvellous winding route from there to the museum entrance.  To see the fort, the extra-mural settlement, and the buildings beyond, all lovingly consolidated and nestled in such glorious countryside is always a joy to me.  But the scene is also a wonderful prelude for me of something that awaits every visitor today, the warmest of welcomes.

Vindolanda in autumn from Barcomb Hill (Sara Robson)