Date Published: 14/05/2020

Hello I’m Patricia, a volunteer site guide at Vindolanda. My connection with the Vindolanda Trust began nearly 11 years ago when ‘Hadrian’s Wall Heritage’ received Heritage Lottery Funding to train local people as guides at Roman sites on Hadrian’s Wall.  I was lucky enough to receive one of the places, based at Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum. We had training from blue badge guides, talks from experts, visits to Roman sites and lots of reading to do. I was about to take voluntary redundancy from my job in Communications, and this opportunity opened up a whole new world of enjoyment. I live very close to Hadrian’s Wall, and walk part of the trail near my house most days. It’s a privilege to guide at Vindolanda, getting to know the site, the fantastic Vindolanda team, meeting members of the public from all over the world and giving talks to schools and groups.  The museums and the finds are second to none, and one of the exciting aspects is the annual excavations which always reveal something astounding about Roman life here.  I always look forward to the archaeologist’s talks, and as Andrew Birley always says, no matter how exciting each season is ‘the best is yet to come’.

 

Samian ware found with unopened oysters

Prestigious Samian table ware, with a modern-looking shiny orange slip, transported all the way to the north of Britannia from the Gorges du Tarn in central France. A whole set was found by archaeologist, Robin Birley, unused and broken, probably in transit, and discarded in the fort ditch of the First fort at Vindolanda.  Some of the stamps on the pottery included many names of potters whose vessels were found in the unopened crate at Pompeii, from AD79, so this hoard helped confirm the date of the first fort. The pottery would have been discarded at Vindolanda before AD 90.  Excavators sometimes find graffiti on pieces like this: soldiers would scratch their names on the pottery so that there was less danger of losing a prized possession. This set of Samian ware was excavated alongside a load of unopened oysters, which must have been judged unfit to eat. How could oysters stay fresh enough to be transported to somewhere like Vindolanda, positioned on the Stanegate in the middle of the country? Oysters were a very popular food in Roman times. They were cultivated and exported to Rome from the 1st century AD. Someone writing to Vindolanda says that a friend had sent him oysters from Cordonovi, which could be Cordonovia on the Thames estuary. Oysters transported in closed barrels filled with sea water could survive being transported for almost two weeks, first by sea, before journeying overland to forts like Vindolanda. When eaten raw the Romans preferred oysters with a dressing. Apicius gives some recipes, one is a kind of mayonnaise: with pepper, lovage, egg yolk, vinegar, liquamen, oil, wine and honey!

I like this find because to me Samian ware has a very modern appeal. You can see in your mind’s eye the wagon trundling over uneven roads being pulled by oxen, feel the disappointment on unpacking the broken wares, and marvel at the road and trade network stretching for hundreds of miles.

 

Leather Shoe Collection

The sheer variety of styles and sizes from marching boots to finely worked sandals really brings home to me that this was a community of men, women and children living their lives in and around each fort, often very early on in the occupation of the north. They are so well preserved, you could imagine slipping your foot into one. Who was making the shoes? The Vindolanda Writing Tablets speak of ’12 shoemakers’. It is mind boggling that these are the best examples of thousands of leather shoes that have been found here!   A few years ago a perfect pair of children’s shoes was found with pointed toes, it is rare to find a pair, and I think this is one of my favourite shoe finds. During excavations of the easternmost part of the Severan fort ditch in 2016 over 400 shoes were excavated. It was a great thrill to be one of the volunteers to help the curator gently clean away mud from the newly found shoes, prior to conservation. What would be revealed? Some of the finds were the leather soles of shoes and you could see how they were made up in several layers. Sometimes the hobnails that held the shoes together were still in place. It was very special to see this being revealed to us after nearly 2,000 years.

 

Wooden water pipes

Water management was a huge preoccupation for the occupants at Vindolanda. Reading about the wooden water pipeline in Robin Birley’s book about Vindolanda has always fascinated me. The pipeline was constructed from 1.5m lengths of alder, hollowed out to a diameter of 50mm and the lengths were connected and anchored with blocks of oak. Timbers have been dated to the year AD 97, which coincides with the likely start of the Third timber fort. The pipeline took water supplies from the west of the site where there are many underground springs to individual buildings in the fort, such as the commanding officer’s house. When they were excavated, the pipes were found to have water still running through them! The wooden pipes were in conservation for many years, and went on display in the Wooden Underworld Gallery when it opened in 2018.

A previously unknown goddess

During the excavations in the western part of the extramural settlement, a stone inscription was found dedicated to a previously unknown goddess, Ahvardua, a goddess of water and the Ardennes Mountains. She was revered by the 1st cohort of Tungrians, Vindolanda’s first garrison, who came from modern day Belgium. This is very special because it reveals a new name in the religious life of this cohort. The Tungrians were known for their fearless fighting abilities, and have a long association with Britannia’s frontier zones, including campaigning with Agricola in the north of Scotland, and with two terms of duty at Vindolanda, on the Antonine Wall at Castlecary and during the third century at Housesteads. Perhaps our crags and moors became a fitting substitute for the hills of their homeland.

 

Number 1 favourite: the Writing Tablets archive

Letters and information on wooden tablets travelling around the frontier and beyond, connecting lives; the manner of their preservation, excavation, conservation and interpretation. It’s beyond measure. If I had to pick one:

Tab.Vindol. II 302 A shopping list to the slave of Verecundus:

…bruised beans, two modii, chickens, twenty, a hundred apples, if you can find nice ones, a hundred or two hundred eggs, if they are for sale there at a fair price..8 sextarii of fish sauce…a modius of olives…

Sounds like a shopping trip to Corbridge!