Guest Blog by: Dr Trudi Buck

Date Published: 2nd June 2020

The curator, director, site archaeologist and deputy CEO have all recently discussed their favourite finds from Vindolanda, including spindle whorls, gold coins, wooden combs and of course the unique collection of writing tablets that tell us so much about life on the fort.  Controversially, but possibly not surprisingly so since I am a biological anthropologist, my favourite finds are not something left behind by a soldier or dropped by one of the women in the vicus but the actual remains of the people themselves.  This could be seen as macabre, but I hope to show you here why I find the human skeletons, and bits of skeletons, the most interesting and informative of the many thrilling and unique artefacts uncovered over the years of excavation at Vindolanda. 


The writing tablets tell us so much about life on the fort.  We can learn about requests for beer and supplies, birthday parties and even the contents of soldiers’ care packages (and how many of you have had underpants sent to you during lockdown from a well-meaning relative?).  These letters in handwritten Latin allow us to read directly about the soldiers, from the commanding officers to their slaves, who lived and worked at the fort.  I would like to try and convince you that the bits of human bodies that we uncover from time to time are just as exciting, once we know how to ‘read’ the skeleton.


Skeletons are the actual people who lived (or died) in the fort and the settlement outside it, and unusually for an archaeological site the ones that we have excavated at Vindolanda have not been buried in a conventional sense.  They are the ‘deviant dead’; those whose final resting place was not in one of the cemeteries that surround the fort and where the majority of people who died at Vindolanda would have been laid to rest.  These ‘deviant dead’ of Vindolanda have all been found in unusual and unexpected places.  We have a skeleton whose body was spread along a defensive ditch of one of the earliest forts, decapitated skulls that are the remains of defeated enemy soldiers brought back to be displayed as trophies of war, and a ten year old child found secretly buried under the floor of a soldier’s barrack.  All of these finds, and the places where they were found, start to tell us a story about these people, from when they were alive to how they died. 


Analysis of the skeletons themselves can hope to fill in more of their stories.  By looking at their bodies and the chemicals that made up their bones and teeth we can read about where they spent their childhood, when they came to Vindolanda and what their role was in Roman society.  Chemical elements, such as oxygen, from the food that people eat and the water they drink when they are growing up, gets incorporated into their bones and teeth.  By analysing the bones we can then work out, for example, where in the world someone spent their earliest years.  In this way we are able to tell that at least two of the three skulls that have been found in fort ditches are from men who grew up in the north west of Britain, probably north of Hadrian’s Wall.  The child who was found beneath the barrack floor, on the other hand, grew up in a much warmer place than northern Britain, possibly as far away as Africa.  The child must have lived there until they were at least six or seven years old, so he or she only came to Vindolanda in the last few years of their life.  We can then ask questions such as why did a child of such a young age travel so far from home?  This part the science can’t help us with, but it gives us a starting point to think about their story.  Was this the child of a soldier moving with his or her mother as part of the camp followers?  Could the child have been a slave sold at a young age and brought to Vindolanda to serve their new master?  We know from historical sources that children as young as six were sold in Roman slave markets around the Empire.  The child’s skeleton showed no sign of illness or injury so whoever they were they had been treated well during their lifetime.  Is this evidence more in favour of their being the son or daughter of a soldier or were they the property of someone who took care of their slaves?  The science provides the tools on which we can start to build up a picture of these people, who they were and how they lived and died.  In the case of the child the most poignant part of their story is that they ended their life buried beneath a barrack floor with no formal funeral ritual or grave, only two or three years after they left the place of their birth.


The science of reading the skeletons lets us in on the more personal stories of the people who lived and died at Vindolanda that are not recorded in the writing tablets and can’t be told through the artefacts that we find.  We can see evidence of burial rituals continuing from the Iron Age into the Roman period through the body of the man whose skeleton was spread along a defensive ditch of an early fort in what is now the North Field of the site. 

We can build up a picture of a soldier boasting about his battle exploits by looking at the upper arm bone of a man that was found in the southern ditch of the Severan period fort.  This arm bone is 74mm wide at the elbow, compared to the 53mm of the man in the North field ditch, and the shaft of the bone is highly polished.  Bones can become polished like this from being handled many times, as is commonly found in bones used to teach human anatomy, for example.  The extremely large size of the arm, plus the evidence of the sheen on the bone, could be interpreted as this being a much-prized war trophy of a soldier proud of their skill in battle.  Whilst the science cannot tell us everything it can give us a good basis on which to build our stories and feed our imagination. 

I hope with these few examples I have convinced you that the human remains are the most exciting and interesting of all the wondrous finds that are excavated at Vindolanda each year.  I suspect that I may still have a long way to go to beat the leather shoes, beautiful jewelry and of course the wooden writing tablets, but at the very least I hope that I have whetted your appetite for thinking about who these people were, how they came to end up where they were found and what their individual stories were.  As science advances we will surely be able to glean even more interesting facts about these people, and those still to be found, in the future and the many years of excavation still to come.

Aerial View of ancient monument Vindolanda Roman Fort