Published 10/6/20

I’m now in my 3rd season as a volunteer guide at Vindolanda. I retired to a house the other side of the hill to the south east of the fort in 2015 and realised that joining the Trust would give me a unique opportunity to follow my lifelong interest in Rome and its empire. This has more than been fulfilled; the enthusiasm of the team and their knowledge of the site, the finds and their context within the northern frontier, Britannia and the wider empire are fantastic. The site, museum and publications are a rich source of material for discussions with likeminded friends over a pint about the reality of in the Roman Empire.

  1. Size 15 shoe.

More than 6,000 discarded shoes have been found on the site to date. They range from simple clogs to highly decorated sandals and from a tiny child’s to this whopping size 15! The British were prized as big strong slaves, but the garrison came from what is now Belgium and Holland. Nowadays those areas are noted for the large size of their locals, it seems this might have been true 1900 years ago.

  1. 3rd Century barrack block

When taking parties around the site, the barrack block brings home the reality of life in a Roman army frontier garrison. Sharing this cramped accommodation with 7 other members of your section (Contubernium) and all their kit, potentially for 25 years, doesn’t look very appealing. Although the Centurion’s quarters at the one end are much bigger they are not grand. If the ability to find recruits was not too pressing in the Empire’s heyday what does it say about life as an ordinary soldier (miles) or for those outside the army?

  1. The Hair Moss Wig

An extraordinary find, it exemplifies both the Roman’s ability to make the most of locally available materials and the site’s rare anaerobic conditions that have preserved such a perishable artefact. It seems the wearer may have been trying to use the local moss-hair’s properties as an insect repellent. When new it would have been bright red. Is it a fashion accessory or for everyday use? May be its owner shaved her head to keep the head lice at bay?

  1. Museum Video about the discovery and importance of the Vindolanda tablets.

The most famous and possibly important of the finds at Vindolanda are the writing tablets. They have proved to be a rich source of information about daily life at the fort, from a list of shoes, socks and underpants sent to someone at Vindolanda to the birthday invitation from to Claudia Severa at Briga to Sulpicia Lepidana  (the Commander’s wife) at Vindolanda and a myriad of other topics. Robin Birley’s video in the museum captures the excitement and wonder of the first tablet discoveries in a way that no-one else could do. I keep coming back to it; take the time to watch it.

  1. Coins

Roman coins were not just a medium of exchange, they were a means of propaganda by which the Emperor’s spread their message of their power, success and the benefits of their rule. At their best they were impressive artistic objects. The coins found at Vindolanda reflect the Empire in its heyday, during the chaos of the 3rd century and the recovery of the 4th century. For me, the most interesting is that of the Emperor Arcadius, who ruled the Eastern Empire from 395 to 408 CE.

It was found in building that may well have been in use in the 5th Century and 10 or 20 years after the generally accepted end of the Roman occupation. In modern parlance the old diocese of Britanniae was a “failed state” but this coin demonstrates that life continued at the fort in some way and there was still some form of contact with the empire. It points to the changing circumstances of the northern frontier and the transition from Rome to Northumbria and eventually England.