Date Published: 19th June 2020

It’s really hard to choose my top 5 things for Vindolanda, as there are so many things about the site that are unique and of global significance, so I’ve chosen five that resonate with me personally.

Butcher’s shop

One of the things I love about Vindolanda is the way you can see the traces of people living there throughout the centuries, such as the counter and the worn-down threshold of the entrance to the butcher’s shop: the realisation of the thousands of feet that must have crossed it to wear it down.
But the evidence here is not just relevant historically. As an example, if you go to the old town of Naples and wander the back streets, you will see shops whose design and dimensions have not changed since Roman times. The buildings have the same narrow footprint, and the shops are the same design as the old Roman ones – open to the street with wooden shutters but a counter inside and then living/storeroom quarters going further back.
They are a living legacy directly linked to our historical evidence, and this is why that threshold, and what it represents, makes it into my top five.

Betrothal medallion 

This beautiful jet medallion makes my top five not just in its own right, but because it reminds me of a season working as an education assistant in 1981. If we were not doing school tours, we made souvenirs, such as plaster figurines and replica Roman coins from resin, to sell in the shop. We made replicas of the medallion mounted on card, (and I even found one for sale recently on eBay, described as ‘vintage’) but also some two-sided ones which could be worn as a pendant. These were particularly tricky as you had to wait for the resin to achieve the right degree of stickiness (trial and error), push them together, and then drill a hole through the top. We often ended up with rejects!

Horse droppings

As is widely known, the exceptional anaerobic conditions at Vindolanda provide all kinds of amazing finds, but the one I’ve chosen is not a particularly exciting or in any way rare find, until you start to consider a bit more deeply how unbelievable it is that it ever survived at all. When I was excavating in a ditch a couple of years ago, I kept coming across this material that looked like horse droppings and smelt like dung as well (because it was horse dung), but I could never have imagined that something so ephemeral would be so perfectly preserved as to be instantly recognisable and smelly after almost 2000 years. When I’m doing guided tours, I quite often mention this, and you can see that people find it difficult to believe. I then go on to mention latrine ditches and moss used as toilet wipes and the smell that comes off them, just to emphasise the point.

Fama writing tablet

I’ve always loved Latin, ever since I learnt it at school, and there are so many of the unique writing tablets I could have chosen, but I’ve selected this as one of my top choices.
118 INTEREA PAVIDAM VOLITANS PINNATA P.VBEM (interea pauidam uolitans pinnata per urbem) SEG
‘meanwhile (Fama/ Rumour) flying on wings through the frightened city.. ‘
This writing exercise by one of the commanding officer’s sons has a few letters missing - if you look at the actual line from the Aeneid, (in brackets above) - and a school master has written SEG – sloppy work.
However, being an ex-school teacher, and knowing what adolescent boys are like, I wonder if there is a different explanation, if you look at what the line now reads (P.VBEM). Was the mistake deliberate, and done by a schoolboy who was writing a rude or obscene joke? And maybe SEG meant ‘pathetic’? (One scholar has written a whole article about this interpretation).

Birthday invitation writing tablet

My other writing tablet is one of the most famous of all.
It is the birthday invitation from Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina, which is now on display in the British Museum. In it, Claudia invites Lepidina to come to her birthday party on the 11th September (an easy date for me to remember as it’s the day before my own birthday), and she sends greetings to Lepidina’s family. So far, this invitation is fairly conventional, written by a scribe. But it’s the last few lines in rather cramped handwriting which are so exciting and make this tablet so important. The lines say: ‘I shall expect you sister. Farewell, sister my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.’ And they were actually written by Claudia herself! This is the earliest known example of writing in Latin by a woman in the whole of the Roman empire and it comes from the site of Vindolanda. For that reason, it has to make my top five.