Older even than nearby Hadrian’s Wall, Vindolanda Roman Fort is the most important Roman site in Britain. It has been a source of inspiration to historians and archaeologists for centuries, and has been a fruitful source of artefacts and information about Roman Britain. And it caters well for visitors. Even those with only a casual interest in history will enjoy strolling among the well presented ruins and imagining what life would have been like here almost two thousand years ago.
History of Vindolanda Roman Fort
Built towards the end of the first century AD, Vindolanda predates the building of Hadrian’s Wall by about forty years. It was a Roman town (vicus) and fort occupying a strategic position on the Stanegate Road. At that time the Stanegate (which is still a road) marked the northern frontier of the Roman Empire, giving Vindolanda an important defensive role. The vicus existed to provide goods and services to the garrison, a function that continued after the Wall was built. And there is evidence to suggest that people carried on living at Vindolanda for some time after the Romans left Britain.
There is everything here that you would expect in a Roman town. The sites of streets and houses are clearly visible, as are the tavern, shops and grain stores. Some way apart from the town are the remains of the bath house and the museums. Then there is the fort itself. There were actually several forts on this site, as earlier structures were demolished and rebuilt; what you see today is the remains of the ninth fort.
A Rich Seam of History
Although it was a very hot day, a team of archaeologists and volunteer diggers were hard at work when I visited. This wasn’t surprising. Only a fraction of the area has been excavated and it is estimated that it could take another hundred years before the work is complete. The importance of Vindolanda is not just due to its size and historical significance. The really special thing about this site is a unique combination of soil, moisture and weather conditions that have conspired to preserve many artefacts that would otherwise have been lost.
The excavations have yielded pottery, glass, weapons and even leather goods and textiles. But by far the most important discovery is the so-called Vindolanda postcards. These are wafer-thin wooden tablets that were used by ordinary people to write letters to one another. They give us an unprecedented insight into the everyday life of people in the Roman Empire. For instance, one letter contains an invitation to a birthday party. Another simply says that a parcel has been sent to the recipient containing socks and underpants!
Exploring Vindolanda Roman Fort
Don’t be put off by the fact that the excavated buildings are incomplete and in most cases don’t rise far above the ground. The excavations give an excellent idea of the layout of the town and fort, and there are lots of helpful information boards to explain what you are looking at. And at the edge of the town are two reconstructed forts, one wooden and one of stone. These are reconstructions of forts on Hadrian’s Wall. Climb to the top and try to visualise what the Wall would have been like when it stretched right the way across the country.
When you have finished looking at the excavations walk down to the garden and the museum. The garden is an outdoor museum with various reconstructed buildings. You can walk into a shop and a soldier’s home but I particularly liked the authentically decorated Temple to the Nymphs. It was so realistic that I was startled when I entered to hear a voice offering up an entreaty – “Oh nymphs, oh spirits, on behalf of the people of Vindolanda… hear our prayers…”
And you could spend hours in the museum. I was fascinated by a video showing how the Vindolanda tablets had been painstakingly cleaned and restored before the writing was deciphered. And by the replicas of the tablets themselves (the originals are in the British Museum). But there is lots more to see here, including coins, clothes and shoes, jewellery and animal bones. For us there was just one more stop, to the recently renovated Roman themed café. As we ate we studied the blackboards showing what the Romans ate and drank. But the food brought us right back to the 21st century.