History and Archaeology at Vindolanda Roman Fort

Vindolanda Roman Fort
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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.

Vindolanda Roman Fort
Excavations at Vindolanda Roman Fort

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.

Vindolanda Roman Fort
This was probably the site of a shop

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.

Archaeologists at Vindolanda Roman Fort
The archaeologists were hard at work.

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.

Reconstructed forts at Vindolanda
There are two reconstructed forts

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…”

Temple to the Nymphs, Vindolanda
The Temple to the Nymphs in the outdoor museum

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.

 

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15 thoughts on “History and Archaeology at Vindolanda Roman Fort”

  1. I’m totally hooked by early Roman history thanks to a recent trip to Rome and a bout of binge reading of the Empress of Rome series by Kate Quinn. Vindolanda’s Temple of Nymphs looks particularly intriguing and I love the idea of visiting the Roman themed café. I’m pinning this as a must-visit on my next trip to Britain.

  2. Climbing around ruins and visiting museums is my idea of a perfect day and I’d love to visit Vindolanda Roman Fort in its perfect pastural setting. The Vindolanda postcards sound totally unique and would really give a glimpse into the lives and rather mundane day-to-day activities of people from centuries past.

  3. I’ve not heard of Vindolanda Roman Fort before, but it certainly looks worth a visit. The work archaeologists put into digging up and interpreting artifacts is fascinating.

    1. Yes, it’s surprising that they should struggle across the sea to get here. Apparently when the Romans first arrived they were put off by the weather and the belligerent tribes! But they came back a hundred years later, possibly because of the mineral wealth.

  4. Having recently visited Ephesus and Hieropolis in Turkey and Istanbul, I can imagine what it must have felt like to a Roman legionnaire to find out they were being deployed to Vindolanda—-the ends of the earth—cold and wet, with barbarians at the gate. I’ve also visited the restored Roman baths at Bath, probably a slightly less offensive posting—-back in the day.

    1. Apparently a lot of the soldiers around Hadrian’s Wall came from Germany or other parts of northern Europe – there seemed to be a policy of sending people far from home (presumably so they would have no qualms about fighting the locals). I do wonder if it was sometimes a punishment posting – as you say, it was cold and hostile!

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About Karen

WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren. I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 60 countries at the last count). I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica (I still hope to get there one day…), and my current favourite destinations are Italy, Spain and North America. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way.

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