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Garrison Life at VindolandaMain >Books on the Roman Empire
Garrison Life at Vindolanda, Anthony BirleyOne of the most significant survivals from the Roman world are the Vindolanda tablets, wooden letters that survived at the site of a fort on Hadrians Wall. These tablets provide a truly unique insight into the everyday life of the Roman army in the early empire.
Author: Anthony Birley
Vindolanda Ώ] was a Roman fort at Chesterholm, just south of Hadrian's Wall in northern England. Near the modern border with Scotland, it guarded the Stanegate, the Roman road from the River Tyne to the Solway Firth. It is noted for the Vindolanda tablets, one of the most important find of military and private correspondence (written on wooden tablets) found anywhere in the Roman Empire.
In 1828, while working for the National Philanthropist, Garrison took a meeting with Benjamin Lundy. The anti-slavery editor of the Genius of Emancipation brought the cause of abolition to Garrison’s attention. When Lundy offered Garrison an editor’s position at Genius of Emancipation in Vermont, Garrison eagerly accepted. The job marked Garrison’s initiation into the Abolitionist movement.
By the time he was 25 years old, Garrison had joined the American Colonization Society. The society held the view that Black people should move to the west coast of Africa. Garrison at first believed that the society’s goal was to promote Black people&aposs freedom and well being. But Garrison grew disillusioned when he soon realized that their true objective was to minimize the number of free enslaved people in the United States. It became clear to Garrison that this strategy only served to further support the mechanism of slavery.
The garrison [ edit | edit source ]
The garrison were auxiliaries, Roman infantry or cavalry units, not parts of Roman legions. From the early third century AD onwards, this was the Fourth Cohort of Gauls. An inscription found in recent excavations suggests that native Gauls were in the regiment, and that they liked to distinguish themselves from British soldiers. Η] The inscription reads:
A translation would be "The troops from Gaul dedicate this statue to the goddess Gallia with the full support of the British-born troops". Η]
Digging up History at Vindolanda
F or or decades, archaeologists have gathered in northern England at one of the world’s most famous working archaeological excavations. The grass has been slowly pulled away to reveal a stunning Roman fort and its surroundings the artifacts extracted from the ground have not been touched by human hands since the end of Roman Britain. This is Vindolanda: the front line of Roman Britannia turned into the front line of historical research.
Vindolanda sits just 30 miles south of the English-Scottish border in a rural setting. Pass through the visitor entrance and you are confronted with a maze of low stone walls, the tantalizing ruins of a massive military complex that once stood here. Here was where the men of the mighty Roman war machine lived and died, leaving behind objects used in the course of their work, leisure and everyday life.
The first fort was originally constructed in turf and timber around AD 85, a time when Celtic Britain was still in the process of becoming Roman Britannia. Vindolanda was a conquest fort, a base from which the legendary Roman army could range further afield as the sphere of Roman influence crept ever further north. Things changed a little in AD 122. The troublesome tribes in the north were proving too difficult to conquer, so Emperor Hadrian decided to demarcate the frontier of the Roman Empire in stone. Hadrian’s Wall ran only a couple of miles to the north of Vindolanda and the fort was temporarily abandoned, the garrison transferred to the wall itself.
Soon enough it was decided that Vindolanda was too good a location to leave to rot and a new stone fort was built on the same site. Vindolanda then remained in use until the end of the Roman occupation of Britain in AD 410. Successive auxiliary units were posted to Vindolanda and rebuilt the fort in their own way the remains of at least nine forts have been found.
So, how do we know all this? It is a complicated puzzle, but Vindolanda is one of the best-understood Roman sites in Britain due to the tireless work of one family over the best part of a century.
The fields that now house Vindolanda had long been known for the Roman ruins they held when, in 1929, a nearby house was purchased by archaeologist Eric Birley.
He oversaw a number of excavations and began to make sense of Vindolanda, scraping away the layers of history and solving the intricate riddle of the overlying forts, leaving some of the remains in situ to help visitors understand the site. Paths wind alongside the preserved structures and visitors are encouraged to walk through what remains of the Roman buildings, picturing them as they were 2,000 years ago.
Birley’s archaeological genes and responsibility for the Vindolanda excavations were passed on to his sons, Robin and Anthony, and his grandson, Andrew, who is now Director of Excavations for the Vindolanda Trust. Each summer Andrew heads a group of archaeologists who gather for a new season of excavations. The trenches are laid out alongside the existing stone ruins so Vindolanda’s summer visitors have the bonus of being able to watch the excavations take place. The archaeologists are an approachable bunch, happy to answer any questions.
“Our main job is to make the information gathered from the excavations available to the public,” Andrew explains in a break between shoveling soil. This is done through the on-site museum, located in the house his grandfather purchased in 1929. Some of the best discoveries have been cleaned, preserved and displayed to the public here. As we slowly stroll around the site, Andrew tells me about some of the sensational finds.
Stone, pottery and metal are usually the only clues left behind, but the waterlogged, anaerobic ground at Vindolanda preserves many objects that would rot quickly if they were buried elsewhere. A fine collection of leather footwear is housed in the nearby museum, but the most impressive finds are undoubtedly the wooden writing tablets.
The Vindolanda tablets would not have survived in normal soil conditions. They are thin, postcard-sized wooden leaf-tablets bearing inscriptions in ink. First found in 1973 by Andrew’s father Robin, the tablets catapulted Vindolanda into a small category of elite Roman archaeological sites.
Some tablets record the military strength of the garrison, but there are also personal messages to and from soldiers, their families and their slaves. The highlights include an invitation to a birthday party, probably the earliest known Latin document written by a woman, or a report about the characteristics of the native Britons that refers to them derisively as “Brittunculi” (wretched little Britons).
“The tablets are a window into the soul of the writer,” Andrew explains. “It’s like reading a Roman soap opera.”
And the show goes on. Tablets continue to be found: One was carefully extracted from the ground only two weeks before my visit. More than 400 tablets have been discovered, but Andrew is still as keen to see this one cleaned and read as his father must have been when the first was found.
“It might provide us with some valuable new information,” Andrew said. “We could find out about a new addressee, a person we’ve not come across before.”
This isn’t Roman treasure hunting, this is the cutting edge of historical research. The Vindolanda excavations have specific objectives.
“We have real research questions,” said Andrew. “This year we are looking for the main source of water, and we’re also interested in the relationship between the fort and the community around it.”
Outside the fort was a civilian settlement called a vicus . The remnants of several rows of buildings and a large bathhouse can still be seen. It had been thought that there was a strict distinction between the soldiers inside forts and the civilians who lived outside them, but the Vindolanda excavations are questioning that.
“There is evidence that some civilians were living in the fort and some soldiers were living outside,” Andrew explains. “The number of military belt buckles we’ve found in the civilian settlement shows that soldiers must have been living there—either that, or they kept taking their trousers off outside the fort for some reason!”
Volunteer excavators are asked to sign up online ( www.vindolanda.com ) at the start of November for the following summer season. Note that places are offered on a first-come, first-served basis and are snapped up extremely quickly, so be poised at your computer on the necessary date! Excavations run from April to August and volunteers can join for a minimum of one week, a maximum of five. It costs £40 a week, volunteers can also pay extra to stay in the on-site Hedley Centre accommodation.
Other archaeological excavations also accept volunteers, and opportunities are available in all corners of the British Isles. The best directory of all the fieldwork opportunities is held by the Council for British Archaeology ( www.britarch.ac.uk/briefing ). The CBA also offers a wealth of information for those who are interested in getting involved in Britain’s ample archaeological past.
W atching the excavations take place in front of you is exciting enough, but there are opportunities to pull on your wellies, sharpen your trowel and get in the trench to dig history with your own hands. Every year, hundreds of volunteers are welcomed to Vindolanda to help out with the archaeological excavations.
“There is a real community here,” Andrew is proud to say. “We have 650 volunteers each year, selected on a first-come, first-served basis.”
You would expect that such an important site would be reserved for those with doctorates, but that could not be further from the truth. “No experience is necessary,” Andrew continues. “We teach you everything you need to know.”
Volunteer excavators come from around the world, including from across the Atlantic. A husband and wife excavating team, Georgine Brabec and Tim Adams from Chicago, are regular attendees.
“It’s exciting to walk where the Romans did,” Georgine enthuses, “and it’s not intimidating at all. I had no experience when I first came here.”
“This site is a brilliant one for newcomers to dig,” Tim adds. “There’s almost a guarantee that you’ll find something interesting.”
That’s certainly true for this pair. Two years ago, Georgine found a quern for grinding grain inscribed with “Africanus,” probably the name of a Roman soldier. Africanus has now been adopted by the nearby Roman Army Museum, a sister museum to Vindolanda, and is part of an audio-visual display that educates visitors about life in the Roman army.
“I enjoy coming back the following year and seeing how they build upon the knowledge,” Georgine confides.
“And I’m amazed at the amount of work and effort it takes to take something from deep underground to the museum shelf,” Tim adds.
Both the Vindolanda and Roman Army Museum make the most of the wealth of information that archaeologists provide them. Both have been recently renovated and have well-presented, interesting galleries. The Vindolanda Museum holds many objects that were lifted from the ground just meters away, while the Roman Army Museum looks at the wider picture of life in the army with some terrifically informative audio-visual displays.
Whether you come to Vindolanda to get your hands dirty in a trench or stay clean and watch the archaeologists at work, this is a site that gets you up close and personal with the Romans who lived here nearly 2,000 years ago visitors can walk where they walked, touch what they touched. As Andrew Birley puts it, “When you come here, there is a feeling of continuity linking you directly to the Roman Empire and the Roman world.”.
Garrison Life at Vindolanda - History
Vindolanda Tablets Online
Center for the Study of Ancient Documents, Oxford University
The Roman auxiliary fortress at Vindolanda behind Hadrian’s Wall in Britain has yielded one of the most dramatic discoveries of Latin texts in the past century. Excavation of the fort, beginning in 1970, yielded around 1,000 wooden writing tablets discarded by departing troops and preserved in the anaerobic environment of the peat. These tablets record administrative accounts of the garrison, official reports, and most strikingly, personal letters. They were written in ink on thin wood sheets—the first material evidence of this kind of writing in the Roman world.
While the tablets reflect a relatively brief chronological period (2nd century CE) and geographical area (Northern England), the significance of their substance, medium, and historiographical and archaeological stories is remarkable. They offer an unparalleled opportunity to examine and teach the processes of historical discovery in the context of multicultural, non-elite Roman society. The men stationed at Vindolanda were Germans writing in Latin, serving the Roman army in England, and connected through letters to soldiers living across the Empire.
This website offers a complete archive of the tablets including text images, transliterated texts, English translations, historical and archaeological background, and student exercises. A good place to start is a selection of 17 highlights from the collection, including an official account of troop strength, a memorandum on the customs of the Britons, a list of household goods, a letter of recommendation to the provincial governor, an epistolary birthday invitation from the wife of the garrison commander, and a letter from one soldier rebuking another for not writing more often.
High-resolution, zoomable images are available for every document, as is a Latin transcription, an English translation, and a brief commentary on substance and Latinity. The extensive notes on Latin scripts and the history of the fort are also very useful and somewhat cross-referenced with the documents themselves. A search tool allows the English and Latin texts of the documents and the descriptions of the images to be searched by keyword.
A discussion of the paleography of Old Roman Cursive allows students to practice a different kind of manuscript reading and to discuss the development of the Roman alphabet. (A transcription exercise is available as a teaching aid.) Enough letters survive to, from, and about particular individuals that I often ask students to write extrapolative biographical sketches, a kind of history normally possible for only a few elite members of ancient society. Finally, close reading of the Vindolanda tablets enable students to address questions such as: What constitutes literacy? What makes a text a letter? What kinds of social systems might lead to a culture of writing? What kind of physical and cultural infrastructure is necessary for sending and receiving letters? Such questions are particularly important at a time when the media and formulas of personal communication are changing rapidly.
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History of Vindolanda
The view from Steel Rigg, onHadrian's Wall, to Barcombe Hill above Vindolanda. The fort lies just right of the picture, adjacent to the wood below the hill. In the far distance the Pennines continue.
The obverse of a silver coin (denarius) of the emperor Trajan, with the emperor's bust. AD 112-14.
Copyright Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
Vindolanda was first garrisoned in the earliest phase of the establishment of Roman Britain's northern frontier, in the decades immediately preceding the building of Hadrian's Wall. It was one node in a network of garrisons and roads across northern Britain. In the first 40 years of its existence the fort seems to have been undergone five phases of building and rebuilding in timber, before the establishment of the first stone phase of the fort by the mid-second century AD. Since only a small area has been excavated, reconstruction of the layout of Vindolanda and the plans of individual buildings depends on analogy with forts from which more complete ground plans have been recovered. Comparison to other forts allows us to estimate the size and layout of the Vindolanda base. This provides information on the possible size of the fort garrison, which can be combined with the evidence of the tablets. From the tablets we can identify the main garrison units, as well as detachments from other units stationed at Vindolanda. Occasionally other documents contribute to reconstructing the history of the garrison, for example tombstones or diplomas, the documents issued to soldiers on discharge from the army.
This section of the exhibition describes the background to the establishment of a fort at Vindolanda and its situation relative to the forts and roads built by the Roman army in northern Britain. It then briefly describes each of the five periods of timber building from which the tablets derive. The archaeologists can assign fairly precise dates to these periods, from the presence of certain artefacts, such as coins or from dendrochronological (tree-ring) dates from the building timbers that survived, as well as from information in the tablets. Where a layer or period is undated the dates of earlier and later phases provide some information. The dates given here follow those given by the archaeologists, but these are likely to be revised as new information becomes available. The description of buildings in each period concentrates on the area of the early forts excavated between the 1970s and the early 1990s. Continuing excavations inside Stone Fort II and beneath the vicus to the west are revealing more of these timber phases.
The Ninth Cohort Of Batavians
One thing about ancient history is that our knowledge on certain eras resembles Emmental cheese. The scholars among us are trying to fill the holes with solid proof dilettantes like me make up a filling by fantasizing. Here are just some runaway thoughts on the ninth cohort of Batavians, alternated with - I hope - some pieces of scientific consensus.
Right, well, so what happened with Flavius Cerialis and his Batavian cohort when they left Vindolanda?
One of the letters to the Batavian commander Flavius Cerialis starts as follows: "Niger and Brocchus to their Cerialis, greeting. We pray, brother, that what you are about to do will be most successful." Although in this letter a meeting with the governor is mentioned, I can imagine that what Niger and Brocchus ment with "you are about to do" could very well be the Batavian's oncoming departure to Dacia. This letter oozes a conspiring atmosphere taking part in an emperor's campaign might have been kept secret for some time.
..tile stamps which name the unit have been found at Buridava in Moesia Inferior and these have been dated to the period between the first and second Dacian Wars (c. AD 102/6). (Bowman and Thomas, on Vindolanda Tablets Online). The ninth cohort of Batavians is said to have served in the Dacian wars. In theory therefore, they could be depicted on the colonna Traiana in Rome on which the Dacian wars spiral to a high level of propaganda. We're talking about one cohort, and the chance that it played role in the Dacian wars significant enough to be depicted on the colonna is very remote, but the level of detail and accuracy of the colonna must give an idea of what the cohort must have looked like. Apparently the soldier's attires per regiment were not as uniform as we often see in the movies, still the regiments at least used standards to be recognized. On the colonna there are quite a few standards to be found. Unfortunately I haven't spotted the bronze standard yet with the horse which became the logo for Vindolanda. On the other hand there are many different types of shields depicted on the colonna. Maybe here on the forum there's an expert on militaria who can tell if there are auxiliaries depicted on it. Surely they did not look the same as legionnaries?
That the ninth Batavian cohort at least had a standard, can be found in one of the Vindolanda letters. Decurion Masculus asks his commander Cerialis: "..Are we all to return with the standard, or.." (I couldn´t find this letter on Vindolanda Tablets Online, strangely enough, but it was on the BBC History website). It is open to debate if the bronze horse was a standard to begin with, and if so, if it was the one for the Batavian cohort. Since Batavians were famous for their horsemanship, it seems very likely to me that the bronze horse was carried by the Batavian cohorts that inhabited Vindolanda. In Batavian territory in the Netherlands a large collection of beautifully made bronze harness-ornaments (phalerae) has been found. It is said to be the largest collection of anywhere in the Roman world and probably dates from 40-100 AD. Also, Tacitus mentions that no one but the Batavians were capable of crossing the Rhine on horseback while armed. The horse obviously played a very important role in Batavia.
Child murdered in Roman Britain 1,800 years ago came from the Mediterranean
Isotope analysis of the tooth enamel of a child whose remains were discovered in a shallow grave near Hadrian’s Wall has shown that he or she was around 10 years old when murdered, but had lived in the Mediterranean region until the age of 7 or 8.
The skelatal remains of the child murdered near Hadrian’s Wall 1,800 years ago
The child’s skeleton was found hidden in the corner of a barrack room floor at Vindolanda Roman fort, Northumberland, where the 4th Cohort of Gauls formed the garrison in the middle of the 3rd Century AD. From the position of the body, the child’s hands were tied.
Dr Trudi Buck, a biological anthropologist at Durham University who led the analysis of the child’s remains, said:
“I think this is definitely a murder or other unnatural death because of the way the body was deposited. This is very circumstantial, but possibly it was hit over the head with something because we have very good preservation of the body down to wrist bones, but not very much of the head. Maybe a harsh blow to the head caused a fractured skull.”
“It turns out the child is not from the local area as I originally assumed, and is not even from Britain. Until the child was at least seven or eight, they have been in southern Europe or even North Africa. This asks lots of questions about who this child was, how did they get from north Africa to northern Britainin the last two years of their life, and then get killed?”
The child could certainly have been a slave. The Romans’ use of slaves was well documented Julius Caesar once sold the entire population of a conquered region in Gaul, no fewer than 53,000 men, women and children, to slave dealers on the spot. In hard times, it was not uncommon for desperate Roman citizens to raise money by selling their children into slavery.
It is also possible that the child was a family member of a soldier or garrison official. There is evidence that women and children lived at Vindolanda fort.
Dr Buck speculated on the child’s tragic end:
“It is very sad and goes to show human nature does not change. Perhaps there was an accident and the soldiers tried to hush it up. This is a child who was not given any rituals and Romans were very strict on burial in the right place. The body would smell once it started to decompose. There were eight men living in that quite small room. Were they implicated in it?”
The murder scene – Vindolanda Roman fort as it was at the time
Image by the Vindolanda Trust – from the film ‘Edge of Empire’