Considering the height of my experience at Chesters the previous day, the following was more of a day out absorbing the terrain and walking along the wall; the museums we visited on this day, Vindolanda Roman Fort and Museum and The Roman Army Museum (the latter of which I will not write about), were run for a more general audience and their collections displayed artifacts of less direct relevance to my studies, but were useful and insightful visits to confirm what history I had already learnt about garrison life at the Roman forts.
Early in the morning we set off and approached the wall not far from a point known as Milecastle 33 (Shield on the Wall), from where we began walking towards Crag Lough, near Turret 38B. At which point we descended towards the main road and walked a mile through fields towards Vindolanda. This route formed an approximate 8 mile loop along one of the most dramatic parts of the entire wall which we completed just in time for lunch. How very British.
Along this part of the wall we passed the impressive Milecastle 39, one of the best preserved examples of its kind. I included a picture of this Milecastle in a previous article found here. Imagining how the wall must have been painstakingly built across this haggard territory seems extraordinary, especially when considering the effort taken to build on such naturally occurring, impassable contours in places surely for the fact that they wanted to show that they could do it. We passed other areas of outstanding natural and man-made beauty along this stretch of the wall and to mention them all here wouldn’t do them justice. This is a popular part of the wall for walkers and it did get busier as the day went on, so we were in a way not too disappointed to take ourselves off the path and head towards Vindolanda, a mile south of the wall itself.
Vindolanda is an independently handled site and very well kept by the Vindolanda Trust. Walking around, you get the distinct impression that it is clearly so. However, between April and September, parts of the site are also open air archaeological digs which the public are invited to come and observe. Whilst I express no displeasure at the idea of being a field archaeologist, and mean no disrespect to their line of work.. it is objectively dull to watch them excavate a trench. This meant for the occasional detour around areas of red tape so we didn’t fall into a half excavated granary. I wish I had taken pictures of this fort and it’s layout but regrettably I left my camera in the tent.
The way the vicus at Vindolanda has been so well excavated to leave clear ground plans of the central streets and side alleys between houses, inns and shops was extraordinary however. It was easy to visualize whilst walking around, the scale of the original settlement and the interactivity of living there with hundreds of other people. Altars, tombstones and written sources suggest that a distinctive portion of Vindolanda’s history sees it occupied by the Tungrians (and at a time the Batavians; a Germanic tribe) a people who lived in the Belgic part of Gaul at the time of Roman expansion across Europe. Comparative only to Corbridge Roman Town, Vindolanda was particularly evocative when bringing to attention a sense of what life must have been like under the same rule of Empire here in Britain far from Italy, as Roman life continued elsewhere at the same time. How different must these streets have been for the auxiliaries brought halfway across the Empire compared to those whose hold on Europe the auxiliaries fought to extend back in Rome?
The picturesque grounds and garden in which the Museum is kept to the south of the fort are state of the art, and the Museum features some fantastic interactive, touchscreen displays, especially in the room where some of the Vindolanda writing tablets are held. Whilst not heavy in religious and relevant sculpted art, it nonetheless boasts a diverse collection.
The writing tablets were a thoroughly joyful surprise. These written tablets are the personal letters, lists and accounts of the people of Vindolanda from before Hadrian’s Wall was built. Discovered by archaeologists in 1973, the tablets are one of the most important sources of Roman writing in north-western Europe and offer an insight into the lives of those living here that other archaeological sources cannot provide. A selection of them were on display, above their own individual interactive screens, on which you could read rough translations of what they document. One tablet is a birthday party invitation from the wife of the garrison’s commander in AD100 (believed to be the earliest example of female handwriting from Britain). One is a demand for beer. Others are letters between slaves and so on across a wide hoard of exciting tablets. The touchscreen displays were entirely accessible and seemed the perfect thing to accompany these unique objects too.
My final article to come soon will be about Corbridge Roman Town and Museum, and Housesteads Roman Fort and Museum. At these places I was able to study some objects of great significance for me that I needed to see and were simply outstanding sites in their own right.