By Emily Johnston
When we think about Hadrian’s Wall, it is important to think about the sites on and around it too. Hadrian’s Wall is made up of a series of forts and mile-castles. Whilst we thought about Hadrian’s Wall as a whole in the first post of the month, in these next few posts, we’ll be thinking about some specific sites attached to the Wall, which can give us lots of information about what life was like in Roman Britain.
Vindolanda is an auxiliary fort (also known as a castrum), which lies South of Hadrian’s Wall. Vindolanda is a fantastic site, which has been excavated for many years. Due to the anaerobic conditions on the site there have had some incredible discoveries here which has helped archaeologists understand what life was like for the Roman army living at this fort. When the site was rebuilt and repurposed over the years, the Roman builders spread a layer of clay and turf over the demolished buildings. This cut off air supply to the remains, meaning that no oxygen could get to the previous occupation layers. As a result, many organic objects, like leather, wood and textiles, have been preserved incredibly well.
Vindolanda ( Ⓒ Vindolanda Trust)
Vindolanda sits behind Hadrian’s Wall, although it was built before Hadrian’s Wall. After the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, Vindolanda became an important site on the wall.
Excavations have shown that the site was demolished and rebuilt 9 times! Even after Hadrian’s Wall was abandoned, people still stayed at Vindolanda until the 9th century - so there are many layers of history to peel back at the site!
The fort at Vindolanda was first built from wood and turf, then rebuilt in stone after the construction of Hadrian’s Wall. It was rebuilt into army buildings under the Emperor Septimus Severus, before being rebuilt again into a stone fort after the Emperor’s death in AD 211.
Vindolanda has helped to shed light on what life was like for the Roman soldiers and their families living on Hadrian’s Wall. The vicus was a village built to the west of Vindolanda, where they would have lived.
Excavations at Vindolanda have uncovered many incredible artefacts. At Vindolanda, many organic objects (like wood and leather) have been found because of the anaerobic conditions - this helps to preserve organic materials which would normally decompose if it’s in contact with oxygen.
One of the most famous finds from Vindolanda have been wooden tablets which were written on. 752 tablets have been found (and more still continue to be found!). The tablets were made from birch, alder and oak, and were written on using ink - this is the first examples of ink writing from the Roman period!
The writing on the tablets have been analysed and translated, so that we know what many of the letters say. They help to give us information about what life was like in Roman Britain! Some of the tablets would have been written by a household scribe, and most are written in Roman cursive (similar to our cursive hand-writing!).
Vindolanda Tablets ⒸMichel Wal, Wikimedia Commons
Vindolanda Tablet 291 ⒸVindolanda Tablets Online
A favourite tablet found at Vindolanda is Tablet 291, which is an invitation from Claudia Severa (the wife of a commander) to Sulpicia Lepidina, which is inviting her to a birthday party!
The invitation has two different hand writings - most likely it was written by a household scribe, then Severa adds in her own message at the end. This is most likely the earliest known example of Latin writing by a woman!
The invitation says:
Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On 11 September, sister, for the day f the celebration my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present (?). Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him (?) their greetings. I shall expect you, sister. Farewell sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.
To Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Cerialis, from Severa
To read the translations of the tablets, have a look at this website: http://vindolanda.csad.ox.ac.uk
Why not try to write your own letter? Imagine what life was like living at Vindolanda and write your own letter! Try writing in cursive writing with an ink pen!
Altar Inscription © HistoryHit
Much of our information about the people who lived at Vindolanda comes from the wooden tablets, mentioned above, as well as on some inscriptions found at the site. Whilst the wooden tablet, mentioned above has given us some insights into the life of Severa, we are going to look at another person who we knew lived at Vindolanda.
Sulpicius Pudens was a commanding officer of the Forth Cohort of Gaul. He was stationed at Vindolanda in the 3rd century AD. We know about him because he dedicated an altar to the God Jupiter Dolichenus.
Jupiter Dolichenus refers to the Roman god Jupiter, and a Persian weather god. To find out more about religion in Roman Britain - have a look at this page!
The altar is carved with Jupiter, holding an axe in one hand, and a thunderbolt in the other, and is standing on the back of a bull.
The inscription says: ”To Jupiter Best and Greatest of Doliche, Sulpicius Pudens, prefect of the Forth Cohort of Gauls, fulfilled his vow willingly and deservedly”.
This alter helps to tell us a little about religion at Vindolanda. Not only does it give us the name of the commanding officer, but it also tells us which gods he worshipped.
Emily Johnston is a PhD candidate in Archaeology - and founder of this website! She has an undergraduate and masters degree in Archaeology, which she focussed on the Romans.
She can be found on her personal twitter at @emilyrjohnston and instagram @emilyrebeccajohnston or on any of the archaeo-logic social medias & email!