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A visit to Vindolanda [Oct. 1st, 2017|08:59 pm]

As I said, D. was visiting us last week. He spent a couple of days making visits further afield, but [personal profile] durham_rambler and I also took a couple of days off, so that we could do fun things together. On Wednesday we returned to see the Cathedral's Open Treasure, now complete with actual treasures of Saint Cuthbert and much improved thereby. No pictures, because photography is not allowed - except in one alcove, where robes are provided in both children's and adult sizes, so that you can photograph each other dressed as monks. Perhaps, I suggested, I could dress up as a monk and then just happen to be standing next to this hogback tomb carved in the likeness of two bears? But the attendant was firm: only in that alcove there. While we were in town I took a couple of pictures of the new floral decorations, but my camera card has died, so I can't post those either...

However. Last Saturday was the last day of the visit, and D. suggested we go to Vindolanda, a Roman fort and settlement just south of the Wall. Since [personal profile] durham_rambler and I had not been there for a very long time (longer than we realised, it turns out) that's what we did. It was there that my card gave out, but since it happened quite early in the day and [personal profile] durham_rambler had a spare card I could borrow, damage was limited. Just to tempt you, this is probably my favourite of the pictures I took that day:

Another corner of the fort

The hills in the background, a hint of the vicus in the foreground (I've no idea what the round stone with the hole in it is) and in between the masonry of the fort wall, with that distinctive playing-card corner.

But that's not where the visit begins. There's an approach road running along in sight of the Wall - I wonder if it is on the line of the Stanegate itself? - with a fine view of Sycamore Gap, which deposits you in a car park, slightly downhill, so that you don't see the actual site until you have passed through the reception area (tickets, toilets, fountain, introductory display). Then you emerge onto a hill top, with wide views towards the Wall on one side and the Tyne valley on another, dotted with wells - because apparently one of the reasons the Romans built here was the abundance of springs:

Water tank

The most visible feature of the site - signposted as 'Roman Wall', which confused me at first! - is the replica of a section of the turf Wall, which since my last visit has grown to include a couple of watchtowers:

Rebuilding the Wall

This was built by volunteers, and as I recollect, the academics were initially rather sniffy about this sort of activity, whereas now everyone is all about inclusion and outreach. Vindolanda is still exceptional, though, in the use it makes of volunteer diggers (with the result that there is digging in progress there every summer). Anyway, now there are notice boards to tell you how far the turf wall has settled in the 20 years since it was built here (which may or may not tell us something about the construction of the turf section of the Wall itself).

The feature of the vicus that really impressed me was the wide paved road running through it, but the photo I took doesn't really look like anything, so have some hypocausts instead:


and one more corner of the fort:

Fort corner

before we took the steep path down the far side to Chesterholm itself, the house, the café and the museum, not to mention a little cluster of buildings, a reconstructed nymphaeum, garishly painted, an educational something or other, a something else currently housing the work of the local photographic society... but first lunch! Then the museum:

So many shoes!

That abundance of wells and springs as you approach, translates as seriously waterlogged conditions below the visible fort (the ninth of a succession of remodellings). As a result, things have survived which are not found elsewhere. Most famous of these are the writing tablets, but Vindolanda had a fine collection of Roman footwear (it seems to have been accepted practice to discard worn out shoes into the ditch surrounding the fort, which must have helped). This is just a sample - and in the display case facing this one is the only matching pair of the lot.

The writing tablets are something else: little slivers of wood, small postcards with traces of ink still visible on them. There are hundreds of them, and new ones continue to be found, giving an extraordinary snapshot of life on this supposedly inhospitable frontier: send underpants, send more beer, lay in supplies of eggs, apples (if you can find nice ones), olives, come to my birthday party... The party invitation is from the wife of the commander of a neighbouring fort, and is in two different hands, one very regular and presumably the work of a professional scribe, to which the lady has added her best wishes 'to you and your husband' in a rather less practised hand - still the earliest known handwriting by a woman in Britain. Most of the tablets are in the BM, but Vindolanda has a small selection on display, and are rightly very proud of them.

This entry cross-posted from Dreamwidth: comments always welcome, at either location.