Vindolanda and Housesteads


Day two on the Roman frontier. This took some careful poring over the tourist bus timetable (route AD122, of course) to try and maximise the number of sites I visited while spending enough time at each one. This turned out to be be a non-trivial problem -- the gap between buses varied considerably, and sometimes the buses stopped in Haltwhistle instead of going beyond, so I was having to make calculations like, 'well, I can go to A in the morning and be there at opening time, but then the bus to B is either 45 minutes later or 3 hours 45 minutes later, which is either too short or possibly too long, but if I want to take in C as well I really need to take the earlier bus because there's no other way to get there. Or I can go to C first, then come back to B but I'd only have an hour there ...' And so on: it did my head in! It turned out that there was really no sensible way to do more than 2 places, so I crossed the Roman Army Museum off my list and settled on Vindolanda and Housesteads. I didn't have cause to regret this, as they were both even more absorbing than Chesters had been.

The above photo, incidentally shows Hadrian's Wall itself, looking back towards Housesteads from the west (it's past the big clump of trees on top of the cliffs).


I started at Vindolanda, which is one of the best-preserved castra on (actually, behind) the Wall. Several generations of forts were built here, the earliest about 90, before the Wall itself was built, the last around 300. In the third and fourth centuries, it housed a unit of auxiliary troops, the Fourth Cohort of Gauls. Today, the RAF likes to remind visitors of Vindolanda's military past by bursting their ear-drums.


More ancient hydraulics. This is not actually in the fort itself but in the civilian settlement, the vicus, to its west. Actually there are more bits of surviving civilian stonework than there are military. Since there were several hundred men permanently stationed at the fort, they needed somewhere to spend their pay, after all. There was a bath, a few small temples, houses, and no doubt a taverna or three. A few years ago, the remains of a huge wooden building were found under the vicus, bigger than anything else found at Vindolanda. Its purpose is still unclear. Robin Birley talks about it here, according to the Vindolanda guidebook, they've narrowed the date down to between 101 and 112.


The civilian baths (there's another military bath-house on the other side of the fort).


These are the foundations of huts near the north gate of the fortress, but inside it and abutting the wall. The nearby sign suggests that 'Quae mapalia tempore expeditionis imperatoris Severi, quam contra rebelles Caledonios duxit, erecta sunt. Incertum est, quales personae mapalia habitarent, fortasse rustici propter rebellionem in discrimen adducti.' Luckily for me there's an English translation -- the huts date to the time of the Severan expedition against 'the revolting northern tribes', and may have housed friendly farmers.


Outside the gate, looking east.


And the eastern wall, looking south ... I seem to have picked a lot of wall photos! I suppose that's because they were more impressive here than at Chesters or Housesteads.


The south-east corner of the fortress. Beyond is a replica of typical sections of the Wall, both the original turf and timber one and the later, more permanent stone one.


The tower of the aforementioned replica.


A view of the vicus from the top of the tower, with the fortress on the right.


A graffito from inside the tower. 3 points for the idea and 2 for carrying it out, -1 for not having heard of Dionysius Exiguus.


Vindolanda is famous for writing by people who also haven't heard of Dionysius Exiguus, but they had the excuse of being born about four centuries earlier than him. I'm referring to the Vindolanda tablets, of course. These are an incredible survival, letters written on thin wooden tablets by the inhabitants of the garrison from the first decades of its existence, at the end of the 1st century and the beginning of the 2nd. They were discarded as rubbish and burned, but hundreds survived in anaerobic conditions in the mud for eighteen centuries. They are written in Old Roman Cursive; the archaeologists who first dug them up were so unfamiliar with this type of script that they didn't even recognise it as Latin!

The most famous is probably that by Claudia Severa, wife of a Roman officer, to the wife of the commander at Vindolanda: a party invite. The closing two sentences were written by her own hand.

Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of 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. (2nd hand) I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.

Above is the museum, which explores the tablets and their context, but also has an almost-as-amazing collection of leather goods and textiles, which have survived thanks to the same soil conditions. Some of the shoes in particular were very intricate, and must have been imported from York or even the Continent.


Outside the museum is what must be one of the more unusual war memorials in Britain. The text reads:

A.D. 85-400

It's even in the UKNIWM.


This is a very pretty little replica temple of the sort that might have existed at Vindolanda. There's also a replica Roman house and shop nearby.


Archaeologists at work! To be fair, it was lunchtime by now. They were just outside the fortress, investigating the previous walls which stood here. Vindolanda is undergoing active, long-term research, and is owned by the Vindolanda Trust.


From wheelbarrows to sheep: Housesteads, Roman Vercovicium.


Sheep have probably been grazing around these ruins for the better part of two millennia.


For about three centuries, Housesteads was manned by the First Cohort of Tungrians. More recently, it was occupied by reivers! No, not that kind, the original ones -- raiders and rustlers along the Anglo-Scottish border. This is a bastle house, a fortified farmhouse, built from the stones of the castrum in the 16th century, just outside the south gate.


The view through the bastle house's window. I guess it's just for light, it seems too deep and narrow to be much use as a gun slit or even as a lookout.


The famous latrines.


As a veteran explorer of Roman ruins (this being my third), I confidently identified this as a hypocaust. Ha! Wrong. It's actually a granary -- the raised floor is not for conducting hot air but to keep damp and rodents out.


Even after centuries of plundering by locals, there's still a lot of dressed stone here.


Hadrian's Wall, looking eastward from the fortress.


A slightly different view of the same direction. In the foreground is another part of the Wall, which forms the northern defences of the fortress. Contrary to what might seem common sense, the Wall wasn't really intended as a defence against attacks from the north. The number of men needed to do that would have been enormous. Instead, it was more about regulating and controlling trade and immigration across the frontier, between the semi-Romanised tribes in front of the Wall and the slightly more Romanised inhabitants of the hinterland. The units on the wall could deal with minor security problems, but anything serious would probably require reinforcements from the reserves behind the Wall or from the provincial capital at York.


The gateway to Milecastle 37, to the west of Housesteads; looking north (i.e., away from Roman territory). A milecastle was basically a small tower, with a gate and rooms for a detachment of about 16 men. There was one every Roman mile along the wall, with two small turrets (without a gate) in between. I suppose the existence of milecastles supports the idea that the Wall wasn't a defensive line -- why put in dozens of extra gates with minimal defences if you're worried about armies of Picts surging through?


The Wall westward of Milecastle 37.


The path through this small copse (as seen in the top photo) is actually the top of the Wall. I include it only because walking along it was about as close as I got to wilderness the whole time I was overseas!

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12 thoughts on “Vindolanda and Housesteads

  1. paulie b

    Interesting - I thought the wall was to keep the picts out, not to serve as a "line in the sand". I guess that moving reserves up from York is what is called flexible defence.

  2. Post author

    I might have given the wrong impression there -- the Wall did have a military function too, and would have been able to deal with small raiding parties and the like. But it was never intended that it should be able to stand up to determined assault, Helm's Deep-style. For one thing, it seems clear that the Roman soldiers wouldn't have fought from the top of the Wall, as it was too narrow to pass troops along behind any defenders in front, and there seem to have only been stairs every third of a mile (ie at the milecastles and turrets). No space on top for ballistae and whatnot, either. For that matter, there's not actually much evidence that there was a walkway along the top of it at all! So it was really more like the fence along the US-Mexico border than a Roman Maginot Line.

  3. Another wonderful post - and great pictures to go with it. My favorite Vindolanda tablet is:

    Masculus to Cerialis his king, greetings. Please, my lord, give instructions on what you want us to do tomorrow. Are we all to return with the standard, or just half of us?...(missing lines)...most fortunate and be well-disposed towards me. My fellow soldiers have no beer. Please order some to be sent.

    Not much has changed, really...

  4. Ian Evans

    This commenting is addictive! (but I'm sure you can manage an antipodean heave-ho if I overdo it)
    In the early 60's you could stand on the wall, look north to Spadeadam Waste, and see Blue Streak engines running.
    Does that not rank with Napoleon's line about 40 centuries looking down on his soldiers?
    (Note for non-anoraks; Blue Streak was the UK's intended IRBM, later adapted to be a satellite launcher. Naturally, once it showed signs of working it was cancelled, but some of the technology was adopted by Ariane.)

  5. Chris Williams

    Blue Streak worked, AND it was the only bit of the first Eurorocket that did - even the German bits broke. If you ever want to see a live one, there's one here in Leicester.

    The problem was the silos, which were prohibitively expensive. Someone ought to have told the MoS that although building a Lox/Kerosene IRBM is relatively easy, building one that can be fuelled and take off in 4 minutes requires rather a lot of stuff to be inside several feet of concrete.

  6. Ian Evans

    There's one up here too (at East Fortune, near Edinburgh). I actually worked on Blue Streak, though not in any high-tech mode. As a lowly apprentice I had a spell of holding fuel tank baffles for the welder. (Safety briefing "Remember, he can see the flame, but he can't see your hands, or you.")

  7. Chris Williams

    I was going to respond 'cool', but I suppose that job was anything but. Where did they make it? Not Hatfield, obviously.

  8. Post author

    Ah, Blue Streak -- what would British aerospace tragics pine for without it? (TSR.2, obviously.) Thanks for the anecdotes, Ian, you've clearly got the hang of this commenting thing!


    LOL! 'It's not for me, you understand, it's for the other guys ...'

  9. Ian Evans

    The bits of Blue Streak I was working on were definitely at Hatfield - contracted out to the fitting shop of De Havilland Aircraft. Other bits were made at the De Havilland Propellers site on the other side of the airfield, up the road at Stevenage (that is still a working site, as Astrium, they build satellites) and at Lostock in NW England. There was a fairly fully assembled Blue Streak in a test stand on one of the more out of the way corners of the airfield, near the apprentice hostel. It was said that they tested the turbo pumps one night without providing adequate warning, and collected fire engines from four counties.

  10. Chris Williams

    Blimey - I never knew that. And some of my mates did apprenticeships there. My main involvement with that site was watching the 146 prototype fly endless circles round my school, testing something or other. Hypnotic, it was. Certainly more hypnotic than German.

  11. Simon Fielding

    Glad you enjoyed the wall. I was at University at Newcastle upon Tyne in the 80s, and remember with particular fondness the pieces of the wall that cropped up in suburban Newcastle - segments of wall embedded in garage forecourts and long-buried shrines in the back gardens of 1930s council houses (with access rights for the casual antiquarian cited in their tenancy agreements).

    A friend of mine was brought up at Otterburn in Northumberland, an area steeped in the history of the rievers, and now the site of an army firing range...

  12. Post author

    Oh, I love things like that. If I ever make it back to Newcastle (I changed trains there twice on this trip, but that was all), I'll keep an eye out for bits of Wall!

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