Sunday, November 13, 2011


(Yeah, yeah, VK review... what?)

Vindolanda is one of those things where, if you're into history and/or archeology, you go "Oh, yeah. Very cool." and if you're not, you've never heard of it. So now, you can hear about it. Then you can sound all smart the next time the subject of the Roman Empire comes up in dinner conversation. (Okay, we don't usually talk about it either, but work with me here.)

Vindolanda is the name of what was once an auxiliary fort and garrison that housed soldiers staffing Hadrian's Wall. What makes it super interesting is, the entire site is being excavated. Usually, due to really lousy budgets, archeologists will dig a trench through a site, document what they find, guess at what else is there, and close it up again. Not Vindolanda. The site was purchased in the 1930s by an archeologist, Eric Birley, and it remains in the family, and they continue to excavate. They're on their third generation and still digging away. I remember watching a TV show about Vindolanda a while ago, and one of the Birley family was talking about it. He said he can always tell when they get to the Roman levels of the dig by the smell. Someone asked him what the Romans smelled like. He said old laundry. Can you imagine what it was like, to grow up on a Roman dig site? It probably seemed totally normal for them. TOTALLY NORMALLY COOL.

In the 1970s, a Trust was founded to continue funding, and they occasionally get additional cash from the Heritage Trust and the British Museum, and probably a lot of other places. Vindolanda is unique, for many reasons, and very well known in archeology. Everyone wants to keep it going, well funded and protected.

What makes it unique? Well, for starters, these:
The Vindolanda Tablets. In short, wooden post cards, written by people living at the fort. Not just inventory lists and administration records, but personal letters, written by the wives and mothers. Gossip, invitation to a birthday party, and a letter from a mom nagging her son to write more have all turned up. They expect to find more, and are working at translating all they've found so far. History types consider this find one of the most remarkable and valuable ever, in the British Isles. (Gold is all well and good, but this stuff is invaluable for historians trying to figure out what in hell went on two thousand years ago.) Thanks to these documents, they've got a really detailed chronology of the fort that was only guessed at before. There is evidence of letters being sent to and from other forts, York, and London, but nothing has been found at the other sites. Probably because they haven't been extensively excavated; these turned up about FORTY YEARS into the dig.

Due to some quirk of the soil composition, and the depth at which thins are buried, things that normally rot into nothing have survived. Like wooden post cards. And leather shoes. And, well, all kinds of stuff.

Then, a new wrinkle. (One that's relatively new, and I actually hadn't known about until I researched this blog post.) In 2010, they found a body. Not, you know, a formally buried body in a grave yard, but the body of a girl, tied up and buried under the floor of the barracks. For obvious reasons, they think she was murdered. Think about that a minute. They've been methodically excavating this site for 80-odd years, and it wasn't until 2010 that they found the girl's body. Which makes me (and everyone else) wonder what all has been missed in other archeological sites, where they've only had the time and funding to run a few trenches.

Less war. More archeology. That's what I say. We could have excavated the entire planet down to the bed rock for what the nuclear arms race cost.

Until that happy day, YAY HISTORY!


Sarah {The Student Knitter} said...

That is so. freaking. cool.

Nicole T said...

Dude. I agree with Sarah. Reading this was awesome. I love history.

Katharine said...

Less war. More archeology.

I will vote for you for president on this platform.

Katie K said...

Hear! Hear!

Anonymous said...

"Due to some quirk of the soil composition, and the depth at which thins are buried, things that normally rot into nothing have survived."

All I can say is welcome to Northumberland. We also have sheep.

Roxie said...

OMG! What a great, quirky family! The kids must have fun at show and tell. Tommy had a potato shaped like a pig, and Doreen had her baby brother's tiny booties, and Freddy had a shell casing his uncle brought back from grouse shooting, and Nigel has a wooden postcard written by an ancient Roman bookmaker dunning his soldier client for payment.

laurie said...

thanks for the insight, cool.

Amy Lane said...

Riveting. Absolutely riveting. That's totally cool!

ellen in indy said...

amazing stuff! thank you! may that family flourish evermore.

Alwen said...

Yay! Archaeology!

(And I cannot tell you how humiliating it was to tour the European Space Agency center in the Netherlands and be asked by an earnest Dutch couple why the US was cutting its funding for research. Heck if I know! Because it's spending so much money on wars?)

Liz said...

Thank you for the reminder. I grew up in the North East of England and our primary school history teacher was obsessive about the Romans (and totally able convey that excitement to a class of 8-11 year olds), so all the school's field trip budget was spent on coach trips to Vindolanda, the Mithraic temple at Carrowbaugh, Housesteads, etc.; it was brilliant.

anneemissie said...

I haven't been to see it yet, but on the hill beyond Vindolanda, where stone was quarried to build the fort, one can still see a piece of Roman graffiti carved into the stone - a phallus, apparently. Nothing changes, does it?
Did you also know Vindolanda is near Lone Tree Gap, aka Sycamore Gap and Robin Hood Gap, on the Wall - where Kevin Costner did a bit of his Robin Hood?
I live not far away and love being out at Hadrian's Wall.
I love reading your blog, too, Samurai Knitter.

scifiknitter said...

It took me a while to get to this post. So glad I didn't just push the "mark as read" button, because this is a great piece of writing that taught me something. It gave me a bit of hope, too, when I learn of a family that takes scientific work so seriously, generation after generation. A few more families like that, and we could straighten out this mess we're in. Thanks, Julie!