Shoes and Seats!


One hundred and seventy people came to hear an enthralling and very well illustrated talk by Dr Andrew Birley, CEO and Director of Excavations at Vindolanda last Thursday. Dr Birley’s much anticipated lecture was enjoyed by everyone including our youngest member, nine year old Jonah Crouch, who now shares his report of the evening with us:

“This month was the eighth LSA Classics lecture that I have been to and I have really enjoyed them all so far.  My favourite part of classics is myths and legends, especially the Greeks!  Since being a member of the Association though, my knowledge of the classics has expanded and is continuing to do so.

The last two lectures I have attended have both been about the Roman Empire and I have now started to be more interested in the Romans than I was before.   I am pleased to have been asked to write a short blog about November’s guest lecturer, Dr Andrew Birley, who gave a brilliant lecture titled: Vindolanda – Life at the Edge of the Empire.


Dr Birley began his lecture by showing the packed AKS Lytham senior school hall photographs of Roman forts in and near to Vindolanda.  He said there were a lot of forts built by the Romans, every 5 to 7 miles, along Hadrian’s Wall.  Next he started to talk about shoes.  In one settlement Dr Birley’s team found over 400 shoes thrown away in a ditch.  They were thrown away because the Romans that lived in that settlement had to quickly move away.  Romans who lived in Vindolanda had personalised shoes to fit their own foot shapes, or for special occasions.  Archaeologists have been able to find out about the type of people who wore the shoes because of the shape of the discarded shoes.  If the shoe was small and wasn’t very fancy then it would probably have been a children’s slipper.

My favourite part (and the funniest) of the lecture was the part about toilets.  Even though we see toilets every day, it is rare to find a wooden Roman toilet seat!  You can tell where the toilet seat came from because of the shape of it.  This seat was discovered by Dr Birley in a deep trench at Vindolanda. There are lots of Roman stone toilet seats you can still see around the world but this is the only wooden seat we know about. It has survived because of the great conditions for preservation which exist at Vindolanda.

Dr Birley said that in the chilly conditions of Northumberland, at the edge of the Roman Empire, it would have been much better to sit on a wooden seat than a cold stone one and you find lots of interesting things in the drains like coins and jewellery because no-one wants to try and get it back if you drop it down the toilet!


Vindolanda writing tablet – birthday invitation

Some other interesting facts I discovered from Dr Birley’s lecture included:

  • A wax tablet for writing letters can be re-used by covering it in more wax.
  • In some places eight or nine forts were built on top of each other.
  • When the Romans first arrived in Britain they pinched the local girls!
  • It was not common to find Italians based along Hadrian’s Wall.

I really liked Dr Birley’s lecture because it was interesting and funny.  He used lots of good pictures which helped me to understand how the Romans lived during this time.  I am looking forward to visiting Vindolanda with my family very soon and showing them everything that I have learnt.  Thank you for the great lecture Dr Birley!”

Jonah Crouch