Trip to the wild frontier

Up to a few months ago if someone had mentioned Vindolanda to me my thoughts would have turned to a hot Indian meal. Fortunately, the presentation at the LSA Classics Association by Dr Andrew Birley last November put an end to those childish musings and when member Sylvia O’Shea volunteered to organise a trip to see the real thing I was very happy to go along.

So, on a cold bright windy day earlier this month over thirty members of the LSA CA set off in a coach the CXXIII miles to the Roman fort of Vindolanda. The M6 was kind to us until about two miles from our exit when it ground to a halt but with a bit of quick thinking we found an alternative way and we arrived roughly on time.

The first part of our visit was to the Roman Army Museum six miles short of Vindolanda. The museum is very modern in a Roman sort of way! I learnt much about the Emperor Hadrian whose vision it was to build the wall, and which was, in its way, very successful. Hadrian recognised the Empire was getting too sprawling and this was his way of stabilising the outer edges.

Vindolanda leaflet

We also enjoyed the fascinating Edge of Empire 3D movie, complete with plastic glasses, where we soared like an eagle over the wild landscape and through thousands of years of history and saw just what life would have been like for those living in this Northumberland outpost of the Empire tasked with defending  Hadrian’s honour!

Vindolanda sign

We could have spent much longer at the museum but the pressures of time and schedule moved us on to Vindolanda itself. My first impression was what a beautiful and remote location – of course the sunny weather helped although we were later to realise the importance of having a good warm coat in such a windswept area!


We were welcomed by staff who were expecting us and directed to hear our pre-arranged presentation from the CEO himself Dr Andrew Birley. The talk took us on a whirlwind history of Vindolanda  with Dr Birley pointing out the actual features as he talked, once again displaying the infectious enthusiasm so warmly demonstrated in his previous talk for the Association.

As Andrew explained, although the Roman army first built it before Hadrian’s Wall, Vindolanda became an important construction and garrison base for the Wall, a Hadrian’s Wall fort in its own right. During this time Vindolanda was demolished and completely re-built no fewer than nine times. Each re-build and each community left its own distinctive mark on the landscape and archaeology of the site. Several people took the opportunity to ask Andrew interesting questions, which he answered so readily and I was personally amazed at the size of the site of Vindolanda.

Lunch beckoned and most of us headed down to the café in the valley below the main site. What a change, it was warm and sheltered and beautifully landscaped with a stream running through.

There were outdoor exhibits to admire and ably fortified by a good lunch we then ventured back to the main site.

Andrew had invited us to see some real life digging at the excavations and so we went over and observed a volunteer with a trowel chivvying the black soil and revealed quite a substantial piece of leather, which was very exciting for the watchers.

The muck was scraped off and a very nice piece of goat’s skin was revealed which interestingly had a very neat patch sewn on to it. The panel had been mended in its day with the perfectly formed circular patch which had become detached as the stitching had rotted but the leather was in good condition for being in the ground for MCM years. Andrew thought it was probably part of a tent.

The piece of goat’s skin was carefully put in a plastic bag and identified exactly where it was found and sent for preservation. Watching the discovery being made was really exciting – better than Time Team!

Time itself was catching up with us so after a quick look at others areas of the site, we headed back to the coach. This time the M6 behaved itself and the coach driver got us back safe and sound to Lytham St Annes by about 6.30. It was a great day in great company and we would be happy to return for another longer visit. Special thanks to Dr Birley and to Sylvia for organising the trip.

Bob Clough