Hadrian’s Wall at Vindolanda and Housesteads

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Today, our last in the UK, Dad, Anna and I set out to explore the Roman ruins around Hadrian’s Wall—the famous defensive structure that stretched from the Solway Firth to Wallsend near Newcastle, and separated Roman Britain from the barbarian hordes in Scotland.


Our first stop took us along a very straight road.  Many people mistake this for a Roman road; it is, in fact, a much more modern military road, built sometime in the 1940s.  Vindolanda is a privately owned site, where the remains of temples, private residences, military storehouses and other structures can be seen.  In many places, the floors have been excavated to show stone pillars that would have held up the floors and allowed heated air to circulate beneath the buildings.  Anna and I lost track of Dad as we wandered among the ruins, walking in tiny passageways and wondering if we were moving along streets or sewers.  I wish Jenn, my good friend who helps me with so much research, could have joined us.  As a classics major, I’m sure she would have known the difference!

Vindolanda is currently the site of on-going archaeological work.  The anaerobic soil means that many objects that would otherwise have rotted have remained beautifully preserved.  The Vindolanda museum contains more than 400 examples of leather footwear, ranging from infants’ shoes to women’s slippers, to men’s sandals.  We stopped to watch the archaeologists at work, and one of them came over to chat with us.  He had with him a piece of leather they had found that morning, and I was allowed to handle it.  2000-year-old leather—the mind boggles!  What the archaeologists are most interested in finding, though, is wooden tablets.  More than a hundred of these tablets have been found at Vindolanda since the 1970s.  Like postcards, they contain tidbits about the lives of people who lived at the fort.  One of the most interesting, and certainly the most famous, is a birthday invitation written by a scribe from one woman to her sister.  At the bottom, written in the woman’s own hand, is a post script; this is believed to be the oldest writing by a woman in the western world.

Excavating and preserving the tablets is a time-consuming job.  Archaeologists cut sections of the compacted earth out and “dissect” them, carefully removing the tablets, which are wafer-thin pieces of wood.  The first tablets that were found were stuck together, and when pried apart, had writing on their inner faces.  The finders were so excited that they took the tablets to show the head of their expedition, only to discover that the tablets had blackened with exposure to the air.  Infra-red photography at a local hospital (thankfully) made it possible for the writing to be read, and transcriptions to be made of the tablets.

The archaeologist we spoke to said he thought they would likely be excavating at Vindolanda for the next 200 years!

Away from the actual ruins of the fort, down a rather steep hill, is a series of three recreated Roman buildings, where voice-overs describe what life was like for the people who lived and worked at Vindolanda in Roman times.  Just across the river is a small café where we ate lunch.  There was a young boy in the café dressed in full Roman kit, who received some very envious glances from the other children present!


We left Vindolanda and headed west to Housesteads.  Parking here is owned by the national parks authority, the land is owned by National Trust, and English Heritage maintains the ruins.  Parking wasn’t covered by Anna’s English Heritage membership, but either an English Heritage card or a National Trust membership will gain access to the ruins of the fort here.

We purchased our tickets at a small visitor centre, then made our way across a sheep-strewn field and up a very steep gravel path.  To the left is a small farmhouse-turned-museum, and to the right, the path continued to a kissing gate, which gave access to the ruins of Housesteads.  These were much the same as the ruins at Vindolanda, but a little more difficult to navigate.  Unlike Vindolanda, the remains of Hadrian’s Wall were actually visible here.  At its highest point, the wall reached just over my head (I’m just over 5 ft.), and we were able to walk along it for a short while.  There are some better preserved sections of the wall further inland, but I’m content to have found it and walked along it at all.

The museum at Housesteads was lovely, if a little small, with a short video explaining what life was like for the soldiers who were garrisoned here, and a children’s education collection that allowed me to see what the hobnails on Roman shoes and a variety of brooches looked like.

I’ve had a great trip, and am sad to be leaving Britain.  There’s so much history left to explore.  Then again, I suppose that just means that there’s all the more reason to come back again! 😉

Thanks to everyone who made this research trip possible: Dad for all the driving, the friends and family who hosted us, Mom for staying home to take care of guide dog Andy, and the various volunteers and site-staff who let me have hands-on experience with the history.  This has been an amazing experience!