Hadrian’s Wall – Vindolanda and Chesters Forts

Vindolanda (Chesterholm)

From Corbridge I headed west on the A69 for 11 miles, following the Tyne valley, to Vindolanda Fort and Museum. ‘Vindolanda’ is though to mean ‘white or shining lawn’ or ‘enclosure’ in the local tribal language. The site, managed by the Vindolanda Trust, is nestled in rolling hills, about a mile south of the Wall. The site offers a comprehensive view of a Roman fort and its civilian settlement, including a part-excavated bath house located outside the walls of the fort. There are two reconstructions for visitors to climb on – a stone tower and parapet, and a wooden gatehouse. On the path to the museum there is a reconstructed Roman kiln, and a temple.

A wooden fort was built around 85 and later became a stone walled fort (re-built as many as nine times) in continuous occupation throughout the Roman period. At the centre of the fort is the Headquarters building, partly excavated, as is the Commanding Officer’s house next to it. At its height, Vindolanda fort and surrounding settlement would have supported a population of up to 5,000, of which 1,500 would have been soldiers.

Vindolanda has produced the most important find of the last fifty years – the writing tablets. These documents, some on display in the museum, not only provide valuable information about the details of life on the frontier of empire, but are also very similar in content to documents found on the eastern edge of empire, showing a similarity of experience. There may have been gaps between cohorts of a legion being billeted at Vindolanda, including a long gap from c. 280 to 305 when the site was derelict and needed re-building. All this building activity over the years has completely hidden the ‘white lawn’ and its landscape witnessed by the first Romans to come to Vindolanda. Archaeologists believe the site continued to be occupied after the Romans departed until the ninth century.

The Romans deliberately placed their temples and bath house close to the water supply (streams and wells) so that their gods could watch over this precious asset. From the wells and water tanks a series of aqueducts fed the bath houses, and went down village streets and into the fort. Stone and timber were used for carrying and holding water, but not lead, as used in other Roman sites.

The museum is one of the best Roman museums I have been in – no wonder it has award-winning status. The short films are well-made and add a layer of understanding to life in this most remote of Roman settlements. The writing tablets have their own room and the translations make fascinating reading. A tavern was excavated in the town, thought to be part timber with stone foundations and most likely two storeys, perhaps operating as a brothel as well as a beer-drinking meeting place. The owners buried 270 coins in a pouch under the kitchen floor, no doubt hoping to return one day to claim their savings. They did not return, and excavators uncovered the hoard in 1977 – some of the coins are on display, as is a part of a glass goblet painted with fighting gladiators (see picture).

The Vindolanda writing tablets contain a rich array of personal accounts from Romans based there, most from the early years of occupation up to the 120s. Letters were written by soldiers of all ranks and community members of both genders, giving a glimpse into their daily lives, interests and concerns. One such letter is a birthday party invitation from Claudia Severa to the Commander’s wife, Sulpicia Lepidina in the year 100. There are also letters between slaves, children’s writing lessons, doodles and demands for beer.

Emperor Hadrian display at Wallsend Museum

Chesters Roman Fort

From Vindolanda, I headed east on a B-road that followed the contours of rolling hills dotted with grazing sheep for 15 miles to Chesters Roman Fort. This incredibly beautiful site that slopes down to the rippling North Tyne River is managed by English Heritage. It sits on the estate of the Clayton family, who did much from the nineteenth century onwards to excavate and preserve Roman findings. Here can be viewed the remains of a fort laid out at foundations level, a bath house situated beside the river, and the 130-year-old museum built by the Clayton family to display many stone carved tablets and headstones.

Chesters was first occupied by a cavalry unit called ‘Augusta for valour’ according to an inscription, but throughout most of its life was the base of the Second Cavalry Regiment of Asturians (from Northern Spain). The fort was placed astride the Wall, with three of its four gates opening north of the Wall. A replica of the Chesters Bath House can be seen at Wallsend Roman fort and museum.

One thought on “Hadrian’s Wall – Vindolanda and Chesters Forts

  1. Well you’ve given a good crisp overview Tim. Can’t believe I’ve never been to the museum…so much to see. Hope you can find sufficient inspiration to return to the period


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