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Vindolanda Period III

Period II    *    Back to Forums    *    Period IV
Currently visible Period VII-X fort & settlement structures


Dates: c. AD97 to c. AD105
Garrison: 9th Cohort of Batavians (possibly with 3rd Batavians at some time)
Garrison type/size: Part-mounted infantry cohort of 1000
Visible remains: Early bath house, Romano-British temple (?), modern post marking S gate

Color Coding

Teal: Ramparts of fort-proper (solid section known, rest conjectural)
Grey: Positions of known or well-conjectured roads
Pink: Praetorium of Flavius Cerialis
Yellow: Presumed barrack blocks
Orange: Domestic area consistent with barracks
Green: Military bath house
Brown: Romano-British temple
Purple: Stanegate road

Hover your mouse over the image to compare this fort to the archaeology currently visible on-site today. (What's currently visible is mostly Period VII-IX, but with bits of Period VI-B and X.)

Period III straddles the turn of the 2nd CenturyA fact that would have completely escaped a person living at the time. The dating system we use today was first dreamt up in about the 6th Century, and only really took precedence in the 8th. Dating in the Roman world was ab urbe condita, or "from the founding of the City [of Rome]," now held to have been in 753 B.C. The names of Rome's two annually-elected consuls also provided dating; Roman documents & histories often use the phrase, "In the consulship of X and Y" as a dating tool.. Archaeologically, it marks the reconstruction of Vindolanda using sturdier materials, very minor alterations to overall layout, and quite possibly little more. The known structures of Period III date seem to follow closely their Period II predecessors. And evidence from inscriptions/writing tablets suggests that the same cohort, the 9th Batavians, was in residence.

This was a turf-and-timber fort, with a large earthen rampart topped by a sturdy wooden palisade, and a deep defensive ditch (or ditches) in front. It likely had four gates. The southern one is known, a simple structure framed by wooden posts and boards to hold back the ramparts, and a paving of wooden corduroy. This gate had actually been moved a few feet west of Period II's counterpart, possibly better to avoid a natural gullyAnyone who has spent any time at Vindolanda quickly learns that even today, water management is a never-ending problem. Excavations have shown various ditches, sluices, aqueducts, and pipes -- dating from the 1st through the 19th Centuries! -- desperately trying to drain the site into the Doe Sike to the south. Modern excavations, even with the latest pump technology, still get bested by Mother Nature many times a year. that had no doubt caused many water-flow & subsidence headaches. The new gateway required quite a comprehensive rebuild of the immediate area. Otherwise, the known ramparts appear unchanged.

As mentioned, Period III may be little more than a planned rebuild of the site once more suitable materials had been gathered. Period II builders used mostly softwood branches & limbs, still green and unseasoned, often still with bark on. Walls were wattle-and-daub, floors were mostly beaten earth. Drafty, damp, and weak, a lifespan for such buildings was probably five years at best. By about AD97 the old buildings were likely falling into disarray. In the meantime, the garrison had time to source new materials -- not only hardwoods but clay, stone, iron, lead, coal, and other natural resources all lying nearby. The construction of Period III is far superior to that of Period II, including much more use of squared beams and seasoned oak. Some walls are now boarded and plastered. Some rooms are floored with flagstones, many others have received plank flooring on a bed of joists. Whatever the circumstances, it was certainly a major upgrade in standard of living.

Period III's most thoroughly excavated building happens to be Vindolanda's most famous building of all: the praetorium (commander's residence) for the fort's prefect, Flavius Cerialis. The western wing of the building, 50-some meters long with over a dozen rooms, was excavated in the 1970s through the 1990s. Stables, workshops, storehouses, covered walkways, kitchens, and probably living spaces complete with thick bracken "carpeting" were found. Many rooms still had their plank or flagged floors, and walls survived in places half a meter high, buried under later backfill. Most importantly, archaeologists found here the largest collection of writing tablets from any period -- ever! Over many seasons they recovered -hundreds- of tablets and fragments, detailing everyday life of Cerialis's family, and the fort as a whole, in ways unimaginable beforehandAn incredible online resource for learning about (and even reading) several hundred of these tablets & scraps found (from all periods) is vindolanda.csad.ox.ac.uk, a project of Oxford University's Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents and the Academic Computing Development Team. One tablet from this period is the famous birthday invitation to Cerialis's wife, Sulpicia Lepidina, from the wife of another prefect along the frontier.. And much of this is thanks to a fluke of nature. In the southern section of the building -- by a penned yard for animals used by the household -- a demolition crew at the very end of Period III gathered up old documents from the Cerialis household for burning in great bonfires. Shortly after the fires had been lit and the crew left, a freak rainstorm swelled upAny given week during an excavation season, diggers may be run off quickly to the nearest shelter thanks to such storms. The weather at Vindolanda is capable of changing in literally seconds.. The deluge put out the flames, leaving many tablets only half-charred, or still completely intact, to be discovered nearly 1900 years later.

For years it was debated whether this building was indeed Cerialis's residence, or perhaps an industrial workshop. Many of the rooms show much ironworking & leather-cutting, not to mention the animal pens. But finds like women's and children's shoes, and a woman's hair wig, pointed to high-status domestic use. The tablets are the best evidence for the building as a praetorium -- the presence of Cerialis's personal documents in most every excavated room could never be explained in any other way. The industrial areas are most likely those of Cerialis's personal retinue, in charge of maintaining his household. The remainder of the building to the east is unexcavated, lying below the visible fort walls and platform; it is here that the prefect and his family likely lived.

In recent years, other bits of evidence from Period III have come up, though none as spectacular as the praetorium. In two other sections of the fort, series of posts and small finds suggest barracks. Just outside the fort to the southeast, the foundations of the fort's bath house have been foundBath houses were a severe fire hazard, and were almost always built outside a fort's walls for safety. Amazingly, a surviving writing tablet records a detachment of the fort's garrison that had been sent to build this very bath house. It's rare to find clear written evidence & physical evidence for the same building.. And to the northwest, a small Romano-British temple had been erected along an approach roadThis temple had been demolished, or at least heavily rebuilt, by the late 2nd Century as a mausoleum. What's visible today may be largely late 2nd C remains.. Internally, the fort's principia (HQ), granaries, and other public buildings/areas remain to be discovered. What's most telling about these later digs is how varied the ground levels of Period III can be. The praetorium lay some 4+ meters below the modern turf. But the barrack areas were found only half that distance down. This shows that today's relatively level, flat ground surface was far different in Vindolanda's early decades. The ground seems to have undulated, with significant high and low spots. Later builders built up the depressions with clay & turf, eventually producing today's surface. A side-effect of this is seen in the amount of material preserved. In deeper sections of Period III, wrecking crews were much more inefficient about demolishing buildings at the end of their life. They just took the easy bits and dumped fill on top of the rest. Higher areas saw much more thorough demolition, sadly leaving behind much less structural evidence for a modern archaeologist. Hence, the ephemeral barracks compared to the extremely well-preserved praetorium.

Period III ended abruptly. Some rooms of the praetorium were left remarkably filthy, their bracken carpets soaked by animal urine or covered in trash. Dozens of leather tentage offcuts were found in several rooms, and the blacksmith's shop was littered with slag, bits of iron and bronze offcuts, crucibles, and tools. The finds from the barrack areas tell similar stories of quick abandonment. The reason can be found in the writing tablets and the historical records. A writing tablet from Cerialis can be dated to AD105. Documents elsewhere from the Empire show the 9th Batavian cohort suddenly far away in modern Romania later in AD105, as part of Emperor Trajan's wars against the Dacians. Clearly someone had delivered their marching orders to Vindolanda, and left them almost no time in which to vacate. They had to repair tents, saddles, rucksacks, and other travel gear, smith the metal fittings & weaponry they needed for the long journey, and leave without having a chance to properly clean up behind themselves. Ironically, a fort that had been rebuilt with an eye to permanence survived only a year longer than its low-grade predecessor. But, this means that any future digs on Period III levels could uncover some amazing things.

Things of Note for a Digger
  * Period III evidence varies in depth depending on the land's original topography, anywhere from about 2.0 to 4.0+ meters down.
  * The only certain Period III extramural activity is the military bathhouse, and cemeteries N. of Stanegate.
  * In deeper areas, organic material generally survives in excellent, even pristine condition.
  * Construction of this period uses good squared posts, of oak, birch, and alder; wattle-and-daub walls or sometimes planking; much evidence for plank floors on joists; some flagging.
  * Roman bracken "carpeting" on top of floors shows that a room was used as living space.
  * Well-preserved organic remains can show cleanliness/filthiness of areas. Some carpets/floors are littered with pupae and muck, others meticulously clean.
  * Fragile organic small finds like bone hairpins and wooden combs/kitchen implements are common in deep, preserved levels. Dig carefully.
  * Fragile wooden writing tablets are abundant at this level. When excavated, they're the consistency of a wet paper towel. Dig VERY carefully.
  * Well-preserved textiles are known at this level. If found, note to supervisor right away. Must be taken quickly to conservation.
  * Almost any leather at this phase is pristine & sturdy.
  * Coinage often pristine. Mostly silver of excellent quality (17-20mm) & large copper-alloy pieces (25-35mm). Occasional small copper-alloy coins.
  * Pottery includes local greywares, possibly North Gaulish mortaria, and large amounts of samian ware.
  * Samian ware mostly deep red with orange fabric, South Gaulish.

Vindolanda Excavations Reports: 1994, 2001-'02, 2003-'04, 2005-'06

Page created by Harold Johnson