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From Aug 2006 - Nov 2013 WeDig provided a live forum for diggers & fans of Vindolanda. It has now been mothballed and will be maintained as a live archive.

Here you will find preserved 7 years of conversation, photos, & knowledge about a site many people love. Vindolanda gets under the skin. (Figuratively and literally as a volunteer excavator!) It's a place you remember, filled with people you remember!

Thanks for 7 great years!

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Two vicus questions for anyone in the know
Your summary's right on, from how I understand the latest archaeology.

There hasn't been a lot of modern excavation on other vicuses along the Wall. There's evidence for vicus buildings at many sites, but little proper excavation. However, much work was done at Housesteads, and again it suggested that their vicus went out of use about AD 270. And work at Birdoswald in the 1990s found similar dates for the end of the vicus there. At least for now, there's no evidence of any extramural settlement surviving into the 4th C.

In addition to all the changes in resources, politics, and enemy organization, 4th C Wall garrisons were smaller than their 3rd C counterparts. In the 3rd C, a cohort like Vindolanda's would have numbered about 500 troops. In the 4th C, that would have been down to about 250-300 troops. So 4th C Wall forts had a lot of vacant space. Perhaps it was just the most logical & natural thing to demolish the external town and move the people inside the protective walls of the fort. There's evidence of this at Vindolanda. And it's actually one of the big things they're trying to discover over the next few years -- the extent to which the military and the civilian elements interacted and intermingled. It'll be fun to see what they come up with!

Two vicus questions for anyone in the know
I think you're right on. The vicus in the 3rd C does look to have encroached right up close to the fort walls. No clear line of sight from the fort to the fields beyond. There was obviously little fear of any kind of big assault on the fort itself. Then at the end of the 3rd C, it does seem like the site was abandoned or mothballed for some years. When it was regarrisoned in the 4th C, very few of the buildings outside the fort were still used. Most were probably demolished for building materials to shore up the fort defenses.

Part of it can be explained by a big shift in Roman politics happening at this time. In the 3rd C, Rome still protected its borders by massing its good troops at frontiers and sending them forward to fight, rather than waiting to be attacked. The whole philosophy was that a fort wasn't a "stronghold" for defense as much as a base for attack.

That changed in the 4th C. Frontier forts became defensive. There were too few good troops to man them along the entire frontier. So frontier forts came to be used as "speed bumps" -- meant to slow down the advance of an attacking enemy. The main body of skilled Roman soldiers was kept far back from the front lines in a central spot. Thus, they would be more able to go quickly to wherever they were needed rather than being tied up at, say, Carlisle when an attack was happening at Newcastle. It helps explain why the quality of the buildings in 4th C forts is often shoddy. The folks there were no longer well-bred fighters; they were expendable "cheap" troops, meant to be dispensible and, to be blunt, disposable. And their forts went from being a base of operations to a defensive stronghold, needing clear views in all directions and heavily fortified walls.

In that light, the archaeology of Vindolanda kind of falls into place pretty nicely!

"Britannia Romana"
The Reverend John Horsley can rightfully be claimed to be the first antiquarian in history to carry out an exhaustive, full study of Roman Britain and the Wall. William Camden wrote of the Wall at the end of the 16th C. But it was still an utterly lawless region, and he was unable to visit large sections.

Horsley seems a fascinating man. He took his work extremely seriously, and managed to make surprisingly good sense of the limited and often contradictory records and then-visible remains. His tome, Britannia Romana, is an enormous work in 3 volumes, packed with excellent maps, charts, and translations of original Roman source materials. It can be read in full at http://www.archive.org/stream/britanniaromanao00hors#page/n13/mode/2up. Having been written before the wholesale destruction of so much of the Wall as the Military Road was built in the 1750s, it is an eyewitness account of much that is now long gone. It is priceless for a Wall historian.

The archive.org site also holds a lovely little work of memoirs of antiquarians, including Horsley, compiled for none other than Anthony Hedley. In the memoirs are a number of the personal letters that Horsley wrote to an associate as he was trying to make sense of the Wall and the region. Great stuff.

Below is an excerpt from Britannia Romana focused on Vindolanda. Though Vindolanda was little excavated or understood at this early date, there are still some gems in Horsley's writing.

Vindolana. Little Chesters is south from both the walls [i.e., Wall and Vallum -- ed], but stands just by the military way, which I have already described, that passes directly from Walwick Chesters to Carrvoran, which is very visible for a considerable space from this station. So that this station must be reckoned among those which belong to the wall, it being in this rout, and the only military way, which belongs to it, coming from the wall and returning to it. There are two or three forts more, as Carrvoran and Cambeck fort detached to the fouth of the wall, tho' none so far as this; yet this is not above half a mile from Hadrian's vallum.

The people there call this station Chesters, or the Bowers; but by others it is called Little Chesters, to distinguish it from the next station, that goes by the name of Great Chesters; and it is in reality not only less than Great Chesters, but than most of the other forts on the wall. It is only seven chains long from north to south, and four broad from east to west, and so does not contain three acres of ground. The ramparts are visible quite round, and very large, being in the third degree; but the ditch only in the first. The town or out-buildings here have been chiefly to the west, and south-west of the fort; there being a small brook to the south-east, and a descent from the station to it. The praetorium may be distinguished; and there seems to have been some towers at the corners of the fort, and perhaps too in the sides of the ramparts. The ruins of one of these towers are still very visible. What Dr. Hunter has told us in the Philosophical Transactions deserves notice. In the last edition of Cambden's Britannia this passage is quoted from him, but through mistake referred to House-steeds instead of Little Chesters. The doctor's words are as follow:

" Some years ago, on the west side of this place about fifty yards
" from the walls thereof, there was discovered under a heap of rubbish a square
" room strongly vaulted above, and paved with large square stones set in lime;
" and under this a lower room, whose roof was supported by rows of
" square pillars of about half a yard high. The upper room had two nitches
" like (and perhaps in the nature of) chimneys on each side of every corner
" or square, which in all made the number sixteen: the pavement of this
" room, as also its roof, were tinged with smoke. The stones used in vaulting
" the upper room have been marked, as our joiners do the deals for chambers;
" those 1 saw were numbered thus, x. xi. xiii."

This I take to be the place, which they shewed me, but it was then filled up. It looks very like a balneiri [nb - "bath"; he was right, this is the large bathhouse in the vicus, finally excavated by Robin Birley in the early 1970s -- ed], with the hypocaustum below it. And somewhat of this nature I saw at Lanchester, and Risingham; at this latter place it was not far from the praetorium.

Period Zero
The first known fort at Vindolanda was erected about AD 85, in the aftermath of Agricola's campaigns into modern Scotland. But lately there have been rumblings about pushing that date back, perhaps as much as a decade. That perhaps there is a lost "Period Zero" fort awaiting discovery. Robin mentions it in his latest book (pp. 42-43); Andy's brought it up in discussion. As yet there's no physical evidence whatsoever to suggest it (at least none that the Trust has released!). But the idea seems to be gaining traction.


Perhaps it's thanks to two archaeological discoveries, nearly a century apart.

Less than a decade ago archaeologists discovered timbers at Carlisle that were felled in about AD 73. That proves that the Roman army was already in the area, but on the west coast, several years before Agricola made his push into Caledonia. Before this discovery, it was assumed that he must have started from York. That's still possible, but there is now a good argument for Carlisle as a base of operation.

The argument is strengthened, maybe, by a second discovery, first recorded in detail some 88 years ago. There is a large, little known earthwork that passes about 3 miles east of Vindolanda known as "The Black Dyke." It was first recorded in the early 18th Century by antiquarians Warburton & Horsley. But in 1921, Lt.-Colonel G.R.B. Spain made a full account of the earthwork, tracing it along its path from the South Tyne to its end at the North Tyne, some 13 miles. He published it in Archaeologia Aeliana in 1922 (Series 3, Vol. 19, pp. 121-170) -- an interesting read in itself with some great maps and details. He noted that it was a rampart and ditch, and the ditch lay to the west of the rampart throughout its length. This meant that it was built to protect people to the east from invaders to the west. Importantly, he noted that it lay under the remains of Hadrian's Wall and the Vallum, meaning that it predated the Wall. (See picture below from the report.)

Spoiler: click to toggle

That is as far as the known facts can take us, from what I can tell. The exact dating of the Black Dyke wasn't discovered by Spain, and it still seems an open question. But it was clearly a large undertaking, meant to hold back a large enemy. It fires the imagination. After all, Vindolanda's location -- and its nearby resources of fresh water, stone, lead, coal, iron ore, and even old-growth oak -- would make it an ideal base of operations for a Roman general preparing to drive north and east from Carlisle.

One can almost picture a Roman sentry atop Barcombe Hill looking east at the distant rampart and ditch. He sees it stretch for miles in either direction, a stern warning from a proud people, and he thinks, "You know, maybe we should do that some day."

The Persistence of Misinformation
Another example of the "mansio" myth living on 20 years post-debunking: http://archaeological-buildings.suite101.com/article.cfm/vindolanda_roman_fort (see the last paragraph)

This document was apparently just created this past November. The mansio bit is not the only flaw (Vindolanda rebuilt in stone when it became part of Hadrian's Wall's defenses??). What's troubling is that this Web site is, as of 2 Jan 2010, on the first page of hits when you Google "Vindolanda"!

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