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How much was still left?
Topic Started: Mar 20 2010, 01:39 PM (299 Views)
SacoHarry
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Taking a first stab here at some outside-the-box thinking. Here goes!

A big "story" of Hadrian's Wall is the idea that so much was still intact until relatively recently -- say, the 18th Century. That there were still forts looking like forts with impressive walls and visible house remains. And that the Enclosure Acts and the Military Road utterly devastated this.

Following this, many modern scholars look at old reports of Vindolanda and say that as recently as near 1700 parts of the military bath house were still standing, and a nearby temple was still upright as well.

I'm not convinced.

First, Camden made clear that even by 1599 large swathes of the Wall were completely obliterated by human activity. Though he wasn't able to inspect the central sector, he gives good account of other long stretches where there was clearly nothing left to be seen. Second, when Horsley made his journey in 1725 (a generation before the Military Road was built), he encountered only bits and pieces that could be said to be standing "in the fourth degree" -- that is, with original stones on stones visible above the brush & rubble.

The earliest eyewitness to Vindolanda appears to be Christopher Hunter. Writing in 1702, he describes what seems surely to be the military bath house. He describes a lower room, and an upper room. Of the upper, he says it was "strongly vaulted above." To modern eyes/ears, that sounds like an arched vault, like the arched roof the bath house would originally have had. But the rest of the description doesn't quite wash.

First of all, he said that the upper room had "niches, like... Chimnies on each side of every corner or square." The term "niche" seems to imply that the side facing the room was open to the air; not that it was a hollow chimney pipe. The only area where the chimneys would appear as niches would be in the hypocaust area under the floor -- where the chimneys would -have- to be open to collect the smoke & heat.

This seems supported by another of his comments, that the "pavement of this Room, and also its Roof, were tinged black with Smoak." There would be no way that an actual room used within the bath house would be smoke-tinged all over, unless it had been destroyed in a cataclysmic fire -- of which there was no evidence.

Some would counter that his last statement supports the idea of an arched, vaulted roof: "The Stones used in Vaulting the upper Room have been marked as our Joyners do the Deals for Chambers." But the terms "Joyners" and "Deals" show that he was describing woodworkers using straight planks of wood (middle English "Deals"). An odd comparison for an arched roof.

15 years later, John Warburton uses the term "vault" in a much more pedestrian way, describing the hypocaust rooms as vaults (storage chambers or "for receiving the offal of sacrifices"). Perhaps it is in this vein that Hunter was describing two hypocausted rooms, flat-floored, flat-roofed, vault-like, blackened by soot.

Another argument is made that there may have been a standing Temple of Diana on the western edge of the vicus into the 18th Century. However, there are no reports from any 18th C or earlier eyewitness of anything standing; there were only columns and capitals found and taken away by stone masons. Pieces of columns and capitals are still found today, broken or reused in later buildings, so the find isn't that surprising. The association with Diana is also only based on the observation that many stags' antlers were found somewhere nearby, and that they -may- have been part of a ceremony for Diana.

In looking at all other building on and near Hadrian's Wall, none of it looks like it was meant to stand the test of time. Construction techniques that may have suited the warm Mediterranean surely were not meant to survive centuries of northern winters. Moreover, the vast reuse of Roman stone by late- and post-Roman workers for defenses no doubt took their toll on anything that had remained standing. While there's no doubt that some parts of the Hadrian's Wall frontier were in a better state in the 17th/early-18th C than they are today (Carvoran one of the best examples), there's no good evidence that any parts of Vindolanda were recognizable and upstanding to any significant height by the time the antiquaries could have gotten there and saved them.
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SacoHarry
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Thanks much for the response Andy!

Re the niches, I understood that the hot air was carried up from below by hollow tubes made from fired clay. Is that right? So if the plaster had fallen off, I'd have thought someone would see -- and comment on -- the tubes. But you're right, just because Dr. Hunter didn't say "And there were red-brick tubes like chimneys built into recesses in the walls" doesn't mean they weren't there.

I concede that Dr. Hunter was describing vaulted arch stones. That's pretty exciting that you found the exact same thing in the early baths -- another reason for me to add to my report collection!

And you're of course right that in the end, there's no way to answer for sure. I'm just trying to imagine what's most likely. Except for strongrooms (which Dr. Hunter's room wasn't), any walls supporting an arch would have been standing 10+ feet high. Asking the load-bearing sides of a wall to stand perfectly upright in northern English weather for some 1500 years (c. AD 200 to c. AD 1700), without bowing or bending in the slightest lest the roof crash down, seems a longshot. Especially considering that (1) late- and post-Roman Vindolandans were voracious rebuilders, using stone from all over the site; (2) the building would have received zero upkeep for 1300+ years; (3) the site came to be known as "Chester-in-the-Wood," suggesting that tree limbs, branches, and especially roots were hard at work on the ruins during that time; and (4) rabbits!!

My hunch is still that Dr. Hunter was describing a structure that had tumbled to the ground, even if its arch stones were recognizable.

Not that it matters much I guess. I just notice from reading Wall histories, there's this narrative of ignorant local farmers wantonly destroying international heritage. And I'm beginning to wonder how much of it was already destroyed and lying in heaps by the time they started extracting the useful bits.
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SacoHarry
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I love Hutton, he seems like such a curmudgeon! He was actually talking about the quote from 1702 by Christopher Hunter, who was describing the bath house. What's funny is that Hutton omits the last part of the last sentence: "rows of square pillars of about half a yard high." Even in a harsh world it's hard to imagine a jail where prisoners were given 18 inches vertical space to live! Clearly Hutton had some preconceived idea, and squished the facts to fit with it.

Hutton changes some words too: he changes Hunter's original "a square room strongly vaulted above" to "a square room below the ground, strongly vaulted." It's actually Hutton that first got me thinking about this -- the idea that different impressions can be made over the years, and those impressions can become cast in stone and passed on. Leading us in 2010 to see the earlier world very differently than it really was!

(Another example: Before the Royal Society started charging to see the facsimiles of their original publications, I managed to pull down the original text, which I put at the link above. -But- when it was reprinted in 1809 (the archive.org book that I list in that link above), they changed "The stones used in vaulting the upper room..." to "The stones used in arching the upper room..." Which quite simply isn't what Hunter said.)

It all just makes me more & more skeptical of later docs that are supposedly faithful copies of earlier works!
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