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Excavations of 1959; by Robin Birley
Topic Started: Apr 13 2010, 09:27 PM (384 Views)
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1959 was something of a momentous year at Vindolanda. After more than 20 years of relative inactivity, the sound of spades & wheelbarrows again rang out at the site. This time, instead of Professor Eric Birley, it was son Robin at the helm, leading his first major Vindolanda excavation. Robin and his team opened three trenches off the SW corner of the visible stone fort. He published his report in Archaeologia Aeliana, Series IV, Volume XL (1962). Now, he and the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-upon-Tyne have graciously permitted the reproduction of that report here. As before, please keep in mind that these works are still held under copyright, used here by permission, and not intended to be reproduced or republished. Hope you enjoy!


R. E. Birley

This report on excavations at Chesterholm is long overdue. It had been intended to resume excavations there in 1962, in an attempt to secure the complete plan of the vicus, but this writer's leisure must now be devoted to other commitments, and it has been thought expedient to publish the results of the 1959 excavation, together with a record of two interesting finds from trial trenching in the fort ditches in 1949 and 1956, before they are forgotten. The decorated samian bowl from the 1949 excavation and the coin from that of 1956 are described in the short appendices to this report, which concerns work in the vicus.

It had not hitherto been possible to excavate in the field to the south of that in which the fort of Vindolanda and the greater part of the vicus lie; but in February 1959, through the good offices of the late Thomas Batey, Mr. Henderson of Huntercrook kindly gave permission for a short investigation of certain surface indications, and the Durham University Excavation Committee put the services of their two workmen, Messrs. Batey and Hall, at the disposal of the writer. Professor Birley and Mr. J. P. Gillam visited the site and gave much advice and assistance, while Mr. Charles Anderson of the Ministry of Works brought a hut for the excavation tools. It must be recorded that during the five weeks of excavation in February and March only one morning was disrupted by poor weather, and apart from the difficulty of removing frozen turf no better conditions could be imagined.


Very little was known about the area south of the field wall near the south-west angle of the fort; but Hodgson’s account, based on notes made in 1810, implied the possibility of Roman burials, and surface indications of buildings, taken in conjunction with the contours of the site, suggested the existence of a Mithraeum close to the large oak-tree.

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Figure 1

(a) Site I. A few yards down the slope from the oak-tree a large stone, visible on the surface of a boggy patch, had already attracted attention, implying the presence of a substantial structure. It proved to be part of a massive, rough roadway crossing over a wide flat-bottomed ditch, evidently to drain off water from the west side of the fort, higher up the hill (see fig. 1). Surface inspection showed the existence of a rough cart-track approaching the crossing from the east, but there was no trace of a continuation to the west. Fuller investigation would involve draining the area, but it was apparent that the crossing was placed across the ditch when it was already largely silted up, and there was not enough evidence to give a date to its construction. It might be Roman, but it could also date from the eighteenth century.

(b) Site II. Higher up the slope, and near the south-west angle of the fort, there lay a small workshop, 39 ft. 8 ins. by 20 ft. 6 ins. (see fig. 2), built above the filled-in ditch, which was fully 40 ft. wide and at least 7 ft. deep at this point, probably representing the junction of a fort ditch with the drainage ditch. In it a small furnace bore witness of intense fire, whilst a heavy platform near by presumably served as a work-bench; this latter was situated immediately in front of a small partitioned enclosure which, to judge from a hole in the outside wall at ground level, served as a latrine. The fact that its outlet adjoined a well need not surprise us, for the latter's water can only have been used for industrial purposes, in view of the presence of quantities of rubbish, including much bone, in the ditch below. The western room had been largely demolished, but remains of the floor supports and the absence of broken flags suggested that there had been a wooden floor, raised above ground level to offset the dampness of the site. The building showed traces of two periods, the second of which had occasioned considerable reconstruction; the main north-south partition wall had been re-aligned, whilst reinforcement had proved necessary on the northern part of the east wall. Here the wall was found to be subsiding into the ditch, and one suspects that the reconstruction may have been necessitated by the collapse of the first building, due to inadequate foundations. The fact that such a site was chosen for a building, above a wide drainage ditch and hard by the fort ditch and wall, suggests that the settlement was crowded and that for that reason building-sites were not available outside its established limits, perhaps due to fort cemeteries and agricultural holdings. Associated finds suggested that this building had been erected in the mid-third century and abandoned in the mid-fourth, perhaps c. A.D. 368 on the Theodosian restoration of the fort, when there are grounds for believing that the vicus was abandoned and the surviving civilian population moved into the fort itself. The uniform height of the remaining walls and the comparative absence of fallen masonry argues for a systematic demolition of the building, probably because its presence obstructed the defences of the fort.

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Figure 2

(c) Site III. South-east of the workshop there lay the remains of another building, so effectively dismantled that its original purpose could not be determined. It faced north-east and was some 40 ft. long, built of large blocks of masonry of a very different character from that of site II. Little stonework remained in the north-west wall, and the entire southwest wall had been stripped down to the foundations; of the remainder, there was no trace at all. From its general shape, with traces of an apse, one suspects that it may have been a temple, and its destruction would be assignable to the Theodosian restoration of the fort, as in the case of site II.

(d) Trial trenches were cut into the marshy ground towards the west end of the field, in the hope of locating the burial-ground reported by Hodgson in 1810, but apart from a few scraps of pottery nothing was found.

For a summary of earlier investigations at Vindolanda it may be convenient to refer to Eric Birley, Research on Hadrian's Wall (1961) 146f. and 184-188.


In April 1956 a short excavation, to determine the position of the ditch at the south-west angle of the fort, was rained off before any positive results had been obtained; but a coin that was found at a depth of 2 ft. deserves permanent record. It was originally identified by Mr. J. H. Corbitt, to whom thanks are due: Sestertius, in mint condition, of Diadumenianus (April 217 to June 218). Obv. M OPEL ANTONINVS DIADVMENIANVS CAES, head bare r., bust draped and cuirassed. Rev. PRINC IVVENTVTIS S.C., Diadumenian standing front, head r., holding standard and sceptre; on r., two standards. Mint of Rome. Cf. R.I.C. 211 (vol. iv, part ii, plate v, 13).


In September 1949 a short excavation established the position of the south ditch, a few yards east of the south gateway of the fort. The records of that excavation are no longer to hand, but a fine samian bowl, found beneath a flag on the northern lip of the ditch, deserves a record (cf. fig. 3); Professor Birley has contributed the following note upon it:

“Dr. 37, free-style decoration separated by a bold wavy line from an unusual ovolo, well shown in the drawing; its attribution to the potter PRIMANVS of Lezoux is permitted by the discovery of another bowl (still unpublished) at Piercebridge, Co. Durham, carrying that potter's stamp on the under side of the base and using the identical ovolo. But for the ovolo and the potter's stamp, the Piercebridge bowl would have been assigned without hesitation to the better-known Lezoux potter SERVVS or SERVIVS, for whom cf. Central Gaulish Potters 231 ff. with pl. 131. Fuller discussion must be reserved for another place; here it will suffice to note that SERVIVS was presumably proprietor of his business, PRIMANVS an employee; their period of production should belong to the closing decade or two of the second century, and the Chesterholm bowl may be taken to come from the destruction-level of A.D. 197, overlaid by a flag of the Severan reconstruction.”

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Figure 3
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This snapshot from Google Earth will hopefully help make sense of the three main dig sites mentioned in the report.

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Robin was to follow up discussion of the three in 1994's Vindolanda Research Reports, New Series, Volume 1: The Early Wooden Forts, Roman Army Museum Publications (Bardon Mill), pp. 131-132. Site I wasn't redug, but there is an interesting discussion of a likely Roman track down toward the Tyne making use of the site. Site II's eastern side was explored more fully, and it was confirmed as a foundry with a fairly long life. A later shed was discovered attached to the eastern side along the north wall. The stonework used in Site II seemed to be more closely related to Severan Period VI-B stonework than a Period VII vicus, making this building something of an enigma. Lastly, of Site III Robin notes that "there is little to add to the 1959 report's conclusion." Robin concluded from the evidence that it was "probably an orthodox civilian 'strip house', unremarkable except for the skill demonstrated by its builders' successful efforts to avoid subsidence in a dangerously unstable environment." It was entirely removed so that the early forts could be thorougly examined at this spot. And indeed the early Period II/III gateways were found lying a couple meters directly below.
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