“ Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum bring history alive. Vindolanda is a fascinating Roman fort and civilian settlement lying just to the south of Hadrian's Wall. The Roman Army Museum, situated beside one of the best preserved sections of the Wall, offers a captivating insight into the garrisons of Hadrian's Wall. Tel: 01434 344277 / Fax: 01434 344060. „
I've just read Helencb's excellent review on Vindolanda and thought I'd write about my experiences of the site from a slightly different perspective.
I was first attracted to the site when I studied archaeology and was looking for a dig to go on. Vindolanda accepts volunteer excavators every year with applications for potential diggers going live on their website www.vindolanda.com round about December every year and no prior excavation experience is required. Vindolanda is located in the small village of Bardon Mill which lies between Haltwhistle and Hexham. Vindolanda itself was constructed before Hadrian's Wall, but is located nearby and both military and civilian remains exist on the site.
Excavations start in April and continue through until September with two separate teams working on two separate areas. Volunteers are expected to dig for two weeks, but many volunteers choose instead to do just one week, while other volunteers arrange to do more than two. Volunteers are charged £50 whether they dig for a week or a fortnight and an additional £15 to become Friends of Vindolanda, if they aren't already. The price of excavation includes an excavator's t-shirt to make you feel very exclusive and important! Volunteers are not provided with accommodation and have to arrange and pay for that themselves, but food bought at the on site cafe is subsidised to an extent and everything else needed for excavation is provided for them so there is no need to go out and buy your own trowel and bucket!
The site attracts around 300 volunteer excavators a year and many of them return year after year. Excavation is a great way to learn about the site and history of the area and the site through getting involved but can also be at times quite physically demanding and conditions can often be quite uncomfortable. However, the other volunteers and the excavators in charge are extremely friendly and helpful and there tends to be a great feeling of comradarie which can cheer up any despondant excavator when they're knee-deep in mud on a nippy, rainy day. Of course, there is a great feeling of satisfaction when you dig something out of the ground, even if it is only a small pottery sherd.
For anyone nervous about excavating for the first time there is plenty of help at hand. Whatever an excavator is asked to do will be explained to them and their work will be checked now and again so there really is no need to worry about destroying the area you're digging in! The day tends to fly in especially since it is broken up with plenty of breaks given to allow some brief relaxation, a chat and a chance to get some heat back into your body.
You could be asked to do many different jobs as a volunteer excavator. You could be asked to remove large amounts of mud in a wheelbarrow, or you could be delicately trowling back an area, or you could be cleaning the mud off pieces of pottery and bone that have been discovered during the course of excavation, but no matter what job you're given to do, you'll be made to feel very welcome and made to feel like you're contributing to the history of the site.
As Vindolanda is open to the public there is a good chance that you'll be questioned by visitors. You'll have been given a briefing about the site on your arrival and if you feel confident enough in your knowledge of the site you'll be able to chat away and answer their questions, but if you feel more comfortable shovelling mud than you do blethering to enquiring members of the public, that's also fine and you can point them in the direction of one of the site supervisors.
Excavators work 5 days a week (the days vary depending on which site you work on) which leaves 2 days a week for you to recover if you've agreed to do the fortnight. There's plenty at Vindolanda itself to fill some time if you're stuck for something to do in your days off with many of the Roman remains on display as well as a museum and some reconstructions such as a temple all on site. If you have a car there are also plenty of other Roman sites nearby to visit or if you're not completely knackered you could even walk some of the Wall. Also, both Carlisle and Newcastle are nearby if you fancy fitting in some shopping.
Excavation can be hazardous and is certainly not suitable for children but for adults it can be an interesting, thought-provoking and unusual holiday. The only problem is, you might discover you enjoy it so much that you want to come back every year!
Oh Lord, where to start with this review, there is just far too much to say, and all about a site of utmost historical importance. Yet in my ignorance, I had not even heard about until quite recently, despite living 2hours from Hadrian's Wall, either side, for most of my life.
The Soldiers Have no Beer. Please fetch some right away. Just one of the messages found on the priceless writing tablets, made from Birch and Alder wood, and, dating from Period III at Vindolanda (97-105AD) represent some of the earliest records in Britain. (The writing tablets themselves are now being professionally stored in the British Museum.)
Hadrians Wall was, of course, the most Northern Frontier for most of the period of the Roman Invasion of Britain, and was built as a defence for the Barbarians further north. Vindolanda appears to have been occupied around AD 85, some 40 years before the 74-mile long Hadrians Wall was built. The name Vindolanda means White Lawns or White Fields, and is situated on the Stanegate Roman Frontier, which is slightly south of, and existed prior to the Hadrians Wall Frontier.
Once Hadrians Wall itself was built Vindolanda took its place as a Roman Fort Site between Housesteads and Great Chesters. Today you will find Vindolanda signposted from the extremely Roman and straight road that is now known as the B6318 or from the A69 north of Bardon Mill and NNE from Haltwhistle (itself the Geographical Centre of Britain across all compass directions).
The Vindolanda Trust is a registered charity and further excavations of the site depend on the support of visitors to the grounds, and Friends of the Trust. Based on speed of the current excavations, it is estimated that it will take another 150 years to fully excavate the old fort site (excluding the cemeteries), despite the Trust having been founded 34 years ago, in 1970. The site was occupied until the 5th century when the buildings were abandoned; the site was raided for good quality stone and soil began to cover the whole site.
Back in those days, almost 2000 years ago, the forts were built from Timber and had to be rebuilt every eight years or so, and by the time Hadrian was in reign, Vindolanda was on its fifth such fort. The Roman habit of covering old structures with a layer of clay or turf created anaerobic conditions over the site and this resulting lack of oxygen meant that all the personal artefacts of the roman soldiers have survived without much damage. And how fascinating they have turned out to be.
The main attractions at Vindolanda can be grouped as follows: The outdoor remains themselves, excavations in progress, the Museum of Artefacts and Writing Tablets, and the replica Roman Temple, Shop and House.
After paying your entry fee (see below) you will initially walk through a small exhibition area giving you some basic information about the site, before venturing outside to the Excavation Areas. Some of the aerial photographs in this area are amazing, in that you can clearly see the progress of the trust over the last 34 years.
During the summer months there will be archaeologists working live on excavations six days a week excluding Saturdays. There are several sites to wander through including the remains of a temple, excavation of wells and water tanks, Commanders Residence, Bath House, Civilian Settlement, Latrines, and Cemetery. As you walk through all of these areas you begin to build a picture in your mind of how the Romans would have lived at the time, with the protection of the North, South, East and West walls of the fort of Vindolanda itself. The later forts were built from Stone and not wood, and include HQ, latrines, and the bathhouse.
The grounds are delightful, especially in good weather and you can make your way slowly down to the Open Air Museum and gardens via a steep path from East Gate or an easier route from the South Gate (suitable for wheelchairs and prams).
The outdoor area itself is mainly comprised of reconstructions, including a shop front and a small croft. These attractions will probably be of particular interest to children because of the audiovisual impact of the voices of people from yesteryear describing their lives and living conditions.
Crossing the delightful stone bridge over the Chineley burn and you will arrive at the Chesterholm Museum, which was a mill in the 19th century. I have to point out that I am not one who normally enjoys looking at glass case after glass case of old artefacts - but this collection was pretty special, I thought. Of utmost importance are the writing tablets, which are the earliest written records in Britain, and the only artefacts that have left Vindolanda for the British Museum. They were also voted as number one in the BBCs Top Ten Treasures. The very first writing tablet was in fact an inscription to a soldier from his family telling him his parcel of socks and other necessities were on their way, and the Soldiers Running out of Beer was of utmost importance together with other fine examples of official and private correspondence.
Other attractions in the museum include a huge collection of leather shoes and boots, both childrens and adults (soldiers) in amazingly good condition, saddlery, pots, utensils, protective gear, jewellery, keys which would put Chubb to shame, and combs which are almost identical to the narrow toothed combs we all dreaded at school!
When you have finished your visit, there is of course the obligatory gift shop, which is well stocked with books, for the enthusiasts; and a tearoom. As you leave the site you will also get the opportunity to visit the Hadrians Wall replicas (site no 9) incorporating a stone wall and turret, and a timber milestone gateway, these exhibitions being built by a group of female Gateshead schoolgirls some 30 years ago to demonstrate how high Hadrians Wall actually was at the time.
Entry to Vindolanda costs £4.95 per adult (2006) with discounts for Children, Seniors and Students; family tickets are priced at £14. You may also buy a discounted ticket to cover both Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum just a few miles away. Disabled Guests and helpers are also welcome, although I did observe that the site is steep in places (but telephone 01434 344277 for access information)
Do I recommend a visit? You bet I do! I can honestly say I had not heard of Vindolanda and was not particularly attracted by the brief information I had gleaned before entering the site, but this has to be a £4.95 and a couple of hours well spent reflecting on the historical importance of this region.
Vindolanda Trust, Chesterholm Museum, Bardon Mill, Hexham, Northumberland, NE47 7JN
Opening hours are 10am until 6pm during the summer months and until 5pm during the late autumn.
Tel 01434 344 277
Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum bring history alive. Vindolanda is a fascinating Roman fort and civilian settlement lying just to the south of Hadrian's Wall. The Roman Army Museum, situated beside one of the best preserved sections of the Wall, offers a captivating insight into the garrisons of Hadrian's Wall.