The Roman fort at Vindolanda predates Hadrian’s Wall. It defended northern Roman Britain until the fifth century AD and supported a substantial civilian settlement.
Vindolanda was a major guard outpost of the Stanegate, a major northern British Roman road, and supply route. Predating Hadrian’s Wall by 40 years, it was quickly incorporated into the frontier defenses of Roman Britain.
The site not only maintained a Roman garrison but a substantial and thriving civilian settlement. Many features from both have been excavated and new finds appear continuously even today
History of Vindolanda
The site at Vindolanda was occupied by the Roman army after the defeat of the Caledonians at the battle of Mons Graupius in 85AD. It was established to guard the Roman road, the Stanegate, a vital supply route crossing northern Roman Britain from east to west.
Vindolanda takes its name from the Latin for ‘white lawns’, the name of the Celtic settlement it usurped. Possible remains of the roundhouses from this settlement have been found under the foundations of the fort’s north wall and elsewhere on the site.
The earliest forts were built in timber and needed to be replaced every eight years or so. The fort was only rebuilt in stone after it became part of the defenses of the newly constructed Hadrian’s Wall. In all, there were at least ten forts built on the site. The remains of earlier forts have not been excavated thoroughly as they lie 2-6 meters beneath the current remains.
The fort reached its peak in the third and fourth centuries AD when it was manned by infantry and cavalry troops from Gaul. It remains occupied by official Roman troops until the fifth century AD although it remained garrisoned by local forces until the sixth century AD.
The Fort of Vindolanda
Excavations at Vindolanda are ongoing. Features already excavated include:
The Gates of the Fort. Vindolanda had four gates in all. The gate closest to the civilian settlement, the west gate, has been excavated and shown to be flanked by two defensive towers. The east gate on the opposite side of the fort did not.
The Headquarters Building. Dating from the third-fourth century AD, this occupies the traditional central position of the fort. It has several unusual features including heated rooms and storehouses situated in the veranda around the central courtyard. Vindolanda’s headquarters building also lacked a strong room for the garrison’s funds. Instead, the fort’s money chests were stored in a pit.
The Shrine of Jupiter of Doliche. One of the newest discoveries at Vindolanda, this shrine, and accompanying altar were discovered in 2009 near the north gate of the fort. The 110cm high altar identifies the deity worshiped here. The god is portrayed standing on the back of a bull, complete with an ax and thunderbolt. Jupiter of Doliche was a hybrid of the Roman god Jupiter and an eastern deity popular in the Roman army. The dedicatory inscription indicates his shrine was introduced by a prefect of the fourth cohort. It is unusual to find shrines in Roman forts, according to site director Andrew Birley, making this find another unique feature at Vindolanda.
The commander’s house and a temple to an unknown Romano-Celtic deity, both also dating to the third-fourth century AD have also been discovered, as have the remains of the fort’s wall, which incorporates latrines in the northeastern corner.
The site also contains many reconstructed features, including replicas of Hadrian’s Wall’s defenses in turf, timber and stone, a Roman temple and shop and a Romano British House to give visitors a feel for life in Roman Britain.
The Civilian Settlement at Vindolanda
Civilian settlements outside Roman forts were common, offering support services to the fort and often housing the soldier’s unofficial families.
The remains of the settlement at Vindolanda is the most substantial on Hadrian’s Wall. First built in the second century AD it is situated outside the west gate of the fort. Remains include the lower walls of third-century houses and shops flanking the main road into the fort. It was clearly a substantial settlement as it also boasted a bathhouse and cemetery.
Many articles from the everyday life of the fort and settlement have been retrieved. Amongst the most exceptional are the Vindolanda tablets and the Vindolanda Calendar
- Hadrian’s Wall: A Souvenir Guide to the Roman Wall by David Breeze. English Heritage
- Vindolanda Trust website