Though I don’t maintain an official “bucket list,” one of the things I’ve wanted to do is walk the central section of Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Romans over six years starting in AD 166. So I did that this summer.
Before I went, a Latin teacher friend of mine told me, “You have to see Vindolanda.”
After taking the bus from our hotel in Haltwhistle, my wife and I hiked from Once Brewed up to the wall, and started following the ancient structure across crags and hills.
Most of the wall on the east and west coasts was demolished by medieval English people to reuse its worked stone. In the center, it was hard to access and there were no towns, so it survived.
A moderately strenuous hike got us to the Roman fort at Housesteads. After eating our lunch, we joined a tour but soon realized that, because the Romans were great standardizers, when you’ve seen two Roman forts, you’ve basically seen them all.
We made our way to Vindolanda, two miles south of the wall. It’s one of the most remarkable historical sites and museums I’ve ever seen, significant for its memorial to literacy in the Empire.
Although we have a lot of literature from ancient Rome, the great bulk of it was written by elite writers like Cicero, Virgil, Ovid, and Caesar. (I packed the Loeb edition of Caesar’s “Gallic Wars” and would occasionally piece out the Latin by following the English on the facing pages.)
In Vindolanda, though, by chance and geography, numerous wooden tablets were preserved in an anaerobic environment. These contained records, complaints, appeals, and, importantly, the personal correspondence of ordinary people. One tablet was an invitation to a birthday party from one officer’s wife to another.
The tablet was written in an elegant script by a scribe. At the end, Claudia Severa wrote in her own hand, wishing well to her friend and family. It may be the only manuscript from the ancient world that we are sure was written by a woman.
One tablet was a military roster of a day in June — the year is unknown — which listed how many legionaries were on detached duty, how many were on leave, how many sick, and how many ready for duty. Other tablets talk of commercial transactions, requests for leave and even a letter from a mother in Gaul to her son, sending him new socks.
There’s an intimacy to these artifacts that you don’t find in other museums. Sure, there were tools and bits of weapons and pottery and glass and coins uncovered on site, but they didn’t reveal the details of people’s lives in the same way.
Then there was a whole display of ancient leather shoes, preserved in the same boggy environment that protected the tablets. Some were utilitarian boots; others were elegantly tooled sandals, some for women and children.
Adrian Goldsworthy’s book on Hadrian’s Wall tells us that typical Roman soldiers had three pairs of shoes — their field boots, lighter shoes for town and barracks, and wooden shoes to protect their feet from the hot floors in the public baths.
The museum is new and well designed. The site is in a place of natural beauty, with gardens and reconstructed structures to visit. You can climb towers or enter small temples or just sit on the terrace and ponder. It’s also the location of ongoing archaeological digs.
Not close to any towns, the place was uncrowded. We caught the last bus to Haltwhistle. I regretted that we had too little time at Vindolanda.
I’m leaving it on the bucket list.