Recent excavations at the British Roman fort of Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, England have produced a fascinating and unique artif
Recent excavations at the British Roman fort of Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, England have produced a fascinating and unique artifact, according to a new announcement from the Vindolanda Trust. While digging beneath the floor of a fourth-century structure unearthed at the sprawling site, volunteers Richie Milor and David Goldwater were shocked to find a small, well-preserved sandstone slab that contained an intricately carved image of an unidentified figure. The man in the latest Vindolanda find was carved into the stone. He was naked, wearing nothing but some type of triangular headpiece. He was holding a long spear, while standing directly in front of a small horse or donkey.
The latest Vindolanda find, a carved stone tablet relief, is proudly held up by the volunteers (Richie Milor and David Goldwater) who found it, where it was unearthed. ( Vindolanda Trust )
Latest Vindolanda Find: An Unusual Ancient Sandstone Tablet
The latest Vindolanda find, the sandstone slab or tablet of a naked man, measured 6.2 inches by 12.4 inches, or 160 mm by 315 mm. It was made to fit into some type of recessed niche, meaning it could have been part of a much larger mosaic of images at one point.
The sandstone relief contains no inscription and is not similar to any other items found at the site. This makes it impossible to positively identify the individual in the image.
“The nakedness of the man means he is probably a god, rather than a mere cavalryman,” suggested archaeologist Marta Alberti, who works full-time supervising the ongoing excavations at Vindolanda.
“He is also carrying a spear in his left arm, a common attribute of the god of War – Mars. However, when you look at his head, the two almost circular features could be identified as wings: a common attribute of Mercury – god of travel. Horses and donkeys are also often associated with Mercury as a protector of travelers.”
The latest Vindolanda find was made by volunteers, who uncovered the relief under a stone floor located near a large fourth-century cavalry barracks or living quarters. It may have represented some type of hybrid god, combining elements of Mars and Mercury, that had special meaning to the men living in that area at that time.
Throughout its 300-year history, the fort at Vindolanda was occupied by thousands of foreign mercenaries or local recruits. These men were not members of the Roman Legion but were instead auxiliaries doing the bidding of the Roman Empire in Britain. In the latter stages, the auxiliary forces at Vindolanda were comprised primarily of men from Gaul, which was the Roman name for the territory in western Europe now occupied by parts or all of France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and northern Italy.
The latest Vindolanda find of the naked man on a sandstone relief tablet, which has now been “cleaned” to reveal the carving more clearly. ( Vindolanda Trust )
If the new Vindolanda find is a religious artifact created by the Gauls that somehow represented their religious beliefs, it wouldn’t be the first discovery of that nature made at Vindolanda. Earlier excavations turned up an altar built by the Gauls that was dedicated to a goddess they referred to as Gallia. No images of this goddess have ever been uncovered at the site, nor any other references to her. So, there is no way to know how—or if—she might be related to the carved figure in the latest Vindolanda discovery.
Sections of Hadrian’s Wall still remain, particularly in its hilly central sector. Little remains in lowland regions, where the Wall was previously plundered as a source of free stone for new buildings. (Velella / Public domain )
Vindolanda and Britain’s Northern Roman Frontier
The original fort at Vindolanda was built during a tumultuous time for the Romans, during the first century AD. As new colonizers, they were struggling to establish their authority on the northern border of Britannia. They were worried about possible invasions from people they referred to as the Caledonians, who lived in what is now the territory of Scotland.
Construction at Vindolanda began in approximately 77 AD and was completed around 85 AD. This fort had a special purpose, which was to guard the important Roman road of Stanegate. This militarily vital pathway connected Roman forts constructed at two river crossings, on the River Tyne to the east and the River Eden in the west. The Romans hoped to conquer Caledonia and absorb it into their province of Britannia eventually, meaning the forts they were building had an offensive as well as defensive purpose.
At this time, Stanegate essentially represented the northern border of Roman Britain, which put Vindolanda directly on the frontline. The situation changed dramatically in the second century AD, however. In the year 122 AD, Roman Emperor Hadrian decided to build a great wall across northern England, to create a more secure north-south border.
When fully intact and complete, Hadrian’s Wall was at least 12 feet (3.7 meters) high and eight feet (2.4 meters) wide. It crossed the entire 73-mile (118-kilometer) width of the British isthmus, from the Irish Sea in the west to the North Sea in the east. It included towers or turrets all along its length, to make sure visual surveillance of the surrounding area was complete.
With Stanegate and Vindolanda now located to the south of this long fortification, the mission of the garrison stationed at the fort became less urgent. Nevertheless, Vindolanda remained occupied until the late fourth century AD, as the Romans maintained a strong military presence in the north throughout the duration of their occupation of Britain. They were never able to subdue the fearsome Caledonians, who successfully resisted the efforts of the Roman forces to incorporate them into their province.
A unique religious shrine uncovered next to the north gate of the fort at Vindolanda Roman fort in 2009 contained three precious altars. Now, archaeologists at the site have taken the unusual step of replicating the altars which has enabled them to be visible in the landscape for the first time in 1,800 years. ( Vindolanda Trust )
Over the course of its long history, Vindolanda underwent several construction phases. Multiple wooden and stone forts were built, along with a variety of other buildings used for storage and housing. All this activity left behind an impressive complex of ruins that archaeologists have been exploring on and off since the 18 th century.
Inside these ruins, archaeologists have found a treasure trove of artifacts left behind by the military personnel who occupied the fort, possibly along with their families in some instances. These artifacts include a broad variety of personal, military, and religious items, all of which reveal something about what life was like on the frontiers of Roman Britain.
Most notably, the occupants of the fort left behind written records in the form of tablets made from wood leaves and inscribed with carbon-based ink. More than 750 Vindolanda tablets have been recovered and translated so far, and more of these important documents are still being found during the ongoing excavations.
The Vindolanda tablets cover diverse subject matter. They were used to document various military-related affairs, activities, and procedures. They were also used for individual correspondence, and many contain personal messages that were exchanged between and among soldiers, their family members, and their slaves.
Vindolanda was not the site of any epic battles or conflicts. But the artifacts and ruins it has produced have offered valuable insights into daily life among the occupying forces that represented Roman interests and concerns in early first millennium Britannia.
An aerial photo of the Vindolanda fortress site showing the rolling countryside where this enduring Roman fort still stands today. ( Vindolanda Trust )
Vindolanda Tourists Are Welcome, as Excavations Continue
Vindolanda is a popular tourist destination. Visitors can walk the site and tour a large museum that was built to house the many artifacts that have been uncovered there over the years.
The newly discovered carved relief tablet will be put on display in the site’s museum in an exhibit that opens on July 1 and will remain open for public viewing for the rest of the year (2021).
Meanwhile, this season’s excavations at Vindolanda will continue until September 24, as professional and volunteer archaeologists alike look for more artifacts that may somehow shed a light on the identity of the mysterious figure depicted in this ancient image from Britain’s Roman past.
Top image: The latest Vindolanda find on the right is a remarkable and unusual sandstone relief that may depict a god, but this is still unclear. The landscape where the latest tablet was found is shown on the right. Source: Vindolanda Trust
By Nathan Falde