No precisely dateable material (such as coins or timber) has been found to establish exactly when Vindolanda was first built, but pottery finds indicate that it was in the mid to late 80s – during that post-Agricolan rethink of strategy when the Romans abandoned Caledonia. The fort went through a further four phases of construction in timber. In about 92, its second phase, Vindolanda was doubled in size. Its third phase, c.97, was apparently a refurbishment of the second. The next major rebuild, the fourth phase, was in c.105. In its fifth phase, c.120, Vindolanda received a massive timber courtyard-building, superior in style and construction to the norm, which, it has been speculated, may have been built to accommodate Emperor Hadrian, on his visit to Britain in 122. Sometime during the period 120–150, the fort was reduced in size – it seems reasonable to assume that this was a consequence of the transfer, in the mid to late 120s, of most of its garrison to new forts on Hadrian's Wall – and building in stone began. Development of the fort of Vindolanda continued – it was occupied until the end of Roman rule in Britain, and beyond.*
Vindolanda is famous for the hundreds of writing tablets – slivers of wood, written on with pen and ink (chance survivors of the rubbish tip) – associated with the late-1st and early-2nd century, timber, phases of the fort, that have been unearthed since 1973. One tablet (TVII 154), found in the ditch of the first fort (mid to late 80's–c.92), is a strength report of the unit based at Vindolanda at that time:
“18 May, net number of the First Cohort of Tungrians [Cohors I Tungrorum], of which the commander is Iulius Verecundus the prefect, 752, including centurions 6
of whom there are absent:
guards of the governor 46
at the office of Ferox
at Coria [Corbridge] 337
including centurions 2 [?]
at London centurion 1 [?]
... 6
including centurion 1
... 9
including centurion 1
... 11
at [?] ... 1 [?]
total absentees 456
including centurions 5
remainder, present 296
including centurion 1
from these:
sick 15
wounded 6
suffering from inflammation of the eyes 10
total of these 31
remainder, fit for active service 265
including centurion 1”
Virtually two thirds of the unit is away from base, and more than a tenth of those on base are unfit for duty. Whether the “wounded” were the victims of battle or accident cannot be gauged, but mention in the tablets of a “hospital” (TVII 155) and of “Marcus, the medical orderly” (TVII 156) implies that they would have received professional treatment. Tablets TVII 155 and 156 were found in third fort (i.e. c.97–c.105) contexts, and show the kind of everyday duties that would occupy the average squaddie:
“24 April, in the workshops, 343 men. of these: shoemakers, 12 builders to the bath-house,18 for lead ... saw-makers [?] ... ... hospital ... to the kilns ... for clay ... plasterers ... for ... tents [?] ... for rubble ...”
TVII 155
“7 March sent to build a guest-house for Marcus, the medical orderly, builders, number 30 to burn stone, number 19 [?] to produce clay for the wattle fences of the camp ...”
TVII 156
TVII 164, another tablet from a third fort context, is apparently the end of a note describing the natives' fighting style:
“... the Britons are unprotected by armour [?]. There are very many cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords nor do the Brittunculi [wretched little Britons] mount in order to throw javelins.”*
It is clear that the third fort's garrison was, mainly, the 9th Cohort of Batavians (Cohors VIIII Batavorum).* TVII 291 is possibly one of the best known of the Vindolanda Tablets. It is a birthday party invitation from Claudia Severa, wife of one Aelius Brocchus, to Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Flavius Cerialis. Flavius Cerialis was prefect of (i.e. commander of) the 9th Cohort of Batavians in the early years of the second century, and he is named in over a hundred tablets.
TVII 291. The tablet was folded, along a central score, and would have been tied closed. The address is on the back: “To Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Cerialis, from Severa.”
“Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present [?]. Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him [?] their greetings. * I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.”
The 9th Cohort of Batavians was transferred to the Danube c.105.* After that, the 1st Cohort of Tungrians would seem to have, once more, provided the majority of the garrison.* The 1st Cohort of Tungrians may have moved to the nearby Wall fort of Vercovicium (Housesteads) when Hadrian's Wall was first inaugurated – they were certainly stationed at Housesteads during the 3rd century (as attested by several inscriptions), and the ‘Notitia Dignitatum’ places them at Housesteads around 400.*
See the Vindolanda Tablets Online website.
The Vindolanda Writing Tablets (Tabulae Vindolandenses II) by A.K. Bowman and J.D. Thomas, 1994.
The timber fort phases underlie the later phases of stone fort and attached civilian settlement (‘vicus’). The first fort's remains can be up to 6 metres below those of the last. Numismatic evidence suggests that, unlike the fort, the civilian settlement had been vacated and destroyed by 270.
The Tungrian homeland was in modern-day Belgium.
The Batavians were from, what is now, the Netherlands.
‘Notitia Dignitatum’ (Register of Dignitaries): A list of Roman civil and military posts, originating from c.400.
There have been several guesses at the purpose of TVII 164. Perhaps the most likely are that it was a note left for a new commanding officer, informing him of what he could expect to face in the field, by his predecessor, or that it was an appraisal of the locals as potential recruits into the Roman military. Either way, its author clearly didn't have a high opinion of British cavalry (or perhaps Britons generally) – the derogatory description ‘Brittunculi’ is only known from this tablet.
Aelius Brocchus is assumed to have been prefect of the, unknown, auxiliary unit who garrisoned the, unidentified but presumably reasonably nearby, fort of Briga.
The closing sentences are written in a different hand from the rest of the letter – undoubtedly that of Severa herself. Severa's handwriting is believed to be the earliest known handwriting in Latin done by a woman.
In an amendment of 2003, Bowman and Thomas suggest “saw-makers” or possibly “sawmen” here. They had previously proposed “for ... wagons”, but are now sure this is not correct. Incidentally, “24 April” (viii Kal. Mai.) is also an amendment – previously it was thought to be “25 April” (vii Kal. Mai.).
Most tablets, by far, have been found in third fort contexts – particularly amongst the leftovers from bonfires.
The 9th Cohort of Batavians were also at Vindolanda during the period of the second fort (c.92–c.97). There are two tablets (TVII 263 & 311) from the third fort which mention the 3rd Cohort of Batavians. Possibly this unit also had a detachment stationed at Vindolanda, at some point, during that period (i.e. c.97–c.105).
TVII 180 & 181 are from a fourth fort (c.105–120+) context. TVII 180 records a distribution of wheat to “the legionary soldiers”. TVII 181 names, amongst others, “the Vardullian cavalrymen” as owing money. These latter were presumably a detachment of Cohors I Fida Vardullorum equitata civium Romanorum, whose homeland was in, what is now, northern Spain, and who are attested, by a diploma, to have been in Britain by 98.
Dating references on a tablet (TVIII 581) place the 9th Cohort of Batavians at Vindolanda until the end of April, or possibly mid July, 104. Stamped tiles place them in Buridava, Moesia Inferior, during the period 102–106. Presumably they participated in Trajan's second Dacian war (105–106), which resulted in Rome's annexation of Dacia. They never returned to Britain.
written in 1937, by W. H. Auden (1907–73).
Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I've lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.
The rain comes pattering out of the sky.
I'm a Wall soldier, I don't know why.
The mist creeps over the hard grey stone.
My girl's in Tungria; I sleep alone.
Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don't like his manners, I don't like his face.
Piso's a Christian, he worships a fish;
There'd be no kissing if he had his wish.
She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.
When I'm a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.