Vindolanda and Chesterholm Museum at Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland

Vindolanda and Chesterholm Museum at Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland

The weather was less than ideal when we traveled to Hadrian’s Wall. Cold, wet, cloudy… pretty miserable. I say that up front because it is quite possible that the weather affected my mood. Between the bad weather and my general lack of interest in the ancient time period, I wasn’t very excited about our visit. But Hadrian’s Wall was on hubby’s bucket list, so we went.

Standing in front of a wall built nearly 1900 years ago that is still standing is a pretty remarkable experience.  Emperor Hadrian ordered the building of a wall in order to defend against possible invasion by Scotland in AD 122.  It was 84 miles in length, separating the Roman-conquered England from Scotland. Along the wall were three major forts and many smaller camps.

Caveat Emptor: There is a combination ticket you can purchase that is good for admission to the Vindolanda site and the Roman Army Museum. The museum located at Vindolanda is the Chesterholm Museum, not the Roman Army Museum. They are two different entities in two different locations. Sadly, I did not discover this until I began writing this blog post; the woman in the information center/ticket counter/gift shop did not mention it to me. (Perhaps she would have if I had bought my tickets from her, but I had pre-purchased online, and showed her my combination tickets upon arrival.) So while I paid for admission to the Roman Army Museum, we never got to see it because we mistakenly thought we already had seen it.  Oh well.

Chesterholm Museum

We started in the museum, since it shared the same building as the information center and we were already there.  The first display we saw was several dozen shoes like this one.

vindolanda-hadrian's wall roman sandal chesterholm museum northumberland

Of all the shoes in the museum, and the thousands not displayed, there is only one matched pair.  I was amazed at how intricate and lovely this one is.

You may wonder how a nearly 2000 year old leather sandal could show no signs of deterioration or decay. There soil at Vindolanda is “anoxic” or lacking oxygen.  This condition prevents degradation of both organic and non-organic materials. A little farther down, you’ll see photos of metal items that are shiny and in great condition.  Those same items may have rusted or disentegrated completely if found elsewhere.

Beyond the shoes, reminding us of the military presence at the site, is a display of spears and other weapons.

vindolanda-hadrian's wall chesterholm museum roman spears northumberland

We saw a chamfron (headgear for a horse) that was still in one piece, and ambled into a larger section of the museum which seemed more focused on everyday life for the Romans in England, and less on the military aspect of life at Vindolanda.

Vindolanda digs have unearthed dozens of Roman coins.   Can you imagine the prestige of opening a small pouch and pouring out just a couple of these?

vindolanda-hadrian's wall roman gold coins chesterholm museum northumberland

One of the more interesting items at the museum is the gladiator glass.  This expensive, imported glass bowl had a design of gladiators painted around it.  The two pieces were found about 60 feet apart – one in 1992 and the other in 2007.

vindolanda-hadrian's wall glass-jar chesterholm museum northumberland

We saw separate rooms full of plastic tubs.  One room had bones, one had wood, one had pottery… all just waiting to see if this piece fits with that piece.  I imagine it’s like having a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle, throwing the box in the air while the wind is gusting at 25 mph.

My favorite part of the museum was the ladies items.  There were glass beads for jewelry, rings, pins, and so on.  There was even this wig:

vindolanda hadrian's wall northumberland chesterholm museum wig

The sign informed us that it was made of moss hair (whatever that is) and was likely used to repel insects.

Next to the wig, we saw a dozen or so combs recovered from the site.

vindolanda hadrian's wall roman combs chesterholm museum northumberland

Vindolanda’s biggest discovery and claim to fame, however, is a collection of 752 wooden writing tablets. They are the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain.  These tablets record official military matters as well as personal messages to and from the people who lived there. One of the tablets is an invitation to a birthday party held in about 100 AD.  It is perhaps the oldest surviving document written in Latin by a woman.  The tablets are at the British Museum, but you can still see images and translations of them at the Chesterholm Museum.


When we finished touring the museum, we headed back out into the cold drizzle and walked up a hill to get to the Vindolanda site.  People lived in the area from as early AD 80 to some time in the 5th century.  Initially, the buildings were wooden, but by the time the mid-4th century rolled around, the Romans used stone, and it is that which remains for us today.  It was impressive in size, but I guess that’s to be expected for one of the major forts held by the Roman Empire.

Much of the site’s remains from the 4th century were left exposed so you can see both military and village buildings, from soldiers’ dormitories to the mausolea.

This is part of the principia, or headquarters building:

vindolanda-hadrian's wall northumberland headquarters building

And this is the mausolea:

vindolanda hadrian's wall northumberland roman mausoleum

You get the idea.  Lots of low rock walls outlining different sized squares and rectangles.  However, this was a surprise:

vindolanda hadrian's wall northumberland child's grave roman

The sign says:  “In the summer of 2010, the remains of a 9-11 year old child was discovered here in an unmarked grave dug through the corner of this barrack room.  The child was buried shortly here sometime after AD 213 and the before the middle of the 3rd century.”  Hmm, sounds sketchy.  (Read more about this potential murder from 1800 years ago here. Talk about your cold cases!)

Another interesting spot had rectangular stones standing upright at fairly evenly spaced intervals:

vindolanda hadrian's wall northumberland hypocaust

I did not see any sign for it, but I found out later that it is  a hypocaust – a heating system.  The Romans would used short pillars like these to elevate the floor of a building.  Rather than have a fireplace in their living quarters, they would have a fire burning and hot air/smoke circulating underneath the floor.  The pillars allowed the air to flow under the floors freely and heat the room above without any smoke entering the room.

Pretty brilliant, I’d say.  If the day we were there was any indication, heat was a very important necessity!

I tried to imagine what this place looked like when it was inhabited. I am not great at visualizing things, but I did find this drawing to help me along:

vindolanda then hadrian's wall northumberland

Even though the weather was miserable, and this period of history holds no interest for me, and I got gypped out of seeing the museum I paid extra to see, the ruins and museum provided a window into the daily life of Roman Britain.  It is a must-see for anyone with an interest in the Roman Empire or Ancient Britain.

Also, archaeology students should definitely look into visiting – you can even apply to participate in a dig on the site!

Vindolanda and the Chesterholm Museum are in Hexham, Northumberland NE47 7JN.  Telephone +44 (0)1434 344277.  Hours vary by season, so call or consult the web site when planning your visit.



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