Vindolanda was one of the Roman auxiliary forts that dotted part of Hadrian’s wall in Northern England which it originally predated. Excavations prove that the area was under Roman occupation from around 85AD – 370AD. Only 24% of Vindolanda has been excavated and archaeological experts predict that another one hundred and fifty years of digging yet to do since the site itself was founded in 1970. Since its discovery, Vindolanda has unearthed a plethora of Roman and recently Christian material culture, contributing invaluable information to the study of Roman Britain and Roman civilisation in general. The vast majority of these finds, ranging from coins and domestic commodities to weapons and armour, are housed in their quaint yet captivating Chesterholm Museum. I’ve held this particular museum close to my heart since I could walk, as my family would annually take my brother and I there to see the new finds, of which there were always plenty and never tedious. Though the museum may be considered small compared to others, it certainly does not lack in display. It is, above all, a real treat for lovers of ancient history and archaeology.
During the coronavirus lockdown in the UK, archaeologists discovered quite a rare find which is now expertly displayed in the museum. Pieces of a Christian chalice were excavated on the grounds of the former 6th century church within the Roman fort. The fragmented chalice is the only surviving partial chalice from the Dark Ages in Britain and is covered in lightly graffitied Christian iconography. The find has inspired a new post-Roman exhibition within the museum. This has attracted a plethora of visitors post-lockdown. The chalice is not the only impressive artefact displayed in the museum as Vindolanda is also known for holding the largest collection of leather boots and shoes in Roman Britain. The marshy conditions on site help preserve delicate wooden and leather artefacts among other historic treasures. The museum also features some of the Vindolanda writing tablets, many of which are now featured in the British Museum after being voted as Britain’s top archaeological treasure by them. Displayed in an atmospheric and temperature-controlled exhibition, the wooden tablets are incredibly thin, and their inscriptions give us first-hand insights into the lives of the people who lived on the site of Vindolanda over two thousand years ago. One of the tablets was a birthday invitation and another was a letter from a Roman soldier’s mother telling him she sent the socks and underpants he asked for with her letter. A pair of Roman boxing gloves are also on display, which are believed to be the only known surviving examples from the Roman period.
When you walk into the museum, you are greeted with the small gift shop and café on the left and the entrance for exhibits on the right. As you walk towards the exhibits, you walk past dozens of leather Roman shoes and arrowheads as well as other weapons that line the walls in glass cases. You then find yourself in a gallery showing a variety of Roman coins in chronological order as well as the leather boxing gloves on display in the centre of the room. The next few galleries display plentiful pottery, glassware, and other domestic or decorative artefacts. There is also a space for visitors to see some of the bones excavated on the Vindolanda site, which were mostly cow and horse skulls when I last visited. The gallery holding the Vindolanda tablets and the new Christian chalice exhibit are both dramatic and dark, with the lighting specifically focused on the artefacts and nothing else so that visitors can appreciate the rare finds without distraction. You will probably find that the rooms are very quiet as visitors read and inspect the finds. As you come to the end of the galleries, there is a room dedicated to the families who developed Vindolanda into the huge site it is today as well as the volunteer excavators, with screens showing videos of the history of the museum and how it as changed, the excavations and how to get involved through volunteering or donating to the trust. As you leave the exhibits, you walk immediately into the museum’s varied and well-stocked bookshop with both fiction and non-fiction Roman themed books for adult visitors and fun activity sheets for children.
As part of the Vindolanda Trust, both the Chesterholm and its sister museum, The Roman Army Museum, do not receive any annual funding. Instead, they depend on their visitors to fund their extensive and meticulous archaeological work and conservation projects. Admission is quite cheap but varies depending on who is visiting. For the Chesterholm Museum and access to the Vindolanda site, admission is £4.75 for children and £8 for adults. Concessions are available for students and senior citizens, whilst family tickets for two adults and up to three children are £22.80). The museum and site are open seven days a week from 10am until 5pm with plenty of car parking available at both the museum and site entrance. However, mobile reception is unstable on the site and there is no signal inside the museum, so you will have to wait until you have driven away from the site before uploading any photos or taking a phone call.
The Roman Army museum is about seven miles west of Vindolanda so families can make a real day out of visiting the sites, learning about Roman military history in North Britain and the emperor Hadrian, whose once colossal frontier wall still remains nearby. A homely and friendly local pub, the Twice Brewed, is also a five-minute drive from Vindolanda if visitors have not stopped for a bite to eat in the Chesterholm Museum’s charming and Roman themed cafe. Opposite the museum café is the museum’s beautiful garden area with a colourful temple replica and some outdoor displays of stone altars in front of it. There is also a replica Roman kiln to show visitors how the Romans crafted the pottery and figurines on display in the museum.
In 2009, the Vindolanda Trust received a huge grant of 6.3 million pounds to redevelop the site and its museums and it certainly has updated the latter quite a bit since the seventies. Now, visitors can enjoy exceptional displays of the living archaeology at Vindolanda, enhanced by state-of-the-art audio and visual effects, including a brand-new education centre for groups. I once took part in a brilliant pottery workshop held in the centre where I along with other visitors tried our hands at creating replica Roman votive offerings, such as decorated oil lamps, and statuettes. Budding archaeologists or even amateurs can get involved with the excavations by volunteering for two weeks in any period from around Easter until the end of summer. Volunteers can either join their excavation team in the trenches or help as a part of the post-excavation team, handling and sorting through the various materials recovered each day. I really enjoyed my two weeks excavating in June 2019 and was delighted to see a year later that some of our group finds had been displayed in the Chesterholm Museum in a brilliant exhibit showing the previous year’s finds.
The Vindolanda Collection is a Designated collection. To find out more, see: https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/publication/designated-outstanding-collections.
Bardon Mill, Hexham
Tel: +44 (0)1434 344277
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Niamh is a Classical Studies undergraduate in her final year of study at the University of Liverpool and is currently researching imperial incest for her dissertation. She has excavated at the Vindolanda site as a volunteer and spent last summer travelling around Greece with the British School at Athens touring the major archaeological sites and museums in Athens, Attica, and the Peloponnese. Niamh also has a blog dedicated to all things surrounding Greek and Roman history at itzanif.wordpress.com.