I planned a visit to Vindolanda for June 2020 but, with the Covid 19 restrictions still current, it wasn't possible. So, rather than giving first-hand experience after a visit, I still have to rely on textbook and internet references. However, Vindolanda by Robin Birley (first published 2009) has provided me with useful information, as have my many other Roman Britain sources. Also sadly, I have no photos of my own and have to borrow them from the internet till I can get some of my very own.
though of a much later fort than the original.
The first fort at Vindolanda was probably built around AD 85, which puts it around the time of General Agricola’s withdrawal back to Rome. Tacitus does not tell us how many of Agricola’s troops remained stationed in Caledonia after he left, but archaeology supports a continued use in many of the Caledonian forts for at least a year or two after Agricola left in late AD 84, or perhaps early AD 85. (In my Celtic Fervour Series, I’ve favoured an early AD 85 withdrawal for General Agricola)
Trimontium (Newstead) and Coria/ Corstopitum Supply Fort (Corbridge) also continued to be garrisoned which would have meant sufficient control of activity to the immediate north of Vindolanda when it was being built.
The site of Vindolanda is about half way across the narrow stretch of land between modern-day Carlisle (west) and Newcastle (east). It was around 30 miles from Carlisle, though just 12 miles from Corbridge which was an easy day’s march. Corbridge being a supply fort would perhaps have scheduled deliveries e.g. the necessary iron work for the initial timber construction at Vindolanda.
The Vindolanda tablets record a garrisoning by the 1st Cohort Tungrian auxiliary unit during the pre-Hadrianic era who may, or may not, have been the original builders, since the unit was stationed there for some time. Tungrian forces were said to be part of Agricola’s armies at the battle named Mons Graupius by Tacitus, so it’s possible that they went south with General Agricola, or sometime fairly soon after him. At least some of those Tungrians could have been deployed in building the first Vindolanda fort, which may have been around 1000 strong (if a usual double strength 1st cohort), and covered around 2 ha (c. 4 acres)
The land around the Vindolanda fort was largely wet meadow, pasture and heathland, some of which was likely to have been farmed by the local Iron-Age tribes before the Romans chose their site. Though – as today – it would have been hard subsistence farming, battling against the vagaries of the wild weather. The name Vindolanda is thought to have been Latinised from a local name meaning white fields, or white ‘lawns’. The initial fort was built on a relatively flat promontory with good natural defences to three sides, with burns flowing on three sides which fed into the River Tyne.
One theory I’ve read is that the soldiers who initially built and garrisoned Vindolanda, may have also been the Stanegate road builders. This seems a reasonable assumption if the indigenous tribes to the south of the Stanegate were under control (mainly Brigantia), and the troops still stationed in southern Caledonian forts and fortlets were also controlling any serious opposition to the north. The geography of the land north and south of the Stanegate probably played its part, since the wild moors of the Southern Uplands and North-Pennines meant a relatively sparse local population to keep control over. There are few mentions in the Vindolanda tablet records of the indigenous population and it’s unlikely many, if any, would have hung around after the first wave of Romans descended upon the area. It’s unlikely there would have been much resistance (at least not till joined by others) and the idea of slavery would probably have deterred people from hanging around.
The tree cover around Vindolanda would have been unlimited for the earliest timber fort. There’s evidence of alder, mature birch, hazel, willow, ash and even some pine. Sufficient supplies of very old oak were used to create the initial structural timbers of the wooden praetorium and principia, though it appears that these major command buildings were replaced in stone by the late AD 80s. Evidence of the first fort buildings indicates that they had interior wattled and daubed walls, and panelling was used for separating areas. Exterior walls seem to have been plastered and whitewashed. Some interior walls also seem to have been whitewashed and roofs of the initial buildings were covered with timber shingles. The bulk of the floors were of beaten earth which was layered with bracken, though at some point stone flagging and planking was also laid in places.
The most surprising fact I read during the research of the first Vindolanda structure was that some buildings appear to have been glazed. Glass would been used sparingly in Rome, but for any of it to be used in construction on the western empire frontier was quite amazing.
The construction order seems to have been that deep foundation trenches were dug and base beams were laid into these trenches. After this stage was completed, the timber uprights were bolted to the base beams and packed with stones for security. Unfortunately, those earliest builders had not counted on the amount of subsidence that seems to have plagued the initial ditches on the site. There’s evidence that some door accesses had to have steps formed to counteract the subsidence problem. These flights of stairs were needed for entry from outside, but also to move from room to room which (I think) would have been unusual in a fort, and inconvenient.
There’s sufficient evidence around the fort that supports the husbandry that was an integral part of the fort day-to-day-running. There would have been paddock areas where animals grazed inside the fort and field areas used outside. Oxherds (bubulcarii, adiuvencos); swinherds (ad porcos) are mentioned in the Vindolanda tablets, which provided meat supplies, though the meat ration for the general soldier was perhaps only small quantities. There’s also evidence of early brewing (cervesarii) on the early fort sites. Unfortunately, the building of later levels has obscured most of the original wooden fort, so knowing what the interior layout was is presently impossible.
It’s clear that the sources for the main building materials were to be found close to hand around the Vindolanda environment, but in addition to local timber there were extremely valuable local deposits of iron ore; sandstone; coal; limestone(necessary for mortar bonding the stones of the stone forts); and even veins of lead. Whether these deposits were worked by the earliest soldiers at Vindolanda is hard to tell, but over the hundreds of years of Roman occupation the deposits were definitely worked using Roman toil.
A stone altar found in Beltingham churchyard, a couple of miles from Vindolanda, is dedicated to a goddess named Sattada and was commissioned by the ‘Curia of the Textoverdi’. This may mean the locals were from the Textoverdi tribe but this is still conjecture until more evidence can prove it. It could be that the church site was previously a local Iron-Age tribal site of Celtic religious significance, or the stone may have transported from some other origin.
As I wrote the ‘Vindolanda’ scenes in Beathan The Brigante, I added tiny details from my research. Beathan sweeps Commander Verecundus’ praetorium and lays down new brackens as draught-proofing. The Vindolanda tablets refer to a Commander Verecundus being in post in one of the earliest forts but it's not definite that Verecundus would have been there at the same time as my fictitious Beathan is used there as a fort slave.
And later on in the story, Beathan's friend Torrin is detailed to free the animals from the animal pens during a raid on Vindolanda – but you can read all about this thrilling event in the novel!
One of the amazing things about writing fiction based on roman Britain is that often after I've completed the novel I find yet another gem for researching. That can be a book or it can be a video. This one was only discovered long after I completed and published Beathan The Brigante. I'm adding it here because it's one that I'm sure to return to again and again.
[Check out the other video possibilities below - you might also find them interesting. ]
If you haven't read Beathan The Brigante yet here's the link! CLICK HERE