Vindolanda: Expert takes a look at archaeological site
Around 2,000 years ago, Britain was ruled by tribes of people called the Celts. Little did they know that their land was about to get snatched from under their feet. For nearly 100 years, the Roman army had been colonising swathes of Europe, building a colossal Empire.
In 43 AD, its imperial army landed on the beaches of Kent.
It spent the next year battling its way inland, storming forts and claiming lands.
They had their eyes on Britain’s precious metals, extracting and sending them back to the Empire’s capital, Rome.
Eventually taking over most of the UK, the Romans found themselves in the North of England.
Vindolanda: The site would have once been home to a thriving Roman community
Celtic tribes: An artist’s impression of Roman soldiers and Celts in battle at a fort in Dorset
While murder and plunder was rife, the Romans also opened up Britain, building roads and constructing forts and barracks, some of which remain today.
Vindolanda is one such site, located in Hexham, Northumberland, believed to have been built by the first Cohort of Tungrians who landed in Britain around 85 AD, and which served as an auxiliary fort.
Many relics and snippets of Roman history have been unearthed at Vindolanda, including a colourful picture of what the social makeup of the thriving community would have looked like.
This aspect of the fort was explored during History Hit’s documentary, ‘Vindolanda: Jewel of the North’, where the site’s director of excavations, Dr Andrew Birley, revealed his team’s discovery of a varied society through unearthed shoes.
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Roman fort: Vindolanda once served as an auxiliary fort for Roman soldiers
These shoes are pinned in display boxes at the site’s museum, showing varying shapes, sizes, and materials.
Dr Birley said: “These items of course represent very often people who are hidden otherwise archaeologically, so particularly the women and children’s shoes.
“Everybody uses the same stuff, but because we’re anatomically different, and of course different age groups have different sizes of footwear, it shows us where people of different types were in different spaces which would otherwise be invisible to the naked eye or archaeological record.
“Particularly children, we find lots of these children’s shoes which are really sweet and very cute things, inside military barracks, inside those spaces.
“And that’s helped us to disprove the argument that Roman forts were just the male preserve, that they were just a male environment.
“Because if you’ve got these kids running around, it clearly isn’t the case.”
Mr Hughes noted the “double whammy” of the discovery: that not only had the organic material of the shoes survived, but also the hidden aspect of women and children had been revealed.
Dr Birley added: “You think of Hadrian’s Wall: Roman army, lots of big, hairy Roman soldiers running around the countryside doing their stuff.
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Ancient history: A shoe found at Vindolanda, most likely a child’s
Museum: Dr Andrew Birley said the vast collection shows the varied makeup of Vindolanda
“But, they were really just the tip of the spear.
“If you then add in the footwear as representation of the rest of the community, you realise that it was much bigger than that tip of the spear, and that that military community was a really impressive thing.”
Hadrian’s Wall – Vindolanda’s sister structure – sits just 11 miles north of the site.
The Wall, which is 73 miles long, would have fenced in Vindolanda from the outside native tribes.
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While Vindolanda proved a thriving ancient community with the discovery of countless clothing items, it was also revealed to have accommodated a mysterious pagan cult from the Middle East, the Empire’s easternmost territory.
In 2009, excavators, while working on a mound of grass at Vindolanda, stumbled upon what they believed to be a Roman toilet block.
Dr Birley explained: “Up until that time, nobody had ever found a temple inside the walls of an auxiliary fort – so it wasn’t even on the list of things we thought could be possible.”
After digging up the site, a stone temple and altarpiece were discovered.
Ancient temple: The ‘mysterious’ temple is thought to have travelled from the Middle East
The mystery cult shares some symbolism with Mithras and the other cults that were prevalent across the Roman Empire.
Dr Birley said the significance lies with the fact it was found inside the barracks.
It meant that the cult had the patronage of the commanding officer, somebody with high enough authority to say: “We are going to worship this god or goddess in this space.”
Roman presence at Vindolanda is generally viewed as having faded from 370 AD, while the Romans more generally started to leave Britain between 388 and 400 AD.
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