The road before the Wall: excavating the Stanegate at Vindolanda

Roman commanders were well aware of the strategic importance of the River Tyne, to the east, and the River Solway, to the west, long before Hadrian’s Wall was constructed.

Excavations at Corbridge, where a major road (Dere Street) built to support the army’s northern campaigns crossed the Tyne, and at Carlisle, which lay at the head of the Solway Estuary, show that major forts were established at both sites in the early AD 70s. And crucially both were linked by an east-west road which endured into the medieval period when it became known as the Stanegate. Other forts, most famously Vindolanda, along with towers and fortlets were established on this road.

In this video, Dr Andrew Birley, Director of Excavations for the Vindolanda Trust discusses the evidence for this earlier period of activity discovered during excavations at his site. This evidence includes the celebrated writing tablets, which we will be discussing in the next few steps. Note how complex the Vindolanda site is, and how many phases of Roman occupation overlie the waterlogged deposits which date from before the Wall, to the time when the Stanegate road marked the line of Roman control along the Tyne-Solway Isthmus.

© Newcastle University

Postcards from the past: reading the Vindolanda tablets

Wooden writing tablets continue to be discovered in the excavations at Vindolanda, and have now also been identified at several other sites in Britain.

The Vindolanda Tablets are of particular importance to our understanding of life on the Stanegate in the decades immediately before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall.

Invaluable sources of information though they are, the tablets are often frustrating. Their authors knew of course to whom they wrote, and seldom needed to refer to the title and role of their correspondent. Tablets can be incomplete, the Latin is that of daily speech and sometimes littered with colloquialisms which we only partially understand. Additionally, diverse spellings, poor grammar and sloppy handwriting can all present challenges to translators.

In the following steps, we will look at two groups of tablets to see what they tell us about life on the edge of Roman Britain on the eve of Hadrian’s Wall. The translations used are the work of Alan Bowman and David Thomas and may be found on the excellent Vindolanda Tablets online maintained by Oxford University’s Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents.

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