Vercovicium is the old Latin name for Housesteads Roman Fort. The fort was built in 124 AD, soon after building of the Wall began in 122. It was occupied for 280 years by up to 800 auxiliary soldiers. Legionaries were Roman citizens and formed the heavy infantry in open battle. Auxiliaries were from the provinces, the land the Roman Empire had conquered, and were not universally granted citizenship until 212 AD. They supported the legions with infantry, cavalry and archers for all terrain and types of warfare. It was auxiliaries that occupied the Wall, as it was common they occupied the forts at frontier zones. In the third century AD, the fort was occupied by the Cohors I Tungrorum, auxiliaries from Belgium.
This fort is the best preserved one of the 16 forts on the Roman Frontier of Hadrian’s Wall. All Roman forts were built according to a fixed design. The site is rectangular, and surrounded by a stone wall up to 5 meters high. The fort had four large gates, one on each side. The gates were very large, as to convey the glory of the Roman Empire. Statues of gods were often placed over these gates. The gates led onto streets that divided the area into three smaller areas. The central area consisted of administrative buildings: headquarters, granaries, a hospital, and the commanding officer’s house. Around the central area were barracks, where the soldiers lived, as well as workshops.
Apparently, a group of Frisian soldiers and their families lived at or near this fort, auxiliaries part of the military unit cuneus Frisiorum. Some beautiful Frisian pottery has been found at the site. Many Frisians joined the Roman army as the sea claimed more and more of their land, and they gradually became impoverished. Their families would live near the fort in vici, or civilian settlements.
Above, you can see a picture of a beautifully preserved granary (horreum), including hypocaust. Granaries were used to store the massive food supplies needed to sustain a large army. The granaries had strong buttressed stone walls with air vents and raised floors to allow air circulation and to avoid rodents getting to the food. Holes in the walls were used to let dogs into the space below the floor to catch rats.
There were 10 barracks at the fort, each accommodating 80 men (a century) as well as the centurion. Each barrack had 10 compartments, containing 8 men each (a contubernium) who lived in the small space together.
The highlight of our visit to this fort was without a doubt the extremely well-preserved latrine you can see in the picture above. It has a deep sewer, which you can see along the sides of the latrine, that used to be covered by a wooden floor and benches with holes in them that functioned as toilet seats. The sewer was flushed by rainwater and drained down the hill so the waste did not remain in the fort. In the centre of the latrine, a small channel provided water for washing.
We walked on from Housesteads Roman Fort, since we had some miles to travel before we arrived at the place where we would be picked up by our B&B host. Above is a picture of Sycamore Gap, a location made famous by the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
The B&B we stayed at for our second and third night was Bush Nook Guest House, which is by far the best guesthouse I ever stayed at in the UK! The host Malcolm was very friendly and had great advice on which places to visit! Also, we were able to have dinner at the guest house both nights, and they were the best meals we had on our entire trip! Besides that, we had some nice chats with other guests, who all had very interesting stories to tell, over dinner and breakfast.
The next day we got up early to visit Vindolanda, another Roman Fort near the Wall. This was definitely the coolest site we visited, as some amazing findings have been done here. Most notably, the Vindolanda tablets have been found here: the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain! The tablets are sort of wooden postcards that were used for correspondence in the Roman Empire by inscribing them with ink. The 752 tablets found here are from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Since the ground at this site contains very little oxygen, the wooden tablets were preserved, while they perished at other sites.
It took quite some time to translate the old Roman cursive script in which the tablets are written. The tablets contain mostly army matters, but also some personal correspondence. This makes it a very special finding, as most preserved Roman writing is official documentation, not personal! On one of the more famous tablets, Claudia Severa, the wife of Aelius Brocchus, a commander of a nearby fort, invites Sulpicia Lepidina, the wife of Flavius Cerialis, prefect of the Ninth Cohort of Batavians, to a birthday party in approximately 100 AD. This may be the oldest surviving document in Latin written by a woman! Even more mind-blowing is that excavators have managed to find a sandal that they concluded must belong to Sulpicia! (how they figured that out is quite the mystery to me…)
In another tablet, a mother writes about having enclosed some clean underpants for her soldier son:
… I have sent (?) you … pairs of socks from Sattua, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants, two pairs of sandals … Greet …ndes, Elpis, Iu…, …enus, Tetricus and all your messmates with whom I pray that you live in the greatest good fortune.
Some of the tablets can be viewed at the British Museum in London. More about them in my next post!