Thursday, June 9, 2016

Set in Stone

Looking over photos from a recent trip to Northumberland, England I am impressed with stones.   My folder of images is full of walls, forts, castles and churches, gravestones and milestones.  Solid stone endures and outlasts; whether fashioned into simple building blocks or elaborately carved pillars, this material serves as an open history book.

Haltwhistle, Northumberland is right in the center of Britain, and that's where my father's family originated.  I have traced Ridley ancestors back to medieval times, with knights, bishops, farmers, soldiers and tradesmen forming a long line in the border territory marked by Hadrian's wall.

Our May trip to Haltwhistle included a visit to the Roman site called Vindolanda.  Its name means "white expanse" a reference to the fact that this high location, surrounded by rolling hills, remained in shadow and was covered with snow for much of the winter.

Vindolanda was settled as a frontier fort as early as 85 AD
The excavations reveal at least 9 rebuilds on the site.

Rendering of the Roman bathhouse

Bathhouse stones
At the command of Emperor Hadrian, who visited Vindolanda in 122AD,  Roman legionnaires of the sixth Vitrix began building the wall that separated the wild, northern Pict clans from Roman territory.  Local stone quarried for the project was also used to turn the existing wooden fort at Vindolanda into a more permanent, solid settlement.  Masons constructed large military barracks, a granary, bathhouse, workshops, a temple, and a spacious residence for governor Platorius Nepos, the commanding officer.  These buildings were equipped with running water, in-floor heating and toilets.  
Volunteer guide Michael brought Roman times to life with his knowledge and enthusiasm.

A replica of a section of Hadrian's wall shows the actual scale of the project.

Hadrian's wall is a protected World Heritage site and a favourite route for hikers

Roman milestones measured the Stanegate road running from Carlisle to Corbridge
A replica of a Roman temple graces the garden
The museum building is Chesterholm, an 1832 cottage built by Anthony Hedley, first excavator of Vindolanda

Sculpture outside the museum
The museum at Vindolanda houses artifacts uncovered on the site, an amazing collection of leather shoes, coins, jewellery, glass, ceramics and human remains.  The successive groups of settlers at Vindolanda built one foundation on top of another, creating sealed chambers with excellent conservation conditions.  Garbage heaps became treasure troves for archaeologists, as objects trapped between layers of clay and stone were well-preserved.

There are wooden tablets bearing messages from one Roman to another.  Thin slices of birch, alder and oak were used like sheets of paper, written in ink and then folded in half with an address marked on the back.   The translated messages from the Vindolanda tablets convey personal details of life in the fort.  One example is this request for military direction and more liquid refreshment.  

Masculus to Cerialis his king, greetings.  Please, my lord, give instructions on what you want us to do tomorrow.  Are we all to return to the standard or just half of us? .....(missing lines)....
My fellow soldiers have no beer.  Please order some to be sent.

Vindolanda is still an active archaeological site, excavated with a team working on stone foundations in the north field.  A survey shows a 3rd century vicus  yet to be uncovered, and below that level, Antonine workshops, a Roman kiln and the possible remains of a tavern.  The current work is being conducted by the Vindolanda Trust with support of a field school from the University of Western Ontario.  

For details about signing up as a volunteer excavator see the Vindolanda website.  

Walls of stone and flocks of sheep

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