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Vindolanda’s Archaeodeath
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Vindolanda’s Archaeodeath


I sketch here the Archaeodeath dimensions of Vindolanda.

This blog is about the archaeology and heritage of death and memory and I wish to close my contributions to 2022 by addressing how a prominent successful heritage site comprising ruins of a premiere Roman military archaeological site, ongoing summer excavations, ‘Roman’ gardens and a museum, provide a heritage tourism environment for exploring aspects of death and memory, both in regards to the human past and our contemporary environment.

I also select Vindolanda since it speaks to my latest edited book: The Public Archaeology of Treasure given that the site pitches its world-famous tablets as ‘The home of “Britain’s top treasure”‘. As such, Vindolanda is a ‘treasure’ and contains ‘treasures’, here utilised constructively and positively to describe invaluable archaeological finds and their archaeological contexts rather than commodified loot.

This sketch aims to show the various different intended and less designed fashions in which the Vindolanda visitor experience not only sheds light on life and times on the Roman frontier through a rich range of archaeological finds, but also how the site is framed around (a) death, burial and commemoration in the Roman military zone and (b) the commemoration of the Birley family who have, over multiple generations, investigated this archaeological site. There is also a dimension by which visitors can commemorate through gifting donations to the site.

Photographs were taken in the summer of 2022.

First up, we have the overall experience of the fort, and the downloadable app encouraging visitors to explore ‘the missing dead’ (I didn’t download this and use it, so I’m not sure how much mortuary archaeology is featured in it).

The Outdoors – Mausolea and Possible Tombs

There are traces of funerary architectures outside, even if they aren’t securely identified as either temples or mausolea in each and every case. The potential status as ‘tombs’ seems to derive from the lack of associated altars. On the sign ‘The village and fort’ mention is made that the visitor is ‘standing near a boundary between the living and the dead, as behind you the main cemeteries carry on down to the road towards the next fort. Cemeteries were placed far enough away from where the people lived and worked to avoid the spread of disease or the contamination of the water supply.’ While accurately describing Roman-period traditions of cemetery placement, this is very much the imposition of a Victorian public health ideology onto ancient societies. In contrast, on the ‘Mauseolea’ sign it states that ‘Remembering the dead was an important Roman religious belief’ and that prominent tombs were an ‘effectivfe way’ of achieving this. It also states it was against ‘Roman law to bury the dead inside the walls of a town’ and that tombs and mausolea were placed ‘alongside buy roads leading in and out of the settlement’.

We also have the marked place of the discovery of a 3rd-century child’s grave was discovered. The remains will be seen within the museum. Found in the summer of 2010, the sign states that the child was 9-10 years old and was interred in an ‘unmarked grave’ dug through the barrack room floor in the corner after c. AD 213 and before the middle of the 3rd century. No explanation is ventured for this practice.

The Roman Garden

So the archaeological exhibits of ruins and traces outdoors mark aspects of the Roman cemeteries around the fort and settlement as well as an enigmatic child grave within the settlement. So whilst primarily a heritage site revealing an important military settlement dating from before and during the use of Hadrian’s Wall, this is also a space to encounter and learn about Roman death ways.

To these elements, we can also consider the mortuary dimensions of the Roman Garden below the archaeological site and close to the museum. Here we encounter a small ‘Roman cemetery’ with four tombstones of individuals known to have lived at Vindolanda. It is located beside the path to the Gardens, with an interpretation panel explaining them. It is estimated there are 20,000 burials around the fort and aspects of Roman beliefs and practices surrounding death are explained. The low average age of death recorded on tombstones is noted, with funerals conducted to ‘perpetuate their memory’. Burial slubs with subscriptions to ensure a proper burial are also mentioned, although the evidence of this from Vindolanda isn’t outlined. Below, translations of each of the replica tombstones are included with explanations for their terms and content. This in itself is a valuable environment for communicating the personal relationships and social identities articulated through the epigraphic tradition of funerary monuments from Roman Britain.

On the path between the fort and the museum is something different again, a present-day military monument. It echoes 20th-century war memorial styles, but this time the monument is ‘in memory of the soldiers who served Rome on the frontier at Vindolanda, AD 85-400’, listing their legions plus ‘and others unknown’ to cover all bases. On top of the memorial is an imperial eagle. The named and unnamed soldiers of the Roman military are being commemorated together via this modern-day cenotaph.

Through heritage interpretation, these elements educate and commemorate the Roman past, but joining them are dimensions of ‘meta-commemoration’ by which I mean the commemoration of the site itself and its history of investigators. As well as replica Roman altars and a milestone, first, there is an explanation of the history of the Chesterholm Museum itself as part of the Clayton Estate and the work of Eric and Robin Birley.

Then there are the actual memorials themselves in prominent positions between the museum and the replica temple and education buildings across the stream. There is a low curving headstone evoking a fragment of a wheel. One side affording the name of Margaret Birley (1910-2000) (the downlsope side), the other side (upslope) to Eric Birley (1906-1995). It is apposite that the medium evokes a fragment of a Roman architecture sculpture – a memorial as spolia.

Close by, Robin Birley is commemorated a hollow iron sphere bearing texts embodying the famous Vindolanda tablets. A plaque explains the sculpture as a ‘fire ball’ which ‘pays tribute to the work of archaeologist Robin Birley who directed the Vindolanda Turst and its excavations from 1970-2001, and to celebrate his incredible find, in 1992, of over 350 Roman ink on wood writing tablets (letters) on a Roman bonfire here at Vindolanda’. It goes on to explain the discvoery and to recognise the designer and creator Andy Gage, and how it depicts the cursive Roman writing from the tablets. Significantly, it explains how this is more than a memorial sculpture, it is integral to an annual ritual: ‘The fire ball will be ceremoniously lit every year to commemorate the discvoery of what is now considered to be ‘Britain’s Top Treasure’. So this art commemorates both an archaeologist and a ‘treasure’, an interactive monument used in annual rituals of discovery-remembrance.

While not located in the Roman Garden, it is perhaps appropriate to mention here the Robin Birley Archaeology Centre as a further memorial dedication within these landscape.

The Museum

So far we have considered the outdoor dimensions to the archaeology on display, its heritage interpretation, and the commemoration of the Birleys which provide archaeodeath dimensions to Vindolanda. Then, when we enter the museum itself, there are far more mortuary dimensions than one might expect. Once again, these are far more numerous than one might expect at a site principally focused on the traces of Roman settlement. Yet the mortuary and memorial dimensions relate to both the Roman-period archaeology uncovered and to the history of the site’s investigation.

I here focus on 6 key multiple dimensions of the exhibition.

First up, and most straightforwardly, the ‘life and death on the frontier’ displays of tombstones – that of an unknown female and a fragment of a tombstone ‘to the spirits of the departed’ for Ingenuus who lived 24 years.

There is also reference to the 1889 discovery of a stone at Vindolanda inscribed to BRIGOMAGLOS which is taken to be that of a ‘Celtic Christian’ man and thus possibly dating to the sub-Roman (5th-6th century period) according to the text panel (this stone is on display at Chesters). This is matched to further traces of a possible church and inscriptions hinting at sub-Roman Christian life at the site.

I confess I did not assiduously check to see if any of the many rich artefacts on display derive from mortuary contexts.

Second, we meet the child’s grave which was discovered within the fort. The bones are laid out on stark white with an excavation photograph and text panel adjacent. The panel doesn’t quite match the external sign, for here the age is put at 10-11 (rather than 9-10). We learn there were ‘no obvious injuries’ or ‘ill health’ over the long term, and that the child was 4-5 feet high. Isotope analysis reveals the child grew up in the Mediterranean before moving to Vindolanda c. age 7. Nothing is said of the unusual choice to inter the child within the barrack block.

A third further mortuary dimension to the exhibits is the skull found within the fort under the heading ‘Skull – sending out a message’. Originally coming from south-west Scotland based on ‘scientific analysis’, ‘[h]is head had been displayed on a pole near the forst, sending a clear message to others of the fate of rebels’. Notably, the Roman Army Museum (also run by the Vindolanda Trust) provides an alternative view. It further explains that in 2002 the excavations at Vindolanda uncovered ‘a severed human head at the bottom of the ditch’. He had suffered a ‘brutal death’ with one side of his skull sliced open by spear or sword, the other side bashed by a blunt instrument. Subsequently his head had been displayed ‘on a pike’. In 2015, aDNA analysis suggested that he had ‘Italian DNA’. Rather than a local Briton, although he grew up locally he may have been ‘Roman’. The panel lends with the inference ‘his farther was born in Italy so it would appear that life on the frontier was more complicated than a simple ‘us’ and ‘them’ or Roman and Barbarian nearly 1800 years ago’.

Fourth, the Birley family are themselves commemorated together with other pioneers of investigating the site of Vindolanda, mirroring the outdoor memorial elements already mentioned.

Fifth and finally, the museum itself is a memorial space for visitors: the two ‘Sponsor a Leaf’ ‘trees’ on either side of the exhibition gallery allow each leaf to contain a memorial message from the living to the living and to the dead. Multiple leaves are explicitly ‘for the dead’ by containing the phrase ‘in loving memory’/’in memory of’.

Elsewhere on this blog I’ve reflected on the ethics of displaying animal remains in museums. So, sixth and last but not least, we meet the animal dead of the fort through animal bones on display, including sheep, goat, cattle and horse as well as dog. These include a focus on skulls, but there is an articulated dog skeleton. Paws of various animals are also preserved in the tiles on display.

My purpose of compiling this blog post is to show how, while ostensibly an archaeological site focused on evidence of life on the Roman frontier zone, there are multiple archaeodeath dimensions. Multi-faceted and interleaving, Vindolanda contains quite a great deal of evidence informing us about human mortality within its displays, augmented by the display of animal remains. I would contend there is considerable potential for utilising these resources to tell the story of Roman attitudes and practices surrounding death through additional temporary displays and ‘death trails’ that link up these dimensions in telling the story of Roman death ways. There is further potential for reflecting on modern heritage debates regarding the ethics and best practices of displaying and discussing mortuary remains. Furthermore, I was struck by the ‘meta-commemoration’ of the site itself, its investigators and its ‘top treasure’ through museum displays and sculpture, and by the opportunities for visitors to be memorialised within the museum.



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