Packing a punch: boxing gloves found at Vindolanda

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Two boxing gloves were discovered during excavations of the cavalry barracks at Vindolanda – the only known examples to have survived from the Roman period. They are now on display at the Vindolanda museum. (Image: The Vindolanda Trust)

Vindolanda, the Roman auxiliary fort just south of Hadrian’s Wall, is known for its treasure trove of well-preserved Roman archaeology, and this past excavation season has proved to be one of the most successful yet. The team has been excavating a pre-Hadrianic cavalry barracks, where they uncovered finds including complete swords, copper-alloy horse gear, leather shoes, bath clogs, combs, dice, and a small hoard of wafer-thin writing tablets, many of which bore fine examples of ancient cursive script (see CA 330).

The most unusual finds, however, were two leather objects that were unlike any items previously found at Vindolanda, or indeed any other Roman site. After extensive research on the artefacts, carried out by Roman leather experts, it was determined that they were likely to have been boxing gloves, or caestus. Although boxing (and gambling on such matches) was a common pursuit in the Roman army, no actual examples of such gloves are known to have survived from the Roman period – until now.

While not a matching pair, the two gloves are similar in design. They were meant to fit over the knuckles (not the entire hand, as with modern boxing gloves), protecting them from impact. They are so well preserved that the imprint of the boxer’s knuckles is still visible on the smaller of the two. There is also evidence of extreme wear on the contact edge of the larger glove, suggesting that it was well used; a tear, covered by a circular patch, indicates that the glove was repaired at least once.

Each of the gloves was constructed from a single piece of leather that was then folded into a pouch, with the two ends joined together to form a circle for the hand to slide through, and then stuffed. While the larger glove was packed with natural material – acting as a shock absorber – the smaller was filled with a coil of twisted leather. The leather experts who examined the gloves think it is likely that they were used for sparring, as they lack the metal inserts that seem to have been used during competitive Roman boxing bouts.

‘I have seen representations of Roman boxing gloves depicted on bronze statues, paintings, and sculptures, but to enjoy the privilege of finding two real leather examples is exceptionally special,’ said Dr Andrew Birley, CEO and the Vindolanda Trust’s Director of Excavations. ‘What really makes Vindolanda unique is the range of organic objects that we find. Every one of them brings you closer to the people who lived here nearly 2,000 years ago, but the hairs stand up on the back of your neck when you realise that you have discovered something as astonishing as these boxing gloves.’

The boxing gloves are now on display at the Vindolanda museum, along with other finds from the cavalry barracks excavations.

This article appeared in CA 338.

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