Vindolanda’s cavalry cache uncovered

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Excavations at Vindolanda Roman fort have uncovered a host of military items in a 2nd-century cavalry barracks. Standing amid the barracks remains, volunteer Sarah Baker holds a sword she found. (Image: The Vindolanda Trust)

The long-running excavations at Vindolanda, a Roman auxiliary fort just south of Hadrian’s Wall, have uncovered an apparently hastily abandoned cavalry barracks containing a wealth of finds, from weapons to personal items.

The Vindolanda Trust-led investigations had opened test-pits beneath the stone foundations of the last stone fortress, revealing anaerobic layers dating from c.AD 120, just before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall. This oxygen-free soil had preserved the remains of timber walls, floors, and fences, as well as animal bones and wooden objects, all belonging to the cavalry barracks.

Beautifully preserved horse fittings were also recovered during the dig.(Image: The Vindolanda Trust)

So far, the team has excavated both stables for the cavalry’s horses and living accommodation, with ovens and fireplaces. In these latter structures, they also uncovered an eclectic range of objects that the occupants had left behind.

In c.AD 120, the Vindolanda garrison had a diverse population, including the 1st Cohort of Tungrians from modern Belgium, and a detachment of Vardulli cavalrymen from northern Spain. Altogether, the fort probably housed over 1,000 soldiers, living alongside many more dependents, including slaves and freedmen. The recently excavated items include leather shoes belonging to men, women, and children, as well as combs, hairpins, and brooches.

Other personal objects included wooden writing tablets and stylus pens, knives, bath clogs, and two small wooden toy swords – but it was a pair of real swords that the team were particularly excited to uncover. One of these, excavated in the corner of a living room, survived as a thin, sharp iron blade still resting in its wooden scabbard. The hilt and handle were also still intact, though the tip of the blade was bent. The second sword was found in adjacent accommodation, and while its wooden pommel, hilt, and scabbard had not survived, the blade and tang were still complete, lying on the floor exactly where the object had been left almost 2,000 years ago.

That such valuable items should have been left behind might suggest that the garrison had abandoned in a hurry, suggests Dr Andrew Birley, director of excavations. Indeed, there were still more martial finds to come, many of which would have been perfectly serviceable objects when they were left. Cavalry lances, arrowheads, and ballista bolts had all been scattered on the barrack room floors, while the team also found perfectly preserved copper-alloy fittings for saddles, junction straps, and harnesses.

The finds have now gone on display at the Vindolanda site museum. For more on the excavations, see

This article was published in CA 332

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