Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum
- Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum are both in Northumberland and are close to Hadrian's Wall.
- Go through the ruins at Vindolanda, and see one of the earliest examples of Roman ink writing in Britain with the Vindolanda tablets.
- Learn if you could be a Roman solider at The Roman Army Museum, with their three galleries.
- Eat amongst history, or stay in a special Roman home.
Vindolanda, meaning fair plain and also known as Roman Vindolanda, was a Roman fort on Hadrian's Wall, just south, and is part of Hadrian's Wall World Heritage Site. Under Roman occupation for 285 years, it's now a Roman Army Museum as well as ruins to explore. It's famous for the Vindolanda tablets, initially one of the oldest pieces of writing found in Britain. It's near the modern village of Bardon Mill in Northumberland, so if you like Kielder Water and Forest Park or Northumberland Country Zoo, you'll want to visit Vindolanda.
Roman Vindolanda is cared for by the Vindolanda Trust. The fort was just one of the Roman forts on Hadrian's Wall and was occupied from 85 AD to 370 AD to guard the Stanegate, the Roman road that ran to Solway Firth and Hadrian's Wall, the northern frontier of England. When you visit Vindolanda, you'll probably reach it by Stanegate Road, the road protected by Vindolanda. As you walk, you can imagine you're part of the Roman army. The site at Vindolanda was rebuilt nine times over the years that it was lived in. The first Roman settlements were wood and turf, with their remains buried four metres deep below the soil. After Hadrian's Wall was built, Vindolanda's wooden structure was replaced with stone forts and huts. Some of the ruins of the hut are still visible, but these were mostly replaced with the larger stone fort which ruins can be seen today. A type of village called a vicus grew to the west of the fort, and it was also called Vindolanda. It had several Roman buildings, including a bath-house for the soldiers. The fort was repaired over the years, but a steady number of Roman soldiers living there declined in around 285 AD, as the decline of the Roman Empire occurred. Lots of people had lived at Vindolanda over almost 300 years. The 1st Cohort of Tungrians introduced stone to the area for building, but the garrison was most likely moved to a Roman fort on Hadrian's Wall called Housesteads, and Vindolanda was left to become the home of other garrisons. The soldiers that finally lived at the Vindolanda were not British-born Roman soldiers but were Gauls, people from places like France, Luxembourg, Germany and more. At Vindolanda, the settlers were called Cohors IV Gallorum equitata, meaning the fourth cohort of Gauls. The first record of the settlement not from the Romans was by a historian called William Camden. Travellers also found the site over the years and took part in stone-stealing, which has resulted in a large amount of damage happening to the site. The site has had many different names including Little Chesters and The Bower before a Roman altar was found displaying the name Vindolanda.
On the Vindolanda site, you can explore the Vindolanda museum, a world-class institution set up by the Vindolanda trust. Using the latest interpretation techniques, it will tell the story of the site and the people that lived there. Artefacts are added annually to develop the story of Roman Britain and Vindolanda's role within it. In 2018, the Wooden Underworld gallery was added to the museum to showcase some of the earliest artefacts at the site. It has 2,000-year-old wooden finds, like a toilet seat and a toy sword.
Inside of Vindolanda, you can even discover the Vindolanda writing tablets. These tablets have previously been voted as 'Britain's Top Treasure', and were the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain before the Bloomberg tablets were discovered in 2013. They tell the story of life in Roman Britain from the first and second centuries. The Vindolanda Tablets are made from birch, alder and oak and are the size of a modern postcard. They were written on with ink made from carbon, gum arabic and water, and were the first known surviving examples of the use of ink letters. The writing tablets were first thought to be wood shavings until an excavator peeled them apart and discovered the letters inside. The tablets have many different authors; perhaps one of the most interesting is from Claudia Severa, the wife of Aelius Brocchus, who wrote Tablet 291. The tablet is an invitation to Sulpicia Lepidina, inviting her to a birthday party, and is one of the first examples of Roman women's writing. There are two separate handwriting styles, so it's believed that a household scribe would have written the majority of the invitation, but Claudia would have written the more personal greetings to Sulpicia. The tablets as a whole are written in Roman cursive and confirm many pieces of Roman Britain. For example, many Roman soldiers could read and write and, perhaps more importantly, Roman soldiers did wear underwear under their armour. There's also a minimal amount of references to native Britains with the term Brittunculi which means little Britons and was meant as a patronising term. Not all of the Vindolanda writing tablets are at Vindolanda as the majority are at the British Museum, but some have been loaned back to live up North on the site they were discovered.
Outside, there is still archaeological work going on, and there are some excavations on display. There's the large bath-house which was built before Hadrian's Wall, as well as bath-house from the 3rd century. Bathing was a significant part of Roman culture, so it's a highlight of Vindolanda. There are various buildings made for commanders as a way of showing their status to the rest of the army. The headquarters building is still preserved. The headquarters building would have been used for soldiers to collect their pay, where commanders would address their troops, and other administration tasks would happen. You can see village houses and workshops and toilets. There are also some traces of religion left, with a temple to an unknown god. There's also the only temple to be found on display to a Roman god inside an auxiliary fort anywhere in the Roman Empire at Vindolanda. The god is Jupiter Dolichenus, meaning Jupiter of Doliche, who was the head of a mystery cult, whose beliefs and practices were unknown. You can also see a Roman mausoleum, a Roman Christian church, a Romano-British house, and recreated sections of Hadrian's Wall.
If the Vindolanda has inspired you, you can put yourself into the shoes of the Roman Army soldiers who lived there with the Roman Army Museum. The museum has three galleries, a 3D film and a holographic classroom. It's situated next to one of the most complete sections of Hadrian's Wall. The galleries tell the story of the soldiers. There are objects from Vindolanda spread across the three to bring their lives to life. The Roman Army and its Empire Gallery focuses on how the Roman army in England was structured. You can even visit the recruitment tent where Centurion Africanus will try to persuade you to sign up and join. Visit the Hadrian Room to discover more about the emperor who has a whole wall dedicated to him. You can look at the artwork of the building of the wall, finding all the details hidden inside the painting. Gallery Three focuses on Daily Life on the Frontier. You can learn about training, religion, leisure and the fort's archers. The objects that have been chosen are unique and include items like a delicate surviving hair moss helmet crest, the only one left at Vindolanda and the surrounding areas. There's also the Quintus Sollonius phalera which was a special brooch. You'll also be able to see recreated weapons to gauge their size compared to you.
To immerse yourself further, head to the 3D cinema. Soaring over Northumberland and the armies below, you'll see a thousand years of history take place in just 20 minutes. Discover what it took to become one of the best soldiers on the wall, and why some weren't able to do it. You can then go back to school, except this time it's in a Roman classroom! Learn Latin, maths, and Roman morals from a holographic Roman teacher, Velius Longus.
Events also happen at Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum throughout the year, organised by the Vindolanda Trust. Family trails are set up to allow people visitors to guide themselves through the Roman Army Museum; the Roman Army Survival Guide will question whether you have what it takes to be in the Roman army. Answer questions as you go through the rooms, and find out the best tips for surviving. There's also the Roman animal trail teaching you the importance of animals in Roman life. Answer animal-related questions as you try and spot animals within the museum. At Halloween, you might be able to enjoy Vile Vindolanda. Discover from volunteers at the site some of the vile and gruesome facts about Vindolanda; you might not want to have lived there after hearing some of these facts. There are also Ask Archaeologist days where you can discover everything you've ever wanted to know about archaeology at Vindolanda. Learn what an archaeologist does on their day off, what their role is at Vindolanda, and how the improvement of technology is helping unearth history. If you want to see Vindolanda in an entirely new way, then the Vindolanda Festive Light tours are the way to do so. You'll be able to see the ruins lit up at dusk, in a beautiful site as the sun goes down. Learn about the fireball, garden temple, and the Wall replica. Learn how to do Roman pottery as you fire up a replica Roman kiln to make some authentic pottery. See never before seen artefacts at one of the Militaria Exhibitions that happen, with artefacts loaned to the Vindolanda Trust also on display. If you're lucky, you might even get to see the Romans return to Vindolanda as the world-famous Ermine Street Guard do demonstrations and displays and bring Vindolanda to life in a unique way.
After all of that, you might be feeling peckish? Luckily, there's a café on site. The Vindolanda Cafe serves a variety of options including hot and cold drinks, light bites like sandwiches, and hot lunches like sausage rolls. However, the surrounding area also has lots of options. The Bardon Mill Tea Room has a similar cafe menu in the adorable village nearby. The Twice Brewed Inn is a great pub so perfect if you're looking for some dinner food. There's also Hjem which, although a short drive away, is great for something completely different. Serving European food, you might find your new favourite dish hidden among the flavours.
If you want to stay close to the site for your trip, there are plenty of hotels near Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum. On the Vindolanda Trust is the Codley Gate Cottage, which is near two relaxing streams, which used to be sacred to the Romans. There are three double rooms with en suite bedrooms, and just outside the cottage is a Roman milestone. Due to the cottage being owned by the Vindolanda Trust, if you stay there, you're giving money directly back to the sites that they care for. There are other accommodations nearby too. Layside is a bed and breakfast in Bardon Mill, which is nice and cosy. The Twice Brewed Inn is a hotel as well as an eaterie, so you can have a nice meal before going to visit the Roman fort. There are lodges nearby which you can pretend are the Roman stone huts. There are also options for camping and caravanning.
If you want a souvenir of the day, there's a Vindolanda Shop serving plenty of different gifts; whether you want something to spend your pocket money on, or a book to read to bring the history home with you.
What to know before you go
- The Roman Vindolanda opening times are 10am to 5pm, but may change to 4pm for closing depending on the time of year.
- You can buy a ticket to Vindolanda Roman Fort and Museum and Roman Army Museum together or separately. Double-check which ticket you've purchased before going to one or the other.
- Vindolanda Museum is fully accessible to wheelchair users. 70% of the Vindolanda site is accessible to wheelchair users, but there are some steep and hilly routes which may cause issues.
- Wheelchair users may wish to enter from the East Gate Entrance as this is the closest to disabled parking.
- The Roman Army Museum is fully accessible to wheelchair users and is all inside.
- Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum is accessible by buggies, but there may be some hilly sections.
- The toilets at Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum are accessible.
- Baby changing facilities can be found at Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum.
- By car, follow signs to Roman Vindolanda from Bardon Mill. It can be reached by the A1 or the M6 depending on which direction you're coming from. For a scenic route, you can also take the B6318. The Roman Army Museum can be reached by following signs from Vindolanda to the museum. It's a 12-minute drive between the two.
- The nearest rail station is Bardon Mill for Vindolanda, and Haltwhistle for the Roman Army Museum.
- Vindolanda is accessible by foot from Bardon Mill, as well as a short detour from Hadrian's Wall. The Roman Army Museum is on Hadrian's Wall.
- The nearest stop for Vindolanda is Bardon Mill, and you'll need the 685 or 85. The Roman Army Museum stop is Greenhead. There's a bus that follows the Wall stopping at sites along the way, including the museum.