Robin Birley set out to excavate the entirety of the Vindolanda fort and associated civilian settlement on Hadrian’s Wall in 1970, calculating that the task would take him 20 years. Some 36 years on, he now thinks the task will take at least another 100 years of dedicated work.

This book, then, written on reflection in retirement, gives the most up-to-date account of a site that shot to international prominence in 1973, following the discovery of some of the best-preserved organic remains to have been found anywhere in the Roman Empire.

The book begins with an account of the Birley family’s involvement with the site, the purchase of the land, the establishment of the Vindolanda Trust, and an account of the excavation strategy, complete with pot shots in the direction of English Heritage, with whom relations are now excellent but who, at one time, in their determination to protect England’s heritage, seemed unwilling to make allowances ‘for a long-term research project backed by a professional staff’.

There then follows an amply (but not always crisply) illustrated period-by-period account of the fort’s development, with the most compelling chapters being devoted to the five timber phases (roughly AD 85 to 130); and to the rich evidence of daily life at Vindolanda, derived from the famous writing tablets as well as from the wealth of organic finds ? from bath plugs, socks and dainty slippers to a cap made from hair moss with long swishable fringes, which Birley suggests was made to ‘repel the local midges’.

 

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