A common focus throughout these five weeks at the Vindolanda Field School has been the discovery of “cool things” — usually ranging from pottery sherds to denarii. It is exhilarating to make these finds, to be sure, and I wouldn’t trade the experience of unearthing a (potential) cremation burial for much.
I have, however, found a treasure here that brings even more joy to my writer’s soul.
This treasure comes in the form of a simple room in the Chesterholm Museum here on site. It is a dark and rather unassuming room that might easily be missed if a passerby is not paying attention, but its twin walls of illuminated names make a lasting impression. Like a thumbprint on a sherd of pottery or the toe depressions in a shoe, these names serve as a reminder that the people of Vindolanda might not have been so different from us.
The famous writing tablets here at Vindolanda have given us a rare opportunity to meet some of these people during our stay and, if I might be granted the honour, I would be pleased to introduce them.
Tagomas — a vexillarius, or standard bearer, serving with the First Cohort of Tungrians. He seems to have been fond of wine, or at least afraid of having it stolen, for he scratched his name into an amphora handle that was found in the schola.
Sollemnis — a soldier who scolded his friend Paris, who he calls an “irreligious fellow”, for not writing. The tone is half-joking, but it shows that news from friends was as important then as it is today.
Flavius Cerialis — the prefect, or commanding officer, of the Ninth Cohort of Batavians. The tablets chronicling his expenses as an officer (read: “entertainment budget for friends, feasting, and hunting”) might have been lost to us when they were piled up and set aflame upon the Batavians’ sudden departure for Dacia — except that our beloved Northumbrian rain obliterated the fire after they left.
Sulpicia Lepidina — Cerialis’ wife and the recipient of the famous birthday invitation tablet. A beautifully crafted leather sandal in the museum bears her name because, as many reason, only a person of wealth would throw away the Roman equivalent of a Gucci sandal simply because the toe strap broke.
Claudia Severa — wife of Aelius Brocchus, a friend of Cerialis. She sent the birthday invitation, at the end of which she added a personal greeting in her own hand — the earliest example of female handwriting.
These are only five of the TWO-HUNDRED people named in the writing tablets. Others, like a soldier who received a care package of socks and underwear, remain unnamed. All, however, have inspired my future endeavors as a writer and will continue to remind me that archaeology is about more than finding the shiniest artefact.
For that reason, I would like to end this post by thanking the men who served in the cohorts of Vindolanda for their service to the empire of the past, the instruction of the present, and the enlightenment of the future.
Valete et gratias agimus.