A Rare Artifact found at Vindolanda

Here at Vindolanda, there have been many rare finds, the most well-know being the writing tablets that are preserved in the anaerobic soil. But among the objects displayed within the museum, there is one thing that seems unique within the archaeological record. This is the Vindolanda Calendar fragment.

Bird’s eye view of the calendar fragment. Photo courtesy of Cassandra Phang-Lyn. 

Of all the artifacts recovered throughout the entire Roman Empire, there are only three calendar fragments. One is from Salzburg, France one from Grand, France, and the other from Vindolanda. Each of these three fragments seem to have few similarities between them, and this is the only one found within Roman Britain.

Frontal view of the calendar fragment. Photo courtesy of Cassandra Phang-Lyn. 
The Vindolanda Calendar fragment is made of copper alloy and is a curved band, that would have been part of a ring estimated to measure 350mm in diameter. Based on this estimated size, it is likely that the calendar was intended for private rather than public use.
The surface is pierced with 15 holes that would have likely been used to hold a peg marking the days. Based on the estimated size of the complete calendar and assuming the holes would have had similar even spacing around its entire surface to what survives of the fragment, each of these holes would have represented a span of two days. Although this might seem weird to us, we have to remember that our time-keeping methods are of our own creation, and that we are separated from the Romans by thousands of years. Because of this, we have to take care not to apply our cultural practices and thoughts about time to such an artifact. Having a calendar that had each peg space representative of two days may have been the norm in the Roman world.

Close-up of the calendar fragment. Photo courtesy of Cassandra Phang-Lyn. 
On the surface of the artifact, the word SEPTEMBER can be seen inscribed in punch-style lettering. The fragment is also inscribed with the letter K, short for kalendae, and marks September 1st; the letter N, short for nonae, and marks September 5th; the letter I, short for idus, and marks September 13; and the letters AE that are oriented differently than the rest of the lettering, and is short for aequinoctum, refering to the autumnal equinox.

The only inscriptions on this fragment are found on the one side, with evidence of soldering on the opposite side. It is likely that the metal disc this fragment came from was meant to be stationary, and it is possible that whatever it was once attached to might have moved to help keep track of the date or to predict future dates.

Close-up of the calendar fragment. Photo courtesy of Cassandra Phang-Lyn. 

The fragment was found in 2008 and was located next to the principia and the granary, although in an unstratified layer. It dates to the third or fourth century CE. It is thought that the main function of this calendar was to predict future calendar dates in relation to agricultural and pastoral cycles. This would make sense in relation to where it was found, as we know by the tablets found at Vindolanda, that barley, rye, and sheep were important parts of the local food system. To ensure that the crops were planted at the appropriate time it would have been important to keep track of the dates and plan for upcoming events accordingly, which may have been one of the things that this calendar was used for.

However, because the fragment is so small,  because there is no literary source that clearly references a device such as this, and because it is the only one of its kind found, the exact purpose of this calendar fragment remains uncertain. Whatever this fragment was once part of, it is definitely something you do not want to miss if you visit the Roman Vindolanda Fort & Museum. 

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