Roman swords and toys found in Hadrian’s Wall Vindolanda dig

Roman swords and toys found in Hadrian's Wall Vindolanda dig

Roman swords and toys found in Hadrian’s Wall Vindolanda dig

A significant new find of Roman artefacts in the North East was similarly to winning the lottery by archaeologists. Thousands of objects were found in a barracks beneath the 4th-century fort of Vindolanda, south of Hadrian ’s Wall near Hexham in Northumberland.

The two toy swords are like those available in the Vindolanda gift shop

It is one of the earliest barracks on the site and dates back to almost 105AD before Emperor Hadrian began the 73-mile defensive barrier in 122AD. The find includes two extremely rare cavalry swords – one of them complete, still with its wooden scabbard, hilt and pommel– and two wooden toy swords.  One has a gemstone in its pommel.

Other weapons, including cavalry lances, arrowheads and ballista bolts were also left behind on the barracks floor and their discovery has also generated a bit of a mystery for those at the dig.

Dr Andrew Birley, Director of Excavations at Vindolanda, said: “You can imagine the circumstances where you could conceive leaving one sword behind rare as it is…. but two?”

Vindolanda in Northumberland
Dig volunteer Sarah Baker with one of the rare cavalry swords.

“Both blades came from separate rooms, and are likely to have belonged to different people.

“One theory is that the garrison was forced to leave in a hurry, and in their haste they left not only the swords but also a great number of other perfectly serviceable items which would have had great value in their time.”

The latest discoveries cap a momentous few weeks of discoveries at Vindolanda.

Test pit excavations, below the stone foundations of the last stone fortress revealed a layer of black, sweet smelling and perfectly preserved anaerobic, oxygen free, soils in an area where they were completely unexpected.

Cavalry Junction strap after conservation

Hidden in this soil were the timber walls and floors, fences, pottery and animal bones, from the abandonment of a Roman cavalry barrack. The excavated rooms included stables for horses, living accommodation, ovens and fireplaces.

While excavating the material from the corner of one of the living rooms the tip of a thin and sharp iron blade was found resting in its wooden scabbard. Further work revealed the whole sword.

Dr Birley spoke of the “quite emotional” moment of the story.

He said: “You can work as an archaeologist your entire life on Roman military sites and, even at Vindolanda, we never expect or imagine to see such a rare and special object as this. It felt like the team had won a form of an archaeological lottery.”

A few weeks later a second sword was found, this time without a wooden handle, pommel or scabbard, but with the blade and tang still complete and sitting on the floor exactly where it had been left thousands of years before.

Cavalry barrack excavation trench

Dr Birley said: “You don’t expect to have this kind of experience twice in one month so this was both a delightful moment and a historical puzzle.”

In another room were two small wooden toy swords, almost exactly the same as those that can be purchased by tourists visiting the Roman Wall today.

Roman ink writing tablets on wood, bath clogs, leather shoes belonging to men, women and children, stylus pens, knives, combs, hairpins, brooches and a wide assortment of other weapons including cavalry lances, arrowheads and ballista bolts were all abandoned on the barrack room floors.

Spectacular copper-alloy cavalry and horse fitments for saddles, junction straps and harnesses which were also left behind remain in such fine condition that they still shine like gold and are almost completely free from corrosion.

Visitors to Vindolanda will be able to see this cache of cavalry finds displayed in the site museum this autumn.

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