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Samian ware pottery that was found at the site at the end of last month

Two Roman Cavalry Swords and Two Toy Swords Amongst Treasures Found at Frontier Fort

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Evidence of both work and play have been found at a Roman fort near Hadrian’s Wall in the UK. Two Roman swords as well as two wooden toy swords have been found in ongoing investigations which are uncovering a barracks area. Lead archaeologist, Dr Andrew Birley, said the finds were like "winning the lottery" reported the BBC.

Historical Vindolanda

The finds have been made in the last few weeks in a barracks area at the Vindolanda Roman fort archaeological dig in Northumberland, England. The fort has been a rich source of historical Roman artifacts for many years and remarkable past finds have included a huge hoard of shoes and two caches of Roman letters. The fort was abandoned when the Romans retreated from Britain around the 4th century AD and what has been found to have been left behind provides unique insight into the daily life led by the Roman soldiers and their families that occupied the fort.

The First Sword

The first of the full-size metal swords to be found was unearthed by a delighted volunteer, Rupert Bainbridge, who was digging in the corner of one of the living spaces that had been excavated, reported Past Horizons. The sword was slowly extracted, with first the tip of the sword’s blade being revealed and then the wooden scabbard becoming obvious. Once uncovered completely, it was found to be a complete full-length iron sword with a damaged, bent point. It is likely this damage led to the sword being discarded.

The first sword to be found had a bent end

The first sword to be found had a bent end (Image: The Vindolanda Trust)

It might be thought that finding swords at a fort where a garrison of hundreds of soldiers lived would not be so uncommon. But swords were valuable possessions and not readily left. The rarity of such a find is clearly portrayed by the words reported by experienced Dr Birley who has been researching at Vindolanda for many years.

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.

Sword Number Two

After the first find the dig continued with fresh volunteers and was spurred on by Birley’s inexhaustible enthusiasm. Within just a few weeks another sword was discovered in the room adjacent to the first. This one was without the accompaniment of wooden handle, pommel or scabbard but the blade and tang was in excellent shape.

Sword Two with complete well-preserved blade

Sword Two with complete well-preserved blade (Image: The Vindolanda Trust)

Well, you can imagine the reaction of the animated Dr Birley who seemed genuinely astounded by the finds. He commented as reported by Past Horizons:

 “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. You can imagine the circumstances where you could conceive leaving one sword behind rare as it is…. but two?

Both swords found were for cavalry use – thin and short with a sharp blade for slashing from horseback.

Evacuation of a Complete Community

One of the most remarkable characteristics of Vindolanda is that it gives evidence of the life of a whole community, not just the soldiers. A good example of this comes with the find of two toy wooden swords. They serve to remind us that this place was inhabited by whole families including the soldier’s off-spring. This complex wasn’t only soldiers living, waiting, training and fighting rebels – there were children playing amongst them too.

One of the ancient toy wooden swords, with a gemstone in its pommel

One of the ancient toy wooden swords, with a gemstone in its pommel (The Vindolanda Trust)

The two wooden toy swords were found in another room and are said to be pretty similar to toy swords on sale at souvenir shops near Hadrian’s Wall today. Other everyday items that have been found recently include ink writing tablets on wood, bath clogs, leather shoes (from men, women and children), stylus pens, knives, combs, hairpins, brooches and pottery. The letters are particularly telling of the daily life, as has been reported in a previous Ancient Origins article on the finds.  As would be expected of a fort that was quickly abandoned, a wide assortment of other weapons including cavalry lances, arrowheads and ballista bolts were left on the barrack room floors.

The rare conditions of oxygen free soil have allowed a lot of wooden items to be preserved where they would have disappeared due to decay in other areas. Some impressive shiny finds are the copper-alloy cavalry and horse fitments for saddles, junction straps and harnesses which were also left behind.  These remain in such fine condition that they still shine like gold and are almost completely free from corrosion.

Cavalry Junction strap after conservation. (Image: The Vindolanda Trust)

Cavalry Junction strap after conservation. (Image: The Vindolanda Trust)

Why was this Vindolanda Barracks Abandoned?

Although Vindolanda fort was occupied until the 9 th century after which it was left for good, the Roman garrisons were long gone centuries before. In fact, these artifacts survived so well because they were hidden by a layer of concrete that was laid by the Romans about 30 years after these barracks had been abandoned reports the Guardian. It seems the Roman presence here to some extent ebbed and flowed. Successive garrisons have built on top of their predecessors at the site.  From the sheer amount of possessions that have been found to have been left behind at this level of excavations it is obvious that the inhabitants had a distinct lack of time to pack their bags. But what would make a garrison of the mighty Roman Empire turn tale and flee?

The words of Dr Birley as reported by the Guardian might give us a clue.

“The swords are the icing on the cake for what is a truly remarkable discovery of one of the most comprehensive and important collections from the intimate lives of people living on the edge of the Roman Empire at a time of rebellion and war.”

This fort was right at the far frontier of the Roman Empire and the battle against the British rebels had already been long and hard by the time these barracks were constructed in around 105 AD. It seems possible from the repeated abandonment that the Romans suffered several defeats here and the outpost forces had to be replenished several times. The rebels on this frontier were so troublesome that about a century later, after his visit in 122 AD, the Emperor Hadrian decreed that the best way to deal with the situation was to build a wall that probably either aimed to keep the rebels out or at least to control immigration and smuggling.

Whatever the causes of abandonment, the result archaeologically is that at the deepest levels of the excavation are being found some of the best-preserved and most exciting artifacts.

Top image: Samian ware pottery that was found at the site at the end of last month (The Vindolanda Trust)

By Gary Manners

Gary Manners's picture


Gary is an editor and content manager for Ancient Origins. He has a BA in Politics and Philosophy from the University of York and a Diploma in Marketing from CIM. He has worked in education, the educational sector, social work... Read More

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