A toilet is the last place you might think to look for hidden treasure, but a team of volunteer archaeologists working for Vindolanda Trust are doing exactly that. It’s the summer of 2019 and an ancient latrine is the star find of a dig taking place at a ruined Roman settlement in the United Kingdom. Then, excavating around its drain, the volunteers recover a clutch of intriguing artifacts…
Set to shed new light on Roman history, these discoveries lend credence to an old English saying: “where’s there’s muck, there’s brass.” The “brass” in question is a reference to money – or in this case, archaeological gold. In fact, entire books have been written about the archaeology, construction and cultural significance of Roman toilets.
The toilet excavated in 2019 was located inside a remote military community at what was once the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. As such, the artefacts recovered from its drain promise to provide fresh insights into the leisure activities of Roman troops. After all, it can’t all be conquest and plunder. Or can it?
The toilet was located in a castrum or fortified settlement in the Roman province of Britannia. Known as Vindolanda, the fort guarded parts of Hadrian’s Wall in what’s today northern England. The wall, which was constructed during the rule of Hadrian in the 2nd century, ran east-west across the province and served to keep out querulous tribes such as the Picts, who refused to submit to Roman dominion.
Located in the present-day county of Northumberland, Vindolanda was inhabited by the Romans during the first four centuries AD. Prior to the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, it stood watch over the Stanegate. This was a critical Roman transport route that connected a couple of riverside forts: Luguvalium on the River Eden and Corstopitum on the River Tyne.
After its abandonment in the 4th century, though, historians overlooked Vindolanda for more than a thousand years. In fact, the earliest post-Roman reference to Vindolanda, which was made by William Camden in his book Britannia, didn’t come until 1586. More than two centuries later, in the early 1800s, a priest named Anthony Hedley attempted the first detailed surveys of the site, but he passed away without having published his findings.
It wasn’t until well into the 20th century that archaeologists completed any serious studies of Vindolanda. Professor Eric Birley, the man who set up Durham University’s Department of Archaeology, began investigating the site during the 1930s. He subsequently passed on the work to his children Anthony and Robin, and the start of the 1970s saw the establishment of the Vindolanda Charitable Trust. Today, this body is responsible for coordinating further digs that typically involve hundreds of volunteers.
What’s more, the trust’s current CEO is a third-generation Birley: Dr Andrew Birley, Robin’s son and Eric’s grandchild. Born in 1974, Dr Birley has devoted almost two decades to studying Vindolanda. During that time, he’s produced multiple works about the Roman site and served as a consultant to the likes of the History Channel and National Geographic.
Speaking to the regional news site ChronicleLive in 2019, Dr Birley described how his predecessors transformed the location into a popular tourist attraction. “They had about £5 [equivalent to $6] in the bank, a small wooden shed, no toilet, no museum, no car park, no electricity or water. They started excavating in the snow at the bath house in 1970. From there, 49 years later, over 100,000 visitors have been to the site.”
Moreover, years of excavations and research have paid off by creating a detailed picture of what life was like at Vindolanda. First and foremost, the site was home to a garrison composed of infantry and cavalry units known as the Cohors quarta Gallorum equitata, which translates as “fourth part-mounted Cohort of Gauls.” These troops began occupying Vindolanda early in the 3rd century.
The Gauls hailed from mainland Europe, and for years it was thought that the “Cohort of Gauls” at Vindolanda were in fact locally recruited Britons. However, in 2006 archaeologists discovered an inscription at the site that suggested a more complex social arrangement. It stated, “The troops from Gaul dedicate this statue to the goddess Gallia with the full support of the British-born troops.”
The first structures at Vindolanda were a succession of rudimentary fortifications hewn from mud and wood. The first appears to have been created sometime around 85 AD. Approximately a decade later, a 1,000-strong cavalry and infantry battalion known as the 9th Cohort of Batavians constructed a bigger fort. Then, around 10 years after that, an even larger citadel was put up by the 1st Cohort of Tungarians. They stayed at the site right up to the creation of Hadrian’s Wall.
Following the completion of the wall, a stone castle was constructed. However, early in the 3rd century, the Britons staged a revolt against the Empire that required the intervention of Emperor Septimus Severus himself. During this period, the castle was torn down and replaced by military quarters. The Emperor ultimately died in Britain not long afterwards, and his sons subsequently reached a financial settlement with the insurgents. Thereafter, another stone citadel was constructed to be occupied by the 4th Cohort of Gauls, who would create the inscription we heard about earlier.
An autonomous settlement known as a vicus subsequently sprang up on lands near to the citadel. Except for one that may have served as butchery, though, the buildings didn’t have any drainage facilities. In addition, a separate bathing center known as a thermae was also constructed on lands close to the castle.
Decades of excavation work at Vindolanda have yielded a trove of intriguing artefacts. Among them, the so-called Vindolanda tablets were Britain’s oldest examples of handwriting when they were unearthed. Found in the 1970s by a student, they consist of wood sheets that contain ink inscriptions. These include army dispatches and private correspondence.
Other notable artefacts are a cache of more than 400 items of footwear that were unearthed in 2016. The most notable was a kid’s shoe that bears a remarkable likeness to modern-day sportswear, even though it was created prior to the construction of Hadrian’s Wall. And, as an item of fine quality, it raises questions about the social composition of the settlement.
Meanwhile, in 2014 the rare discovery of a wooden toilet seat at Vindolanda made international news. Speaking to ChronicleLive in 2019, Dr Birley joked about some of the media enquiries. He said, “Someone rang me up to ask if the toilet lid was up or down when we found it!”
Naturally, some discoveries at the site are dark and even a little disturbing. In 2010, for example, diggers recovered the skeleton of a kid who was probably female. And it seemed that ritual sacrifice could have played a part in her demise. Tests suggested that she passed away in the 3rd century.
During a 2017 volunteer dig, the team unexpectedly stumbled upon cavalry quarters dating to the early 2nd century. The contents included military equipment, textiles and, most impressive of all, an unbroken sword in its casing. “[That wasn’t] a moment we ever expected to happen, and it was found by volunteer,” Dr Birley recalled.
In the same year, diggers also found the world’s oldest boxing gloves. Fashioned from leather, they were made sometime around 120 AD and according to Dr Birley “should not have survived”. The gloves aren’t matching, and it’s thought they were worn in sporting contests or training fights.
In 2018 the team discovered a small hand that may have been a ritual object associated with the temple of Jupiter Dolichenus, a secretive sect that flourished during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. “[It] was found only 20 meters away from the temple wall in a muddy pond [and] is so symbolic of the cult,” Dr Birley said. “[It was] probably discarded as a part of the temples commissioning ceremony into a watery grave.”
That same year, an investigation into a ditch that pre-dates Hadrian’s Wall, yielded the remnants of a hairy dog. According to Dr Birley, the remains are remarkably intact. “To have this level of preservation, even at Vindolanda, is incredible,” he explained. “This artefact is important as it shows what might survive from the deepest ditches at the site.”
Other discoveries in 2018 included a silver trinket depicting a duck. According to Dr Birley, the brooch was “found in a ditch from a time of war in the early 3rd century, full of symbolism and hope.” Indeed, the object is so aesthetically pleasing that the trust has manufactured imitations to sell online.
Even more remarkably, though, the 2019 dig around the toilet drain of the Vindolanda bathhouse yielded a couple of precious jewels: carnelian and red jasper. Carved with the images of Roman gods and goddesses, the stones were seemingly once set in rings and worn as jewelry. The specific deities depicted in the stones probably had personal significance to the wearer.
Speaking to the BBC in 2019, Dr Birley explained that the stones likely fell down the toilet by accident. “Although carefully made by skilled artisans and prized by their owners, the glue that secured them in rings had a nasty habit of failing,” he said. “Their owners either did not initially notice that their gemstones had fallen out… Or they could not face climbing into the toilet to try to recover them.”
In addition to the gemstones, the diggers discovered the remains of a cracked board game. The game was apparently played inside the bathhouse until it became damaged. Thereafter, it was placed in a nearby building where it served a more practical function: floor tiling.
Speaking to the BBC, Dr Birley explained that board games were a vital part of life in the military camps. “The Romans played a very tactical game which looked a little like draughts,” he stated. “Gaming boards and counters are particularly prevalent on Roman military sites and shows that it was not all work in Roman times. Like today, gaming was an important part of life for many people 2,000 years ago.”
Indeed, people from all walks of Roman life liked playing games, many of which resemble their popular modern-day equivalents, at least superficially. The Romans enjoyed dice games, for instance, although their rules remain a mystery. Backgammon, too, is probably descended from a range of ancient games called Duodecim Scripta.
The game found near the bathhouse is known as ludus latrunculorum meaning “game of mercenaries.” The board is inscribed with a matrix and was played with counters. The crack in its surface could even have resulted from a dispute between players.
In fact, numerous versions of ludus latrunculorum have been found at many sites all around the Roman world. As such, archaeologists are relatively certain about its layout and pieces. That the game had clear military themes and may have involved wagers is clear. However, no one is entirely sure yet how to play it.
When it comes to investigating and interpreting such ancient games, scholars consult sources including the works of Suetonius, who wrote that even Emperor Claudius enjoyed games. Such documentary evidence is then compared to the physical remnants of boards and pieces to try to deduce the rules.
The earliest written reference to ludus latrunculorum apparently dates to the 2nd century B.C., when the author Varro described a mysterious game involving a matrix. Then, in the first century A.D., an unidentified writer stated that the game involves participants moving back and forth on the board and trying to take pieces from their opponent. The poet Ovid finally explained the intricacies of capturing a counter.
As such, ludus latrunculorum appears to have been a complex form of checkers. The exact rules remain hazy, but that hasn’t stopped some manufacturers from producing working replicas of the game. For example, Masters Traditional Games sells handmade leather boards complete with pieces. On its Amazon page, the company describes ludus as “a straight-forward strategic war-game. Easy to learn but with some depth.”
Of course, the games people play can tell us a great deal about how they live, think, relax and work. As such, the 2019 bathhouse discovery is set to direct further investigations at the site. The Vindolanda Trust stated, “Our future research will look at these social aspects of gaming and in doing so, we hope to cast new light on the everyday life of the Vindolanda community.”
In fact, so far some 16 ludus latrunculorum boards have been discovered at Vindolanda – a record unmatched by any other site in the U.K. Indeed, the community of Vindolanda appears to have been home to a devoted gaming culture, which begs the question why. What was it about ludus latrunculorum that so resonated with its inhabitants?
Well, the game’s military themes would probably have had great appeal to the troops stationed in Vindolanda. For example, according to one author, the winners were bestowed with the prestigious title of imperator (“general”). Equally, the game’s popularity may simply have been a matter of utility, as its components were simple to construct.
Moreover, ludus latrunculorum boards have been recovered from a wide variety of sites in Roman Britain, including both civilian and military sites. Clearly, then, it was a popular game. And it appears to have been enjoyed by all kinds of people, not merely troops or aspiring imperators.
Indeed, this pattern appears to have been replicated at Vindolanda itself. Ludus latrunculorum boards have been recovered from a range of locations including inside the citadel itself, the sleeping quarters and the house of a commander. Moreover, the discovery of a board close to the bathhouse – a site utilized by the whole community – suggests the game’s appeal was ubiquitous.
For his part, Dr Birley intends to continue his efforts at the site. Speaking to ChronicleLive about his work, he said, “I’ve served here 24 years. I’ve got one more year left which, if I was a Roman soldier, I could retire with a piece of land in North Africa; but it doesn’t look quite so good these days. So I think I’ll just carry on instead.”
“When I was a student at Leicester University many, many years ago, my professor asked me what I want to do,” he added. “And I said, ‘I want to be a Roman archaeologist on Hadrian’s Wall.’ He actually burst out laughing and said, ‘It’s all been done, hasn’t it?’ Twenty-five years later, I’m standing here and we haven’t even scratched the surface…”