The Roman Empire at its peak extended across 5 million square kilometers, encompassing regions in northern Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and central Asia. In order to hold control over conquered regions, the Romans built military forts, both permanent and temporary, to enforce their sovereignty. One of the regions populated with military forts was along Hadrian’s Wall in the modern day United Kingdom, where construction had begun in the 100s CE. One of the many military forts built is Vindolanda, which was occupied by the Romans between 85 CE and into the 5th- 6th century. Vindolanda is an incredible source of information and archaeological evidence for women’s lives in Roman military forts.
The Roman occupation and subsequent establishment of Vindolanda began, according to archaeological excavation data compiled by Andrew Birley in The Excavations of 2001-2002: Volume 1 (2003), in the 80s CE. Women did not generally live within the confines of the main fort, unless they were the family or slave of the commander, however they did interact with those living in the fort and lived in the extramural settlement surrounding it. Vindolanda was built and refurbished in different time periods throughout its time of settlement, and the extramural settlement outside of the fort expanded to contain, in accordance with the archaeological excavation data of Birley et al. (2016), shops, streets, baths, houses, and religious spaces.
Many of the women resided in the extramural settlement around the fort proven by the preface of Robin Birley in the Roman Jewellry from Vindolanda (2006) research report, as there was significant evidence that “extramural buildings were clearly the homes of civilians associated with the garrison” (Birley & Greene, p. 9). However there is evidence from archaeological excavations from 2009-2015 outlined by Birley et al. (2016) that in the northwest quadrant of the fort, by the 4th century CE, there would have been “homes for combatants and their families” (p. 245). In the pre-Hadrianic phase of the fort, women in the extramural settlement would have lived in wattle-and-daub roundhouses (Birley et al., 2016, p. 247), while in later periods living in more squared buildings of the same building material. Women living in the interior of the fort would have lived in “chalet- type structures” (Birley et al., 2016, p. 244) where soldiers and their families lived individually rather than in open barracks. Within their living areas, they would be able to manage their small household, watch over children, and potentially meet with their female companions because they had individual living spaces. Archaeological material culture left behind in their domestic spaces is items such as clothing, textiles, jewelry, and shoes. In the chalet houses, for example, archaeologists found “a large number of glass beads [and] spindle whorls” (Birley et al., 2016, p. 245) as evidence of female occupation.
Clothing and Jewelry
Also within their domestic spaces, there is archaeological evidence of what women wore as clothing and as for jewelry. In the section “The Textiles” by John Peter Wild from Volume III: the Early Wooden Forts (2003), most of the clothing found was made from wool. Different types of clothing from Vindolanda includes “tunics, at least four different styles of cloaks, leggings, underpants, and several sorts of rug and blanket” (Van Driel- Murray et al., 2003, p. 89) and socks. For footwear women could wear boots, which would be an advantage in “cold and wet climates” (Van Driel- Murray et al., 2003, p. 42), slippers if they were of high status, or sandals. Wooden clogs were also worn in the early period of the Vindolanda fort, but stopped being used because eventually the muddy roads turned into “improved pathing” (Van Driel- Murray et al., 2003, p. 44) so they were not needed anymore. Women could have woven their own clothing or bought it elsewhere, although the evidence of spindle whorls in domestic spaces indicates that some of their garments, if not all, were created individually. The garment types worn imply that women dressed for their environment in clothing that was practical, although they likely owned nicer clothing for special functions as well.
Women also would have had different types of jewelry to adorn themselves with, both made and influenced by Roman designs and more localized Iron-Age Britain styles. Jewelry served different purposes, either as decoration or a function to hold clothing or the hair. Although both men and women wore jewelry, certain types of beads and jewelry types, such as earrings, were generally worn only by women and were found in civilian sites and not the military sites in the fort. According to The Roman Jewellry from Vindolanda by Birley and Greene (2006), “beads, finger rings, ear-rings, carved gemstones, and bracelets” (p. 8) were found during archaeological excavations. The jewelry found during excavations was made with diverse materials and styles, as local and Roman materials and motifs were used.
Jewelry was not only adornment, but also a marker of social class and economic wellbeing. The diversity amongst archaeological evidence of jewelry from Vindolanda stems from the inhabitants’ need to “accentuate individualism and unique personal style” (Birley & Greene, 2006, p. 9). The ability for women, and men, to have individualized jewelry indicates a diverse “social and economic makeup” (Birley & Greene, 2006, p. 8) of the population living at Vindolanda in the fort and extramural settlement. Archaeological finds of earrings from Vindolanda are examples of how jewelry denotes status for women. Unlike other jewelry found at the fort, “the majority of ear-rings were made from gold” (Birley & Greene, 2006, p. 153) rather than copper alloys. Earrings also would have been easy jewelry to display as a marker of status, which is supported by evidence that the earrings excavated were either “suspended on wires” or dangly, or forming a “ring or hoop” (Birley & Greene, 2006, p. 153) and also because they were made of finer materials than other jewelry.
Jewelry and Religion
Jewelry could also be representations of religious ideals and practices. It is highly likely that the women at Vindolanda celebrated Roman religious festivals and gods, however there is also evidence of more localized religious deities becoming assimilated into jewelry styles. Small finds of red jasper stones dated to 200- 213 CE depict Roman deities, and were found at the site of the extramural settlement at Vindolanda. The first stone depicts Silvanus, who is “most often worshipped as a deity of the outdoors- hunting, agriculture, [and] forests” (Birley & Greene, 2006, p. 80). Silvanus would have been an ideal deity to worship at Vindolanda, as good hunts and bountiful harvests would have made up the majority of the diet of residents. The second stone depicts a Maenad, or a woman “connected with the worship of Bacchus” (Birley & Greene, 2006, p. 81). It is noted in the archaeological report by Birley and Greene that the worship of Bacchus was common in Roman Britain, and other finds from Vindolanda portray Bacchic themes. An example of Roman and localized Celtic deities being represented is of a carnelian small find of the god Mars. Although Mars is a Roman god, “he was identified with many Celtic deities” (Birley & Greene, 2006, p. 76) and represented not just war, but also hunting and the woodlands to be more relevant to inhabitants of Vindolanda and of Britain. The emphasis on hunting gods implies that a plentiful supply of food was one of the most important aspects of life on the edge of the Roman empire, as without enough food the military fort would not function and people would starve.
Women at Vindolanda, socially, were able to interact and form relationships with both men and other women. A tablet from Vindolanda translated in the article “Vindolanda” by Dr. Mike Ibeji (2012) is from a woman named Claudia Severa to her friend Sulpicia Lepidina, asking her to visit to celebrate her birthday with her. The relationships between women could also have been between free women and their slaves, as slaves were a vital part of elite households. According to research done by Anna H. Walas (2014) on the social networks at Roman military communities, “Vindolanda tablets provide evidence for slaves forming very close bonds” with each other and “a close comradeship” (p. 22) with members of their household. In terms of relationships with men, only women of certain professions could maintain a seemingly appropriate association with them. For example, “developing a relationship with one soldier” (Walas, 2014, p. 22) would be deemed inappropriate, however a woman working at an inn would not be seen in negative fashion because she would be around a larger network of people for work.
The societal expectation for women stems from Roman culture, as women generally only engaged with their families and other women. Elite women were able to maintain broader networks and correspondences with other women and men due to their status. Evidence drawn from Vindolanda tablets was identified to be letters from Sulpicia Lepidina, a commanding officer’s wife that was previously referred to in this paragraph, to a network of extended people. It would also be easy within the fort for her to develop social relationships, as she would have lived in the center of the fort because of her high status. Despite her status, her social position could have “limited [her] freedom of movement around the fort” (Walas, 2014, p. 23) because her elitism would have dictated that she be an ideal wife and homemaker, and a morally upstanding woman. Women at Vindolanda, despite being able to have some semblance of a social life, were still generally restricted by traditional Roman views of women’s roles. They had certain freedoms socially, but generally only participated in gendered and domestic activities with other women unless their economic situation deemed otherwise.
Diet and Hygiene
Due to the geographic location of Vindolanda, the diet of women would have predominantly consisted of locally grown grain and hunted game. However, Vindolanda had access to multiple trade routes that allowed residents to consume “roe deer, venison, spices, olives, wine and honey” (Ibeji, 2012, “Diet” section) as well. Archaeological excavation of the latrines from Vindolanda also yields information, not only about diet, but about hygiene and food contamination as well. The article “Ancient Parasites at Vindolanda” (2020) by Dr. Patrik Flammer and Marissa Ledger documented the research of parasites of the communal Roman latrines at the fort. They found evidence of roundworms and whipworms, “indicating that sanitation and hygiene conditions were not adequate to stop faecal contamination of food” (Flammer & Ledger, 2020, para. 4) and both worms stem from undercooked and raw red meat. This means that a main component of women’s diets also would have been red meat, and commonly consumed it not cooked thoroughly. Although the red meat is not identified, it likely was meat from localized hunting and possibly deer or venison coming from trade routes.
Despite the risks of food contamination, women at Vindolanda had access to public latrines and baths to maintain their hygiene. Even in the earliest period of the fort, as documented in The Excavations of 2001-2002: Volume 1 report from Vindolanda by Andrew Birley (2003), there is evidence of baths outside the main fort premises . In later periods of the fort, a bathhouse was built just outside of the fort (Vindolanda Charitable Trust, 2019). Women would have been able to wash themselves and, once the public latrines were built, could relieve themselves outside of their homes which would be much more hygienic.
The women living at Vindolanda had intriguing lives and roles, as they lived far from the center of the Roman empire yet still upheld Roman customs and traditions while incorporating other cultural values as well. Continuous archaeological excavations of Vindolanda have yielded information about how women lived during the Roman empire. Artifacts of jewelry, clothes, carved stones, and written tablets display women who were culturally Roman, but adaptable to a new climate and cultural region surrounding them, as well as adapting to new social roles within Roman forts. Women contributed to the functioning of Vindolanda by taking care of their families, making clothes, and laboring as workers or slaves. Due to the vast amount of evidence indicating their lives at Vindolanda, it is reasonable to assume and implicate that archaeological evidence at other Roman forts would also reveal the lives of other women also.
Birley, A. (2003). The Excavations of 2001-2002: Volume 1. The Vindolanda Trust. Retrieved October 23, 2020, from https://www.vindolanda.com/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=c66bfea5-cc2b-4618-904d-6a9dc9b87218.
Birley, A., & Greene, E. (2006). The Roman Jewellry from Vindolanda. Durham, UK: Prontoprint. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://www.vindolanda.com/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=1671f7f5-3c14-4d5b-83b2-254160ee7d84.
Birley, A., Meyer, A., & Greene, E. (2016). Recent Discoveries in the Fort and Extramural Settlement at Vindolanda: Excavations from 2009-2015. Britannia, 47, 243-252. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44336604.
Brevik, Mads. (2001). The Military Institutions of the Romans (De Re Militari). Digital Attic. http://www.digitalattic.org/home/war/vegetius/index.php#b306.
Flammer, P., & Ledger, M. (2020). Ancient Parasites at Vindolanda. Retrieved October 23, 2020, from https://www.vindolanda.com/Blogs/blog/ancient-parasites.
Ibeji, M. (2012). Vindolanda. Retrieved October 23, 2020, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/romans/vindolanda_01.shtml.
McClure, L. (2020). Women in Antiquity. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc. Retrieved October 12, 2020.
Van Driel-Murray, C., Wild, J.P., Seaward, M., & Hillam, J. (2003). Vindolanda: Volume III, the Early Wooden Forts. Northumberland, UK: Roman Army Museum Publications. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://www.vindolanda.com/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=dbd5c972-571b-45c7-b627-0c0386ace270.
Vindolanda Charitable Trust. (2019). Fact File: Roman Fort. Retrieved October 24, 2020, https://www.vindolanda.com/blog/fact-file-roman-fort.
Walas, A. (2015). An Integrated Cognitive and Epigraphic Approach to Social Networks within the Community of a Roman Military Base. In Brindle T., Allen M., Durham E., & Smith A. (Eds.), TRAC 2014 (pp. 17-30). Oxford; Philadelphia: Oxbow Books. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvh1dw2c.5.
Evans, E. (2019). Roman Bath House, Vindolanda [Photograph]. Geograph. https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/6358818.
Collins, R. (2010). Roman Finger Ring 2008 T780b [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Roman_finger_ring_2008_T780b_(FindID_393539).jpg.
Raddato, C. (2011). Vindolanda Fort, UK [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vindolanda_fort,UK(15144754448).jpg.
Wal, M. (2008). Roman Writing Tablet 02 [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Roman_writing_tablet_02.jpg.