The Romans in Britain: A Briefs History

The Journal (Newcastle, England), July 5, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Romans in Britain: A Briefs History


Byline: By Will Mapplebeck

Here is a question. How do we know Roman soldiers wore underpants?

Vindolanda Roman Camp in Northumberland provided the answer.

Archaeologists working there didn't actually find any first century Y-fronts, but they did find something called a writing tablet.

This wooden notebook was the Roman equivalent of a postcard and one dug up at Vindolanda provided an answer to the underpants debate.

It must have been attached to a parcel and listed the contents which included socks, shoes and subligaria - a Latin word for undergarments. It was the first hard evidence that such things existed in Roman times.

These writing tablets, scribbled out in ink 1,900 years ago by officialdom and private citizens, are archaeologist Andy Birley's very own holy grail.

He describes them as "windows on to people's souls", the best documentary evidence there is of what life in Roman-occupied Northumberland almost two millennia ago was actually like.

Hundreds of tablets have been found at Vindolanda containing everything from complaints about the high haulage prices charged by British horse and cart owners to pleas for pardon from the Emperor.

And they also prove that basic preoccupations never change. Today we moan about the trains and traffic and in 100AD Angry from Vindolanda complained about the appalling state of Roman roads.

That is the thing about archaeology, it shows that people who lived and died dozens of generations ago were just like you and me.

Andy, 28, says: "It becomes a passion, you find characters and it becomes like a soap opera. You can find something out about a family and two decades later you discover what happened to them. You build up this picture."

There is quite a picture to build at Vindolanda, a fort which was home to a Roman garrison and a thriving local community for more than 300 years.

But the key thing to remember about the place is that there are actually several forts at Vindolanda. The Romans had a habit of pulling things down when they got a little bit dog-eared and just building over them on the same spot.

This means Vindolanda is like an historic wedding cake, with tier after tier of history buried beneath the ground.

Large parts of it remain undiscovered and unexcavated. On our way to lunch we walked over a bumpy, grassy patch, underneath which is a complex of buildings full of valuable archaeological finds.

Andy, who is the assistant director of excavations at Vindolanda, estimates it will take 150 years before every relic in the place is discovered.

And there is certainly a vast number of items yet to be found. It turns out the Vindolanda community were a messy lot who believed in literally sweeping their rubbish under the carpet.

When visitors arrived, they would not clean the house but would simply stuff it under the matted flooring. To us it seems appalling, but Vindolanda residents had a more laid-back attitude to their waste. They also used their rubbish as a weapon, filling ditches around the camp with all sorts of terrible-smelling detritus to deter any invaders. …

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