The old border between England and Scotland still holds remarkable treasures of Roman occupation for travelers to discover. One of the most important of these is only a short drive off the A-69: Vindolandia.
An active archeological site, here volunteers help scientists excavate important finds each summer among the ruins of the nine separate forts that stood on the spot over the centuries. The newest, 3rd Century C.E. fort and town is still visible as stone ruins throughout the site and one tower has been reconstructed to provide a feel of the place when it was a bustling settlement full of Roman soldiers and their families. Baths, shops, homes, and granaries are present along with military buildings.
An on-site museum displays many of the ancient relics excavated over the years, including the Vindolandia writing tablets, deemed so significant they were voted Britain’s “Top Treasure.” Because of the anaerobic composition of the local peaty soil, artifacts don’t rot, so these wooden tablets still contain the original messages written on them and give a window into the everyday lives of the soldiers stationed in Vindolandia and along Hadrian’s Wall. Translations of these messages, including an order for beer for another of the forts and an invitation to the commander’s wife’s birthday party, are there to be enjoyed by visitors.
Inside the museum, you’re treated to dozens of leather shoes, military equipment, pottery, tools and gorgeous jewelry that’s been found on site as well as a detailed history of the nine generations of the fort.
There’s also a painted “Temple” and a “Domus” reconstructed house full of information on Roman life that’s just for children. An instructional area teaches you how to read Roman gravestones. And snacks and souvenirs can be acquired at the main museum building.
After enjoying Vindolandia, it is just a short drive east along B6318 to the Temple of Mithras. Mithras was the God of Soldiers in the Roman Empire, and this small shrine off the side of the road in a farmer’s sheep field still contains the carved altar dedicated to this mysterious eastern god worshiped by the “brothers of the handshake.” It only takes a few minutes to experience the site, but despite its very ordinary location, a sense of sacred mystery remains. It is the northernmost temple of Mithras ever found.
Nearby Steel Rig provides easy access to Hadrian’s Wall itself as well as some spectacular vistas of the borderlands. Fans of Game of Thrones should make a pilgrimage here to walk along the wall and imagine themselves Jon Snow facing down Wildlings and White Walkers. Fans of the Romans should walk atop it to know they’ve touched the northern border of the Roman Empire. The top of Hadrian’s Wall was once the end of the civilized world and to see it unfolding beneath your feet, spanning Britain sea to sea, gives you a sense of it as a true marvel.
I went in early spring, and somehow the grandeur and remoteness of this area was emphasized by the brilliant greens of the new grass, the blue skies, and the miles of fields. But whenever you may venture to the North, make time for these remnants of Roman Britain.