Originally posted at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/outdoo ... um=twitter
All roads lead to Vindolanda Roman Fort
The Birley family have toiled for 60 years to unearth Roman artefacts at Vindolanda Roman Fort in Northumbria, says Juliet Rix.
By Juliet Rix
Published: 12:34PM BST 25 Jun 2010
In a picturesque Northumbrian valley a mile south of Hadrian's Wall, Andrew Birley stands surrounded by a checkerboard of Roman remains. He is supervising a small crowd of volunteer excavators unearthing a 1,600-year-old flagstone road. They have just dug up a small stone altar with a potentially interesting inscription. Andrew is the third generation of his family to run the excavations here at Vindolanda Roman Fort. It's an unusual family business.
"I tried to put my children off," says Dr Robin Birley, 75, Andrew's father and head of research at Vindolanda. "But one of them didn't listen." Robin is sitting outside the site museum with his wife, Patricia, (Andrew's mother), director of the Vindolanda Trust and curator of the museum, and younger brother, Prof Anthony Birley (Tony), an eminent Ancient Historian. Barbara Birley (Andrew's wife), assistant curator and customer services manager, is inside, working. Patricia and Robin have run the Vindolanda Trust for all of its 40 years, and Robin and Tony's connection goes back even further.
"I was born in that room," Tony says, pointing up to a first-floor window above the museum. "One of the other offices was our bedroom," Robin adds. In 1929, their father, Prof Eric Birley, a Roman historian recently out of Oxford, persuaded his father to help him buy at auction the farm that included the remains of Vindolanda a pre-Hadrianic Roman fort incorporated into Hadrian's defences when the Wall was built in AD 122. The cottage of Chesterholm now (after nine extensions) the Vindolanda Museum came with it.
"There is a tree nearby that we used to climb to hide when boring academics came to visit our father," Robin says. "Once an eminent Israeli was bending over to examine a [Roman] altar and I had a catapult." He grins and mimes pulling the elastic back and firing. Both brothers laugh. "We were very unpopular."
Robin ran his first excavation at Vindolanda at age 14, assisted by Tony, 11. "I was given my father's senior excavator to keep me right and he put me in a place where he knew I would find something and might get hooked." Sixty years on, he is still hooked. Vindolanda now owned by the Vindolanda Trust and welcoming 85,000 visitors a year (providing its only regular income) is in his blood. "You are retiring next year, aren't you Robin?" Tony asks. Robin hesitates: "I shall stop taking my meagre salary," he says carefully. "But I shan't stop working. There is too much to do."
It is now known that there are the remains of nine successive Roman forts under the turf of Vindolanda, each accompanied by a sizeable civilian settlement. They were mostly built one on top of the other and because of the way the Romans covered one layer of building before starting the next, thousands of artefacts have been remarkably well preserved. The best can be seen in the site museum (see below).
Vindolanda's most famous finds, however, are the "Vindolanda Tablets" slivers of wood written on in ink, like 2,000-year-old postcards: requests for food and warm socks, invitations and a tetchy reference to "wretched little Brits".
The first tablet was found by Robin in 1973 ("he was always the one who found things," Tony says) and they are now in the British Museum. They offer telling glimpses of day-to-day life at the outer edge of the Roman Empire and have made the Birleys feel very connected to their predecessors. The tablets also show that senior Roman officers had their wives and children here and there were hunting expeditions and parties. Contrary to popular belief, Tony says, this was not a hardship posting.
Robin and Patricia were teachers when they first took on the full-time running of Vindolanda (Robin for a while at Gordonstoun where he is credited with getting Prince Charles into Cambridge to read Archaeology). At Vindolanda they lived on "half a teacher's salary" and worried constantly about the Trust's survival. "We started with a field, a shed of tools and £20. It was tough," Patricia admits. "It wouldn't suit everyone, but it suited us." And it seems to suit Andrew and Barbara, too. "It isn't glamorous," Andrew admits, "but anyone who works in an 'office' as beautiful as this has nothing to complain about."
So will a fourth generation of Birleys take over at Vindolanda? "Our three year-old loves it up here," Barbara says. "But they will probably want respectable jobs," Andrew says, adding that at least Vindolanda is now well established.
"Hopefully the family's legacy is that Vindolanda can go forward with or without us," he says. For now, it is definitely with, as Andrew returns to his band of enthusiastic amateur excavators attentively digging for the next treasure in Vindolanda's archaeologically fertile soil.
Vindolanda (01434 344277; vindolanda.com) is open to visitors daily from Feb-Oct. Excavators must be aged 15-plus (no experience necessary). From 2011 there will be on site accommodation for 10 people
TOP FINDS AT ROMAN VINDOLANDA
Ceremonial headdress for a cavalry horse
Footwear belonging to the CO and his family (AD 103), right
Medusa-imaged gold ring (found in a latrine drain)
Massive carved stone altar to Jupiter Dolichenus (found last year on show from 2011)
Bronze horse perhaps a cavalry troop's emblem