Murasaki Shikibu, depicted here writing at her desk at Ishiyama-dera inspired by the Moon. 18th century (Edo period) woodblock in the ukiyo-e style, by Suzuki Harunobu, c. 1767.
A couple miles behind [Hadrian’s Wall], a string of forts was evenly spaced half a day’s march apart. Each fort could house between 500 and 1,000 men, capable of responding quickly to any attacks. In 1973 workers digging a drainage ditch at Vindolanda, a typical frontline fort, uncovered piles of Roman trash under a thick layer of clay. The wet layer held everything from 1,900-year-old building timbers to cloth, wooden combs, leather shoes, and dog droppings, all preserved by the oxygen-free conditions.
Digging deeper, excavators came across hundreds of fragile, wafer-thin wooden tablets covered in writing. They provide day-to-day details of life along Hadrian’s Wall: work assignments, duty rosters, supply requests, personal letters. There is even a birthday party invitation from one officer’s wife to another, the earliest surviving example of women’s handwriting in Latin.
The tablets suggest that watching over the “wretched little Britons,” as one Vindolanda writer describes the locals, was no picnic, but the fort wasn’t exactly a hardship post. Some soldiers lived with their families—dozens of children’s shoes, including baby booties, are among the footwear recovered. And the wall’s patrollers ate well: Bacon, ham, venison, chicken, oysters, apples, eggs, honey, Celtic beer, and wine were on the menu. There was even garum, a fermented fish concoction that was the Roman version of Worcestershire sauce. Homesick soldiers received care packages too. “I have sent you … socks … two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants,” writes one concerned correspondent.
- From ‘Roman Frontiers,' National Geographic, September 2012.
Photograph by Robert Clark
Artifact from Vindolanda Charitable Trust, Bardon Mill, U.K.
Broken in two pieces, this fragment of a hand-painted glass vessel was found near Hadrian’s Wall. The glass has been attributed to workshops in Germany, evidence of widespread trade.
(Via National Geographic)