Wooden Toilet Seat from Vindolanda

From a Vindolanda Trust press release:

Finding something that you can relate to is always a special moment on an archaeological dig. At Vindolanda this is a common occurrence, a site where the special qualities lie not only in the discovery of gold and silver or artefacts which relate to the military might of the Roman Army but also of everyday ordinary items which nearly 2000 years later become extraordinary to the modern day visitors, volunteers and archaeologists alike. Personal letters, worn shoes, baby booties, socks, combs, jewellery, tools and textiles are just some of the items preserved in a remarkable condition that provide you with a unique window into the lives of people stationed at this most northern outpost of the Roman Empire.

Now archaeologists have another piece of this very personal human hoard at Vindolanda, a wooden latrine (toilet) seat, was discovered by the Director of Excavations, Dr Andrew Birley, in the deep pre-hadrianic trenches at Vindolanda. There are many examples of stone and marble seat benches from across the Roman Empire but this is believed to be the only surviving wooden seat, almost perfectly preserved in the anaerobic, oxygen free, conditions which exist at Vindolanda. Although this wooden seat is not as grand as a marble or stone toilet bench, it would be far more comfortable to sit on in the cool climate of Britannia. The seat has clearly been well used and was decommissioned from its original purpose and discarded amongst the rubbish left behind in the final fort at the site before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall started in the early second century.

Dr Birley commented on the find ‘there is always great excitement when you find something that has never been seen before and this discovery is wonderful….’ Andrew went on to say ‘We know a lot about Roman toilets from previous excavations at the site and from the wider Roman world which have included many fabulous Roman latrines but never before have we had the pleasure of seeing a surviving and perfectly preserved wooden seat. As soon as we started to uncover it there was no doubt at all on what we had found. It is made from a very well worked piece of wood and looks pretty comfortable. Now we need to find the toilet that went with it as Roman loos are fascinating places to excavate – their drains often contain astonishing artefacts. Let’s face it, if you drop something down a Roman latrine you are unlikely to attempt to fish it out unless you are pretty brave or foolhardy’. Discoveries at Vindolanda from latrines have included a baby boot, coins, a betrothal medallion, and a bronze lamp.

Archaeologists now need to find a ‘spongia’ the natural sponge on a stick which Romans used instead of toilet paper, and with over 100 years of archaeology remaining and the unique conditions for the preservation of such organic finds a discovery may just be possible.

The wooden seat will take up to 18 months to conserve and once this process is complete the artefact will be put on display at the Roman Army Museum.

… and the photo, of course:

Vindolanda Trust

Vindolanda Trust

I’m sure there are plenty of us who have visited the site of an ancient Roman latrine and shuddered at the thought of sitting on that cold, cold, stone. I’d suspect this would be a thing — like napkins at dinner parties — which someone would bring with them to the loo. Probably a ‘luxury item’ as well. I wonder if it had a special word in Latin …

Roman Kiddies’ Footwear

Some of the coverage of the recent AIA/APA shindig in the popular press is starting to trickle to the

University of Western Ontario

University of Western Ontario (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

e-waves, including a very interesting account of a talk by Elizabeth Greene of the University of Western Ontario on the ‘status’ seen in Roman children’s footwear. Here’s the incipit:

Even on the farthest-flung frontiers of the ancient Roman Empire, the footwear made the man ­— and the kid.
Children and infants living in and around Roman military bases around the first century wore shoes that revealed the kids’ social status, according to new research presented here Friday (Jan. 4) at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America. The teeny-tiny shoes, some sized for infants, not only reveal that families were part of Roman military life, but also show that children were dressed to match their parent’s place in the social hierarchy, said study researcher Elizabeth Greene of the University of Western Ontario.
“The role of dress in expressing status was prominent even for children of the very youngest ages,” Greene said.
Treasure trove of footwear
Just as today’s modern kid might rock a pair of shoes covered in their favorite superheroes, or that light up with every step, ancient Roman kids of well-off families wore more decorative shoes than their commoner contemporaries, Greene’s research reveals. Over 4,000 shoes have been found at Vindolanda, a Roman army fort in northern Britain that was occupied from the first to fourth centuries.
In every time period of the fort’s operation, even the very early frontier days, children’s shoes show up in crumbled domestic spaces, official military buildings and rubbish heaps, Greene said.
“We don’t even have a period, not even Period 1, where we’re free of children’s shoes,” she said. [...]

… there’s a little slideshow of kiddie shoes as well …

Vindolanda Water System

Forgot to mention this one from the BBC last week:

An archaeologist in Northumberland has uncovered more of a Roman water system first found by his grandfather.

Dr Andrew Birley and a team of volunteers have been excavating land surrounding Vindolanda fort just south of Hadrian’s Wall.

The project to discover and record the pipework at the fort near Hexham was started 82 years ago.

The team has identified the spring-head and piping system used thousands of years ago.

During an excavation in 1930, led by Prof Eric Birley, an area of the Vindolanda site became flooded and not suitable for further investigation.
Spring water

Six months passed and as the water was not drying up the site was covered up and the results documented.

It was only with the use of modern pumps that Prof Birley’s work has finally been completed and the full extent of the Roman water distribution system uncovered.

Dr Birley, who preserved his grandfather’s original site notes, said: “We have found the main water tank and spring-head, and thousands of gallons a day are still bubbling through from the surrounding land and fields.

“They weren’t a great distance down, probably about six feet, and there is a small stream coming out of it.

“It is proper spring water, which is what the Romans preferred to use, as their other water, from the river, was used for waste.”

“We can now start a map of where the water has gone, right across the site, and start to work out how all the buildings at Vindolanda were supplied,” he added.

The current dig, which has been assisted by up to 500 volunteers, is scheduled to end at the end of August.

Dr Birley added: “They had to stop work back in the 1930s because of the heavy rain – the sort of rain we have been having this year.

“But to be honest, given the conditions and the amount of water that is there, without the modern pumps of today they wouldn’t have had a hope in hell of doing this back in the 1930s.”

Some of our recent Vindolanda coverage: