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Rare Roman Cavalry Swords And Toys Unearthed Along Hadrian’s Wall

The newly discovered artifacts are the latest discovery at Vindolanda, once a remote outpost of the Roman empire

One of the Roman cavalry swords recovered from Vindolanda (Vindolanda Charitable Trust)
smithsonian.com

Researchers have found a collection of rare artifacts at Vindolanda, a Roman cavalry fort along Hadrian’s wall in Northumberland, England, reports the BBC. Among the artifacts are two rare cavalry swords and two wooden toy swords, similar to those still made today.

Other artifacts were discovered during the dig as well, including ballista bolts, brooches, arrowheads, leather shoes, knives, bath clogs, writing tablets and pen and cavalry lances. Some fittings for saddles and horse harnesses are still in such good condition that their copper-alloy fittings still shine like gold, Dalya Alberge reports at the Guardian

But the two swords are by far the most impressive. According to the BBC, one was found in the corner of a living quarters by a volunteer and included a wooden handle and its scabbard. It has a bent tip and was likely discarded by its owner, the “ancient equivalent of a modern soldier abandoning a malfunctioning rifle.” The second sword found in the next room was intact, though missing its handle and scabbard. Swords were incredibly valuable at that time and especially important to cavalry soldiers, so it’s likely its owner left it behind in a hurry.

“You can work as an archaeologist your entire life on Roman military sites and, even at Vindolanda, we never expect or imagine to see such a rare and special object as [the swords],” head archaeologist Andrew Birley says in a press release. “It felt like the team had won a form of an archaeological lottery.”

The swords also present something of a mystery. “Archaeologists would never expect to find a Roman cavalry sword in any context, because it’s like a modern-day soldier leaving his barracks and dumping his rifle on the floor,” Birley tells Alberge of the Guardian. “This is a very expensive thing. So why leave [it] behind?”

It’s hard to say what prompted the soldiers to leave their gear behind, but the barracks do tell researchers something about Vindolanda, a frontier fortress at the edge of the Roman empire that was active even before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall in 122 A.D., which protected Roman Britain from the Picts, who lived in Caledonia, now known as Scotland. The barracks and swords show that Rome was already building up its military power in the area.

Alberge reports that the Vindolanda site, which dates from around 105 A.D. survives because the Romans building Hadrian’s wall poured concrete over the abandoned barracks, sealing the artifacts in nearly oxygen-free conditions which limited corrosion of metal and helped some textiles, leather and wood survive.

This is not the first find at Vindolanda by far. In 1972, for example, researchers found a cache of artifacts, including wooden combs, animal bones and, most significantly, hundreds of message written on birch and oak wood. The day-to-day correspondences and military orders provided a revealing glimpse into daily life at the frontier fortress, which housed about 1,000 soldiers from Belgium and Spain as well as thousands of their dependents, slaves and workers. Just this summer, researchers found another 25 of these messages

Over the last 50 years, researchers have uncovered enough material from Hadrian's Wall to fill an entire museum, which is where these newly discovered artifacts are heading. They'll be on display in the site's Northumberland museum later this fall.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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