VINDOLANDA ARCHAEOLOGICAL LEATHER PROJECT
The Vindolanda Archaeological Leather Project (VALP) is an ongoing research project undertaken by a joint team from The University of Western Ontario in Canada and The Vindolanda Trust in the United Kingdom. Our team is working together to research and publish the assemblage of Roman leather and shoes from the site of Vindolanda, a Roman-period military fort and settlement located near Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. The Vindolanda assemblage constitutes the largest collection of archaeological leather from a single site and the most comprehensive body of leather material from any Roman site in the empire. The site holds over seven thousand leather objects in its museums, which includes over four thousand shoes and countless other items including tent panels, military equipment, horse saddles, straps, toggles, children’s toys and other objects of everyday use. Think of everything that we use synthetic materials for today and many of those items would have been made of leather in antiquity.
The primary objective of the Vindolanda Archaeological Leather Project is to create a database of all leather objects that will allow in-depth exploration of this extraordinary assemblage. This database allows us to fully research and analyze the leather assemblage from scientific and humanistic perspectives. We hope this leads researchers and scholars to ask questions about the style, form, function, archaeological context and other details about the shoes and leather objects held in the collections.
Learn about Vindolanda, the archaeological enviroment, preservation, and leather assemblage.
Interested in learning more? Read published work, listen to recorded talks, and find out where you can hear upcoming public lectures!
VINDOLANDA SITE AND CONTEXT
The site of Vindolanda was settled around 85 CE as a military outpost and associated settlement along the line of early Roman occupation known as the “Stanegate frontier” in northern England. The site was occupied for several centuries by Roman auxiliary military units and the communities that surrounded them, made up of families of soldiers, merchants and anyone else who had cause to live near the local garrison. The site remained occupied well into the sub- and post-Roman periods. Its position remained advantageous in the centre of this occupied landscape and the site is extremely important for understanding the changing landscape and settlement patterns after conquest and incorporation into the vast Roman empire. Located just south of the monumental construction of Hadrian’s Wall in the 2nd century CE (built sometime in the 120s CE), Vindolanda remained a powerful and important settlement located on the major thoroughfares crossing the province.
The large assemblage of archaeological leather from Vindolanda is found in such pristine condition because of the ideal soil conditions found in many areas of the site. Anaerobic (or anoxic) conditions prevail in many layers of the site, meaning little or no oxygen has been present in the soil. This results in a lack of bacteria that would typically deteriorate organic artefacts. Leather objects are preserved in many contexts of the fort and settlement, including thousands from the defensive ditches that surrounded the forts in all periods, as well as several hundred from the floor levels of structures dating mostly to the early occupation levels (ca. 85-130 CE), and down wells and other areas that have been waterlogged. As a result, the site has produced over 7000 leather objects that would normally degrade in typical archaeological contexts. Since anaerobic contexts are found mostly in the early occupation periods on the site, we are offered a particularly useful snapshot of the period of conquest and settlement during Roman occupation. This situation provides Vindolanda researchers with a much more robust dataset than is typical to interrogate the lives of those who settled at Vindolanda nearly two thousand years ago.
SHOE AND LEATHER ASSEMBLAGE
Vindolanda holds over 7000 items of leather in its collections, over 4000 of which are leather shoes worn by men, women, and children who lived in the settlement nearly two thousand years ago. The shoes allow us to reconstruct aspects of demography on the site and give us insight into health issues, manufacturing, and industry at Vindolanda. Other items include tent panels, straps and junctions, equipment such as cavalry saddles and an archer’s thumb guard, and everyday objects such as leather boxes, bags, and even a toy mouse.
The footwear is especially exciting because it allows us to reconstruct a number of details about the site that would not normally be available in typical archaeological contexts. For instance, the sizes of shoes are used to understand questions about the population, who was living on the site, what spaces they utilized, and where they discarded their personal items. This information is particularly important for our understanding of life in a military fort and settlement such as Vindolanda, because it was believed for a long time that military settlements were inhabited only by men. It was the Vindolanda shoes found in spaces within the fort such as the commanding officer’s residence (the praetorium) and the barrack blocks of soldiers that opened up a serious dialogue about the presence of women and children in military forts and associated settlements (Driel-Murray 1998; Greene 2013; see bibliography tab for more publications).
The Vindolanda footwear comes in all shapes and sizes. The smallest shoe is only 11cms long and belonged to an infant who was probably not yet walking (on display in the Vindolanda Museum in Northumberland, UK). Some of our largest shoes are over 30cms and must have belonged to very large men indeed. A pair of large shoes worn by a man living in the fort in the late 1st or early 2nd century is on display in the first room of the Vindolanda Museum. Also located here is one the finest shoes in the collection – a women’s sandal that has stamps of the shoe-maker on the insole, a man called Lucius Aebutius Thales. The vast majority of shoes were worn by regular people living at the fort and give us invaluable information about the individuals who inhabited this frontier settlement in the 1st through 4th centuries CE.
UPCOMING AND RECORDED TALKS
E.M. Greene, Top 10 visitor questions about Roman Shoes, Vindolanda Webinar Series, March 12, 2021.
E.M. Greene. In the Footsteps of Roman Soldiers: The Extraordinary Archaeological Finds from Roman Vindolanda, Archaeology Abridged series with the AIA, Feb. 11, 2021.
E.M. Greene. The Social Lives of Roman Soldiers: The role of wives, children and families in Roman military communities, AIA Ann Arbor chapter, Feb. 4, 2021.
E.M. Greene. Living on the Edge: The Roman Frontier in Britain and the Site of Vindolanda, Archaeology Abridged series with the AIA, Jan. 28, 2021.
E.M. Greene. If the (Roman) Shoe fits: Elizabeth M. Greene and footwear from Vindolanda, Peopling the Past, 2:1. June 1, 2021.
Greene, E.M. “Metal Fittings on the Vindolanda Shoes: Footwear and Evidence for Podiatric Knowledge in the Roman World.” In Shoes, Slippers and Sandals: Feet and Footwear in Classical Antiquity, edited by S Pickup and S Waite, 310–24. London: Routledge, 2018.
Greene, E.M. “Footwear and Fashion on the Fringe: Stamps and Decoration on Leather and Shoes from Vindolanda (1993-2016).” In Embracing the Provinces: Society and Material Culture of the Roman Frontier Regions, edited by T Ivleva, J De Bruin, and M Driessen, 143–52. Philadelphia, PA: Oxbow Books, 2018.
Greene, E.M, and B. Birley. 2020. “The Assemblage of Archaeological Footwear from the Roman Fort at Vindolanda.” In Ai piedi degli dei: le calzature antiche e la loro fortuna nella cultura del Novecento, Museo della Moda e del Costume delle Gallerie degli Uffizi, edited by L. Camin, C. Chiarelli, and F. Paolucci, 82–89. Florence: Firenze Musei.
Rhys Williams. Visualising Vindolanda: From Field to Museum. Festival of British Archaeology, The Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland. Feb. 13, 2021.
Andrew Nelson and E.M. Greene, Revealing form and function: Micro-CT Analysis of Leather Shoes, Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, Jan. 8, 2021.
E.M. Greene, Podiatric Interventions on Footwear from the Roman Period, Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, Jan. 8, 2021.
Barbara Birley and E.M. Greene, The potential of Anaerobic Archaeological Environments: A case study investigating cultural contact in the community at Vindolanda, Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, Jan. 2-5, 2020.
Shereen Fayed, E.M. Greene and B. Birley, The Vindolanda Archaeological Leather Project: Digitizing demography of a Roman military site using footwear deposition, Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, Jan. 2-5, 2020.
Elizabeth Wolfram Thill and E.M. Greene, Between Representation and Reality: Depicting the Roman Soldier in Rome and the Provinces, Classical Assoc. of Canada Annual Meeting, May 7-9, 2019.
E.M. Greene, The Creation of Anaerobic Environments at Vindolanda Roman Fort, Roman Archaeology Conference, Edinburgh UK, April 12-15, 2018.
Hrafnhildur Halldórsdóttir. Multidisciplinary approaches to the investigation of preservation processes at the Roman Site of Vindolanda, Northumberland, UK. Teesside University, PhD Diss.
The Vindolanda Archaeological Leather Project: Research Perspectives on Roman Leather and its Archaeological Contexts. July 13, 2018. Co-organized with Barbara Birley and the Vindolanda Trust. A one-day workshop held at Vindolanda Roman Fort and Museum. Twenty-five researchers working on archaeological leather, shoes, and the archaeological environments that preserve leather discussed and presented their project focus and future goals for investigating archaeological leather.