Timber palace found near Hadrian's Wall: David Keys reports on an archaeological find which may be the headquarters of the Roman Emperor Hadrian
Saturday 08 August 1992
Excavations at the Roman fortress of Vindolanda, a mile south of the wall, near the Northumberland village of Haydon Bridge, have uncovered a beautifully decorated yet massive timber palace.
Many of its 50 or more rooms appear to have been adorned with sumptuous wall paintings, hundreds of fragments of which are being recovered.
Eighty wax writing tablets have also been discovered inside three of the sixteen rooms which have so far been excavated by an archaeological team led by Robin Birley of the Vindolanda Trust. Some of the tablets are 25cm (10in) square - four times the normal size.
In one of the tablet rooms, archaeologists also found a 10cm- long (4in) pointed iron rod, possibly a map pointer, topped by a beautiful bronze leopard.
Other finds include woven part- reed, part-bark floor mats, pottery, wooden mugs, pieces of barrel, bobbins, shovels, fragments of buckets, and a huge wooden lock, hand-carved to receive the tumblers of a giant key.
The wall paintings, in reds, greens, yellows and browns, include floral patterns, an as yet undeciphered inscription in 15cm- high (6in) letters and portray at least three people, all bearded.
Hadrian was the first to introduce beards into Roman society. Up till his time Romans had mainly been clean-shaven, beards being a predominantly Greek fashion. The Emperor however, was a fanatic philhellene and introduced beards and other Greek customs into Roman society.
Archaeologists have dated the construction of the building to between AD120-130, and Hadrian is believed to have arrived at his empire's north-west frontier - between the province of Britannia and what is now Scotland - exactly 122AD.
He immediately ordered the construction of a frontier wall 'to separate the barbarians from the Romans'.
Vindolanda - whose excavated remains are open to the public - was the midway point along the frontier, and would have been ideal as a headquarters for the construction of the wall. It is also idyllically situated in a wooded valley with two streams.
The building is without parallel on Hadrian's Wall. Each side is up to 50m (164ft)long and made of oak, and is the grandest wooden building ever found in the frontier zone. It also had a 10cm (4in) thick concrete floor - unique for the early second-century border area. The palace had four sides, standing around a large cobbled courtyard.
When Hadrian took up temporary residence at the frontier, he would have needed a large amount of accommodation, as he was accompanied by a detachment of the Pretorian Guard, a detachment of Imperial Horseguards, a selection of scholarly courtiers, his wife - with whom he had a relationship of mutual hatred - and probably a few boyfriends. Hadrian was homosexual, indeed very publicly so by the late 120s. In Britain AD122 he would have probably have still been mildly discreet, but a few years later when Hadrian visited Egypt a 22-year- old boyfriend had become the 54- year-old Emperor's virtual public consort. Indeed, when the young man drowned in the Nile, Hadrian declared him a god and built a city at the site of his death.
Hadrian, in Britain probably the best-known of all the Roman emperors, was an often liberal- minded intellectual and an accomplished architect, poet, artist, writer, and musician. He opposed further Imperial expansion and loved Greek culture, but was violently anti-Semitic and sent his favourite general from Britain to destroy the Jews. Almost 600,000 were slaughtered and even more enslaved.
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