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Barracks blocks and workshops

Vindolanda and its setting


Forts and military life

The fort plan

Soldier's lives - military routines

Soldiers and builders

Manufacture and repair

Transport and supplies

Diet and dining


Birthdays and gods



Reading the tablets

about this exhibition


Plan of infantry barrack blocks at Wallsend

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Plan of infantry barrack blocks at Wallsend

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Tyne and Wear museums

Barrack blocks took up much of the space within forts. Their numbers, size and type help archaeologists to establish the garrison's size and composition. The narrow buildings, on average ten metres wide and 40-50 metres long, each housed a century or a turma. Placed back to back, with little space separating them from one another, the barracks would have been very gloomy.

The 'standard' block included ten sets (only nine at Wallsend) of paired rooms (contubernia), the living and storage space for ordinary soldiers. Eight men occupied each set. In theory the rear room served as living space. Its name, the papilio, is the same as that of the folding leather tent which sheltered soldiers on campaign. Floors were of beaten earth, perhaps carpeted with bracken, as at Vindolanda, or straw. There were probably bunk beds and lockers, shelves and pits for storage. Hearths provided light and heat for warmth and cooking, since there were no central canteens. Communal latrines have also been excavated at many Wall forts. The front rooms, perhaps served as storage and living spaces.

Living conditions would have been crowded. The eight soldiers also shared their space with women and children, whose presence in barracks has been identified from finds of footwear and textiles. Some soldiers may also have owned slaves. However given the likely difference between the paper strength of the unit and its actual strength, barracks may not always have been fully occupied. Despite the apparent discomfort, greetings exchanged by soldiers in their letters demonstrate the close bonds formed by barrack life.

At the end of the barrack block was the officer's accommodation, at Wallsend separated by a stone wall from the contubernia. The accommodation for the centurion was formed by rooms grouped around a central corridor. Often this block was wider than the rest of the barrack, although not at Wallsend. Stone flagged floors, separate drainage, glazed windows and plastered walls made these rooms more comfortable as well as spacious. They may have been shared with junior officers.


Cavalry barracks

Plan of cavalry barrack blocks at Wallsend

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Plan of cavalry barrack blocks at Wallsend

Image ownership:

Tyne and Wear museums

In cavalry barracks two turmae of 32 men were assigned to each block. Horses were sometimes stabled in separate blocks, long narrow buildings with an interior drain running the length of the building to remove waste. A roster from a fort in Syria records that mucking out was a duty for soldiers. However such stable blocks are relatively scarce. Where the horses were normally kept was a mystery which seems to have been solved by excavation at Wallsend. In the barracks at the rear of the fort large pits were regularly noted in the front rooms (the irregular outlines are indicated on the plan). perhaps for collecting animal waste. The hearths in the back rooms indicate that people lived in them. The barracks are therefore for cavalry, with the troopers living in the back room while their mounts were stabled in the front.

At the end of the cavalry block was the decurion's accommodation. The drains excavated in the Wallsend block probably served the stables for the decurion's horses. Vindolanda did not house a cavalry unit, but cavalrymen were sometimes present and members of the garrison as well as guests owned horses. These were no doubt the responsibilities of the vets, such as Alio and Virilis (181, 310).



At Vindolanda the existence of many craft skills can be identified or inferred from the tablets and the archaeology, including builders, plumbers, leather-workers, smiths and weapon-smiths, carpenters and cartwrights. It is difficult to identify a consistent form for the workshop (fabrica) in auxiliary fortresses. In legionary fortresses at Exeter and Inchtuthil they were large courtyard buildings. Similar buildings have been identified in auxiliary forts, but their purpose has not been confirmed, although the identification of the period 5 building as a fabrica at Vindolanda is supported by evidence for metalworking. Other long narrow buildings to the front and rear of the fort (for example on the via principalis at Wallsend) may also have served as workshops. Craft activities could also be carried out in other buildings, for example in the 'service wing' of the praetorium at Vindolanda. Beyond the fort too the landscape was likely to be dotted with the signs of soldiers' industry, such as kilns for pottery, bricks and lime burning, as well as stone quarries.


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