Inscribed wood barrel stave found at Vindolanda

The Vindolanda site in Northumberland just south of Hadrian’s Wall is best known for the more than 700 wooden writing tablets preserved for millennia in the waterlogged soil, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to organic archaeological remains. Vindolanda has the largest collection of Roman leather in the world. Everything from thousands of leather shoes of all sizes so perfectly preserved the museum display case looks like a shoe store, to purses and buckets have been unearthed there, as well as fragile textiles like a child’s sock.

Then there’s the wood. In 2014, archaeologists found a wooden toilet seat, the first of its kind ever discovered. Now the anaerobic soil has produced another handsome wood everyday treasure: an engraved barrel stave. The stave dates to around 90 A.D. and is in exceptional condition, smooth as slate with a maker’s brand and numerals still pristine on the surface. The brand is incomplete with the visible part reading “ALBIN.NORB.” We don’t know what was in it, but the numeral indicates there were 1,200 of them in the barrel.

The wood is pine and archaeologists believe the barrel was imported from Spain.

[Dr Andrew Birley, CEO and Director of Excavations for the Trust] went on to say “the barrel stave has been one of the highlights of the season so far and we hope over the coming weeks we will know more about ALBIN – NORB as images of the stave have been sent to specialists in both Spain and here in the UK for further interpretation. However, we can guess that ALBIN could mean ALBINVS, the name of the manufacturer of the barrel, and NORB is the place of origin”.

Albinus is a cognomen, a family name, and so is Norbanus. They wouldn’t go together as the name of one person, which is why the NORB is likelier as a place designation, ie, Albinus from Norba. Cities were often named after the families names of important men. Norba Caesarina (modern-day Cáceres in southwestern Spain), for example, was named after its founder Gaius Norbanus Flaccus, proconsul of Spain from 36 to 34 B.C., and his boss Octavian who was going by Gaius Julius Caesar, courtesy of his posthumous adoption by his assassinated great-uncle, at the time.

The barrel stave is one of 1,463 wooden artifacts that have been unearthed at Vindolanda over the decades. It’s the largest and most varied collection of ancient wooden objects in Britain, but it’s been locked away in storage for years for conservation purposes. The Heritage Lottery Fund has just approved a £1.3 million ($1.7 million) grant that will fund the display of this exceptional collection for the first time.

Unlocking Vindolanda’s Wooden Underworld will see the creation of a new gallery dedicated solely to the display of the wooden objects found at the fort and settlement site. The gallery will have custom display cases with climate control features that will allow the wood to be on public view without compromising the temperature and humidity levels necessary to preserve the wood.

The barrel stave may be among the artifacts on display in the dedicated wood gallery. The toilet seat definitely will be, along with a wagon wheel, a potters’ wheel head, a bread shovel, axles and large wooden water pipes made out of alder logs bored down the length of them. The new gallery is scheduled to open in 2018.


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Comment by Vini Côte de Liverpolio
2016-07-05 03:58:57

Albinus from ‘Northumbria’ (or whatever it had been originally), alternatively some form of military jargon, a batch number, the type of barrel, maybe its intended use – for white or ‘albus’ wine ?

The Vindolanda garrison were auxiliary infantry or cavalry units, not components of Roman legions. From the early third century AD onwards, this was the Fourth Cohort of Gauls -barrelmakers from Gaul- which makes the following scenario highly plausible:

Obviously, we are dealing here with a confiscated barrel of illegally imported gallic potion from a pub cellar.

Comment by Virginia Burton
2016-07-05 06:28:43

I don’t see a period between ALBIN and NORB as you have indicated in your first mention of the mark.

Comment by livius drusus
2016-07-06 12:28:20

David is right. I cheated and used a period for convenience instead of hunting down an interpunct. :blush:

Comment by David Knell
2016-07-05 07:34:17

The punctuation mark used by Romans to divide words was an interpunct (·), a central dot. It is visible between ALBIN and NORB on the inscription: ALBIN·NORB. I suspect Livius used a period (.), a bottom dot, simply because it is easier to find on a modern keyboard.

Comment by livius drusus
2016-07-06 12:29:36

You called it, David. I didn’t want to use a hyphen like in the Vindolanda press release because it looks like an interpolation even though it’s just a convention.

Comment by JoanP
2016-07-05 15:38:12

I have to say that, even zooming in on the image, it’s hard to see if that’s actually an interpunct or just something occurring naturally in the wood. However, I will assume the excavators know what they’re talking about (admittedly, not always a safe assumption . . .).

Comment by livius drusus
2016-07-06 12:31:28

I think they’re probably on solid ground. The abbreviation of ALBIN is fairly standard, and I can’t think of how else ALBINNORB would scan.

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September 2021


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