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  1. ITV Report

Rare Roman boxing gloves uncovered near Hadrian's Wall in 'astonishing' find

  • Video report by ITV News Scotland correspondent Peter Smith

Roman boxing gloves believed to be the only surviving example from the period have gone on display after being discovered near Hadrian's Wall.

The gloves were found last summer during an excavation at Vindolanda, near Hexham in Northumberland.

Other items were unearthed in the dig, including swords, horse gear and writing tablets.

The gloves - which date from around 120 AD - are made of leather and have the appearance of a protective guard. They are designed to fit snugly over the knuckles, protecting them from impact.

I have seen representations of Roman boxing gloves depicted on bronze statues, paintings and sculptures but to have the privilege of finding two real leather examples is exceptionally special.

What really makes Vindolanda so unique is the range of organic objects that we find. Every one of them brings you closer to the people who lived here nearly 2,000 years ago but the hairs stand up on the back of your neck when you realise that you have discovered something as astonishing as these boxing gloves.

– Dr Andrew Birley, Vindolanda Trust's director of excavations

Boxing was an ancient sport, and it was practised by soldiers in the Roman Army to improve their skills and fitness.

The gloves went on display on Tuesday at Vindolanda's museum along with other items found in the excavations..

  • What makes Vindolanda special - an ITV News producer writes
Credit: ITV News

The name Vindolanda is one to conjure with. It is said to mean white field or moor and to see the fort on a frosty Northumberland morning you can imagine why the soldiers from Germany and Belgium who served there in the Roman army might have thought that an appropriate description.

When I was growing up in the shadow of the Roman Wall, Vindolanda seemed the poor, muddy, alien-sounding relation of forts that were actually on the wall itself such as the majestic Housesteads and the manicured Chesters. Vindolanda isn't on the wall but a couple of miles south. That is in part because it pre-dated the wall. Housesteads was - and still is - good for a bracing walk to the hilltop setting. Chesters, near the North Tyne, had - and still has - the appeal to small, giggly children of which I was once one, of what, back in the day were called "the latrines." Always good for a comedy photo.

Housesteads and Chesters were run by what was then the Ministry of Works - all neat and tidy and organised. Vindolanda was run, I realise now, by this amazing family, the Birleys. Because of their hard slog in the mud and hard work with the finances Vindolanda has now eclipsed not only its neighbouring forts but arguably every Roman ruin in the UK, certainly in terms of the discoveries it is still giving up, like the boxing gloves today.

No where else in the world, not even in the desiccated deserts of North Africa - at the other end of the empire - are so many items of every day life being found in such good condition. This is because the first Roman forts at Vindolanda were made of wood. When a new garrison arrived, its soldiers pulled down the old wooden fort of their predecessors, turfed over the area and then built a new one on top. The re-turfing had the effect of making an airtight seal, preserving wood, leather and other organic items in a way that has not happened elsewhere.

Credit: ITV News

The most famous of these items are the Vindolanda writing tablets, voted Britain's Top Treasure. They are wooden postcards comprising invitations, inventories and invaluable references to military and civilian life on the outer edge of the empire. No where else in the world are such secrets about Roman life being discovered in such a volume. So Vindolanda is a national and international draw.

It still draws me back. Three generations of my family paid a visit last summer, to see the ruins, the museum and watch the excavations. My eldest son who, like his siblings, was dragged round Roman ruins in rain-lashed northern England and sun-kissed southern Europe as a child, is now doing Classics at university. By a remarkable coincidence he has just been studying the language and writing style of the Vindolanda tablets to see how they changed over time.

It is now more than 1,600 years ago that the last Roman garrison left Vindolanda. Yet far from drifting off into history the people who lived there are being brought into our present by the work of the archaeologists at Vindolanda, led by the Birleys. What on earth would garrison commander Flavius Cerialis and his wife Sulpicia Lepidina have made of world we live in now and knowing that something of their lives is being reflected on News at Ten?