We're currently about two thirds of the way through a project on the ancient Romans* so it seemed like a good time to pay a visit to Vindolanda**.
Vindolanda, for those who don't know, is a Roman fort along Hadrian's wall.
As well as the archaeological site and ongoing dig, there are two museums: one at the site, and the Roman Army Museum nearby.
The Vindolanda Charitable Trust's website recommends visiting the Roman Army Museum first, then going on to the fort itself afterwards so, not having visited either before, that is what we did.
Before we went I had stocked up on worksheets, downloaded and printed off from the education section of the trust's website***, in addition to which we were handed the museum's own treasure hunt to complete, so we were sure of having plenty to do.
First stop was the School room, which is set up for school trips, with seats for a classroom, a video "lesson" from a dummy teacher and various interesting facts and fables set out around the walls.
I was pleasantly surprised to find this room open to the public, as the website seemed to imply that it was intended for use by school groups only.
The presentation was, in fact, clearly geared towards school groups, with references to the "class" and "your teacher", but this in no way reduced the enjoyment the girls found in it.
Once the dummy teacher had finished expounding, we searched the walls for the answers to our many worksheets, took special note of the bust of Pliny the elder who "died when he breathed in Mount Vesuvius, Mummy", ignored my exposition on the subject of Seneca, and were off to the next gallery.
The next room contained two more films as well as with various models of roman soldiers alongside appropriate artefacts.
The films were reasonably entertaining, but were a lot to sit or stand still for, after the long car journey to the wall.
Unfortunately the answer to one of the questions on Eleanor's worksheet was only available in the less interesting of said films.
After missing the information twice, due to bad timing, we decided to return later to find that answer****.
So, on to the next room to dress up as legionaries, listen to a recording (no film!) about the life of Emperor Hadrian and discover, to Eleanor's horror, that Hadrian had never been to Sardinia.
Uniforms returned to their place we next took our seats for yet another film: this one a three dimensional offering on the life of a Roman soldier on the wall.
It was a very good film, in point of fact, and kept everyone's attention nicely, but by the time it was over we all seemed rather sick of watching things we could have downloaded on YouTube.
So, on to the next room.
There was a film playing in this room too, but I have no idea what it was about as we all ignored it.
Instead we wandered through various army artefacts and other displays, on equipment, weaponry, Roman food, and the number of people actually on the wall (as opposed to off sick) at any given time; translated the password of the day from Latin to English, and tracked down the last answers for our worksheets.
By which time everyone was getting hungry and we were more than ready to hand in the treasure-hunt and round up some lunch.
After lunch we hied us to Vindolanda itself
The site was awesome, in the proper sense of the word, and it was incredible just to walk around it, looking at the various ruined buildings, trying to figure out what they were, reading the descriptions of what historians think they were, and squelchily discovering that the ancient spring still ran just fine.
We rambled about for a while, filling in the second lot of worksheets, before happening upon the active dig.
We watched politely for a while, quietly discussing the archaeology and guessing at what various finds might be, until one of the archaeologists came up and offered to show us some of the day's finds.
She explained the various pieces she had set aside: some unrelated pieces of pots, a cow's tooth and a game piece, then invited us to ask questions.
Alas, under Eleanor's inquisition she was forced to admit that they had yet to find a mosaic, butshe was able to tell us that the building they were working on was a shrine and tomb*****, unless it wasn't, as they wouldn't really know until they finished excavating, if ever.
Despite the lack of extraordinary finds the girls seemed as thrilled as we were to look over the dig and appeared to happily accept my statement that archaeologist was "the coolest and least glamourous job ever".
And then they rampaged on.
We discovered replica shops with recorded dialogue, a replica nymphaeum (Eleanor's favourite thing of the day) a tea-shop rather better than the one we had lunch in, another museum (this time with more artefacts****** but less films) and, finally, replica buildings of fortifications from the wall itself.
Having scaled these (from the inside, thank gods), our now decidedly weary family headed back to the car park and set off for home.
It was surprisingly hard to leave.
Should we go up again I suspect we'll make a few changes to our itinerary, such as visiting the fort first, leaving the museum till we're tired enough to want to sit down and watch things, instead of haring all over the place.
We might even find somewhere to stay for the night.
After all, we didn't even visit Housesteads, this time round.
*Which has involved all manner of fun that I may go into later.
Or I may just post the photographs of the Roman feast with which we plan on ending this project.
**We would have liked to go to Pompeii and Herculaneum, since the tentative plan for this year is Romans, followed by Archaeology, followed by volcanoes, but Vindolanda is rather cheaper and therefore actually achievable.
*** There are sheets for both the museum and the fort, these are labelled for particular age-groups, but it's worth reading them through before you print them off as all children have different strengths and weaknesses.
In the girls' case Eleanor was perfectly happy with the sheets labelled as being for nine to eleven year olds, while Phoebe worked through the sheets for seven to eight year olds with a lot of help from her daddy.
****We did, we still missed it and settled for talking to her on the subject instead.
***** Everything at Vindolanda seems to be a something and tomb: we saw a temple and tombs, shop and tombs, house and child's grave and a mausoleum.
Given the apparent local propensity for just shoving people in the nearest temple or burying them under the tiles, we assumed that either the mausoleum belonged to someone terribly impressive, or the residents of Vindolanda were curiously morbid.
****** Including roman horse armour, which was Eleanor's favourite thing on those occasions that the nymphaeum wasn't.