IT will be a case of return to sender as a cash windfall to be announced today paves the way for the return of priceless Roman letters to Northumberland.
The first letters, or thin wooden writing tablets, were found at Vindolanda fort in 1973 and since then around 1,600 have been stored at the British Museum.
It is more than 20 years since any of the Vindolanda tablets have been on show at the fort near Bardon Mill.
But that is set to change after an award of £4m today from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
That means a £6.5m project to upgrade both Vindolanda and its twin Roman Army Museum seven miles away at Carvoran will now go ahead.
In June One North East awarded £1.8m to the scheme.
The project will see the museums at both sites transformed, with the improved display conditions at Vindolanda allowing some of the precious Roman letters to return on loan.
It is hoped that from spring 2011 the first batch of letters will return from the British Museum on a three to five-year loan, which can then be refreshed.
“To have the letters back on public display would be wonderful and we are very excited,” said Patricia Birley, director of the Vindolanda Trust. “Negotiations with the British Museum have been excellent and they are fully supportive of our efforts to get tablets back to Vindolanda.”
The project, which will mean around four new jobs, will also see the creation of an archaeo-education centre at Vindolanda. This would improve facilities for visiting school parties, linking with Carvoran, and will provide accommodation for volunteer diggers who help with the Vindolanda excavations each year as well as allowing people who cannot dig to take part in post-excavation work. Access from the site of the Roman remains at Vindolanda to the site’s museum, which involves a steep hilly descent, will also be improved.
“This project will be of huge benefit to the work of the trust and will provide world heritage class facilities ,” said Patricia. “We are absolutely thrilled and we are very keen indeed to get started on this project.”
Vindolanda currently attracts around 85,000 visitors a year and the Roman Army Museum at Carvoran 40,000.
A study has suggested that the upgrades and exhibitions at the two sites could see an extra 20,000 visitors by 2012 generating an estimated £4.2m in visitor spending.
Page 3 - Award joy >>
THE company responsible for the co-ordination, protection, development and marketing of the Hadrian’s Wall world heritage site last night expressed its delight at the award.
Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd said the award was a solid endorsement of the national and international significance of the Vindolanda Trust’s ambitions.
Linda Tuttiett, chief executive of Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd, said: “The contribution this award will make to the interpretation of Roman communication and the multi-cultural nature of the Romans in Britain at the Vindolanda Roman Fort and the Roman Army Museum cannot be understated.
“The trust will finally be able to display the Vindolanda writing tablets, this country’s most significant historical find, and share their importance with a much wider audience.
“We are confident this award, together with the funding awarded by One North East, will help make Hadrian’s Wall and the Roman Frontier the most exciting heritage destination in the UK, and act as a catalyst in our aspiration to present a Wall-wide programme of unique storylines”.