2016 and 2017 brought forth a bevy of incredible discoveries from the ancient Roman fort at Vindolanda, ranging from fashionable shoes, ink-writing tablets to toy swords. These were complemented by a plethora of other Roman objects like bath clogs, combs, dice, and two seemingly distinctive shaped leather pieces. Pertaining to the latter, these two leather band-like objects, though not forming a matching pair, bore similar designs when it came to their style and (possible) function. And on further analysis, the researchers at Vindolanda Trust determined that they had unexpectedly come across what are probably the only known surviving pieces of boxing gloves from the Roman era.
Possibly dating back to circa 120 AD, the boxing gloves were designed with ergonomic considerations, while also having their shock absorbers made of natural materials. As the Vindolanda Trust press release makes it clear –
Unlike the modern boxing glove, these ancient examples have the appearance of a protective guard, designed to fit snugly over the knuckles protecting them from an impact. The larger of the two gloves is cut from a single piece of leather and was folded into a pouch configuration, the extending leather at each side were slotted into one another forming a complete oval shape creating an inner hole into which a hand could still easily be inserted. The glove was packed with natural material acting as a shock absorber. This larger glove has extreme wear on the contact edge and it had also undergone repair with a tear covered by a circular patch. The slightly smaller glove was uncovered in near perfect condition with the same construction but filled with a tight coil of hard twisted leather.
Interestingly enough, the smaller of the two specimens possibly relates to a ‘newer’ model, and as such even retains the almost 1,900-year old knuckle impressions of its wearer. In any case, the researchers have hypothesized that both of these gloves were possibly used for sparring practice (as opposed to real fights) since their stiffened contact edges are softer than the brutal metal-made inserts used in the professional bouts.
Talking of professional boxing, this fighting sport in itself was pretty well known in the Classical world even before the Roman era. As the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato wrote –
Surely, if we were boxers, we should have been learning to fight for many days before, and exercising ourselves in imitating all those blows and wards which we were intending to use in the hour of conflict; and in order that we might come as near to reality as possible, instead of cestuses [leather straps, often weighted with metal] we should put on boxing gloves.
The Romans, as usual, made boxing more accessible, especially in the circles of the Roman army. To that end, boxing was rather perceived as a martial activity that could hone the skills and physical fortitude of the participants. On occasions, boxing even took the form of spectator sports, with the matches being held inside military garrisons and forts (like the one at Vindolanda). These were gambled upon by throngs of other soldiers, civilians, and camp-followers. Dr. Andrew Birley, the CEO and The Vindolanda Trust’s Director of Excavations, said –
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 realize that you have discovered something as astonishing as these boxing gloves.
Lastly, when it comes to the historical side of affairs, Vindolanda was originally constructed as a Roman auxiliary fort (castrum) in northern England before the Hadrian’s Wall, and is presently situated near the modern village of Bardon Mill. The fort from circa late 1st century AD is famous for its strategic location that guarded a Roman road, along with the Vindolanda wooden tablets that covered military and private correspondence. By the time the Hadrian’s Wall was built, the Vindolanda also incorporated a vicus – basically a self-governing village, while the fort itself was modified with stone-made defenses. However, by early 3rd century AD, the entire castrum was abandoned ironically due to the lack of local conflicts involving the Roman invaders and native British tribes.
Source: Vindolanda Trust