History

Knock-out Roman Discovery Made in Northumberland: Boxing Gloves

Archaeologists find compelling evidence of the ancient sport of pugilism near Hadrian's Wall. Monday, 19 February

By Jonathan Manning
Photographs By The Vindolanda Trust

Archaeologists have made a knockout discovery at Vindolanda, close to Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland – boxing gloves.

Initially the two leather objects defeated the diggers, who had found nothing similar amid the swords, writing tablets, combs and dice artefacts uncovered at the Roman site.

Vindolanda was both a fort and a garrison base for Hadrian’s Wall, and was occupied by imperial Roman armies for 400 years. It has proved an exceptionally rich site for archaeological discoveries. The latest cache to be discovered was buried below stone foundations in a layer of black, sweet smelling and perfectly preserved anaerobic, oxygen free, soils, which have ensured the excellent preservation of artefacts including timber walls and floors, fences, pottery and animal bones.

The unearthed gloves  bear little resemblance to the boxing gloves worn by today’s fighters. They’re closer in appearance to protective guards for knuckles. And they don’t appear to be a pair – one is noticeably larger than the other.

[Read: Did fighting change the shape of human hands?]

The smaller glove was filled with a tight coil of hard twisted leather. The larger of the two had been folded into a pouch configuration, with the extending leather at each side slotted into one another in order to create a complete oval shape with an inner hole, through which a hand could be squeezed. The glove was packed with natural, shock absorbing material.

The archaeologists think the gloves were probably used for sparring practice; during proper bouts more lethal metal inserts would be fitted in gloves.

[Read: York's headless Romans who met a violent end]

Boxing predates the Roman era, but was followed keenly by the Roman Army both as a means to increase the skills and fitness of soldiers and as an entertainment for gambling garrisons.

Dr Andrew Birley, chief executive officer and 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.”

The boxing gloves go on display today in the museum at Vindolanda.

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