Digging Vindolanda

Tales of a volunteer excavator at Vindolanda Roman Fort

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Pleasures revealed

Its been a little over two weeks since Sean and I trudged back up the hill to our car for the last time, changed out of our rain-soaked digging clothes, and made one final drive east along the Stanegate road. Our physical connection to the 2017 digging season hangs on by a thread: there’s a narrow line of stubborn Vindolanda trench-dirt still refusing to leave one side of the thumbnail on my trowel hand.

Today’s post is (in multiple ways) a postscript, in which I can finally give a fuller account of what happened on day nine. This is because – as all readers of this blog (both of you) must surely know by now – the beans have finally been spilled by The Vindolanda Trust about what happened that day: a veritable trove of high-quality tablets came out of the vicus trench.

First, lets set the scene again (and correct an oversight from earlier), with some images showing where we were digging both in the vicus (yellow boxes) as well as outside the fort (cyan box to the left of the fort wall):

June 22, drum roll please, closely followed June 21, the eighth day of excavation period 6. As I described already, June 21 had been unusually productive in terms of tablet finds, but the majority were fragments, and none were the much sought after “confronting” kind, in which both sides of the original tablet have been preserved together. A banner day, but not as special as the day that followed.

So, finally, I can show you what we saw after Beth removed the first chunk of material on June 22: a confronting pair of tablets was left behind, lying on the original clay (arrow). The characteristic notch is just visible on the left-hand edge. This is the tablet shown by the Trust being carefully brushed clean under a tap later the same day, with ink writing clearly visible, even without any special treatment:

If you’ll pardon the pun, after this very auspicious start the excitement kicked up a notch too. As you may remember, I was lucky enough to have been in the trench at this point, so initially I was tasked with taking out similarly large chunks of material from the floor of the opposite side of the trench. However, after another tablet came out of one of the early buckets I left the trench to join an expanding team of sorters.

Around 11am the excitement reached stratospheric levels, when one of the Field School students found another confronting pair, this time made of oak, and in even more astounding condition. As Andy carefully cleaned it off it became clear there was another oak tablet sandwiched between the pair (below left). The two sides of the confronting tablet during cleaning are shown in some of the press reports today (below, right):

We all hurried back to the trench after lunch for the afternoon session, and the finds continued. One of the early buckets for me produced a wood fragment that seemed initially too thick to be a tablet, and I spent a full minute convincing myself it had to be a tablet based on its regular shape; even Andy took a few seconds to decide it must be one, its unusual thickness simply because it was two tablets, confronting. It was incomplete however, having been cleaved neatly by the spade; fortunately, though, the other side was quickly found in another bucket – with high-fives all round – within minutes of Andy’s confirmation (see the two pieces below left).

What is especially exciting for me is that the main photo of the tablets released by the Trust today (arrow in the image, below right) shows that this tablet has very clear text on it, so I’ll be waiting with baited breath to find out what little story of the Roman past is carried in those four beautiful lines of cursive Latin script.

Just writing this post brings back the excitement of those two days, when tablets seemed to be everywhere and every other bucket was pay dirt. It seems highly unlikely that I’ll have a more memorable day of excavation in the years ahead. But then again, who knows? That’s the magic of Vindolanda…


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Day 10: a race to the bottom

Period 6 came to a moist end this afternoon thanks to nearly horizontal heavy drizzle, driven by a 20mph wind. No sympathy is due us however, because the huge, 40-member team lost no digging time yet again. Indeed, we lost a paltry 30 minutes over the entire fortnight.

From the beginning it was clear we were on a mission today: the march up the hill started a minute early and when we arrived at the trench fresh material was already being sorted by the crew of Field School students. By mid-morning the southern branch of the Vicani had joined us again, for a total of 26 sorters, with Beth and Andy keeping them all constantly supplied.


Aline and I got off to a fast start, getting a couple of ink tablet fragments well before lunch, but there were no more to be had from our barrow the rest of the day. Much of the material was largely clay, but it still contained the occasional piece of scrap leather (below), multiple large-animal bones and one bucket in particular had about ten sizable sherds of black pottery that most likely came from just one or two pots. Evidence of horses in this structure continued to show up occasionally, with one bucket particularly rich in the solid evidence of their presence shown below.

Throughout the day we were repeatedly treated to brief sprays of rain driven by brisk winds from the west, which finally became more persistent and heavier around 3PM. On a normal day we might have stopped early, but we were racing for the finish line and nobody wanted the digging to be over. When time was finally called at 3:45 we were all pretty much soaked but the vast majority of the trench was down to the boulder clay; the remaining nooks and crannies will have to be tackled by the supervisors during their recording week, before the period 7 crew arrives.

The continuing rain meant that Marta and Andy gave the full team abbreviated summaries of the fortnight in each trench before we all went our separate ways. Here’s a a couple of shots from the east ditch; in the end the ditch was much like Vindolanda in general, proving to be complex, with different phases of use making it confusing to sort out. A clearer picture will undoubtedly emerge over the rest of this season as the dumped stone is removed and deeper parts of the ditch are excavated.

Its unfortunate I can’t elaborate more on the finds from the last few days in the vicus, but for certain there will be more about it coming from the Trust later in the year. It was an exhilarating ride for the whole team; Raymond and I were very lucky to have made the switch from the ditch at the end of last week.

So that wraps it all up for another year. As usual, speculation about 2018 is already swirling, which would be under a new 5-year SMC (Scheduled Monument Consent), digging in different areas around the fort. So until next time…

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Day 9: hidden pleasures

After the excitement of yesterday it was hard to predict how the day would pan out in the vicus trench. Over the course of day 8 a relatively small area of the floor had been cleared to the surface the Romans found in 85 AD, when they built the first fort on the main site; perhaps five times that area remained, and the layer of remaining soil to process appeared to be getting thicker. The plan is to close the trench down and backfill it after this week is done, meaning that there were multiple reasons for urgency in getting a fast start in the morning today.

As always the first job of the day was to remove the build up of water before any work could begin, and thankfully the overnight rains had been relatively minor, so I was able to scoop and sponge the floor clear pretty quickly. Beth and I began the day taking big cubes of material, which separated themselves easily from the underlying boulder clay. That description gets us just 20 minutes into the day, at which point nobody had yet been able to start sorting. At that point Beth’s first chunk of material came out and unfortunately I can’t describe much of anything after that! For now you’ll have to make do with a shot of some of the crew looking over the wall as things unfolded below while Andy and Beth examined her find. Suffice it to say that it was a busy morning session, in which I soon switched to sorting because the need was greater there.


The pattern of the day continued after lunch, so the best I can offer is a view from the excavator’s hut at the tea break. As always happens, after two weeks together conversation among the entire crew is easy, many new friendships have been made and risqué jokes are flying.


For the final session of the day we went into overdrive, bringing several of the vicus crew from the other side of the trench to help sort; we now had 16 people gathered around, two or three sorters to a barrow, while Beth was able to keep them all busy with a steady supply of material. Here’s a couple of views of the trench at the end of the day, as well as a better closeup of the fabulous drain than the shot I included in the day one description.

It’s likely I won’t be able to reveal much of tomorrow’s activities either. You will undoubtedly hear the results of our labours via official communications from the Vindolanda Trust in due course.

Just the last day of period 6 left, hopefully we can close out the rest of the floor before 4PM rolls around.

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Day 8: tablets!

Unlike the Romans, I’m not normally a superstitious person. For them, events in the natural world portended all manner of things, so amulets to ward off the “evil eye” and charms to protect them from the spirits were an essential part of daily life.

The forecast for today was pretty dire and the 7am Doppler radar image suggested we could expect a huge rainstorm to arrive around 9am, with a leading edge all shades of violent red and purple. Surely we would have at best an abbreviated day of excavation. As I ate my cereal, wondering how we would while away the hours waiting for the rain to clear, a thrush slammed into the window beside me. Despite the ferocity of the collision, the bird lay in a patch of longer grass below the window alive, but clearly stunned. Ten minutes later it was still in the same spot, but now sitting up and it turned a nervous eye towards me as I looked on. Shortly after, to my amazement, it hopped out of the long grass and began looking for worms as if nothing had happened.


As the appointed hour came to leave our cottage for the site I had not even bothered to put on sunscreen, so sure was I that we would not be digging until the afternoon at best. Sean and I walked to the car in a depressed mood, under dark skies, with distant thunder and light rain which increased to a steady downpour as we passed Haltwhistle. After parking at Vindolanda we sat in the car for a few minutes as the rain fell hard on the roof. However, the skies did seem to be brightening, and as we left the car the rain seemed to be easing slightly. Despite this I was shocked when the team began the daily walk up to the site on time at 9:30, and after half an hour waiting at the excavators hut for the rain to stop, we began what turned out to be a full, although very humid, day of digging. And what a day it was.

I was chosen to begin the morning in the trench with Avery from the Field School, tasked with clearing a section down to the boulder clay that marked the very beginning of the Roman period on site, around 85 AD. I had a quick small find: an iron strap lay beside the base of a large, square timber. It had holes at each end and a bend that suggested it had originally been attached to the post itself (above). The chatter among the sorters ten feet above us was continuous, but despite sending up dozens of full buckets their voices were rarely raised from finding great things among the material, other than a nice, but simple, piece of jewelry. However, the story changed dramatically after lunch.

At 1pm a trio of Field School students took over in the trench and 15 minutes into the session the sorter’s spirits began to climb as an ink tablet appeared in the muck; a fragment of another came soon after. At this point Andy called the sorters together around a barrow, to remind us of the correct method of gently peeling apart the blocks bit by bit, giving any tablets present the best chance of being found without damage. Returning to our barrow, Garett and I began to work on a fresh bucket-load. The very first piece I split revealed a very tablet-like pair of wood slivers, quickly confirmed by Beth as fragments of another tablet (below, left). From the same bucket Garett quickly found one more. By now the atmosphere was electric as it became clear we had stumbled upon a mini-trove of tablets, in another of the pits in the floor of the trench. By tea break the tray of water reserved for them was loaded with about ten different tablet fragments (below, right).

After tea the tablet pace slowed a little, but the first bucket Garett and I sorted held another one. If this were not enough, the vicani on the other side of the trench were having a banner day of their own, with a spectacular wooden grain scoop as well as some shoes and other notable finds I can’t describe. I also logged another wooden item that had clearly been turned by a Roman hand, but was too incomplete to be identifiable or recorded as a find; photo below.

So, after such an inauspicious start, it turned into a breathless day of discovery that it’s hard to imagine being repeated. The final tally was about 15 tablets in all, as well as a plethora of other finds that on any normal day would have been the best on site. Certainly the most exciting day in six seasons at Vindolanda for me.

To cap off such a special day it was also a Wednesday, and that means an hour of evening badminton for most of the Field School team, at the Haltwhistle Leisure Centre. Sean and I joined them as we burned off some more energy, as well as giving me a chance to revisit the sport of my youth.

So, just like the thrush, we had ridden out the storm and flown away; it was an omen that the Romans would have understood completely.

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Day 7: pits, lids and staves

A fundamental principle in archaeology is keeping careful track of the successively deeper levels as you proceed downward. Often the separation between distinct phases of occupation or use of a structure can be visible in the earth, perhaps as layer of silt appearing beneath the brown topsoil as we saw in the fort ditch last week. These are recorded as different “contexts”, with finds in one being bagged and analysed separately from the others.

A layer of firm, yellowish-gray clay has been appearing in the floor of the western part of the vicus trench over the last several days, but not uniformly; some areas were much softer and a noticeably more blackish colour, likely indicating the presence of pits sunk into the clay.

Before tackling the pits in the afternoon, the last of the 51A context at the northern end of the trench yielded another copper alloy leather-working needle, the wax stylus tablet posted by the Trust today, (photo of Aline carefully handing it to Andy below), as well as some substantial fragments of pottery. Two of the Samian ware pieces fitted together, and the similarity in thickness and pattern of other pieces suggests to me that they’re from the same pot as well. Although there is no ink on a stylus tablet, it is often possible to decipher text from them because the scribe pressed hard enough to go right through the (now missing) wax layer and scratch the wood beneath.

The first pit to be tackled immediately yielded another substantial wooden artefact, this time an inch thick, rectangular box lid around a foot wide and long. An adjacent pit produced a find for me, with a piece of oak I initially thought could be a tablet, but its gentle curve and straight sides quickly indicated it must be a stave, one of the pieces that are tightly fitted together and forced together with iron rings. The small size of this one indicates it probably came from a bucket; you can see a band of slightly raised wood toward the right side that an iron ring would have been snugged up against.

Other than the stave it was a relatively uneventful day for me, with plenty of bone and a few pieces of a darker pottery after the early sherds of Samian ware. A perfect hazelnut demanded to be photographed, but is among the materials that simply get discarded.

The closing shots today show our sorting line in the late afternoon sun and the trench overview at the close of the day. The forecast tomorrow is showery in the morning so it looks like we’ll be lucky to get a full day in, but you never know.


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Day 6: wooden legs and patches

Sometimes its hard to think of a punny title for a new post, but today the pirate theme was an easy one; you’ll have to continue reading to see how it fits the day…

The weekend was unusually warm across the U.K., reaching into the low 80’s F, high 20’s C on Saturday and Sunday. The trend continued today with heat, almost pure blue skies and not much breeze to speak of. Ice creams were in fashion and diggers were seeking shade at every break.

The first piece of news is that as of today I’m still a member of the vicani, spending the morning and early afternoon back below ground in the vicus trench, the late afternoon sorting the muck above.

OK, let’s cut to the chase, here’s the leggy bit of the title. As the spade slices in to cut the next cube of material, any resistance has to be noted, and I had such a moment mid-morning. Turning instead to the trowel to tease out the obstruction I could see what initially looked like a piece of branch, a common experience in this trench. However, this one was unusually well-rounded, straight and with no sign of bark in the part I could see. Once it was fully exposed I was sure it was something, but unsure of what. It was about six inches long, with its wider, rough-cut end with visible signs it had been worked, a smaller spike inserted in that end; the whole thing was slightly tapered down to a smaller, well rounded end. Andy took a minute before deciding it was most likely a leg from a piece of furniture, perhaps a bed.

Another theme for the day was shells, with a half dozen well-preserved examples of the Roman favourite, oysters, among the material I processed, as well as several mussels. Vindolanda is a minimum of 30 miles from the coast, meaning it would take perhaps two days for shellfish to be brought by horse and cart from the Irish or North Seas. You have to wonder how fresh these were, by the time soldiers (or perhaps more likely, their commanding officers) ate them at the fort.

Leather tent panels, off-cuts (leftover pieces) and even a spectacular leather-working needle have come out of our half of the vicus trench over the last week. More than a dozen additional leather pieces of various shapes and sizes emerged today, evidence of active work in this area maintaining a key item of any mobile army’s equipment: its tents. During my afternoon of sorting a teardrop-shaped piece of leather dropped out of a clump into my barrow. Its symmetrical shape and signs of working caught my attention and after a quick rinse I could see a couple of holes at one end. Here’s the other end of the pirate pun: apparently it had most likely done service as a patch for a tent.

Late in the day an item that may end up in the new museum extension currently under construction emerged in the other side of the trench. By that point we might also have figured out what it is; for now it’s a meter-long plank of wood with a narrow extension at one end. Delores found herself practically lying on her side to try and extricate it from the side of the trench. It eventually came out largely intact; as with my furniture leg it’s clearly “a thing”, but heck knows what…

I’ll close with a wide shot of the full trench (thanks to @Pete_Savin for the image). Tomorrow we’ll be back up to full strength across the site – the Canadian field school team as well as the student group from Michigan spent the afternoon attending a special presentation on osteo-archaeology, so all trenches were depleted; I’ll try to include an update on progress in the fort ditch too.




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Day 5: roped into the vicus

The last day of the first week arrived with a promising forecast, but came after (for at least the third time) an evening with some showers. So we were not surprised to see a series of pools in our beloved fort ditch trench (see below) as we made the morning walk up from the museum to start the day. Ditches are often damp to begin with, so the added moisture necessitated some baling out, followed by a retreat to work on the higher, drier ground of the berm for almost the whole team.

Marta had other plans for Raymond and I however, with a little deturfing job at the southern end. Normally this would be considered a less than appealing task, but after four days with a fair amount of troweling I was glad to use some different muscles, rather than be faced with a day of scraping around densely packed cobble on the top of the berm.

However, after an hour and with only half the deturfing job done, the script was suddenly changed: the vicus crew needed reinforcements and Raymond and I got the nod. A feverish cleanup of the newly exposed topsoil ensued (results seen above, right) followed by a brisk walk around the fort to join the denizens of the deep, in the black, anaerobic strata of the pre-Hadrianic trench, at least for the rest of the day.

Having started at the level of a road between two Severan barrack buildings (for those who’ve forgotten, the Severan fort, built in 208, lies in the area that became the vicus outside the later third century fort), this trench has moved down through levels corresponding to the two Antonine period forts and two more built by the 1st cohort of Tungrians. Both sides of the L-shaped trench in the extramural settlement are now working within the pre-Hadrianic fort built by a Batavian cohort, between 92 and 105AD. The floor of this trench is between two and three meters below the feet of visitors to the site, who peer down into the hole from behind the fence.

A steady stream of buckets – filled with contents ranging from clay, to silt, to twigs, reeds, bracken and even horse dung – were coming up from the deep, while a group of about ten volunteers picked through the dark, moist, smelly mix, chattering away as they hunched over their barrows. Bare hands is the rule when sorting here, to maximize the chances of artifact detection: this is prime ground to discover writing tablets that can yield critical new information of all kinds about the fort, its inhabitants and its daily activities. It’s not unusual for a week’s digging in this area to yield a half dozen or more of these slivers of archaeological gold. The action here is therefore quite different to working in the fort ditch: less strenuous physically, but more mentally demanding due to the vigilance needed to identify such precious finds without damage.

Raymond and I quickly got into the sorting groove, but it was still hard even for the expanded above-ground team to keep up the pace set by just two people passing buckets up from below. My first few buckets yielded nothing more than a couple of small pieces of bone, but after lunch the iridescent gleam of an oyster shell appeared, followed by a surprise find. As I was doing a final sweep through the barrow before grabbing another bucket, I realized that a short, twig-like mass was in fact a fragment of rope. It’s hard to discern from the photo below (look closely at the left end) but it was clearly braided from two strands, each strand itself made up of many fibres of some kind of plant material, each fibre something between the thickness of cotton and wool thread.

The pre-tea break session had another small find for me, a rectangular piece of leather emerged from the slime and I was about to add it to the scrap leather bag when I realized it had a somewhat shoe-like outline. A check with Andy confirmed it was an insole from a child’s shoe, made of soft goatskin. The toe end had been lost in antiquity, but it was a thrill to get something so evocative of ordinary non-military life from around the turn of the first century AD.

After tea there was another surprise as Andy asked me to don a hard hat and do a stint filling buckets in the trench itself. Although it meant my chances of making a find would be reduced, I needed no second invitation to get stuck in. The special short spade (see photo above, right) slid easily into the soft, clay-like floor, yielding a series of cubes about eight inches a side. I could easily fill a bucket every couple of minutes, making it clear why so many hands were needed to do the much more time consuming job of sorting.

The top few inches of a substantial square timber post, about six inches wide, were poking out of the mud on one side of the area I was clearing. Not realizing it was driven into the ground at an angle, I accidentally took a sliver of it off with the spade, revealing the typical sandy, pale orange shade typical of any modern piece of freshly cut wood hiding just beneath the blackened surface; a perfect example of just how well these conditions preserve organic artifacts, items that would normally rot away completely in only a decade or two at the surface.


The vicus trench at the end of the day; the area I worked on is indicated by the box.

The big question for me to ponder as the period 6 team all recover from the week’s exertions elsewhere this weekend: which trench will I be in on Monday?