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…