Hey all! Since we have been excavating here for a couple weeks now, I thought I’d share some of the things that I have learned so far!
It is really important that you pay attention to the soil that you’re working with. If you notice a change in texture or colour, this may be an indication that you are actually working in a new context. It can also tell you what area you are working in. For example, many of us have been working in ditches, so the colour of the ditch fill has been a brownish colour, while the edge of the ditch is grey.
2: Be one with the spade
The spade is a tool used to really dig down into the soil. Its sharp edge makes the work a lot easier, but you have to be careful about how much pressure you apply because you don’t want to cut any artifacts in half. By pressing down on the spade, you can feel when it’s cutting easily through the dirt, when you hit a rock, and even when you reach cool things like bones!
3: Cubes are your friends
When using a spade, it is ideal to try and dig the dirt up into nice cubes. This ensures a tidy trench that is one consistent layer rather than many messy layers. A tidy trench means happy archaeologists! This also makes it easier for the next person digging in the trench to figure out where you left off and where they need to go.
4: Hand to thigh
It is important to use the tools properly to ensure that you don’t injure yourself while excavating. When using a spade or shovel to scoop up loose soil, it is often instinct to just use your arms. However, by doing this, it is likely that your arm muscles will quickly become tired out and possibly even that you will pull said muscle. Instead, it is better to place the back of your hand that holds the handle of the shovel/spade against your thigh and push using both your arm and thigh. This allows you to use both your arm and leg muscles, resulting in you having more power behind the tool. It also preserves your energy.
5: Get to know your fellow excavators
There are so many interesting people from all over the world who come to volunteer at Vindolanda. We have been working with people from Australia, America, Scotland, England, Germany and more fellow Canadians! It’s so awesome to get to know these people, to hear their stories, and to experience Vindolanda together with them!
6: Stratigraphy 2.0!
When processing the excavated material it is best to identify the stratigraphy lines in the chunks of soil and pull the soil apart at these lines. If there are any material remains in the soil, the pressure will cause the soil to break away at that spot – revealing the remains.
7: Beautiful Blue
Sometimes in the soil there will be a beautiful royal blue colour. It is easy to think that this is an artifact like a bead, but in fact it is vivianite. Viviante is a mineral that becomes blue as it oxidizes – so as we excavate, we expose the mineral to oxygen which causes it to turn colour. Unfortunately, this is not an artifact, but a cool chemical reaction.
8: Biscuit Barrel
Here at Vindolanda there is a lovely tradition of bringing your favourite cookies and placing them in the biscuit barrel for everyone to enjoy! My personal favourites include Tim Tams from Australia and Tunnock’s from Scotland.
9: Know your limits
When we excavate, the person digging in the trench places the soil into buckets. This soil is then transferred into wheelbarrows where it is processed by sorters who remove all the goodies from it – like pottery, glass, bones and writing tablets. After this, we take the wheelbarrow away from the trench and dump it over the side of a dirt hill. It is important to know how much dirt you can carry in your wheelbarrow before it becomes to heavy for you – especially since we push the full wheelbarrows uphill. I personally dump my wheelbarrow after I process about four full buckets of soil.
Even though we are working in Northern England where it is usually pretty cloudy, it is important to stay protected from the sun. Especially on a windy day, it can be hard to notice how warm it actually is and how much sun exposure you’re getting.