The Post that Never Wanted to be Written

Hey everyone,

I have some pretty devastating news to announce: the 2019 Vindolanda Field School season has officially ended.

I don’t even know where to begin. These past 5 weeks have flown by in a blink of an eye and as exhausted as I am, I think I have fuel for another 5 weeks.

Excavating at Vindolanda has truly been an experience of a lifetime. I don’t think I could pick a better site for my very first excavation (and I know that the other students agree with me on this). In addition to the archaeological experience, which has increased our passion for archaeology, the community here at Vindolanda has contributed largely to our experience. The staff and volunteers have created such a comfortable and enjoyable environment that we all want to come back to Vindolanda.

The VFS 2019 with Alex, Beth, Marta, Andy, and Sammy at the very end of our final day.

Some of us are already back in Canada, a couple are in Italy, I’m in Paris, and our professors (to whom we owe much thanks) are continuing their hard work in England.

Thank you to those that have been keeping up with the blog, to those that have helped make this trip happen for our students, and to those who have continuously invested in Vindolanda. It’s also because of you that we get to experience what we to do to the extent that we do.

Till next time,

Shereen

It’s not all about digging! Post-Excavation Week

This week the field school students had the amazing opportunity to experience the work done behind the scenes by our amazing post-excavation team (and finally keep their hands clean!). The students split into two teams of 2 and one team of 3, and each team had one day to get a full crash course on the methods of cleaning, drying, categorizing, and cataloguing the bones and pottery finds that the volunteers dig up in the trenches.

The mornings in post-excavation are dedicated to washing and cleaning the bones/pottery collected by context number. In the case of bone (this is what I did!), we wash and clean off the bone with large brushes for large fragments, or small toothbrushes for smaller pieces, and then scrape the remaining dirt left in the holes of the bones with small picking tools.

Casey cleaning a bone!
A lovely, cleaned bone fragment

Next, the bone is laid out in baskets with the matching context number and left outside to dry nicely before being categorized.

In the afternoon we sit inside the tea shed post-excavation area and sort the pre-washed and dried bones and pottery by size and type in the case of bones, or just type in the case of pottery. For the bones, we sort them into groups for small, medium, large, teeth, and uncategorized fragments, and then identify what each bone is and what animal it belongs to using reference books. I personally found this the most exciting part of post-excavation, because it was like solving a very hard puzzle! Once we finish sorting and identifying the bones, we count and weigh each group, and then catalogue all the information into a database.

Emma and Casey hard at work solving the mystery of a bone fragment!

For pottery, the sherds are categorized as either amphora, samian ware, coarse ware, fine ware, mortaria, or building material and then all relevant information is catalogued in the database.

Justin was having a great time categorizing pottery.

My favourite part about my experience with post-excavation was being able to see my own finds from the trenches cleaned up and in greater detail and being able to interact with them more intimately. There are many things that you can’t see about these finds when they are covered in mud! For example, we discovered after cleaning that a normal pottery sherd found during excavation was actually inscribed with graffiti! My post-excavation experience is definitely a highlight of my field school experience.

Maria

Fun with Photogrammetry!

Here at Vindolanda, we have been learning about the past, present, and future of archaeology. The students recently participated in a workshop which focused on 3D modelling of artifacts and archaeological sites. In the past, archaeologists were required to record objects and features by hand, but with the advancement of technology and introduction of photogrammetry, archaeologists can now produce a much more polished and accurate product than drawings could. Photogrammetry is simpler and requires less artistic skill than sketching. The process is quite simple: you pick an object that you want a model of, take as many pictures from as many angles as you would like (for our purposes we took 20), upload those photos to a 3D modelling software, follow a few more steps on the software to create and finalize your model, and voila!

Brittany taking photos of the reconstructed Jupiter Dolichenus altar.
Dr. Andrew Birley explaining how the software works to the group.
Marta Alberti showing us 3D models of the Vindolanda site from sketchfab.com
The finished Product: A 3D scan of the altar:

The finished product was astounding, much better than what any of the field schoolers had expected. The introduction to photogrammetry was useful, engaging, and fun! This is definitely something I could see myself doing in my spare time. If you at home want to see some 3D models of Vindolanda and its artifacts, head to sketchfab.com and search for Vindolanda. Hopefully you enjoy them as much as we did!

Kai

Badminton Break!

A fun activity that we participate in when we are not digging is badminton! The local recreational center holds a badminton night every Wednesday from 6-7pm. It has been a Vindolanda Field School tradition for a few seasons now and the 2019 Field School has loved it just as much as previous years. We have a great time playing against each other, other excavators, and even against the locals in Haltwhistle.

Here Justin and Kai oppose each other with two very skilled locals.
Badminton is a fast pace game. Here Casey is running in to hit the birdie.
Dr. Meyer is ready to play with the child-sized racket!
The celebration after gaining a point!
Badminton is fun, even without the net!

Hope you all had as much fun on your Wednesday night as we did!

Which 2019 Vindolanda Field School Student are you?!

Hey everyone!

Thank you to all of you who have been keeping up with our adventures this summer. We hope that over the past 4 weeks you were able to learn more about us, our interests, and how we spend our time. With the help of the other students we made a fun and short quiz for our audience. Find out which 2019 student you are most like by completing the quiz below and let us know your results in the comments!

Quiz link: https://www.riddle.com/view/200770

Justin

Seize the Clay!

As part of our learning experience here at Vindolanda, we recently had the opportunity to learn about the production of Roman pottery!

Our talented instructor Graham, showed us how the Roman potter’s wheel would have worked and guided us in creating our own face-pots (pots which the Romans sculpted faces on). While the prospect of doing this initially seemed overwhelming, especially for those who are artistically challenged, like me, Graham taught us step by step how to sculpt the pot to create the contours of a human face and how to decorate the pot with additional features to make it look like a person.

Some of us also recreated scenes of hunting from Roman pottery!

Learning about how the Romans would have created, fired, and decorated their pottery was a very unique experience. Being actively involved in the process made me appreciate the artistry and talent that would have been required to make even a simple piece of pottery (let alone one with a face)!

By Ashley

Teaching in the Trenches Pt. 2

This week we listened to presentations from Kai, Justin, Casey, Ashley, and Maria.

Kai prepared for his presentation on the Roman boxing gloves found two summers ago at Vindolanda much differently from the rest of us. While most of us scoured through articles, Kai had to learn about the gloves from Dr. Andrew Birley, the Director of Excavations and CEO of the Vindolanda Trust, right in the middle of excavation. Talking to Dr. Birley was the best resource for Kai to consult since the gloves were such a recent find.

To me, the overall design of the gloves was the most interesting. The material was wound only around the knuckles of the wearer and was composed of strips of leather that were stuffed with either more leather to inflict more damage unto the opponent, or grass and hay to focus more on protecting the wearer in combat.

Kai – “Boxing went underground…”, Maria – “ancient fight club”

Justin told us all about Tagomas’ writing tablet and handle. The tablet and handle were found in the schola (the clubhouse), which was an area that was used by numerous individuals. The handle was once attached to a larger storage vessel and has Tagomas’ name scratched into it. Justin reported that this was done perhaps to prevent others from stealing or using the vessel. Just as anyone with roommates would know, if you don’t label your items then you may never see it again.

“Hi, I’m Justin” – how he starts his presentations

In addition to finding writing tablets and handles, we also find bits and pieces of Samian ware (or as it is more widely known, Terra sigillata). Casey explained that Samian ware was thought to have originated in Samos (hence its name), but was also made in other regions such as France, where a large deposit from Vindolanda was manufactured. She mentioned that referring to terra sigillata as Samian ware is comparable to our use of the word “china” when we refer to any fine tableware.

“What are thooooooose??”

This excavation season, we’ve been fortunate to find a little bit of jewellery and other forms personal adornment. Ashley mentioned that fashion changed in a similar way in which we experience trends now. There were changes not only in respect to the style/look of jewellery, but also in the materials used to make jewellery. Some of the materials include gold, copper, silver, jet (fossilized wood and a precursor to coal), and glass. Jewellery and other items of personal adornment give archaeologists and researchers a more personal and intimate idea of the lives led by the people at Vindolanda.

We had to be quiet during the presentations so as to not disturb other museum visitors

Would it even be a field school at Vindolanda if we didn’t have a presentation on leather? Maria presented on, not shoes, but another leather item, an almost complete horse chamfron. It was found in the praetorium and dates to c. AD 100-150. It is debated whether the thick leather and metal studded piece was added for costuming for celebratory events or for armor for the horse in battle. Vindolanda has one of the most complete examples of a leather horse chamfron and has become the type specimen used to base identification on when parts of chamfrons are found.


– Victoria

A talk that covered more than the bare bones

Our resident bioarchaeologist Dr. Trudi Buck, from Durham University, presented a wonderful lesson on the deviant dead from Vindolanda for us. She did this after we had finished digging for the day, so you can imagine how tired we were. Despite this, she beautifully managed to keep us awake, enraptured by her hand-made slides.

During this presentation, which was kept low-key, she shared her thoughts about three separate bodies that have come from our site. She really brought to life their lives, painting a colourful, and sometimes brutal, end of life.

We talked about bodies buried in the barracks, in the north field, and even in a ditch. One of our own, Associate Professor Dr. Alexander Meyer, found one of these skulls a few years back!

Analyzing the bones, Trudi talked about how they can be used for stature estimations, (sometimes) sexing the remains, aging, and their cause of death. Depending on what remains, for example, teeth, experts can also look into the DNA to figure out their ancestry, and can use stable isotope analysis to see what their diet consisted of. It’s amazing how much we can learn! All these fall into the osteobiography – a newer way of thinking about the individual and their life.

At the end of her presentation, Trudi took time for questions. She clarified how to tell whether a bone break was post-mortem, peri-mortem, or was a part of the cause of death. She fielded questions about isotope analyses (other experts do that work), and even took a question from Vic.

Cheers,

Casey

The Furry Friends of Hadrian’s Wall

Here in the sweeping hills and plains of Northumbria there are more cattle than people. Where we are staying at the Ald White Craig cottages we are lucky enough to enjoy the full British farmland experience! As soon as we step out the front door of the cottages in the morning, we are greeted by three of the cutest pups in the world: Bell, Freddy, and Meg, who are owned by Sue our landlord. Freddy is my personal favourite because he is always bursting with loads of energy and looking for endless belly rubs. He does have a habit of nibbling on arms, but he has improved since we got here and were all so proud of him! Meg and Bell are a lot more timid, but have warmed up to us a lot since we got here. Not surprisingly, all the pups gravitate towards Alex. 

Bell (Back), Freddy (goofy smile), Meg (Right), and Alex

If you look just across the driveway you will find an entire zoo of animals within your reach. First to greet you in his pen is the Billy goat Charlie, who is always on a lead but is very curious of what we are doing. He is often accompanied by another goat (Bob), sheep and some chickens. If you go back behind the pen you will find a barn filled with guinea pigs and rabbits! To the right of the pen are my favourite animals of all, the horses. There are two horses, whose real names are Ruby and Riley, but I decided Jean Francois and Marie are better names. I think they have taken a real liking to me, because they always come see me when I’m around. It is truly an incredible experience to come home every day from a long day of excavation and be greeted by such beautiful creatures that I don’t have the opportunity at home to interact with (Pro tip: don’t wear green clothes if you interact with a horse because they might think its juicy grass and try to eat you!)

Riley (Above) and Ruby (Aka Jean Francois andMarie)

Outside of our cottages we are constantly surrounded by farm animals everywhere we turn, even right beside our excavation area at Vindolanda! You have probably already read about the chaotic cow event of our second big hike of the trip, but luckily not all of our experiences with the wildlife have been that way. One of my favourite things about our big hikes was how we were often walking right through farmlands with herds of sheep and cows, and able to closely engage with these animals for the first time. I found myself in a peaceful state of mind observing the natural course of life happening right before my eyes as lambs suckled their mothers, calves ran to their mothers’ side, and herds of giant cows passed us right before our eyes. It is truly a sight unique to the English countryside and just another reason why I don’t want to ever leave this place. 

Maria Glanfield

Top 10 Tips For Excavating at Vindolanda!

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!

1: Stratigraphy!!!

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.

10: Sunscreen!

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.