Favourite Memories: A Goodbye Post

When I left Canada 72 days ago (I know! 72 days!!!), I had high expectations for my summer. I was about to see some of the most iconic and awe-inspiring sites of the ancient world while also exploring and learning about the fantastic Dutch, Greek, British, and Irish cultures. Despite these high standards, my expectations were swiftly and definitely superseded almost the moment I landed. By the time I had arrived at Vindolanda, I had seen, learned, tasted, smelled, felt, and experienced so many things. As it turned out, Vindolanda wasn’t just the icing on the Eurotrip cake but a brand new, second cake that was just as delicious and fulfilling as the one before.

This year, we had a fantastic cohort of students. As a TA and alumnus of the field school, it was so pleasing to watch these intelligent, engaged, and excited students grow, learn, and bond with their classmates, with me, with the professors, and with the volunteers and staff on site. We even have an honorary field school member from Australia (shout-out to Isabelle). They were some of the most polite, attentive, and active students I have seen and they truly made field school a delight this year. As a thanks to them, I wanted to share some of my favourite memories from this season:

  • Sarah revealing her true, deep, booming voice to tell Alex from across the trench that she had found “POTENTIAL TEETH.” (Seriously, if you have ever heard Sarah talk, she dropped about 10 octaves when she said “teeth”)
  • Religiously watching bad British reality TV with Justine and Christine after a long and satisfying day of excavation (religiously is probably an understatement to be honest)
  • Playing “pottery” or “nottery” while sorting (rocks look a lot like pots) and other interesting trench talk with Shannon
  • Sam teaching me the wonders of the “buff,” a cloth head band/scarf/balaclava/bandana that you can see me regularly wearing to keep my unruly hair up during excavation. I must say that I am a buff convert
  • Enjoying both the Minster of York and also Cassidy’s enjoyment of her first pride outside of it
  • Approaching and petting a cow for the first time in my life with the guidance of Meghan who is more farm trained than I ever will or want to be
  • Discovering that Ben and I have the same, but weird, sense of humour while digging in the ditch
  • Coining the phrase “Goop Line” with Cody and Christine when describing the wet mud in the North Field
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The Field School Crew this year (including our honorary Canadian, Isobel)

Vindolanda is amazing because of its preservation, its history, and its beautiful scenery but the best part of digging is the people involved:

You may have read some of the previous farewell posts but I sincerely want to thank all of the students this year for such a great time. Of course, that was enhanced by the amazing staff at Vindolanda who provided such a welcoming, funny, and educational environment in the trenches.

Andy always kept us in high spirits even when we were digging through wet clay in the rain. Lauren introduced us to post excavation and even took time out of her busy day to talk to students interested in her line of work. Marta was incredibly entertaining but also an excellent teacher, all while driving a dumper and looking badass doing it.

To those who donate to field school, I express my sincere gratitude because your donations make it possible for people to have opportunities like this and I know firsthand that it has opened eyes and doors to future career possibilities, a gift that doesn’t come easily in University.

To our loyal readers, thank you for sticking with us and following the blog. You support the field school in so many ways and I sincerely hope you enjoyed the blog this year!

Finally, saving the best for last, I am so thankful to Beth and Alex for reasons too numerous to list. They graciously invited me back and I can say without a doubt that this has been the best summer of my life. Through their good cheer, their excellent teaching, and their flawless planning and organization are what make field school the remarkable experience that it is.

Cheers everyone!

Prem

How do you make leather?

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A cute leather elephant that greeted us every morning
For the past five days, Beth and I have been staying in the Park Campus of the University of Northampton taking a course on historical leather offered by the Leather Conservation Centre there. Along the way, we’ve had the pleasure of exploring the city of Northampton (which, through extreme trial and error, we discovered has three separate bus companies), and learning lots about leather. We thought we’d share with you some of the experiences that we’ve had during this journey!

 

 

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Cowhide being prepped for tanning at the tannery
The course itself covered a variety of topics ranging from the chemistry of the tanning process (which I was incredibly interested in) to species identification through examination of hides (which Beth found particularly interesting). I think one of the coolest parts of the course was that we actually had a practical component where we participated in all of the processes that go into making a piece of leather. While I could spend a week (and the people at the LCC have) talking about leather, I think it would be prudent to focus on the tanning process itself, something that both Beth and I didn’t know too much about prior to arriving here. There are three main processes that go into creating a piece of leather: 1. Beamhouse 2. Tanning 3. Finishing. I’m going to tell you about these in a bit more detail

BEAMHOUSE

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Salted hides in storage
The name “beamhouse” comes from the fact that several of these operations were performed over a large wooden beam. The purpose of these processes is to prepare the raw hides for tanning. This involves first salting the hides to prevent putrefaction, defleshing to remove the extra flesh attached to the skin (that was probably the grossest part), unhairing, liming to breakdown unwanted proteins, and then pickling and bating to reduce the pH and to clean the grain. All in all, beamhouse is some of the nastier parts of this whole process. Nevertheless, we still took part and here is a video of Beth defleshing and a picture of me unhairing a goat skin hide.

 

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Unhairing a goat hide
It’s really quite amazing to see the difference each process makes, though I will refrain from more pictures in order to reduce your nausea. At least you can’t smell it, but we could!

 

 

 

 

TANNING

This is the part of the process that prevents leather from decaying like normal skin would. It is a chemical process that fundamentally changes the structure of the proteins and is often hard to reverse. The hide is put in a drum along with a specific tanning chemical. There are several types of tannages that can produce strong or soft, rigid or flexible, aesthetic or durable leather (chrome tanning, alum tanning, wet white tanning, etc…) but the one used historically was vegetable tanning where natural tannins (found in bark, teas, and plants) were mixed with the leather for long periods of time. This interested us historians the most and that was what we tanned our hides with. We then sammyed the leather (pressing out the water) which created a firmer, leathery type hide, and then split or shaved the hide to the specified thickness. The leather was then dried briefly by a vacuum drier and then slow dried by toggling where they were hung in a low temperature oven by toggles.

FINISHING AND CURRYING

This part of the process is the final bit that makes leather look like what we buy in store. First, you can oil the leather set it to soften the leather and add some flexibility. To help with this, you can stake the leather where you rub it over a blunt edge to add more flexibility and softness. The next part can vary depending on your leather’s destination but there are multiple options. You can dye the leather, buff it which sands the top of the grain creating a suede feel, glaze it using a very scary but cool machine to give it a shine, and emboss it with beautiful patterns. These last few are often where extreme skill and artistry separate the quality of leather finishing.

All you have left is to cut it to your fancy and use it for a shoe, a bag, upholstery, or as I have done, a wall hanging with your name on it:

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I can say that by the end of this course, Beth and I probably know more about leather production than we ever needed to know but it was such a fun, educational, and engaging course that we thoroughly enjoyed it. Even though a lot of the practical lessons were done with modern machines, the principles of tanning has been consistent for thousands of years and having this understanding helps us understand how tanning may have been done in the Ancient world and at Vindolanda. By understanding historical practices, tools involved, chemical reactions that occur, and the necessary environmental conditions, we can perhaps take this knowledge and apply it to the amazingly preserved leather that we have at Vindolanda. This week was definitely time well spent and I also greatly appreciated the opportunity to spend it with one of the best professors!

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We’ve definitely got some big (leather) shoes to fill!
Be sure to keep checking the blog for updates about the progress of our trenches!

If you have any questions about specifics of the processes discussed above, feel free to comment below and we’d be happy to clarify a few things. (Once again, apologies for the long post)

Prem

A Final Goodbye

To begin, I just want you all to know how much this trip has meant to me. From a very young age, my biggest wish was to come to the British Isles and to see this beautiful place for myself. This trip has allowed me to fulfill this childhood dream and has given me the experience of a lifetime. I have gotten to know so many new and exciting people and I have gained an extended family that I never expected. Being as close as we were, in both the trenches and at the cottages, we got to know each other in a way that only this type of experience can allow. That said, there are so many people that need thanking for this wonderful opportunity to have played out the way it did. At the very top of this list are Beth and Alex. Without them, none of this would have been possible. They have helped me to begin a new passion for travelling, and have reminded me that I do need to come out of my comfort zone if I expect to get places. Next are Andy, Marta, Lauren, and the rest of the team from Vindolanda. They always made us feel so welcome and energized us with their passion for what they do. Thank you to everyone for giving us this experience. I’ve decided that I’m definitely going to have to come back in the future, if only to see the changes to the site.

My final thank you, is to my companions from Cohort V Canadiorum. With anyone else, this could have ended up so differently. It would not have been the same without each and every one of our eccentric personalities and unique mindsets. In my opinion, we became the wonderful balance between insanity and brilliance (though we do lean a bit towards insanity). I’m so glad that I got to know each of you and if you ever need me, I’ll be there for you. See you all back on campus, and have fun wherever the rest of the summer takes you.

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The Sky on our Final Drive Away from Vindolanda

Farewell

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Some of us leaving Vindolanda on the last day of Field School

My experience at Vindolanda has been unforgettable. I have had the opportunity to meet and become friends with people from all over the world and I personally think that the people involved here are the most important aspect of Vindolanda. These people come from many walks of life but as a unified group, they have come together to share their common interest and work to uncover the past. It really showed me how important it is to understand the past. Though it is time for us Canadians to go, hopefully many more volunteers will come and continue our work. Through our combined efforts, one day the lives and events of those who lived at Vindolanda will come into clarity.

I would like to thank Beth, Alex, and the wonderful people at Vindolanda for giving me this amazing opportunity. I would also like to give a special thanks to those who have donated to the field school. Without them, this dream may not have come true for me. These last five weeks have been some of the best in my life and I have done things that I would never have had the opportunity to do: I have hiked long sections of the ancient frontier along Hadrian’s Wall,  found things that no one has seen or touched in the last 1800 years, and most importantly, learned a lot about the history of Vindolanda, as well as archaeology itself.

But as the title implies, it is time for me to go. I hope that I will be able to come again some day. Until next time,

Ben

 

 

Adventure

Firstly, I’ve titled this post “Adventure” because I ended up using the word too many times throughout this post and found myself using the thesaurus function every few sentences. But “adventure” is the perfect word for this entire trip. As you know, our time at Vindolanda came to an end this past Friday and I can’t help but to already think on the past five weeks with a touch of nostalgia.

Honestly, I was terrified for Vindolanda when the time arrived to travel across the ocean, when I had to leave my family and friends behind. April and May had been some of the hardest months of my life, and I was incredibly worried I wouldn’t be able to enjoy myself on a trip that I’d been looking forward to for months. It was that initial eagerness, the excitement of my new friends, as well as Beth and Alex that helped me to look forward to the bright and wonderful experience ahead.

My worries were quickly stifled within the first few days with our constant journeys along Hadrian’s Wall and the anticipation of more adventure and a lot of digging ahead. Every day of excavation was exciting whether I’d found something interesting or not. I looked forward to working not only with our Canadian crew, but also with the numerous volunteers from around the world who had so many stories and experiences to share with us. Seeing our collective progress day by day was incredible enough to spur me onwards and become eager to accomplish even more the next day.

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York, my new favourite city

I loved every expedition to a new town, every biscuit, every cup of tea, every bucket of anaerobic sludge, and every raindrop. I’ve always been interested in archaeology, and this has only solidified that fact even more. The only downfall of this experience is that I’ve become so interested in so many aspects of archaeology that I’m conflicted on which I would like to pursue in the future (hopefully in the UK). Obviously, this is hardly a downfall, and I’m incredibly thankful to have this conflict.

Just as everyone else has done, I’d like to thank everyone involved in my time at Vindolanda. Thank you Andy, Lauren, and Marta for teaching me more than I could ever have anticipated, for answering all of my silly and not-so-silly questions, and always helping to keep our spirits high as we laboured away. To every volunteer I had the opportunity of working with, thank you for being such a wonderful team and for sharing stories and bantering along with me. To my Canadian crew, thank you for being my entertaining room/cottage mates, friends, transit van/travel buddies and teammates, you put up with me for five weeks and I personally think that’s rather impressive. To all the incredibly generous donors, thank you for helping me achieve this dream and making all of this possible. Finally, thank you of course to Alex and Beth for making all of this possible, for sharing your enthusiasm and encouragement, and for taking us on more adventures than I ever could have asked for. Thank you to everyone; you all helped me more than you could possibly know, and turned my summer on its head in the best way possible. I will forever be grateful for all of you and for these incredible five weeks, and hope that I can return to Vindolanda in the very near future.

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Vindolanda after some rain on Friend’s Night

Until then!

One last time!

 

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Hello, one last time. I cannot believe how quickly my time at Vindolanda has gone! The past five weeks have exceeded any expectations I had before crossing the ocean. Not only have I explored some new places here in the UK and gained an appreciation for the whole archaeological process but I have also gained a new branch of my ever-growing family. It was a pleasure to work with our Canadian cohort as we got to know each other and enjoy their company. I feel so fortunate that I know this crazy crew will be on campus this upcoming year.

Not only have I come to care greatly about my field school classmates but I have also learned so much from everyone over the duration of our time together. Having friends who are able to be your teachers is always amazing.

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It was a joy getting to know other Vindolanda volunteers from around the world and share my experience and knowledge about the site with the visitors. The team at Vindolanda made us feel so welcome and have shared their passion for the site. I am truly thankful for everything that Andy, Marta, Lauren and the rest of the team at Vindolanda have taught me and for making sure my time there was brilliant and always interesting.

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Our home at White Craig cottages was warm and welcoming and I’m sure we will all agree that breakfast just isn’t the same without Jenny waiting at the window.

Finally, I’m not sure how to express my gratitude towards Beth and Alex for taking us on and guiding us all through this adventure. I’m not entirely sure how they managed our group but we are very grateful and have so much love for you both – you’re certainly part of this family as well. Thank you.

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I hope everyone has enjoyed reading these posts, I daresay I will miss writing them. Thanks for coming along on the journey with us all and I wish you well!

-Sam

How Time Flies

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These five weeks have gone by like a blur. Between the digging, the laughing, the learning, the badminton, the weekend trips, and the general good fun, time flew so fast I barely saw it going.

In fact I had so much fun, and time went so fast, that I almost missed my plane. Yes, really! I still remember the moment I checked the time, checked my distance from the airport, and realized I was going to be late. What followed were two and a half hours of dashing between bus stations and subway stations, dragging my fifty-pound suitcase down stairs, dragging my fifty-pound suitcase up stairs, trying to sort my luggage on a crowded rail car, and a whole lot of rushing.

I made it through, my flight began to close, and I made a mad dash through a seemingly endless maze of moving walkways, escalators, and elevators before I made it, panting, sweating, and red in the face, as the very last person to get on the plane. I threw my things into cabin storage, fell into my seat, wiped my dripping brow, and thought – wow.

What would I have done if I knew I was going to be late for a plane five weeks ago, when I was a full two and a half hours away? I would have been physically incapable of doing all the running, especially while I was dragging a heavy suitcase behind me. And even if I made it to the airport before the flight was completely closed, if an airport official told me I couldn’t make it, I probably would have given up then and there.

That was when I knew my time at Vindolanda was more than just a valuable source of archaeological experience in the rolling hills of Northern England. It had genuinely, deeply, changed me into a better person as a whole.

I’ve learned so much. How to excavate, yes. How to properly hold a mattock. How to recognize a bit of dark leather in dark soil. But I also learned all sorts of other things I never would have expected – how to keep away midges with spray lotion, how to talk to strangers, how to cook pasta with olive oil, how everyone has their own story to tell if only I take the time to listen.

I’ve made so many friends and met so many amazing people. I don’t know how to thank them enough. I’ve already thanked Beth and Alex, and Andy, and Marta, and Lauren, but I want to do it again – and I want to thank everyone at Vindolanda for making us feel so welcome, and I want to thank all of the donors who supported us on the way. Of course, I also want to thank all of my fellow students for being such wonderful housemates and partners in excavation.

All of them have made this trip –  an already absolutely stunning experience in an absolutely stunning country – even more than that. They’ve made it something I will carry with me long after my days at Western are over, even after I’ve made a career for myself (hopefully in archaeology!).

Thank you, everyone — and vale!