My Experience at Vindolanda 2012

Hello blog-followers!  For those of you who don’t know me I am Sarah Taylor, also known as Staylo and Sarah #1. There have been a lot of posts lately about what we have been doing, but not a lot about how the experiences have been impacting us personally, so here goes:

This excavation is my second and it has given me the opportunity to experience a completely different work environment.  During the 2010 summer, I participated in excavations at Nysa in Turkey.  The temperature stayed around 40 degrees, we got about 3 drops of rain total and the work was made harder than necessary by the dry climate.  Even though site was interesting the process was painful for me; I learned a lot about my physical limitations while trying to participate in the excavation process and left Turkey feeling like I just wasn’t cut out for archaeology.

But once I got home and I was removed from the situation, I was able to see that I had gained so much from that experience.  Yes I have very weak wrists that need to be attended to but I realized that I do love archaeology and I simply needed to find a place where I could work.  It’s because of this that I applied for the Vindolanda field school. I figured if I could work anywhere, a site where they have to constantly bail water out of their trenches would be it.

And I was right! Over the past four weeks I have learned exactly how much perseverance and determination can accomplish.  It is only because I was determined to make archaeology work for me that I ended up here having the time of my life.  Yes, I have had to be careful but I am able to fully participate in excavation: the wet climate keeps the soil heavy but malleable and I’m able to move it without lasting trouble.

Over the course of my time here I have also had the opportunity to meet leading experts in the field of Romano-British archaeology and learn about programs I had never heard about before.  I have met students at universities in England who are on the same path as I am, had the chance to compare experiences and share information.  Meeting all of these people has been invaluable and has helped me to formulate an exciting plan for the future.

While I’m on the topic of people who have helped to make this trip unforgettable, I would like to thank all of the donors who have made this trip possible.  I am incredibly grateful for their support.  Dreams like this could simply not be realized without your help.

I look forward to applying to MA programs in the fall; I hope to study more about the Roman frontier in the future (possibly at Newcastle) and most of all I hope that I will have the chance to excavate at Vindolanda again.  The site is amazing, all of the people involved are phenomenal and the experience has been life-altering.

Snaps of the flood yesterday

I didn’t get too terribly many pictures since things were a bit frantic trying to divert water, but here goes:

The crew stands by our trench (no this isn’t a pond nearby) after the deluge.

The clean up began this morning and if you can believe it by 10am we were back in business; all this water was gone and we had a full day of dry, breezy and warm excavation. The transformation can be unbelievable. We didn’t even have a trench wall collapse anywhere–shocking with so much water pressure on a deep trench. We power on.

Alicia and Paulina bail out the shallow trenches with buckets and scoops.
This is how we get gallons of water out of the deep trenches rather quickly.
Sarah T. and Andrew get the hose as far from the trench as possible.
Mike, Rachael and Paulina sponge up the small puddles after the large ones have been pumped out.
Lauren has it right with the ultimate waterproof gear–shorts!


Did I say Great Flood last week? Just kidding…

Hi All, in case you’ve heard about the flash flooding in the UK, I just wanted to let everyone know that all’s well in our camp. We spent the afternoon yesterday diverting a great deal of water away from the Vindolanda museum, with success, thankfully. Our accommodation is just fine as well. The roads in the area have taken a bit of a beating, but nothing to worry about. We even have the trench cleaned up now and are enjoying a sunny day of excavation. We’ll post some pictures later in the day.


Life’s a Ditch

Andrew again.

This week I’m back in the North field and have the privilege of excavating a Roman ditch. This is the good stuff people. Good organic black soil under a layer of “laminate” (pressed down organic material that causes the great preservation below, it’s ‘anaerobic’ meaning there’s no oxygen getting in so organic material is preserved) with lots of finds.

Our trench – Just above the Roman Ditch

To the trained eye, meaning professors Meyer and Greene, the contours of several Roman ditches can be seen from this angle. If you look really close at the longest section of trench wall you can see the ups and downs of what appear to be a few ditches. After we bailed out all that pesky water we got straight to work.

Prof Meyer hard at work

Ditch fill is important material which can be chock-full of finds. Here professor Meyer sends up a shovel full which then has to be sorted through with a close eye. Sarah Taylor and myself were well trained to look for bits of pottery, bone, preserved wood, and even leather. This requires breaking apart chunks of soil by hand in order to not damage any potential artifacts.

Sarah with a nice new find.

In a ditch there are lots of things that are found. We now have several bags in order to differentiate our finds between pottery, animal bone and scrap leather. Leather is something that must be bagged as soon as possible because exposure to air will cause it to dry out and thus become un-conserabvle. The large sherd next to our black finds tray is a chunk of amphora, probably something which once held olive oil imported to Vindolanda from the Mediterranean.

A bucket prepared for soil sampling

New scientific opportunities also arise from excavating a ditch and here a bucket is being filled with our excavated soil for environmental analysis. Later it will go through a process called “flotation” where the tiny bits of seeds and pollen that cannot be seen easily seen will be analysed. This will give better insight into the Roman diet at Vindolanda and other interesting things will be discovered from the process.

Sarah and prof Greene covered in muck after a good day of excavating
Cleaning dirt off of tools and buckets. That ditch fill is sticky stuff!

As ditch fill is so well preserved it is also wet and sticky. Sarah and professor Greene wear a hard day’s work worth of dirt. The mud also clings to all our tools and buckets. Luckily we have a puddle near by in which to wash all of dirty tools.

Top Ten Things We’ve Come to Appreciate

Hello all, Alicia again.

We were thinking the other day about potential blog topics, and we concluded that a “top ten” list would be a super efficient way to tell you all about the kind of thing that this archaeological dig has made us come to appreciate. So, in no particular order, a collectively compiled list follows. I hope it makes you appreciate the little things.


1.) Changes in Soil Type and Colour

I never thought this kind of thing would thrill me, but coming upon a layer of orange silt after digging for a half day through some wretched solid clay has become quite a treat.  Silt not only means an easier time spading and troweling, but it also indicates that water has run through that area at some point. Double win.


2.) Mosquitoes

I know. What? We like these? Well … no, I suppose we don’t like them, necessarily, but at least they are visible, audible, swattable, and don’t tend to swarm. These are all attributes that barely, if at all, apply to midges. Midges are the horrible, swarming creatures that infiltrate our trenches whenever we think it’s going to be a good day. The weather and temperature seem tolerable, even pleasant, when the horrible truth dawns on you: there’s no breeze; there’s nothing to deter the winged demons from flying in and around your ears and nose and mouth and eyes and hair, biting you and leaving little itchy red spots all over your body. You can see them, yes, but regardless of how much you try to punch them and squash them, you will always miss. And even if you were to hit one what good would it do? Its comrades are always there, launching assault after malicious assault upon your body. So next time you see a mosquito and let out an exasperated sigh, take a moment and be thankful that you have a fighting chance, and think of those (namely us) who are not nearly so fortunate.


3.) Calluses

Because they’re not blisters.


You might not think that a thin layer of tape could make wheelbarrowing easier, but it most certainly does.


4.) Medical Tape

Because the calluses still hurt if they’re not taped up.


5.) Our Own Trowels

Some people (okay, I’m definitely one of them), get really territorial about their trowels.  Yes, some of them are exactly the same product, and no, it probably wouldn’t make a difference if we were to mix them up, but there’s a connection, if you will, that seems to exist, when you work with the same tool five days a week. You’ve been through a lot together: the finds, the disappointments, the seemingly endless pits of mud, and it would just feel unfair to simply pick up another one and forget the past … it would be like cheating on your trowel.


6.) A Properly-Made Wheelbarrow

The wheel needs to be straight, so you don’t fall off the plank on the way to the spoil pile, the edges need to be properly rounded over, so your leg doesn’t fall victim to the wrath of a rogue twist of metal that resembles a Medieval torture device, and woe betide you if there aren’t proper handles on the barrow’s handles, because those calluses I mentioned earlier will make sure you know it if there aren’t.


7.) Tiger Balm

Ah, the magic cure to all aches and pains. This splendid ointment has provided relief to all sorts of ailments this trip, especially to our Sarah Taylor (affectionately known as “Staylo”).  She even managed to use it to clear out her sinuses, deducing that the cinnamon oil it contains would do the trick. Convinced of her logic, she proceeded to rub it under her eyes. Apart from the intense stinging she experienced, it did seem to work. I would like to publically commend her for her ingenuity, and for the original purchase of this cure-all concoction, without which so many would have been condemned to a rather painful digging experience.

Sarah manages to remain fabulous despite the failure of her “water-proof” rain gear, taking solace in the fact that her Wellies have withstood the hardships they have thus far undergone.


8.) Wellington Boots

Fondly referred to as “Wellies,” we truly would be much worse off without this marvellous product. They allow us to walk and traipse and dig and wallow in all kinds of nastily wet conditions and still have remarkably dry tootsies.  Being wet is, granted, something to which we have become accustomed, and sometimes there’s just nothing we can do about it. But that doesn’t mean that we won’t avoid it when we can, and Wellies are the perfect solution to our seemingly perma-drenched condition. On that same note, number 9:


9.) Not Rain

We’ve learned not to ask for sun. Sun is a treat, a privilege, if you will, that only graces us with its presence once a week, if we’re lucky (we seriously lucked out last week, actually, when we got three days of sun in a row!  In payment, we got rained out of a day and a half at the end of the week … can’t win them all). If it rains too hard we can’t dig, and we love the Romans, so we want to dig up their old stuff. Overcast skies have become the norm, and we’re satisfied with that. Even a light misting, though unfortunately dampening, has become tolerable. Rain just makes everything treacherous and slippery and un-work-in-able, so we appreciate pretty much anything else.


10.) A Clean Dirt Surface

Oxymoron? A bit. But really, when you’re trying to work in a trench, trying to distinguish between different contexts, the last thing you need is for random bits of excess mud to be floating around, confusing and obscuring your idea of what on earth is going on (because, let’s be honest, we seriously don’t need one more thing to start messing with our soil layers).  Therefore, we are always careful to clean the mud off our dirt. True story.

Are you ready for this?! Our breath taking day in the Lake District

One of the most amazing spots in all of the UK is the Lake District, just near us in southwest Cumbria. The spectacular scenery, the hills jutting to the sky, the waterfalls…and the Hardknott Pass! And, of course, the Romans have been there. Around the same time as Hadrian fortified the frontier with his wall, he also bolstered the defenses from the coast at Ravenglass through the Hardknott pass to Ambleside in what is now the Lake District. This is some of the most spectacular scenery anywhere, so we couldn’t resist getting out the Western flag just about everywhere!

We approached the day chronologically and started at a stone circle called Castlerigg. This picture doesn’t really capture this incredible spot, but here goes…a 4,500-year-old stone circle.

The crew at Castlerigg, a 4.500 year old stone circle in the Lakes

The real point of the day was to go to Hardknott Roman fort, the most dramatic fort in all of Britain, and one of the most well excavated outside of Hadrian’s Wall and Vindolanda. The fort guarded the road that came up from the west coast through the hills northward. I’m going to put a little suspense in here to give you the idea of approaching this amazing landscape. Here’s the road we took to get to the fort:

This is a road, not a river, I promise!

Here we are at the top of this part of this part of the pass. Absolutely amazing!

Check us out!

Here is the ultimate destination of the day–the Roman fort at Hardknott. We are approaching it here from above, coming back down the pass. On a really nice day you can see all the way out to the coast. It’s here that one realizes how totally remarkable the Romans were. They are not messing around up here!

The snaky walls on the crest of the hill is the Roman fort at Hardknott. Can you imagine building this here?!

Here’s the crew standing in the angle tower of the northeast corner of the fort. The walls were found almost this high back in the 1890s when they first did excavation. Alicia gave us an epic presentation on the fort while we were there.

Standing by the angle tower

This flat space next to the fort is the Parade Ground. In order to get a level ground here the troops brought in 5000 cubic meters of soil!

Alex standing on the artificially constructed flat space for the military parade ground near the fort.

The crew does an ad locutio pose (the emperor’s fancy way of showing he is addressing a crowd) on top of the tribunal above the parade ground. This is where the commander and other big wigs would address the soldiers.

Everyone does the ad locutio pose on the tribunal above the parade ground

Can you believe this day?! I think everyone considers this one of the highlights of the Field School so far (among many other things, naturally), despite the ‘exhilerating’ drive up the Hardknott pass. If you’re ever visiting northern England be sure to make this a stop. It is incredible! Ask any of us for must-see advice on the area.





From Hardknott Fort to the Irish Sea

Before we left Hardknott fort on Sunday, I took a shot of the rest of the group.  This photo was taken from one corner of the fort looking west down the pass toward to the Irish Sea, which we could see in the distance.  You can see the north wall, the north gate and the northwest corner (with angle tower) of the fort.  I hope you can get some idea of the scale of the surrounding mountains.  Of course, we also had our Western flag with us.

Looking west over Hardknott toward the Irish Sea