Staward Bound

Hello everyone! As many of you may have gleaned from the various blog posts detailing our day trips, a large part of our Field School curriculum involves travelling to different Roman sites around the countryside. None of these trips would be feasible without the care and planning of Dr. Greene, Dr. Meyer and their associates throughout the UK, but there’s something to be said as well about the spontaneous adventures we’ve had here in Northumberland! Perhaps the most memorable impromptu trip I’ve taken so far was a hike to Staward Peel, a prominent site in both Roman and medieval times.

On a beautiful evening not long ago, Dr. Meyer, Rob, Amanda and I began our hike at the mouth of Staward Wood – a vast forest protected by the National Trust. Snaking through the forest is a crystal clear ravine (which made for some incredibly scenic pictures), but unfortunately for us recent floods had destroyed the bridge we were supposed to take in the direction of the Peel. Silver lining: we got to explore a new route!

Bridge out; time to explore!
Bridge out; time to explore!

It was amazing how fast the landscape changed as we marched along; in the hour that we hiked to reach the Peel we walked along tight trails bordering the ravine, through open fields (next to a large campground for those interested!) and dense copse alike. All things considered, it was a beautiful, rather leisurely trek compared to previous hikes…then came the drastically more vertical stretch. The Peel itself is located at the summit of a large hill so the final leg of our adventure was taxing, but the view from the top – and the history that awaited us – was very much worth it.DSCF0280

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And so began the upward journey.
And so began the upward journey.

Dr. Meyer speculates that there may have been a Roman signal tower on the hilltop. Given the site’s vantage point over the surrounding countryside and the prevalence of Roman building stones recycled in the later 14th century peel tower – essentially a watchtower in a larger border castle complex – this seems likely. What we know for sure (based on an inscribed stone that was once incorporated into the peel tower) is that a Roman altar was dedicated on site in the early 3rd c. AD. The altar was dedicated to Jupiter Dolichenus by a man named Sulpicius Pudens – Prefect of the 4th Cohort of Gauls stationed at Vindolanda. The hike seemed difficult enough with just the coat on my back; I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been to carry enormous stone blocks up the hill and I found it an overwhelming testament to the reach of the Roman military machine. All in all it was a breathtaking experience topped off with a unique history lesson that I won’t soon forget!

The standing remnants of the medieval Staward Peel tower.  Note the very typical Roman building block towards the top of the tower.
The standing remnants of the medieval Staward Peel tower with some very typical Roman building blocks incorporated at the top.
View of the valley below and the neighbouring hills.  This would have been a great spot for a Roman signal tower!
View of the valley below and the neighbouring hills. This would have been a great spot for a Roman signal tower! Just don’t look down…

Trench B: The Pre-Hadrianic Vicus

Trench B near end of excavations
Trench B near the end of excavations

The Vindolanda Field School has been so fortunate in 2013. Not only have we enjoyed the benefits of dry weather and a fruitful trench position in the North Field, we were also given the chance to assist the excavation of the civilian settlement, or vicus, outside of the pre-Hadrianic (105-120 AD) timber fort of the First Cohort of Tungrians. The opportunity for beginner archaeologists to learn how to excavate wattle and daub structures and their anaerobically preserved contents is truly unparalleled by sites other than Vindolanda.

The clay layers over the structures. Notice the stratigraphy curve downwards in the center where the two buildings meet.
The clay layers over the structures. Notice the stratigraphy curve downwards in the center where the two buildings meet.

 

The structures that we have unearthed were buried in anaerobic conditions by the upcast clay from the defensive ditch of a later Roman fort. After removing the thick cap of clay, both a round and a rectilinear wattle and daub structure were revealed side by side. The proximity of these two different building styles – the circular, a native British Iron Age building type, and the square, a Roman building type – is significant.

 

Stephanie Miller raises a large marching boot just after excavating it.
Stephanie Miller raises a large marching boot just after excavating it.

They suggest that there was an incorporation of Native Britons into Roman military communities at this early stage of the frontier. The finds from within these structures contradict assumptions that Native Britons did not enjoy the same material and cultural advantages brought by the foreign Romans. Literacy is a key element of this debate. Indications of literacy, including stylus tablets and pens, were found within both structures, and an ink writing tablet with three lines of cursive Latin text was found just outside of the roundhouse.

A 3D modeling of the huts shown from a high vantage point.
A 3D modeling of the houses shown from a high vantage point
Western student Dan Turner discusses the town houses with visitors
Western student Dan Turner discusses the town houses with visitors

The structures themselves are given great attention, not only by excavators who carefully remove the dirt from their delicate timbers and mortar, but from visitors to Vindolanda who can view the huts from up close. They ask excavators many questions typically with genuine surprise to discover what they are viewing. It is stunning to be confronted with such material as nineteen hundred year old wood, bone, and leather. Indeed some of the most impressive finds for a beginner excavator are not the kind which is common in museums or books.

The elaborately sealed pit of nuts
The elaborately sealed pit of nuts with wooden plank floor behind

They are rare artifacts which give glimpses into the lives and work of common people in Roman Britain’s military community. These could be as small and simple as a wooden beer barrel bung, or as perplexing as an elaborate stone capped pit containing no more than a few hazelnuts, or as inspiring as a well crafted segment of a door threshold. The threshold pictured here includes the notch for the doorway post in the back right with a nail still sticking out, the notch where the door’s axel turned, and also a peg protruding on the left where this threshold may have attached with a mate to make a double wide doorway.

The base of a Roman doorframe. For scale, the toe of my boot is at the bottom right.
The base of a Roman doorframe. For scale, the toe of my boot is at the bottom right.

Where it was found came as a complete surprise because it had been reused as part of an interior wall in the rectilinear structure. The feeling of unearthing an artifact where you can see the skill of its craftsman, and the ware from its users, and the natural beauty of its material is priceless and hard to relate.

The unearthed timbers must be kept moist and are regularly tended to, although the need is peculiar in Northumberland’s climate. It is the wet conditions which have preserved them and other organic artifacts for so long. When the season is over and all finds have been carefully recorded, the structures are not maintained on display, but are responsibly buried once more in the same conditions which have preserved them.

A fine stretch of wattle and daub wall
A fine stretch of wattle and daub wall

The greatest reward from excavating in this very special context does not occur in the field itself, but comes with the knowledge that we have provided valuable material for illuminating this period in the history of Roman Britain. Furthermore, our archaeological abilities have been enhanced immensely with experience in this rare and sensitive material.

The final push: Stephanie, Sarah and Mary dig, while Nikki, Dan and Rohana examine the material in wheel barrows.
The final push: Stephanie, Sarah and Mary dig, while Nikki, Dan and Rohana examine the material in wheel barrows.

Saturday, part one (Alumni trip)

Wall town Crags walk in the sun
Wall town Crags walk in the sun

We began our day in full  sunshine, so we decided to do the walking portion of the morning, before moving inside to the Roman Army Museum. I am still amazed at the amount of knowledge that Beth and Alex have about the area, the wall, Roman life, and untold other things. I know I should not be astounded– but it is a joy to see two people who love what they research and love to share it with others. From the minute construction details, to the quotidian life of the vicus and the soldiers, to the specifics of height, depth and weight of the stones, to the translations of the inscriptions: Alex and Beth  were incredibly generous with their time. Robert, one of our guests, correctly answered all of Beth’s spontaneous questions (As all around!)

Our walk
Our walk
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How many professors does it take to set up a tripod and set a delayed photograph? (Beth tries to help Dean Milde…)
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Beth shows off features of the wall

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One of the many sheep. Alex and Michael called this one “lunch.”

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Our next stop was the Roman Army Museum, where the highlight was a presentation by Chef John Crouch. We learned about Roman food and the local produce.  We sampled a chicken and barley dish, soup, and poached fruit.

Chef John Crouch
Chef John Crouch

Our morning ended with a pub lunch; the afternoon, once we were all home, began with a nap, in most cases. Tonight, it is Friends night at Vindolanda!

Friday: Western Weekend at Vindolanda (Alumni trip)

The first day of our alumni trip to Vindolanda began, as everyone anticipated, with rain. It did not dampen spirits, however! Beth and I travelled to Newcastle with our driver, Bob. Bob is from Gateshead, on the edge of Newcastle, and this trip was his first time seeing the wall up close. And up close it was!

With Beth as tour guide, we first stopped at a farm shop, then took the back road to the B&B, following the line of the wall and learning about the contours of the landscape. It was a good introduction to the area, and it helped a great deal when we got on site to have a better feel for the natural features of the landscape. By mid-afternoon, we were on site, in the rain.

Beth shows off the North field site
Beth shows off the North field site

It was a bit damp.

Luckily, the excavation shed is equipped with tea. The students had been rained off, so they were active with indoor activities, specifically finds processing (pot and bone washing).

Rohan's and Nikki washing finds.
Rohana and Nikki washing finds.
Beth shows off a shoe found earlier this week.
Beth shows off a shoe found earlier this week.

After an in-depth overview of Trench B, complete with explanations about anaerobic preservation, we returned to the people mover for a brief break back in the B&B. Our evening consists of a private guided tour of the incredible museum at Vindolanda, graciously provided by Patricia Birley, Director of the Vindolanda Trust, and Dr Andrew Birley, Director of Excavations.

Our group in front of the lapidarium.
Our group in front of the lapidarium.

Saturday looks to be sunny! Today we are visiting the Roman Army Museum, hiking some of the wall, and attending Friends night at Vindolanda.

James: Distinguished English Gentleman

Name: James Page

Age: 19
From: Manchester
Occupation: 2nd year student at the University of Edinburgh studying Ancient History
Years at Vindolanda: Two
Other Digs: Trellech, UK
Likes: Marmite, drinking tea, reading leather bound books, cooking
Favourite Memories: “Spending a week digging in the Pit of Doom. I was told no one could move this massive stone out of it. It was a pretty nasty pit.”
Such a cool guy. I will miss his enthusiastic tellings of grisly old medieval folktales.
Such a cool guy. I will miss his enthusiastic tellings of grisly old medieval folktales. Awesome sound effects and all.
We pretty much annexed James into Field School permanently.
We pretty much annexed James into Field School permanently. Even though his love for Marmite is a little baffling.

Honorary (UWO) Mustang Sally

Name: Sally Johnson

Age: 37
From: Shrewsbury
Occupation: General Practitioner
Years at Vindolanda: 4 times in 5 years
Other Digs: Ditherington Flax Mill and Polesworth Abbey
Likes: Family, history, science fiction, church, walking and hiking
Favourite Memories: “Relaxing with friends in the shade after a long morning of excavation.”
 
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Sally and I at the latest Vindolanda buffet dinner.  She was incredibly nice and a wonderful trench partner for a week in the North Field and another in Andrew Birley’s Trench B; here’s hoping we meet again in the future!

Birds of a Feather

Hey everyone, it’s Robin. I’m here to introduce my friend, Robyn. She’s been with us for all four of our weeks at Vindolanda, and is as much of our surrogate family as any Western student.

Name: Robyn Crook

Age: 28

From: Aylesford, Nova Scotia

Occupation: PhD Student at the University of Calgary

Years at Vindolanda: 2013

Other Digs: Cultural Resource Management, Nova Scotia
Grand Pre, Nova Scotia
San Felice Field School Gravina, Pulgia

Likes: Wattle and daub huts, reading, rock, metal, and alternative music, comic books.

Favourite memory of Vindolanda: “I gotta say trench banter with Andy Birley. It gets a little grim at times, and fun. You learn lots about Andy.”

Robin and Robyn
A night with friends. And food!