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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.