Blood and Iron

After our respectively fun weekends at Friends of Vindolanda night/visiting the border abbeys and Edinburgh, it’s back to work on the site. Last Friday I found myself doing mostly wheelbarrows runs and therefore got a better picture of the Fort site as a whole. Since the ramparts were dealt quite a bit of rain the past couple days, they were a bit too slippery to work on. So each group was given different road surfaces. From walking around I noticed how even though many roads overlapped, they were built with varying degrees of skill and stone size. This however resulted in what is likely several tons of stone being moved out of the Fort excavation. I certainly perfected my wheelbarrow skills by the end of it!

The former rampart team (or “rampant team” as Norman calls us) was assigned to the 213 AD roadway, the via prinicipalis. This runs parallel along the more contemporary main road through the site.

Marta, Sue, Norman, Sarah, Lizzie, and Steve clearing the road.

As you can see in the picture above, the layer above was much more uneven than the layer below. There was also a drain that ran below Steve and Sarah that was pick axed out. This has been giving us a bit of a puzzle to deal with as it compressed the road below. As I mentioned in my post a few weeks ago, finding the road involves taking a step back and looking at the big picture.

Another part in understanding what is going on in the site came to me while I didn’t have a lot of range of sight. When I was troweling the road I noticed a lot of iron in the ground and bone coming out from it. Andy, director of excavations told me it was called iron pan. This was the reason why the road was held together so well. Iron pan is a process that was caused by the Romans pouring animal blood and bones on their roads. This causes iron to build up between the cracks and create a kind of metallic mortar.

Our almost full context bag of bones.

By the end of the day we had finished most of the road surface and it sure looked different. Though we didn’t find much pottery or other artifacts, we all learned an interesting lesson in Roman construction.

Our nicely cobbled, iron pan filled road.

Side note: Fun Fort Finds

This 4th century arrowhead was found by Bill just to the west of us on a later road. He was on a roll and this was one of his many recent small finds in his road section.

This coin was found by Murphy, an American high school student, on his own road toward the south fort wall.  The lettering and face is still quite visible on this silver denarius. But not only is it excellently preserved, it was his first small find! Can you make out what it says?

Exploring the Border Abbeys!

Saturday, while many of our peers were out and about in Edinburgh, Melanie, Sarah, Beth and Alex, our Canadian friend Andy, and myself took a drive up to the border abbeys of Scotland. Stopping for a photo opportunity at the border crossing we continued on to our first stop, Dryburgh.

At the border!
Dryburgh Abbey

The border abbeys are all in varying stages of disrepair and abandonment but Dryburgh, founded in 1150, was destroyed by fire 3 times, and ravaged by war four times, abandoned by 1584, and then later in the 18th century bought and turned into a “romantic ruin” by David Erskine, the 11th Earl of Buchan. He was later buried there along with famous novelist Sir Walter Scott. Despite everything the abbey has been through it still remains a quite complete and it’s a very beautiful location.

Dryburgh Abbey
Dryburgh Abbey
Dryburgh Abbey

Our next stop was Kelso abbey, founded in 1128, it was a home of the Tironesians monks, who also later inhabited Arbroath abbey to the north. The Tironesian order was founded based on poverty and penance, and as occurred at Arbroath, this was later shrugged off and the compound became quite wealthy. Unlike Arbroath and Dryburgh, there is not much left of Kelso, but what is left is quite striking. Being so close to the borders it became a focus of destruction during the wars of independence in the early 13th century, with further damage being caused by English incursions up until the mid 16th century. It was finally abandoned and left to ruin in 1545.

Kelso Abbey
Kelso Abbey
Kelso Abbey
Kelso Abbey
Arbroath Abbey
Arbroath Abbey
Arbroath Abbey

Our last stop before heading home to get ready for the friends of Vindolanda night was Jedburgh Abbey. Founded in 1138 by the Augustinians and meeting its end after the reformation and many attacks and raids throughout the 16th century, it was favored by royals and served the royal castle in Jedburgh. King Alexander III was married, and his death apparently foretold, there in 1285. The Augustinians were always close to royalty and their other homes include Holyrood Abbey beside Edinburgh castle.

Jedburgh Abbey
Jedburgh Abbey
Jedburgh Abbey
Jedburgh Abbey
Jedburgh Abbey
Jedburgh Abbey

We didn’t get to visit the fourth border abbey, Melrose Abbey, but I had visited with my family before coming to Haltwhistle. So to round off the border Abbey photos here are a few pictures I took then.

Melrose Abbey
Melrose Abbey
Melrose Abbey
Melrose Abbey
Melrose Abbey

It was a nice change to see a little history from another time period of the UK but starting Monday it’s back to Vindolanda and Roman Britain!

Staward Peel Tower (Live Blog)

Morgan, Sarah, Andy, Anthea and I took the last hike of the field school season today (unless it rains this week). We went up Allen Banks to see Staward Peele, a 13th century pele tower (note the difference in spelling). We suspect there was a Roman signal station and maybe a temple here as well. The view is fantastic. You can even see Housesteads Roman Fort and Sycamore gap in the background of this photo.


Hello From Edinburgh!

Good afternoon everyone!
This weekend, 5 of us decided to take a trip up to Edinburgh and visit the beautiful Scottish City. Last night, we walked around the Royal Mile. As always, we kept the field school in mind and made sure to include some Roman history.


Close enough!
This morning, the weather is fantastic, and we’ve been taking in the sights and sounds all around us.


We’ve just sat down for a nice Middle Eastern lunch which looks absolutely delectable!


Look forward to a longer post about our trip when we get back. Until then!

Sorting Pottery 101

Hello Everybody!

This week Morgan and I began a project in which we sort the bulk finds found in the North Field a few years ago. The last time I posted here, I showed you the process by which artifacts found on site reach their final destinations. If you remember (if not read it here: Post Excavation: A First Person View), after being washed, the pottery is then sorted, put in bags, and labelled. As you can imagine, the hardest part of this process is distinguishing the types of pottery from one another. Let me show you the tips and tricks that we use to identify different types of pottery.

We sort our finds into 5 categories:

  1. CBM (Construction Building Material)
  2. Iron
  3. Slag (metal castoffs from the smelting process)
  4. Glass
  5. Pottery

For the most part, it is easy to differentiate glass, iron, slag, and CBM. Iron tends to come in the form of nails and is often long, rusted, heavy, and quite obviously metallic. Slag tends to be more amorphous and is less defined in its shape, though highly rusted. CBM is composed of tile and brick. CMB often looks like rocks but is differentiated by the bright orange-red colour as well as patterns, and flatter man-made edges. Glass is the easiest to identify because it looks almost exactly like modern glass. I’m serious! See the pictures below to see what I mean:

IMAG0377 wpid-wp-1435266615282.jpeg

Here you can see blue glass on the left and iron nails in a bag on the right.

When it comes to sorting pottery, we have to sort it into 6 types of pottery:

  1. Amphora
    • roman-amphora-ar2213Amphorae were large containers used in shipment and often stored olive oil, wine, and other commodities that were popular throughout the roman empire. As a result, we find several pieces of amphora all over the site. Because these amphorae had to survive travel, they were made quite thickly to protect their contents. In addition, because they were mainly storage vessels, they are very simple in their appearance. Amphorae can be identified by their distinctive thickness and texture, their beige colour, and their curvature which indicates the large nature of the pottery.
  2. Black Burnished Ware
    • wpid-wp-1435266648089.jpegfig12_bb1Black Burnished Ware is a distinctive type of Romano-British ceramic. It is identified from its striking black colour and its burnished lattice decoration; hence the name black burnished ware. In piles of pottery that have spent about 1800 years in the ground, it can sometimes be hard to see its distinct black colour. The pottery also comes in sherds which means that some pieces can not have the lattice decoration. The way we test for black burnished is to dab it with a bit of water. Regular pottery is quite porous and quickly absorbs the water, drying quickly. In addition, the colour when wet is still grey. On the other hand, black burnished will take longer to dry and will appear jet black when wet.
  3. Mortaria
    • These kitchen wares were important because the inside surface was covered with coarse sand and grit. This allowed the Romans to pound and mix foods effectively. When we get pottery, we look for the unmistakable grit on the surface, as well as the characteristic shape of the rim shown below.IMAG0436 wpid-wp-1435266702455.jpeg
  4. Samian Ware
    • 3292805686_46a4ce6eff_zIn my personal opinion, Samian Ware is some of the nicest pottery at the site. This type of pottery is also called Terra Sigillata and is unique in the fact that it is made with a glossy, reddish, slip that gives it a glossy texture, even hundreds of years later when it is found. Samian Ware comes from South Central Gaul (modern day France) and was quite popular in the Roman Empire. In fact, a lot of the pottery was made from moulds and mass produced for export. In the Vindolanda Museum, there is a complete set of Samian ware that is unused because the pottery broke during shipment from France to Vindolanda. We can identify Samian ware from its distinct colour and glossy texture.wpid-wp-1435266692880.jpeg

      You can see the difference between regular pottery (left) and Samian (right)

  5. Fine Ware
    • Fine ware is more carefully crafted and is often painted, thinner, and more delicate. We look for flecks of paint or intricate designs on the pottery to see whether it is fine ware or not.wpid-wp-1435266627223.jpegThis pottery is thin and has paint flecks (visible in the bottom right piece)
  6. Coarse Ware
    • This is basically the category for all the regular day to day utilitarian pottery that doesn’t fit into any of the other categories.

So now that you know how to differentiate between all the types, let’s put it to the test. Comment below and identify the following:


All three of these sherds fall into one category. Do you know which one it is?
IMAG0374 (1)
All of these are the same category. Can you identify it?