Three, two, one – draw!

As we all know, there is more to archaeology than just playing –  I mean digging – in the dirt. Information is constantly being recorded and analysed. Along with that papers and extensive research are done on subjects related to the areas and artefacts that have been dug. An aspect of archaeology that is thought of less in the days of digital is the hand drawn illustrations and interpretations of finds from the trenches.

This year the field school students were given a crash course in archaeological illustration from the brilliant Mark Hoyle who often works with the Vindolanda Trust. We spent the morning learning the basics of technical illustration and the key differences from an artist’s rendition of an object.


Starting with an average group of modern coffee mugs we learned how to use a set of tools and guides that help to accurately represent these objects. Unsurprising to anybody who has drawn a still life we also experienced how useful feeling an object’s surface can be.

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From here we progressed onto drawing actual pottery bits and pieces. The first challenge of most of these was to determine which way they were originally situated in order to draw them in the correct orientation. As with the other objects the pottery was ideally drawn from multiple different views and sometimes this included the ornamentation along rims or other places.

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Finally, we were allowed the privilege – or should I say challenge – of drawing a small find  object in the Vindolanda catalogue. These ranged in size and material and each came with its own set of obstacles. As Mark explained, these objects allow more artistic freedoms than standard pottery drawings. While they are technically correct, including a scale and precise measurements, they also give the artist the chance to showcase specific features of what they are illustrating. This may mean that every pip and scratch is emphasized or it could mean that the damage done to an artefact is reversed to show it as it could have been.

Although I am not a particularly skilled artist I certainly appreciated the opportunity to learn more about archaeological illustrations. I enjoyed the technical aspects much more than freehanded sketching and hope to be able to improve my skills so that I am able to produce accurate illustrations when working with collections in the future.

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[For some ambiance while reading this post, open and turn up your speakers. Or, if it’s raining where you are, just look out the window and appreciate the power of nature. Also, I’d like to thank Andrew Birley for his wonderful lecture today on religion at Vindolanda, which allowed me to write this post.]

It rained today. From the moment we awoke there were nothing but clouds above us, melded into a mass so pure and white that it was as if someone had gone and scrubbed out the entire sky.

It started about ten am. Then it fell upon us like mist, gentle but persistent, slowly soaking our trenches and our bodies until we were forced to pull out or risk damaging the archaeology with our muddy boots.

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One of the puddles I saw today. I wanted to take a picture of the trench I was actually working at, but it was so muddy and wet out there that I would have just smeared muck onto my phone.

We’ve been digging for almost four weeks, so it’s almost surprising this is the first day we’ve lost to rain. After all, England is famous for its rain. In fact, according to the (inaccurate) weather forecast I consulted before the trip, we were only supposed to get three dry days this entire month.

Obviously we’ve been very lucky, but we still couldn’t help but be disappointed when we had to come inside after only an hour of digging. Was it such a loss, though, when the rain brought us together to laugh about the muck on our clothes and warm up with hot tea?

But that’s thinking small. The rain’s chilly pitter-patter is what gives the Northern English countryside its beautiful verdant hills, the ones which support a countless number of farmers and livestock. And two thousand years ago, before the invention of modern plumbing, water in all of its life-giving forms would have been even more precious. In fact, there is evidence that the water at Vindolanda was sacred for the entirety of its centuries-long occupation, even as the various gods who watched over it faded away into obscurity.

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The Romano-Celtic temple. It was built with the permanence of stone when the Vindolanda fort was only timber. Only the foundations remain, but it was likely once a place to worship the water-goddess Ahvardua. Little is known about her, but next to her former temple there are springs, water tanks and aqueducts – did she protect them, perhaps? Did she keep them flowing?

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Jupiter Dolichenus. A century after Ahvardua’s days had come and gone, this eastern god of sky, storms and metalworking was worshipped within the walls of the now stone fort. The altar recovered from his temple pictures him carrying an axe and a lightning bolt — a symbol of the danger storms could bring. And yet, a drain ran through his temple and into a water tank nearby, filled by those same storms. Though it could be violent, rain would always be precious.

IMG_20160629_150312 (2).jpgRain remained vital even in Christian times. In this later period, a water tank originally used to supply the cavalry barracks was re-purposed, given a series of stone steps which would allow people to step into the pool. For drinking, it was now useless – but in this new form it would have served perfectly as a baptismal font, filled by the same rain which fell in Ahvardua’s aqueducts, which brought Jupiter Dolichenus’s thunderbolts, and which patters against the window as I type this today.

Thus the cycle continues. I may be cold and dirty, and my clothes may be soaked through, but as I look up at the grey skies which have watched over Vindolanda for thousands of years I can’t help but think — maybe a bit of rain isn’t so bad, after all.

A Look Through My Camera Lens

One thing that I absolutely love about England is that I can get so many amazing pictures that turn out so beautifully. I just thought I’d show you all some of my favourites.

The Little Waterfall in the Vindolanda Open Air Museum

From this cute little waterfall to the amazingly blue sky, I wish my camera could capture the same array of colour and texture that I see with my eyes.

The Sky After a Long Day of Excavation
A Double Rainbow Captured During an English Summer Rain

Even in cloudy weather, there are silver linings to be seen and captured if you have your camera handy. The night sky is no different, with many opportunities if you can stay up long enough for the sun to set.

The Lovely Moon a Few Days After the Summer Solstice

And sometimes you get a great picture by focusing on something you weren’t expecting.

A Branch Got in the Shot, But It’s One of My Favourites



How to Read Latin Inscriptions

This week we had a lecture from our professor Alex Meyer on Latin epigraphy (which means inscriptions, from the Greek word for “written upon”). As a graduate student I have the good fortune of having already taken a course on Latin epigraphy (as it happens from Alex himself), and so the lecture served as a good reminder.

The beauty of Latin inscriptions is that they’re very formulaic, especially in their use of abbreviations. While the formula varies from type to type (say, from burial epitaphs to building commemorations) each category is internally consistent. For an example, let’s look at a burial epitaph I saw in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. The letters are difficult to see in my picture, so I’ve included an illustration.

The tombstone itself. As you can see, being in the ground for 2000 years takes it toll.
Much more legible! If you can read Latin, that is.

The first two words, DIS M, are a variation of an extremely common phrase in burial inscriptions, the Roman equivalent of our RIP. It’s short for dis manibus, and means “to the immortal ghosts of the dead.” Next comes the deceased’s name, Nectovelius. What follows states that he was F[ILIUS] VINDICIS, or “son of Vindex.” Now comes the deceased’s age: 29 (AN[NORUM] IXXX). The next bit gives us a plausible reason for why he died as young as he did. STIP[ENDIORUM] VIIII states that Nectovelius had been receiving payment for military service for 9 years before his death, and had therefore served for 9 years. It is reasonable to assume that he died in combat, or from combat-related causes. NATIONIS BRIGANS tells us that Nectovelius came from the Brigantes, a large and important tribe in what is now northern England. The final phrase, MILITAVIT IN COH[ORTE] II THR[ACUM], tells us that Nectovelius served in a unit called the Second Cohort of Thracians (Thrace geographically corresponds to modern Bulgaria).

While this inscription doesn’t exactly reveal the entire life story of Nectovelius, it nevertheless imparts a great deal of information. From it we can learn, for instance, that a cohort named after and manned by Thracians contained a local British tribesman. However, the Roman military was a very practical institution, and it made much more sense to recruit locally instead of getting recruits from a place that was a 50 days’ march away. This is just one of countless ways epigraphy can help us understand the ancient world.

From Mud to Stud: How to Wash Your Pot

The only thing better than having a small find here at Vindolanda is washing “ordinary” (2000 year old) pottery, and claiming someone else’s. Keep in mind that we’re all a team, and that I mean this in the least vindictive way possible. It’s amazing to see what a little T.L.C. can bring out on many of the pieces that we don’t expect to be extraordinary after we send them to the shed.

Pot lid with the beginning of a maker’s stamp on the right corner.

The grand scheme of processing finds has a number of steps, and I’m here to share just a few of them with all of you. What you’ll need is:

  • Two washing basins
  • Water
  • A toothbrush
  • A pan scrubber
  • A toothpick
  • Some newspaper
  • A crate
  • Labels and a marker
  • Cookies, tea, music (optional)

Does this all sound a little makeshift to you? I promise it’s not. A little goes a long way with most of these finds. They didn’t survive for this long without a little pressure. Those that are damaged or disintegrate in the process are all usually well on their way to the same outcome before we pluck them out of the ground. This can be especially true with bones, though I promise we do our absolute best and work cautiously.

Step 1: Crate Training

Careful prep work for post excavation is imperative so that we don’t mix contexts or forget the particular locations of the finds. Take your crate and put a good layer of newspaper at the bottom to absorb the water after they’re washed. Take your labels and make sure to write one for the outside of the crate (visible on the shelving units later), and another tag for the inside. Both tags should include the context number, and the date of washing. This ensures that if one of them falls off, you have a backup plan in place.

Step 2: Scrub

No not the popular TLC song, though we love music while we work, but a good old-fashioned scrub with that toothbrush. Most of the artifacts will become surprisingly more distinguished and clean as soon as you dip them in the full water basin. For the more stubborn dirt a light brushing usually does the trick. The pan scrubber is used for larger pieces of pottery and bone, while the toothpick is used to take out dirt that is stuck in the smaller crevices of bone (and sometimes the rims of pots).

Step 3: Dip them in the second basin

I think this one explains itself. Better to rinse them off in cleaner water, than leave them coated with murky scrubbing water.

Step 4: Grouping 

After giving your newly cleaned artifacts a good look-over, place them on the prepared crate and give them time to dry. Here’s a fun and helpful tip from our very own Professor Greene: place the first artifacts on top of the labels inside the crate to prevent them from blowing away. It works. If you can, also place like items together (bones with bone and pottery with pottery) in order to have a better visual representation of how much of each material came out of a given context.

Standard setup

Step 5: Hang them out to dry

Okay so we don’t hang them, but we do dry them, and the refreshing English air takes over the work from this point on. We can’t do much with wet artifacts, but the rest of the processing takes place once this step is complete. Feel free to stack your crates with care if you run out of room. That’s all folks! I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and that all your finds looks good as new!

Artifacts being dried after washing

Friends’ Night: A Celebration in Honour of Vindolanda and its Patrons

Vindolanda has touched the hearts of countless people, and is a beloved place to so many. It’s fitting that once a year, halfway through the excavation season, these people get together to enjoy a night of good food, great friends, and site archaeology.


The Friends are the valued sponsors of Vindolanda, who, with their membership, enjoy free admission to the site, an annual report outlining the results of our research, and this exact yearly event. I personally encourage any interested individual to look into a membership here; not only do members reap these benefits, but they also ensure that research and excavation will continue at Vindolanda for generations to come.

Friends’ Night is held in honour of these wonderful and generous people, and I can personally vouch for the night’s extravagance. Friends enjoyed complimentary wine and cheese, served by Dr. Meyer himself, as they queued up for the most delicious hog roast in the entirety of Northumbria.


Dr. Greene, on the other hand, proudly displayed recent extraordinary finds, such as this ceramic face, this gaming board, and this weaving comb, in the museum.

Many of us were stunned to see the great Vindolanda fireball set ablaze for the first time. Guests were encouraged to write a letter and cast it into the fire, to reenact the events which led to the discovery of the bonfire site, where a number of the Vindolanda writing tablets were found after they were set aflame outside the house of the commander of the Ninth Cohort of Batavians.

The fires are lit

Excavation directors Andrew Birley and Marta Alberti gave guests tours of the vicus and fort trenches respectively, explaining the site history and the discoveries of the excavators in these regions. With these tours came a certain sense of pride; each of us could point out exactly the areas which we helped to uncover, and marvelled at the progress we had individually made in the grand scheme of things. One small trench dug by one single volunteer can make all the difference in the world.

Though we were subjected to rain halfway through our visit, we ended the night with a marvellous view. As the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, a rainbow arced over the fort, almost as a foreshadowing of good things to come.


An evening with Dr. Trudi Buck: Human Osteology and Forensic Anthropology

On Thursday night, we had the pleasure of listening to and learning from Dr. Trudi Buck on the subject of human bones in the archaeological record. Osteology is the study of the structure and function of the skeletal system. Forensic anthropology takes these bone features and uses them to determine who an unidentified skeleton is.

There are four main features to look for when attempting to determine the identity of a person

tumblr_mcxkszwqNe1qgssgqo1_5001. Stature: It is important to understand the physical appearance of an individual when identifying a person. We can do this by looking at various features of a skeleton.

2. Age at death: When looking at the skeleton of a youth, a great indicator of age is tooth formation and stage of tooth eruption. Think way back when you lost your baby teeth–the timing was predictable and expected.

Comparison of male and female pelvis, subpubic angle

3. Sex: One of the best ways to differentiate between male and female is by looking at the pelvis. When looking at the pelvis from the front you can see how the female has a U-shaped subpubic angle where the male is more V-shaped. Also, females have a wide greater sciatic notch in comparison to males.

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4. Ancestry: This is done by looking at certain features of the skull such as eye orbit shape, nasal opening shape and many more. It can be hard to define a skeleton to a single ancestry. Many textbooks outline these broadly as European, Asian and Sub-Saharan African descent, which is very narrow.


Using replicas of real human skeletons, we practiced these techniques by trying to identify their approximate age, sex and ancestry.


There have been a few cases of human bones being found at Vindolanda: the child skeleton found under the barrack floor, human skull in the Severan period fort ditch and long bones found in the North Field ditches.

Some laughs being shared over bones, Meghan, Shannon and Ben


 A bunch of us are now working very close to the skull from the Severan period fort ditch (found by Dr. Meyer in 2002!) which was missing its mandible. Maybe we will get lucky in our last week excavating and find the rest of him (yes, it is identified by bioarchaeology at as male), or maybe even a head of our own!