What do the three pictures above have in common?
Well, let’s see. They’re all pictures I took today, and they’re all pictures from Vindolanda. But there’s more to it than that. Let’s look at these three pictures in turn.
The first one is of V16 – 1B.
The second one is of V16 – 1B.
The third one is of… V16 – 1B.
So they’re all the same, really. That’s that.
Except it’s not, is it? That doesn’t explain anything, I hear you say. Why are they all V16 – 1B? What does “V16 – 1B” even mean?
Let me explain. V16 – 1B is one of the hundreds of context numbers we use to keep track of where we’ve been excavating on this site. Each one represents a small portion of the Vindolanda fort and the surrounding vicus (or town, in English). Whenever we bring up a bag of artifacts from the site, it’s marked with a context number indicating exactly where it came from.
Each part of the context number means something. “V” means “Vindolanda,” and “16” means “2016” – every section, or “context,” that we excavate at the Vindolanda site this year will have a context number starting with “V16.” The second part of the context number is “1B”. The letter on the end can be either “A” or “B.” “A” stands for the fort, and “B” stands for the vicus. So clearly the pictures above have been taken somewhere in the vicus.
But what does the “1” mean? This number represents a specific context in the Vindolanda vicus in the year of 2016. Any time anyone digs in a new context, whether it be the floor of a room, a road, or a ditch, a new number is used. “V16 – 1B,” then, stands for the first context that anyone excavated in the Vindolanda vicus in the year of 2016. And the first thing someone has to do when they want to excavate a previously unexcavated area is… remove the grass and topsoil!
Thus, all the pictures I’ve taken above are of topsoil in the vicus area which we’ve dug up this year. It may seem strange that we only use one number for all of it, but it actually makes a lot of sense. Topsoil is where people toss their garbage. It’s where cows like to trample and where farmers use their plows. This means that everything in the topsoil gets mixed around, and what we find is a jumble of modern garbage, Roman artifacts, and everything in between. Just today, my team has found Victorian pottery, modern steel, Roman nails, and a big plastic bag!
So even if we had twenty different numbers for the vicus topsoil we’ve uncovered this year, it wouldn’t make a difference – all of it is jumbled up anyways. Instead, we only have V16 – 1B.
In summary, a context number is a number we use to represent a certain area of the Vindolanda site. (Archaeologists on other sites use them too, but they may look somewhat different.) Usually, each one represents something very specific, like a road surface or a building’s wall. But the number 1 is a special case – it represents the jumbled up topsoil in the vicus or the fort which is full of mixed up artifacts from several time periods.
Now if you ever overhear an archaeologist talking about a “context” or a “context number”, you know exactly what they mean!