Today was an absolutely beautiful day to be participating in an excavation. It was also our second day of what can be considered “real” excavations after the initial cleaning. Many of us continued to excavate our smaller trenches within the main trench and since we are all new at this, there is still room for improvement. While we have taken Classical Studies courses before, nothing teaches better than field experience.
Some of the other Vindolanda volunteers must have been surprised this morning when they walked into the excavation shed to see that we turned it into a classroom. Our day started off with a lesson in stratigraphy by Professor Elizabeth Greene which is why we needed the classroom setup. Since there was a whiteboard in the room, it was the perfect place for Professor Greene to visually demonstrate stratigraphic layers. The easiest way to explain stratigraphy is that it is the levels of archaeological remains that build up in a site. This can be detected by changes in the soil texture and colour, and features or structures found in the layers.
The above picture shows the basics of stratigraphic layers. It starts off with the first settlement building on the natural ground. Once their settlement is abandoned and collapses, another group of people may build their settlement on top of the previously abandoned one. A natural disaster like a flood or an earthquake would leave a very clear indication in the stratigraphic record. Ditches and various other holes could be made in the ground which would cut into the previous layers and produce even more variety in the layers. This keeps going on and on until the area becomes abandoned altogether. In the case of Vindolanda, the area that we are excavating is currently part of a farmer’s field. The problem that comes from this is that the top layer would be in the plough zone of the farmer which could lead to the more recent structures being damaged.
The next teaching moment of the day came by way of the spoil pile that has been building up beside the trench. This is where the debris that we dig up gets deposited. Since we are digging up so much of it, the only way to get it out of the trench is using a wheelbarrow. We learned from our valiant Professors that there is correct way to dump a wheelbarrow on the spoil pile. Who knew? Once the wheelbarrow is full, one has to get a running start up the pile. The debris has to be deposited in a certain way or the pile will start to encroach on the trench. The running start allows you to get to the top so you can dump the dirt on the other side of the pile. You then have to turn around and pull the wheelbarrow behind you. Going down a pile backwards is not the greatest of ideas. Here’s an instructional video demonstrated by our professors, slowed down so you can follow each step and position of this subtle but important exercise.
PS: The picture stayed on the whiteboard all day!!!