The How To of Archaeology

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.

Professor Greene’s rendition of stratigraphic 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.

I think this is supposed to be a Roman soldier

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!!!

Unmasking the Indiana Jones Illusion

Yesterday, as a fresh troop of Vindolanda archaeologists, we bounded into the first day of excavation with a level of energy and excitement to rival that of Indiana Jones. Eager to start this chapter of our adventure, we were all smiles as we used our trowels for the first time, scavenged through the dirt, and grinned at each other through the muck and rain. Each stone looked like a possible artifact, and no doubt everyone was fantasizing about uncovering the next major discovery on Roman Britain.

Today marks the end of our second day of excavation. Although still smiling and laughing, this blustery Tuesday revealed to us much more than simply another layer of our site – it uncovered the hard work behind the glamour of the field. As we are still new to the digging scene, today our bodies were sore, with stiff wrists and forearms protesting slightly as we took up our trowels once again. This in itself was an important lesson, a reminder of the sweat and grit required to uncover archaeological finds, and that history does not give up its secrets easily.

Aline executing a perfect wheelbarrow dump…
…Elizabeth not so much

However, this physical lesson fits well with Avery’s eloquent post on muscle memory. Having completed our pilgrimages along Hadrian’s Wall, we are now instilling within ourselves a very different type of muscular retention, as we teach our bodies how to effectively dig, trowel and explore. Part of the training is showing our eyes how to pick finds out from amongst the multitude of soil, pebbles and rocks. Although eager to be able to uncover a large inscribed stone, or a perfectly preserved collection of gold coins, with this second day of digging has come the understanding that the smaller finds are just as important. Cassandra and Holly uncovered a Roman bead, and Stephanie and Anna carefully matched together the pieces of a pottery base. Each time, as we crowded around the excited duos, our group was aware that we were slowly adding pieces to the Vindolanda perspective of Roman Britain.

Holly proudly holds her Roman bead
Anna holds together the two pieces of a pottery base

Perspective is important. It can be difficult to remember that even the smallest of finds fit within the larger narrative of the people we are trying to learn more about. It can also be hard to see how your digging efforts at a site have brought you closer to developing this understanding. However, whilst we may often be tired, sore, sweaty, or frustrated with an uncompromising rock, it is imperative that we occasionally take a step back to see the bigger picture. Not only can you better see how your trench fits in with the rest of the site, but you can also get a more accurate picture of your own progress. Although up close it may seem your troweling has uncovered very little, standing up you may realize you have revealed a stone formation you hadn’t noticed before, or see a structural pattern unfolding across the site. This big picture view will show how all these smaller puzzles are connected, and how each team member contributes a different piece. Together we are all helping uncover the story of Hadrian’s Wall, a noble task that everyone should be proud of.

Filthy Hands

Today was our first day in the trench at Vindolanda. Up until now, none of the days had consisted of the physical work that we all knew we’d signed up for. With the exception of the marvellous hikes, our experience had been more similar to a classroom environment, albeit in a much more immersive one, learning about the frontier of the Roman Empire at the museums along the wall, and seeing the sites for ourselves. This morning, however, we were introduced to a very different type of learning and investigation, something that none of us had done before.

We got our hands dirty. Caked in mud after a long day of digging, today our hands endured the cold, the wind, and the rain, in our task of this archaeological excavation.

We got a taste of what is to come in our next four weeks, and experienced hands-on learning in an entirely unfamiliar magnitude. Our university degrees are primarily earned in the classroom, a place where the research is in books, and, aside from the smudges of pencil as we frantically finish an exam, our hands stay clean. The beauty of the Vindolanda Field School is that it provides the opportunity for us students to leave the D.B Weldon Library, our comfort zone, to aid in archaeological research, and to interact with stratigraphic levels of history. This is such valuable learning.  On our first day of excavation, we were beaming, all of us so excited to be immersing ourselves in history, and for the first time in our education, to be really making our hands filthy.

A not-so-candid photo of the team learning to trowel


I Hear the Rains Down in Vindolanda

Today was the first “cold” day we have had since we’ve arrived at field school and it was also the first day of excavations. It rained for most of the day which was also a first since our arrival. The excavations today consisted of cleaning up the trench edges, and clearing away the loose soil which took up the majority of our time. Here and there were finds of Victorian pottery but we had yet to really get into anything Roman. This wasn’t exactly like the fabulous finds of the archaeologists I watched on TV as a kid. In no time, my bright pink raincoat became dull from the dirt and my pants were caked in mud. For hours, I was in the trench on me knees with one hand in the cold mud and the other scraping away the mud with my trowel.

Pieces of Victorian pottery I found


Nonetheless, I have never been more excited in my life. Despite cold fingers as I used my trusty trowel Trudy to scoop the loose dirt into my hand shovel, I was elated. All my life I’ve been waiting to literally get my hands dirty to get any kind of experience in archaeology. I was ecstatic to see the first steps of an archaeological dig as one day I hope to be doing this as my career. I know my enthusiasm will not wane as it can only grow from here as we uncover more artifacts. The happiness I feel while excavating fuels my motivation even more than before to become an archaeologist. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be fortunate enough to come back to the Vindolanda Field School as the professor in charge!

Photo of me in the trench today taken by Aline McQueen

Feeling out Footwear

When hiking through historical sites and along Hadrian’s wall, wearing appropriate footwear is essential. With this in mind, I picked the brains of my fellow field-schoolers along with our TA and our profs to see why they chose the shoes they wear.

Because the right shoe can make or break an experience, I’ve taken this opportunity to take a look at the hiking footwear chosen by current field schoolers.

As far as basic necessity in any good shoe for field school, I have developed the following list:

  • Sturdy and well built – you’ll want something that will hold up to all the kilometres you trek
  • Ankle support – always a good idea for uneven terrain
  • Waterproof – a MUST with all the rain seen in Northern England
  • Comfortable – if you’re spending all day in one pair of shoes, you’ll want them to feel good while you’re wearing them
  • A sole with a good tread – you’ll want them to hold up along the rainy/rocky/uneven terrain you’ll come across
  • A proper fit – none of these things are going to be very handy if your toes are jammed into a size too small or if your feet are sliding around in a pair of shoes that are too big

There are some things that are definitely not required, but can be achieved depending on what you’re looking for in your footwear. This includes

  • Impeccable style – such as Aline’s shoes
  • Colour co-ordination – such as my shoe/backpack coordination

For all those who might be considering a hiking boot purchase, I’m going to briefly break down a few of the boots brought by field schoolers and what they like about them.

Victoria Boerner’s BootsThese Columbia shoes meet all the basic necessities in a heavy-duty hiking boot with a classic and stylish workboot look. With the bright red laces these shoes have a pop of colour in addition to comfort, and durability.

Holly Gojmerac’s Runners For those (rare) sunny days with no worries about heavy rain, a lightweight runner such as this offers comfort and quality but is less heavy than a hiking boot.

Cassandra Phang-Lyn’s Runners

These Columbia runners are a favourite of Cassandra, and have held up to a previous trip through the terrain of Greece. For a light weight, durable, and waterproof option, these runners check all the boxes.

Prem Sai Ramani’s HikersAccording to Prem, these are his absolute favourite hiking shoes. They are stylish, strong, waterproof, and with the higher top they also offer extra ankle support.

Aline McQueen’s BootsThe boots with the highest top and also most stylish (in my opinion) among the group. With the height and quality, these boots offer fantastic ankle support, durability, and these are also waterproof. These ones here are by Palladium and were originally designed for the French Foreign Legion and use military-grade waterproof canvas.

My Hiking Boots

I searched high and low for these bad boys. Luckily Mountain Warehouse offers a great selection of youth shoes, for anyone who, like me, has teeny tiny feet. Not only are the colours nice, but the tops are high enough to offer good ankle support in addition to a durable design that utilizes waterproof material. If anyone else out there has small feet, do not be afraid to check out the youth section of an outdoor store to see what’s there. It’s better to get a little adventurous while shopping than to buy a pair that doesn’t fit right.

Of course there are many shoes out there and there are multiple options to fit various needs, but I wanted to give insight into what us field schoolers have brought with us. My hopes is that as this program continues, future field schoolers and other travellers and hikers can look to this blog to get an idea of what works for us here.

Keep in mind that this blog entry has focused on hiking footwear. Those who follow the blog will already know that when we are digging in trenches, there is a whole second set of footwear. There we are all outfitted with our wonderful wellies! These are waterproof, durable, provide good traction, and are fitted with steel toes to protect against accidents. If you haven’t heard about our Wellington’s, check out a previous blog post.

Bye for now,


A Thank You to our Wellington Fairy

We started our first day of excavation today in true English fashion: in the rain. 

We’ve started the students on some good old fashioned trench clean up, straightening the edges and gathering up the loose dirt. However, we’re all ready to face the mud thanks to our fantastic Wellingtons! Here’s the group wearing them now:

We are all very appreciative of our Wellington fairy 🙂