The importance of observation: archaeology and flowers

Observation is one of the skills archaeologists need to develop. In order to identify changes in the soil layers and potentially different periods, to distinguish between pottery and rocks, to pick out a writing tablet from an off-cut of wood, and to identify the shapes and structures beneath the soil that could indicate a Roman fort, one needs to pay close attention to detail and be observant of the environment one is working in. But observation comes in handy in areas outside of archaeology too, so for today’s blog post I though I would use my keen observation from archaeology and combine it with another passion – photographing flowers – to introduce you to the flowers around Vindolanda.

Foxglove flowers along the North Field wall.

The first flower I would like to showcase is one you may recognize from you garden: foxglove, or Digitalis purpurea. This beautiful plant is native to Europe. A fun fact about it is that it has a variety of medicinal properties: in small doses, the leaves can be a heart stimulant to treat heart failure, while in larger doses the same compound that can treat heart failure makes this plant poisonous. This plant was found along the side of the wall for marking the North Field where we started excavating in our first week, although you often see it growing along the sides of roads too.


Rhododendrons in the Vindolanda gardens.

The second flower is the rhododendron, which you might also see in your garden. The name rhododendron refers to a genus (which includes many species), and is primarily native to Asia, although there are some species native to Europe and North America. This flowering plant was found in the gardens at Vindolanda outside the museum, although you may also see rhododendrons along the sides of the roads since one particular species –  Rhododendron ponticum – is actually an invasive species in the United Kingdom.

A fun fact about rhododendrons is that they love acidic soil, unlike most other plants. (For science nerds like me, most plants do not like acidic soil because they need to extract ions- specifically cations like Mg2+, Ca2+, etc. that are nutrients needed for growth. These cations are attached through attractive forces to negatively charged soil particles- just like magnets where opposite charges attract. One of the ways plants can access these nutrients is to release H+ ions into the soil; the hydrogen ions are more attracted to the negative charge than the other ions and they displace those nutrient ions into the soil water, which the plant roots can then uptake them. H+ ions make the soil acidic; if the soil is already acidic, it is harder for plants to get their nutrients. I do not know why rhododendrons enjoy acidic soil – but if there is any rule to go by in biology, there are always exceptions to the norm).

Bluebell flowers.

The third flower is the bluebell, or Hyacinthoides non-scripta, which we observed growing in the fields along Hadrian’s Wall. This flower is native to Europe and the UK. A fun fact is that this plant is actually protected in the UK, and is typically blue, although it may also be white and rarely is found in pink.  This is one of my favourite flowers.



Some of the lovely bluebell flowers we saw during our second hike.
Cow’s parsley above some buttercups and dandelions.

The fourth flower is the cow’s parsley, or Anthriscus sylvestris. We have observed this growing among the fields surrounding Hadrian’s wall, as well as in the shade along the road. This plant is native to Europe. It has several look alike plants in regards to its leaves and flowers, including fool’s parsley, hemlock, and giant hogsweed. Unlike the latter two (hemlock is poisonious, and giant hogsweed is a dangerous invasive species), this plant is safe.



Blue forget-me-nots.

The fifth flower is the wood forget-me-not, or the Myosotis sylvatica. This is a plant I’ve seen back home in Ontario, Canada, although it is also native to Europe. A fun-fact about this species is that it is found throughout England, Wales, and the Isle of Mann. While you might not be able to tell because this picture is a close-up, the flowers on this plant are tiny!


The final flower I’m going to briefly discuss is the buttercup, a member of the genus Ranunculus. Like rhododendrons, Ranunculus is a genus that includes many species, and I believe the one featured here is likely a creeping buttercup, Ranunculus repens. A fun fact about buttercups is that they are poisonous to livestock, although they apparently have a bitter taste which discourages animals from eating them in the first place.

Buttercups in the grass at Vindolanda.

We have seen many other flowers throughout out trip, from garden roses to wildflowers to weeds (which are just plants in locations we do not like, in my opinion).  I’ve posted some more pictures below – I hope you enjoy them, and can apply the lessons of observation from archaeology to the subjects that interest you.

Left: a field poppy from Wallsend, middle: a rose from the Princess St. Gardens in Edinburgh, right: a rhododendron (one of the non-invasive species) at Vindolanda.

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