Black and Blue

Stone is a defining characteristic of the Romans. It is the remains tourists see when visiting a Roman fort, and I myself alluded to its longevity in a previous post. Even at Vindolanda, on the surface level wood has almost no presence. Evidence of the timber forts of periods I to IV lie well beneath our feet or safely stored in a lab, tucked firmly away in their corners of the past.

Not, however, in the vicus. My home for the past two weeks, excavations here have plunged me not only into over a foot of water, but into a different world. An anaerobic environment, the vicus enables archaeologists to uncover stories carved into wood, written on thin tablets, stored in elegant boxes. The vicus also operates to its own colour scheme – bronze here shines more brilliantly, bark stores a brilliant blue hue, bones have been dyed an unforgiving black.

The murky darkness of the vicus with its uncovered wooden posts.

Vindolanda is a waterlogged environment, with a constant stream of it flowing through the site. This means that organic matter like wood can be preserved longer than normal, as they do not dry out or degrade as quickly. This was helped unwittingly by the Romans, who would slapped a thick layer of clay on the ground when beginning construction on the first stone fort at Vindolanda. Acting as a sealant, this reduced the amount of air exposure within the soil and enabled the treasures within places like the vicus to last the hundreds of years of dormant sleep until discovery.

This Vindolanda Blog is littered with descriptions of these treasures. Ink and stylus writings tablets, the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain, have endured in these oxygen starved deposits. Their unique insights on the daily lives of Vindolanda’s inhabitants help archaeologists shape the narrative of Hadrian’s Wall in the Roman voice, an incredibly rare gift. Wooden posts, carefully whittled and carved by hand, help us see how components of Roman Britain actually fit together. Gnarled and twisted rope fragments, intricately braided together, reveal the important details which enable us to better build the story of life on the Northern Frontier.

What stands out most in the vicus, however, is its colours. Two meters beneath the surface, I spend my days in a world washed in shades of black and blue. Currently an active area of study, the dramatic blue colour scheme is called vivianite, the result of a complex chemical reaction. Along with water, Vindolanda has a lot of natural iron running throughout the site. Vivianite is a compound containing iron (II) and usually phosphate and water. It oxidizes when artefacts are exposed to the air, becoming an iron (III) compound and turning the shade of brilliant blue which we see across the trench. Although not a chemist, I am very aware that in the vicus I am working amidst two frontiers of discovery, where both archaeology and science are intertwined.

These pieces of wood are the epitome of the vicus, showing the intense contrast of its black and blue colours (Photo: Aline McQueen)

Excavations in the vicus have brought us down to the depths of Period II. In terms of going back in time, we are almost at the start of Vindolanda’s story. That, however, is what is the most exciting. We are digging to layers that haven’t seen daylight in thousands of years, uncovering artefacts which often raise more questions than answers. By better understanding this fort’s beginnings we can embark on new paths of discovery and insight, and reveal more about the foundations of Vindolanda – knowledge for which we must thank wood more than stone.

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