What do we leave behind?: A Final Farewell

5 weeks

4 shoes

3(00) biscuits

2 presentations

and 1 well-loved trowel later

our time here at Vindolanda has come to a close.

The end of this trip holds a great deal of meaning for me. Not only is today the last day of excavation for us and the last day of excavation for the vicus trench but it also marks the end of my last undergraduate class. When I hand in my excavation journal, I will be handing in my final assignment of undergrad. Repacking a suitcase for the journey home always carries with it a sense of finality. Today, I find an added edge to this finality knowing that the closing of my suitcase brings with it the close of this chapter of my life. A chapter that includes not only the four years I studied at Western but also the preparatory high school years that all seemed to lead up to university and this moment.

But, there was so much to be done along the way and I am thankful for all of the experiences that got me to this point. I am thankful to Beth and Alex who invited me to join this class and my fellow field schoolers for creating such a wonderful experience. Thank you to the volunteers as well as Andy and Penny whose endless patience helped me to slowly learn to tell the difference between a piece of bark and a writing tablet.

Since arriving I have been preoccupied with thoughts of what people leave behind. We have spent the last five weeks learning about and unearthing the lasting legacy of the Romans. Everyone leaves something behind, some sort of lasting effect on a part of the world and the people who occupy it. It is my hope that I have left a positive mark on this site and the people I worked with because I can say, with absolute certainty, that they have done so for me. Here’s to all the hard work, the friendships built, and the artifacts found. May they be a small but wonderful part of the legacy at Vindolanda.

Five happy vicus excavators

Vicus Update!

Much has happened since Anna’s video tour of the trench in the vicus (which you can watch here). Anna’s tour explained some of the things we were working on during our first week in the vicus, however, that was almost three weeks ago! Since then, everyone in our crew has moved to north side of the trench.

We spent last week uncovering the remains of what is believed to be cavalry barracks from Period III/IV. A sprinkling of vertical wooden posts marks the outlines of rooms and wattle and daub fences. Each has its own small white square nailed into the top to highlight its location. We worked methodically, digging down to a new layer. We began at the northernmost wall and headed south until we reached the wooden drainpipe that cuts through the trench. Then, nearing the end of the week, we turned around and began to dig from the pipe, back towards the northern wall.

Alex explaining the wonders of the vicus at the end of our first week in this trench. He is standing by the water pipe in the south end. Our excavation efforts for weeks 2 and 3 in the vicus focus on this area between Alex and where the photographer stands. Please note the large puddles of water. Photograph by Avery Lafortune

As we dug past the Period III/IV flooring bracken, it became clear that our site is host to several clay pits. These pits likely date towards the end of Period I or early Period II. For the past few days we have dug and troweled around the clay to discern the shape and size of these pits. Believe it or not, not all earth was created the same and we can tell the difference between what is part of the pit and what is simply top soil based on colour and consistency.

Controlling the water in the vicus is an ongoing battle (which Liz tells us about). Our days usually start with a (well-practiced) draining of the small lake that forms overnight. The water is either a result of rainfall or leakage from the Roman water pipe at the south end (incredibly, this pipe still works!). As part of our attempt at water management, a sump has been dug in the north end. Over the weeks, we have had to enlarge it to better suit the needs of the excavators.

Panorama of the Vicus trench (click to enlarge)

With all this digging, we have found many wonderful things. Common finds include jaw bones, ribs, and teeth from animals (mostly cows), pieces of scrap leather (often parts of tents), oyster shells, and bits of pottery. We usually find most, if not all, of those things every day. However, we have also found some different, unusual, and exciting objects. Particularly, large tent panels and leather shoes have been found (for more information on shoes see my post). We also found two copper-alloy sewing needles and thin, riveted pieces of copper-alloy which were likely used in tent-making. Aline found a bookmark that seems to be made from a writing tablet and she along with Victoria and Andy have all found parts of tablets. These are very exciting finds because they may have ink writing on them that will tell us more about life at Vindolanda. Large pieces of bright orange samian pottery have also been found, many of which have decorative designs. There are even a few pieces that were found individually yet are clearly part of the same vessel! We did not unearth many metal objects, however, today, Anna dug up a thin piece of metal that is believed to be a hairpin. These are just some of the notable finds we have discovered in the vicus over the past two weeks. The finds will be processed by the post-excavation team or down at the museum, preserved, and studied to add to our growing understanding of the activity in the vicus.

A basket of artifacts from the vicus post-cleaning. There are several bones (including a jaw bone with teeth) and a large piece of a mortarium. Photograph by Avery Lafortune
A basket of freshly washed pottery from the vicus. Note that bright orange samian ware! Photograph by Avery Lafortune

We will continue to drop the trench until the end of the week. There is an extra sense of hustle this week in particular because these are the last few days of excavation for this area. Our goal is to dig straight to the bottom and find as much as we can until Friday. Once completed this will be the end of the vicus trench, not only for us field school students but also for the site. Afterwards and after everything has been recorded, the trench will be back-filled and our work will be covered. Excavators will move to new sites. Excavation is a timed search. We dig and we retrieve and when the trench is deep enough and the clock runs out we refill and move on.

Working in the vicus has been a wonderful experience. There is so much to learn and discover and we will continue to do so right up until the last minute of excavation time on our last day.

Buckets lined up and ready for a big day of digging! Photograph by Avery Lafortune

The Ancient Romans: They’re Just Like Us!

In today’s bustling world of technology and sanitation, the lifestyle of the Ancient Romans might seem very distant from our own. However, I can promise you that we are closer to the Ancient Romans than you might think! Turns out you don’t have to be in Rome to do as the Romans do.

They hate cleaning

You know the story, you host a few too many dinner parties in your barracks or maybe you have a messy roommate. Either way, people love quick fixes when it comes to cleaning. While you or I might hide things under a bed, the Romans just built themselves a new floor on top of their trash. Genuis!

They love a good seafood dinner

Nothing beats fresh oysters! Judging by the sheer quantity of oyster shells we find in the Vicus on a daily basis, the Romans had some great oyster buffets. They are the perfect meal for anyone who has had a hard day at the office or a tiresome shift defending the frontier.

This is one of the many oyster shells we have found in the Vicus over the past three weeks. Photo by Victoria Boerner

They drop their change

Find a sestertius, pick it up, and all day long you’ll have good luck…or just leave it for someone else to find. We drop our nickles and they dropped their denarii. However, this is actually very useful! On archaeological sites like Vindolanda, we can pinpoint areas of trade and commerce based on the concentration of coins found in a certain place. Next time your pockets feel a little too weighed down with change, maybe think about placing some coins in convenient spots to help out future excavators.

They label their possessions

Living in close quarters with other people means you need to take extra care to label your stuff. When your roommate borrows your phone charger saying “I don’t see you name on it” you must be able to smugly point to your penned initials on the underside. Tygomas knew this well and scratched his name into his amphora to prevent any ownership disputes. Smart thinking!


This is the handle of an amphora. If you look closely, you can see “Tygomas,” the owner’s name, carved into it! Photo by Elizabeth Clark

They break their flip flops

We’ve all been there, enjoying a nice summer day when *POP* the strap of your flip flop detaches from the sole. You can try to pop it back in but you know deep down it is just a matter of time before it comes loose again. No one has the patience for that kind of irritation, not even the Ancient Romans. Sulpicia Lepidina tossed out her sandals when the strap broke for us to find 1900 years later.

They appreciate a good tent

I am sure the Ancient Romans would agree when I say there is nothing worse than a leaky tent. Today’s outdoors enthusiast might go for a nice nylon or polyester-based tent; however, the Romans enjoyed leather tents using a sewing technique that created water-tight seams. We love finding their tent panels to remind us of our shared love of camping.

Aline found a nice piece of leather! Oftentimes the pieces we find were parts of tents or cut-offs from other projects. Photo by Avery Lafortune

These are just a few of the parallels between our society and that of Roman Britain. Although we are separated by almost 2000 years, it appears old habits die hard. There are many other similarities including footprints made in wet cement, children’s writing exercises, and letters home asking for care packages, to remind us that we are not so different from the people of the past.

Finding My Footing: the importance of shoes

The wall of shoes at the Vindolanda Museum

I have loved shoes for as long as I can remember. From pink plastic Barbie shoes, to light-up runners, to my first pair of Converse All Stars (inherited from my older sister) to my “job-interview” flats, my personal development can be traced through my footwear. There are the cleats that helped me run away from the soccer ball for fear I might have to do something with it, the “impractical” sky-high heels my mother told me not to buy, pointe shoes that reminded me I was not meant to be a ballerina, and the dirt-stained sneakers that walked me around the Australian Outback. Shoes have marked many of my milestones. There were white dress shoes for First Communion and black Mary Janes for funerals, snowboard boots that witnessed the best of my tricks and worst of my wipeouts and prom shoes that danced with my first boyfriend. I remember practicing tying bows so I could wear lace-up shoes like my older siblings and, many years later, clearing toys off my bedroom shelves to make room for my growing shoe collection.

These are just a few moments of my own personal history and the footwear that carried me toward them. However, shoes also play an important role in the broader scope of human history. They reflect technological advancement, national identity, culture and way of life, as well as larger sociopolitical values and trends.

At Vindolanda, shoes represent a period of history and the people who lived it. Over 4000 footwear items have been found buried and preserved in the anaerobic. Leather shoes, sandals, clogs, and boots are evidence of different lifestyles, socio-economic statuses and careers. They are both archaeological artifacts and they are personal items. They are someone’s trash and they are beautiful creations. These shoes were made, given, worn, repaired and valued by the people who lived at Vindolanda almost 2000 years ago and they are once again valued by those who study them today. It is at Vindolanda where Roman history and my personal history collide. You do not have to own a shoe for it to be life-changing.

Since starting excavation in the Vicus two weeks ago, I have had the great fortune of finding three individual shoes. The first was smaller in size and was missing its upper (the part of the shoe that is sewn onto the sole). The toe was very rounded. The second shoe was also missing its upper but this sole had more of a pointed toe, clearly a different style than the first. The third shoe was much larger and more substantial than the others. It consisted of several pieces of leather pressed together and much of the heel remains intact.

Holding up my very first shoe find! Photo by Anna Furfaro

One of the reasons finding a shoe on excavation is so exciting is because they are so immediately recognizable. Archaeological excavation is an extremely complex undertaking that requires in-depth understanding of many areas of study including geography, history, and geology (to name a few). As a result, oftentimes when items are pulled from the floor of the trench, to the untrained eye, there is a certain level of uncertainty and puzzlement. We often have to ask a more experienced digger to decipher what it is that we have found. However, when you find a shoe, you know exactly what it is and can relate to it so personally. This big world of archaeology and history and politics shrinks down to the human level, to the individual person whose shoe you have just found. It can be difficult at times to envision the partial walls we see today as important fort buildings or the sporadic road stones as busy routes through a bustling community, but when you hold an ancient shoe in your hand, a shoe that looks just like the ones you have spent your entire life wearing, suddenly you can picture it. You can picture them. It is a firm reminder that the people who once lived at Vindolanda are not so different from you and I. Although these shoes are not mine to keep, I will mentally catalogue them with the rest of the shoes that have marked moments of my personal growth. Even more than simply bearing witness to critical moments in my life, these shoes have created them.

The third shoe I found. Photo by Avery Lafortune

Digital Vision

The blue/black earth of a trench in the Vicus. Photograph by Avery Lafortune.

Today I am learning to see with my hands

To look with my fingertips

To understand with my grasp

To reach into the shadows and find what was lost


When eyes are easily tricked

We must look in other ways

Searching through damp softness

Wading through scents of days gone by

Seeking a sign that must be found

We know it is here


But when the earth is black and blue

And the sun is choked by cloud

And time has caked itself onto every surface

We must look beyond what we cannot see


Rummage through the nothingness

Feel for the smoothness, the consistent, the firm

Glide the edge along your thumb

Made by hand?

Or made by land?


Sort the straight from the organic

The regular, the measured betray the presence of men

Of women

The tapered, the uneven, quietly whisper

“Crafted by nature”


What do you feel?

Does it splinter beneath your soft touch?

Does water collect on its surface?

Has it been carefully shaped?

Have other hands been there before?


It is not so different

From searching for the light

In the middle of the night

Run you hand along the wall

Feel for the plastic switch in the dark


Trust your hands

You have done this before

Plunging them into a hamper

Sifting through puddles of silk and cotton

Fingertips can always find the right pair of jeans


Be careful

but do not be afraid

Your hands can see the difference

between silk and denim

Wood and bone

Rock and pottery

Human and nature


Dive into the darkness

Feel for a buried world

Everything is here

If you know how to look

Happily sifting through the earth. Photographs (L-R) 1 and 2 by Anna Furfaro, 3 by Aline McQueen

The Vindolanda Day Spa

Welcome to The Vindolanda Day Spa where we believe the best spa treatments are found in archaeological excavation. The Vindolanda Day Spa is the perfect oasis for stress relief and personal renewal through manual labour. Our philosophy is that the most rejuvenated souls are those with a little ancient dust caked on the outside. We invite you to peruse our list of services provided by the most professional archaeologists in the field using only the highest quality natural products.

Three spa goers enjoying a luxurious Purifying Hand Soak.

Purifying Hand Soak

The Purifying Hand Soak is the perfect remedy after a long day of clawing through dirt. Rinse away your worries and soften your hands in the dark grey waters. Additionally, the communal basin allows for casual socializing with other spa goers. We recommend this treatment as a preparatory step before our manicure services.


Full-Body Exfoliation

Nothing inspires rejuvenation and renewal quite like our Full-Body Exfoliation. Clients will exfoliate the surface of their very own trench, sloughing away excess dirt to reveal the beautiful earth underneath. Sometimes called troweling, the methodical nature of this full-body exercise will lull your mind into a meditative calm. The earth, your body, and our archaeologists will all be thanking you by the end of the day. That’s what we like to call a win-win-win situation! (Although it is very calming as an individual activity, clients may choose the Group Effort option and join their fellow spa goers in a shared trench.)

A beautifully crafted set of Reverse French nails.

Reverse French Manicure

Finally! A long-lasting manicure without the use of gel polish or acrylic! This manicure works on any nail length or shape. We ask that the client paints his/her fingernails beforehand using a polish of their choice (we recommend anything from the pound shop but a nice OPI brand is also suitable). The client is then provided with their very own trowel and hand shovel to clean up the dirt in a variety of sondage holes. By the end of the day their nails will have transformed from a bland, full-coverage polish to a beautiful “Reverse French.” We recommend about four hours for this treatment.

Makeup Application

Who knew archaeologists are some of the best untrained makeup artists in the business? We specialize in contoured foundation looks. Our bronzers are made with the finest natural powders and soils found in the field and made to enhance any skin tone. Instead of using powdered or cream blush, we simply remove the client’s hat until the naturally-occurring U.V. rays achieve that summery sun-kissed complexion.* This way, your glowing look will last for days!

*Please note: sun exposure time will vary depending on the client’s paleness or lack thereof.

Our contour application is suitable for both day and evening looks.


Makeup Lesson

Learn all the tricks of the trade with a full-day lesson in archaeological makeup! Clients will try their hand at excavation as the natural powders (including boulder clay and silt!) contour their cheekbones and the sun’s wondrous rays beat down on exposed skin. With a satisfaction guarantee, we are confident you will leave the site with a new look and the pride of a hard-day’s excavation.



Hot Stone Massage*

What could be better than a warm stone in your hands or under your bottom? Here at The Vindolanda Day Spa we believe the most satisfying hot stones are the ones you find yourself. Spend a nice toasty afternoon digging up your very own stones and allow their warmth to flow from the tip of your trowel to the cockles of your heart.

*Please note: this service is completely weather dependant and will only be available on days reaching temperatures of 20 °C or higher.

Roman Massage

This is one of our most popular services! Named after the civilization you will spend the day searching for signs of, the Roman Massage uses an age-old anti-massage technique. Clients will spend the day shoveling hefty piles of dirt and using improper lifting techniques to target every muscle group in their backs. By lightly straining their back muscles for an extended period of time, clients will feel relieved and relaxed as they slide into the back seat of their car for a midday nap. It is often in the absence of struggle that we feel most at peace. Here at The Vindolanda Day Spa, we like to add a little struggle to your day so that you can better appreciate your peace later.

Additional Services

Our gift shop offers a variety of aesthetically pleasing products made of natural materials found around the site including our famous Stratigraphy Soap.

A slice of our Stratigraphy Soap waiting to be packaged!


All spa goers are welcome to participate in our luxuriously rustic afternoon tea. Fuel your day of rigorous relaxation with a variety of delicious biscuits.

We hope to see you soon at The Vindolanda Day Spa!

Muscle Memory

Hiking alongside Hadrian’s Wall. Photo by Aline McQueen

Today we hiked westward along Hadrian’s Wall from Cawfields Milecastle to Birdoswald. Retracing the steps of the Roman soldiers who patrolled this stretch of land makes one think about the power of repetitive action and its roll in remembrance. As a class, we walked along the dirt path worn into the ground next to the Wall, adding our footprints to the thousands that came before. Our tracks reinforced an already beaten path. It is hard to imagine the high level of traffic such a calm, quiet trail has seen but the evidence stretches out before us in stone and packed earth. We walk just as the field school classes did before us and the Romans did before them. Just like that, our actions contribute to a centuries-old pilgrimage and through this pilgrimage we remember those who came before us.

It is in these times of action that we realize remembrance does not have to be purely intellectual. It is not always quiet contemplation or moments of stillness set aside during the day. Sometimes, remembrance is physical. The term muscle memory denotes the process of repeating a motion until it becomes part of our memory. Perhaps, the pilgrimage along Hadrian’s Wall, an action that has been repeated over and over since its construction, has become part of a collective memory. By repeating these motions, we can connect with others who have also done so and contribute to the collective remembrance of an empire that irrevocably changed the world.

Crossing the burn. Video credit: Prem Sai Ramani

But not all experiences of Hadrian’s Wall were created equal. The cleanliness of our hiking boots reveals our inexperience and the rustle of granola bars in our backpacks speak to our time of pre-packaged food. As we gaze out at a landscape of rolling green hills, crooked stone walls and roaming sheep, it is easy to believe that this sight is absolutely timeless. However, this is a romantic illusion. Nothing in this world is immune to the passing of time. The Wall has crumbled and stones have been carted away to serve other purposes. Even the river has altered its course as evidenced by the ancient bridge that now stands several meters away from water. By repeating their actions, we are not reliving the experience of the Romans but, perhaps, this is the closest we will ever feel.

They say that walking a mile in someone else’s shoes can lead to a greater understanding of their perspective. Today we walked several Roman miles in our own hiking boots and although we cannot say we truly understand what it was like to live in Roman Britain, perhaps we are one step closer.

Single file across the skyline. Photo by Aline McQueen