Another dig, another bittersweet farewell

It’s never easy to leave a dig site you were just starting to get to know, and Vindolanda is by no means an exception. Leaving Italy and Greece left me with similar conflicting feelings: the longing of home and old friends and the desire to keep digging, to continue with the weeks-long routine full of hard but very rewarding work.

My last view of Vindolanda. I’m already looking forward to returning in the future and seeing how the site has evolved.

Vindolanda will without a doubt stay with me for a very long time, in a way more than the dirt seemingly trapped between layers of skin. The state of preservation allowed at the site – in the anaerobic layers – is remarkable, and to sort through clumps of dirt full of branches, twigs, leather, and other pristine organic material all from 1,700 or so years ago is a truly unique experience. To see a freshly excavated wooden tablet, inscribed in the distinctive Latin cursive, hits home the incredibly rare capacity of Vindolanda to preserve written documents, shared elsewhere only in Egypt.

What’s important is, of course, all of the people that make this work possible. First and foremost I have to thank Beth and Alex for letting me join the program and offering all sorts of help and guidance. The rest of the Vindolanda team, Marta Alberti in the fort and Andy Birley and Lauren Bearpark in the vicus, has been excellent to work with and very encouraging to work under. Then there’s the volunteers from across the world who were always a pleasure to work alongside. Last and certainly not least, our own Western group has been a fantastic group to dig and live with. Congratulations to all of these great people for a successful and unforgettable 5 weeks!

How to Read Latin Inscriptions

This week we had a lecture from our professor Alex Meyer on Latin epigraphy (which means inscriptions, from the Greek word for “written upon”). As a graduate student I have the good fortune of having already taken a course on Latin epigraphy (as it happens from Alex himself), and so the lecture served as a good reminder.

The beauty of Latin inscriptions is that they’re very formulaic, especially in their use of abbreviations. While the formula varies from type to type (say, from burial epitaphs to building commemorations) each category is internally consistent. For an example, let’s look at a burial epitaph I saw in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. The letters are difficult to see in my picture, so I’ve included an illustration.

The tombstone itself. As you can see, being in the ground for 2000 years takes it toll.
Much more legible! If you can read Latin, that is.

The first two words, DIS M, are a variation of an extremely common phrase in burial inscriptions, the Roman equivalent of our RIP. It’s short for dis manibus, and means “to the immortal ghosts of the dead.” Next comes the deceased’s name, Nectovelius. What follows states that he was F[ILIUS] VINDICIS, or “son of Vindex.” Now comes the deceased’s age: 29 (AN[NORUM] IXXX). The next bit gives us a plausible reason for why he died as young as he did. STIP[ENDIORUM] VIIII states that Nectovelius had been receiving payment for military service for 9 years before his death, and had therefore served for 9 years. It is reasonable to assume that he died in combat, or from combat-related causes. NATIONIS BRIGANS tells us that Nectovelius came from the Brigantes, a large and important tribe in what is now northern England. The final phrase, MILITAVIT IN COH[ORTE] II THR[ACUM], tells us that Nectovelius served in a unit called the Second Cohort of Thracians (Thrace geographically corresponds to modern Bulgaria).

While this inscription doesn’t exactly reveal the entire life story of Nectovelius, it nevertheless imparts a great deal of information. From it we can learn, for instance, that a cohort named after and manned by Thracians contained a local British tribesman. However, the Roman military was a very practical institution, and it made much more sense to recruit locally instead of getting recruits from a place that was a 50 days’ march away. This is just one of countless ways epigraphy can help us understand the ancient world.


I dig up rocks.

I also crush rocks.

A diverse skill-set is, after all, an important thing to have in archaeology.

On a more personal level, the second skill provides a sort of retribution I can exact on the endless horde of rock-kind that infests any dig-site. Just as these rocks are infuriating to come across when digging, there is an equal if not greater amount of satisfaction when tasked with taking a sledgehammer to them before they become an issue. It’s a sort of primal satisfaction, I admit, but there is little else that can match the sheer kinetic force of a sledgehammer’s full swing. Seeing a pristine rock (small boulder is more accurate) blemished with a hairline fracture is a joyous sight. A few more swings around this fracture and the inevitable occurs: a sizeable chunk detaches and, vanquished, falls to the ground.

A selection of today’s rocks slated for destruction. The gap on the left once housed one such rock,  but no longer. At centre lies the tool of choice, feared by all rock-kind.

Multiply this event several dozen times and you more or less have the gist of my day. And what a glorious day it was to bring about the decline of the dominion of rock-kind.

There’s a point to all of this, of course. Beneath today’s specific set of boulders lies the house of a decurion. The decurion was a cavalry commander in the Roman army and led a squadron, or turma in Latin, of 30 horsemen. As befitted his rank, he got to live in fairly spacious quarters.

Just as the decurion had to work hard to reach his rank, I have to work hard to systematically and archaeologically invade what used to be his living quarters. He’s a few years past caring, I imagine, but I do what I do in the name of archaeology. If a few rocks get crushed in the process, that makes my job all the more enjoyable.

Day 1: the Sequel

north field trench
The trench in the North Field. You’ll be reading about the gap you see in the mid-ground.

Today we descended into the trenches once again, eager to start a full day of excavation. We split into two groups, one for the vicus and one for the North Field, because the trench in the North Field gets a bit too packed with all of us in there. Crossing the North Field, which as you can see below is easier said than done, I and two others had the enviable job of investigating what appeared to be just a bunch of rocks.

ankle breakers
They don’t look like much, but we call these ankle-breakers for good (thankfully unproven) reason.

As anyone, and specifically the archaeologist, knows, of course, appearances can be deceiving. To prove the point we dug into sodden, moist clay that exhibited an impossible range of colours, none of them easy to reconcile with skin contact. As our work progressed we began to encounter a number of soil strata that, when placed alongside such a structure as, say, a road, began to look potentially man-made. Our current hypothesis is just that. Where this road may have led, however, is anyone’s guess. Given its rather lackluster appearance in unfair comparison to the grand and monumental roads of Roman Italy, it could simply lie between a group of buildings outside of the fort, its cobbled surface ideal for the wet English weather.

As constant as the squelching clay and innumerable rocks were the distant booms of thunder. Towering clouds on the morning horizon soon encroached the site, and we in the North Field had the good luck to be right in the path of some rain clouds. While the fort and vicus were spared all but a few drops, we had a couple bouts of fairly discouraging rain. Breaking out our as-yet-unused rain gear (it was bound to happen eventually) we forged onward until closing time.

dark skies
A glowering sky by the day’s end. Hopefully we can avoid this tomorrow!

Our job for tomorrow is the much the same as today’s. This bunch of rocks might look like little more than just that, but, as we’ve learned, an archaeologist never assumes anything. Our theories change as rapidly as the soil layers we dig through, and over the next few days we’ll find out what we have here in our little slice of England.


Hello from Vindolanda!

I’m Cody Andersson, currently finishing my first year of the Master’s program at Western. Since high school I’ve had an active interest in anything Roman, and my undergrad at the University of Victoria (UVic) allowed me to test my interest in the field. This dig at Vindolanda will be the third time I’ve participated in an archaeological excavation. In 2013 I dug in Ostia Antica, Italy, and in 2014 I dug in Greece, at a small village in Boeotia called Arma. These two experiences convinced me that archaeology is my passion and a field I very much want to work in.

Excavating in ancient Eleon, Greece

Vindolanda as a whole is shaping up to be a fantastic experience. The site brings me to my main interest, which is the Roman military. The site also connects perfectly with past research I’ve done on the frontiers of the Roman Empire. All in all, Vindolanda is an intersection of all of what first drew me towards the Classical world and specifically Rome and I can’t wait to start digging!