How Time Flies

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These five weeks have gone by like a blur. Between the digging, the laughing, the learning, the badminton, the weekend trips, and the general good fun, time flew so fast I barely saw it going.

In fact I had so much fun, and time went so fast, that I almost missed my plane. Yes, really! I still remember the moment I checked the time, checked my distance from the airport, and realized I was going to be late. What followed were two and a half hours of dashing between bus stations and subway stations, dragging my fifty-pound suitcase down stairs, dragging my fifty-pound suitcase up stairs, trying to sort my luggage on a crowded rail car, and a whole lot of rushing.

I made it through, my flight began to close, and I made a mad dash through a seemingly endless maze of moving walkways, escalators, and elevators before I made it, panting, sweating, and red in the face, as the very last person to get on the plane. I threw my things into cabin storage, fell into my seat, wiped my dripping brow, and thought – wow.

What would I have done if I knew I was going to be late for a plane five weeks ago, when I was a full two and a half hours away? I would have been physically incapable of doing all the running, especially while I was dragging a heavy suitcase behind me. And even if I made it to the airport before the flight was completely closed, if an airport official told me I couldn’t make it, I probably would have given up then and there.

That was when I knew my time at Vindolanda was more than just a valuable source of archaeological experience in the rolling hills of Northern England. It had genuinely, deeply, changed me into a better person as a whole.

I’ve learned so much. How to excavate, yes. How to properly hold a mattock. How to recognize a bit of dark leather in dark soil. But I also learned all sorts of other things I never would have expected – how to keep away midges with spray lotion, how to talk to strangers, how to cook pasta with olive oil, how everyone has their own story to tell if only I take the time to listen.

I’ve made so many friends and met so many amazing people. I don’t know how to thank them enough. I’ve already thanked Beth and Alex, and Andy, and Marta, and Lauren, but I want to do it again – and I want to thank everyone at Vindolanda for making us feel so welcome, and I want to thank all of the donors who supported us on the way. Of course, I also want to thank all of my fellow students for being such wonderful housemates and partners in excavation.

All of them have made this trip –  an already absolutely stunning experience in an absolutely stunning country – even more than that. They’ve made it something I will carry with me long after my days at Western are over, even after I’ve made a career for myself (hopefully in archaeology!).

Thank you, everyone — and vale!


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[For some ambiance while reading this post, open and turn up your speakers. Or, if it’s raining where you are, just look out the window and appreciate the power of nature. Also, I’d like to thank Andrew Birley for his wonderful lecture today on religion at Vindolanda, which allowed me to write this post.]

It rained today. From the moment we awoke there were nothing but clouds above us, melded into a mass so pure and white that it was as if someone had gone and scrubbed out the entire sky.

It started about ten am. Then it fell upon us like mist, gentle but persistent, slowly soaking our trenches and our bodies until we were forced to pull out or risk damaging the archaeology with our muddy boots.

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One of the puddles I saw today. I wanted to take a picture of the trench I was actually working at, but it was so muddy and wet out there that I would have just smeared muck onto my phone.

We’ve been digging for almost four weeks, so it’s almost surprising this is the first day we’ve lost to rain. After all, England is famous for its rain. In fact, according to the (inaccurate) weather forecast I consulted before the trip, we were only supposed to get three dry days this entire month.

Obviously we’ve been very lucky, but we still couldn’t help but be disappointed when we had to come inside after only an hour of digging. Was it such a loss, though, when the rain brought us together to laugh about the muck on our clothes and warm up with hot tea?

But that’s thinking small. The rain’s chilly pitter-patter is what gives the Northern English countryside its beautiful verdant hills, the ones which support a countless number of farmers and livestock. And two thousand years ago, before the invention of modern plumbing, water in all of its life-giving forms would have been even more precious. In fact, there is evidence that the water at Vindolanda was sacred for the entirety of its centuries-long occupation, even as the various gods who watched over it faded away into obscurity.

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The Romano-Celtic temple. It was built with the permanence of stone when the Vindolanda fort was only timber. Only the foundations remain, but it was likely once a place to worship the water-goddess Ahvardua. Little is known about her, but next to her former temple there are springs, water tanks and aqueducts – did she protect them, perhaps? Did she keep them flowing?

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Jupiter Dolichenus. A century after Ahvardua’s days had come and gone, this eastern god of sky, storms and metalworking was worshipped within the walls of the now stone fort. The altar recovered from his temple pictures him carrying an axe and a lightning bolt — a symbol of the danger storms could bring. And yet, a drain ran through his temple and into a water tank nearby, filled by those same storms. Though it could be violent, rain would always be precious.

IMG_20160629_150312 (2).jpgRain remained vital even in Christian times. In this later period, a water tank originally used to supply the cavalry barracks was re-purposed, given a series of stone steps which would allow people to step into the pool. For drinking, it was now useless – but in this new form it would have served perfectly as a baptismal font, filled by the same rain which fell in Ahvardua’s aqueducts, which brought Jupiter Dolichenus’s thunderbolts, and which patters against the window as I type this today.

Thus the cycle continues. I may be cold and dirty, and my clothes may be soaked through, but as I look up at the grey skies which have watched over Vindolanda for thousands of years I can’t help but think — maybe a bit of rain isn’t so bad, after all.

V16 – 1B

What do the three pictures above have in common?

Well, let’s see. They’re all pictures I took today, and they’re all pictures from Vindolanda. But there’s more to it than that. Let’s look at these three pictures in turn.

The first one is of V16 – 1B.
The second one is of V16 – 1B.
The third one is of… V16 – 1B.

So they’re all the same, really. That’s that.

Except it’s not, is it? That doesn’t explain anything, I hear you say. Why are they all V16 – 1B? What does “V16 – 1B” even mean?

Let me explain. V16 – 1B is one of the hundreds of context numbers we use to keep track of where we’ve been excavating on this site. Each one represents a small portion of the Vindolanda fort and the surrounding vicus (or town, in English). Whenever we bring up a bag of artifacts from the site, it’s marked with a context number indicating exactly where it came from.

Each part of the context number means something. “V” means “Vindolanda,” and “16” means “2016” – every section, or “context,” that we excavate at the Vindolanda site this year will have a context number starting with “V16.” The second part of the context number is “1B”. The letter on the end can be either “A” or “B.” “A” stands for the fort, and “B” stands for the vicus. So clearly the pictures above have been taken somewhere in the vicus.

But what does the “1” mean? This number represents a specific context in the Vindolanda vicus in the year of 2016. Any time anyone digs in a new context, whether it be the floor of a room, a road, or a ditch, a new number is used. “V16 – 1B,” then, stands for the first context that anyone excavated in the Vindolanda vicus in the year of 2016. And the first thing someone has to do when they want to excavate a previously unexcavated area is… remove the grass and topsoil!

Thus, all the pictures I’ve taken above are of topsoil in the vicus area which we’ve dug up this year. It may seem strange that we only use one number for all of it, but it actually makes a lot of sense. Topsoil is where people toss their garbage. It’s where cows like to trample and where farmers use their plows. This means that everything in the topsoil gets mixed around, and what we find is a jumble of modern garbage, Roman artifacts, and everything in between. Just today, my team has found Victorian pottery, modern steel, Roman nails, and a big plastic bag!

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I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that plastic is Roman.

So even if we had twenty different numbers for the vicus topsoil we’ve uncovered this year, it wouldn’t make a difference – all of it is jumbled up anyways. Instead, we only have V16 – 1B.

In summary, a context number is a number we use to represent a certain area of the Vindolanda site. (Archaeologists on other sites use them too, but they may look somewhat different.) Usually, each one represents something very specific, like a road surface or a building’s wall. But the number 1 is a special case – it represents the jumbled up topsoil in the vicus or the fort which is full of mixed up artifacts from several time periods.

Now if you ever overhear an archaeologist talking about a “context” or a “context number”, you know exactly what they mean!

The Bountiful Biscuit Barrel

It was a tough and satisfying day of excavation at Vindolanda, as usual. Today, in addition to my usual troweling, I got to use a mattock (similar to a pickaxe, but for digging through soil rather than cutting through rocks) to loosen up some big rocks stuck in sun-hardened clay. It was a lot of fun, but by the time lunchtime rolled around my arms felt a bit flimsy, by tea time I was covered in sweat, and by the end of the day I could barely walk up the hill.

What kept me going every time (besides my love of this beautiful site and the fun of a good workout)? The thought that once I made it back to the shed where we store our backpacks, eat lunch and have tea, I would see this beautiful sight waiting for me.

IMG_20160614_092109 (2).jpgDon’t see it yet? Let’s get a little closer…

IMG_20160614_120530 (2).jpgA few things in this picture are exciting, but we’re going to look specifically at the white tub near the top right.

IMG_20160608_122628 (2).jpg“Vindolanda Biscuit Barrel”? That sounds promising! Let’s open this strange contraption…

IMG_20160614_120538 (2).jpgLook at all these precious, delicious artifacts! Of course, someone’s eaten most of the chocolate ones already, but I — I mean, they — just couldn’t help themselves.

Yes, this is the Bountiful Biscuit Barrel, a whole bucket full of beautiful biscuits always waiting for us when we take a break or come up at the end of the day. It may seem like a small thing, but when you’re out digging all day, a few extra calories can make a big difference.

More importantly, there’s nothing like coming into the tea shed (as it is affectionately called) after a few hours of hard work and discovering that one of your fellow excavators has brought some new and exciting dessert. After all, all donations are welcome! We’ve had everything from tea cakes, to homemade cupcakes, to bananas… anything goes, and if it won’t fit in the barrel, well, that’s what the table is for.

Seriously, though, we’ve had so many bananas these last few days. Where are they all coming from?

It’s a small, seemingly inconsequential white tub, but the biscuit barrel has shown me the generosity (and sweet tooths) of my fellow excavators every day of my time here at Vindolanda, and inspired a small donation from myself as well.

How beautiful!

Farewell, North Field

Day three of excavation – and day one for me! I’ve been sick for a while, but after two days of waiting impatiently at home, I finally felt well enough today to join my classmates in the North Field. Luckily, yesterday’s rain helped soften up the clay, so the work was a bit easier (or so I’m told).

Today’s dig was all about feel. We spent a few hours searching for the edges of what we thought might be a defensive ditch. To do that, we had to trowel through layers of silt and sand until we hit the hard clay bottom and sides of our potential feature.

What we hoped was a defensive ditch in the bottom left. Above, a test pit dug by Alex, who watches as some of our team explores another potential feature near the ramp. A lot was going on in this trench!

Unfortunately, the hole we dug up didn’t appear to be man-made at all! After some discussion with Alex, we decided it might be some sort of riverbed, or simply the result of two thousand years of happenstance. It’s a bit disappointing, but at the same time, it’s a valuable lesson – sometimes you just don’t find anything. But you never know until you try!

However, our work was not for nothing – the presence of unusual silt deposits in our trench suggests there might be man-made features underneath, just ones we hadn’t reached yet. Any material from that time would be buried deeply in the ground, so we decided to give ourselves a break and let someone with a mechanical digger have a go at it instead.

And thus, I had to say farewell to the North Field only a few hours after meeting it for the first time! When lunchtime rolled around, we packed up all our tools in wheelbarrows and rolled them back along the bumpy road to the main site.

All ready to go!

After that, our group was split up to work in different parts of the vicus – but there’ll be more on that tomorrow!


What will we find next?


proper photo.jpgI’m Cassidy Wong. I’m a second year student of Classical Studies and Anthropology, but believe me, if I could just have a specialization in archaeology, I would have done it.

I love archaeology – all archaeology, not just Roman, not even just “ancient” archaeology. I can’t help but get excited whether I’m looking at Hadrian’s Wall or North American beer cans barely half a century old. I spent a whole week in May washing mostly-undecorated ceramic sherds every day from eight-to-five in a dusty room full of cats (and I am allergic to both dust and cats), and by the end of the week I was still reluctant to stop – even though it was because I had to prepare to go to field school!

Of course, that didn’t last long – I already love it here. I’ve never been to Europe before, let alone England. The number of beautiful rolling hills, adorable farm animals, and lovely stone buildings I’ve ever seen in my life has literally increased more than tenfold in just three days.

Vindolanda has been absolutely amazing for me, and I haven’t even begun to excavate yet. I can’t wait to get out into the field!