Laughter is the Best Medicine

The end of my time with the Vindolanda Field School has been looming on the horizon over this past week. I dread goodbyes, and am certainly not good at them – you can count on me for a lot of tears. But as the last day at Vindolanda finally approaches and the nostalgia starts rolling in, I find I can’t stop smiling at so many moments from the trip…

“THEY’RE HERE” (*panic ensues*)

The classic mantra of every workday morning, when the lookout sights Beth and Alex’s car pulling into the cottages to take us to Vindolanda. This usually takes place when nobody is ready, inciting mass panic as the cry is echoed across both cottages and people scramble to get ready.

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“Ahh, it’s just a little bit of bone”

The characteristic understatement of excavation. Generally used when someone discovers something quite large and impressive, like a large cattle skull, a beautiful piece of Samian pottery, or a complete writing tablet.

“Alright, Elizabeth, re-engage the wellington…”

Following an altercation with a stubborn rock, Elizabeth and Avery were getting ready to lift it to a new location in the vicus trench. Standing in incredibly squishy mud, with Andy supervising from above, the two girls lifted the rock up and prepared to step forwards. Suctioned into the ground, Elizabeth’s foot flew out of her boot and into the mud. After a ten second pause where all three individuals stared at said foot, Andy calmly restored order to the operation before Elizabeth and Avery collapsed with laughter.

Even with the sledgehammer: Liz – 0, Rock – 1289309123

“I’ve found a thing – I don’t think it’s anything, but just in case it is a thing, here’s the thing”

This well-worn sentence encompasses the archaeologist’s dilemma when sorting through excavated material from the trench. When keeping an eye out for a writing tablet, suddenly every sliver of wood is filled with promise, and each curved piece of rock a beacon of potential. It is better to ere on the side of caution when trying to decipher an artefact, even if you have to preface it with a lengthy preamble of caution (thanks Penny for always accepting our pieces of bark for inspection!).

“Oh are you getting up? Can you get me a biscuit?” “Oh me too!” “And me!” “Bring the barrel!”

Your Vindolanda scholars have successfully adopted the important British institution of tea. Teatime is observed religiously each day, and after pouring a hot cup everyone carefully analyzes the biscuit selection available. Often, however, it quickly becomes apparent that simply three biscuits each will not suffice, meaning that teamwork and multiple visits to the biscuit barrel are required.

These past five weeks have been full to the brim of good memories and laughter. However, they are just small pieces of the overall experience. I have been part of an incredible team, have worked at an awe-inspiring site, and helped discover more of the story of Vindolanda, all for which I am incredibly grateful.

The job of uncovering the fort’s narrative is far from over, which to me means one thing: see you again soon Vindolanda, for I’ll be back.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Excavators vs. Water

The five girls stand shoulder to shoulder, glaring down at the challenge ahead. Two meters beneath them, lapping tauntingly at the sides of the vicus trench, over a foot of water covers the previous week’s hard earned excavations. Andy has made the game plan perfectly clear: scoops, buckets, two girls in one area, three in another.

He raises his arm: “Excavators ready?”

The girls take their battle stations.

GO.

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Game time: the teams tackle the vicus, flooded under a foot of water

Aline and Elizabeth are quick to the plunge in the southern corner. With the water swirling around the tops of their wellingtons, they fill bucket after bucket, tossing the heavy, murky contents into a sealed off area to be pumped up. Although familiar with the trench, from the wooden wattle and daub to the large slabs of stone littering the floor, the water has transformed it all into a dark mess of unknown. Every step threatens to dislodge an artefact, each stumble spraying visions of broken relics.

SPLASH – the new volunteers are introduced to the vicus with a wet flourish. Across the way, glistening boots flash by as Anna, Avery and Victoria work on the southeastern section, efficiently filling and dumping buckets. Soon there’s very little water left, the northern side is drained, and a final sponging clears the area.

Game point excavators.

But water isn’t finished. Two Roman drains, still active, still slowly channeling their contents, sit at the north and southern portions of the trench. Water stealthily stretches its feelers, seeking, flowing, growing. The girls, distracted by exciting finds (beautiful Samian ware, long shards of bone, a wonderfully well-worn shoe), have let down their guard. Buckets of dirt become swampy and viscous. Clean trench lines begin to lose their definition.

With mud streaking their cheeks like warrior paint, the girls get to work. The area is pumped and drained, the watery residue thrown up and out of the trench. Buckets and wheelbarrows slip out of muddied hands, shovels slide out of their grasp. Gradually water is beaten back into submission, the area is cleared, and excavations resume. But the well of water remains gathering by the drain, silently growing, never slowing.

Game point water.

The day ends. The equipment is cleaned, the trench tidied, and the site put to rest for the evening. The girls squelch off, elated with a good day’s work. But the night belongs to water – a resource so precious in some areas and merely a commodity in others, it can be an archaeologists’ worst enemy or its best friend. If the soil is too wet, the thick swamp can prove impossible to excavate in. If the soil is too dry, then sifting through the dirt and recognizing markings and patterns can be incredibly difficult.

Both archaeologists and water are equally tenacious, working as a team as often as they work against each other. It’s a complex tug of war, a continuous cycle of give and take – but although there are many games, there is no match point.

However, streaked with mud, laughing at our watery start, and smiling about our finds, I think we can claim today’s victory.

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Your vicus victors – readers, give these ladies a virtual high five!

Humans of Vindolanda

Although your field scholars are only approaching the three week mark of our stay here at Vindolanda, today saw the end of many volunteers’ excavation experiences at the site. Volunteers are essential to the process of uncovering the Vindolanda fort, and most if not all excavations would be unable to happen as quickly or efficiently without their help.

The importance of these collective efforts are two-fold. The first is obvious – together, our many hands are working towards uncovering the secrets of Roman Britain. In teams we sift through mud and dirt, cart piles of it away, clear new areas to begin excavations, and (sometimes continually) drain the trenches of water. A multitude of sharps eyes and deft fingertips enable us to uncover the wonders of this mighty fort – from worn wooden doors to delicate styluses, scraps of leather to shards of bone, and Samian ware to glassware. The post-excavation team adds another dimension to these discoveries, as they meticulously clean and assess the finds.

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Everyone stepping back to take stock of the week’s hard excavation work

The second level of importance is perhaps not so obvious. As we collectively dig, trowel or sort, we are interacting in a way which also likely mirrors the people of two thousand years ago. Along with the hard work, there is much talk and laughter: we exchange stories, recommendations, bits of wisdom, and questionable jokes (many of these courtesy of Norman). This truly wonderful aspect of human nature has changed very little over time, and despite the millennia between us, it is easy to picture Roman military units stationed at Vindolanda interacting in much the same way. It is these actions that not only bring us closer together as a group of Vindolanda volunteers, but also to the people we are trying so hard to learn more about.

Vindolanda operates to a complexly intertwined mantra of narrative and memory. Although in a previous blog post I stated that the history of Roman Britain isn’t our story, now I am not so sure. Again, as we physically and intellectually seek to uncover the past, we are undertaking a form of muscle memory, and in a sense following the steps of the Romans, albeit two thousand years later. Together we are creating our own narrative in parallel to the story of Hadrian’s Wall, and this is very much how we will be able to understand what we uncover.

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Smiling with Bert, one of the people whose generosity has made the Vindolanda Field School possible for us

But perhaps the key word there is “we.” The journey towards properly understanding Roman Britain is a collective one, and the volunteers we said goodbye to have been key in moving Vindolanda’s archeological progress further down the path of discovery. As a result, today was very bittersweet. For, just as we are shaping the story of Hadrian’s Wall, so too are we instrumental in shaping each other’s experiences of Vindolanda. I know I speak for all when I say a happier time these past two weeks could not possibly have been.

A thank you to all, and congratulations for a job well done!

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A Stone Cold Reality

Today the Vindolanda Field School traveled to Hexham to explore the old Abbey, where many Roman stones were taken from Hadrian’s Wall to create it’s eerie crypt. 

I am stone – enduring and strong, some say I am indestructible.

The Romans thought I was. Hadrian’s Wall winds its way across the English landscape, seen as a permanent fixture, solid and unbreakable. Using stone, the might of the Roman Empire can be expressed through these fearsome buildings, with strong, straight lines, meant to exhibit power and ability. Along this mighty stone wall, forts dominate the landscape, acting as control points and sending out a clear message: we are Roman, you cannot break us.

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Hadrian’s Wall: undefeatable and indestructible

I am stone – mark me, and I can carry your story for centuries.

The Romans thought I could. My rugged surfaces can be smoothed, ideal for carvings and inscriptions. Perhaps you want to commemorate a birth or mourn a death, or maybe you simply want to write your name, an individual identifier which will last through time.

Marks also mean histories can be removed. One of my surfaces tells the story of the sons of Emperor Septimius Severus. Set up before setting out on their Scottish campaign, Severus died soon after reaching York. Upon his death, the eldest son, Caracalla, murdered his brother Geta and had his name chiselled out from all such stones. Once there, now gone – perhaps stones are not quite so permanent.

 

I am stone, and I can be stolen.

The Saxons knew I could be. Such was the case in Hexham, where the old abbey was built for Wilfrid, Bishop of York, by the order of Queen Etheldreda in 674 CE. I was among many stones taken from the mighty Corbridge fort. Already quarried and shaped, the might of Roman Britain was steadily dismantled and used to create an entirely different structure for an entirely different ruling race.

I am stone, and I can be broken.

The Saxons were able to. The crypt in Hexham Abbey reveals the ease with which our inscriptions and frieze patterns were cut apart. Once a pinnacle of achievement, the story of Geta now supports a shadowed ceiling. A little further forward, another inscription has been carved in half to form an arch. Littered across the walls, stones with beautiful frieze patterns and diamond broaching are obscured and damp, their splendour hidden by the dark.

Anna demonstrating how easily stones can be knocked down at the Hexham Abbey museum

I am stone, but perhaps I am more human than I thought.

This assumption of permanency can be flawed – I am not an eternal fixture, and my message depends on the hands which shape me. However, whilst I may not necessarily last forever, remain in one place, or belong exclusively to one storyteller or builder, I am still important. Like the people around me, I am constantly changing and developing with time. This is recorded on my surface, the context surrounding me, and where I am found.

Therefore, as stone, I will always be part of history.

Unmasking the Indiana Jones Illusion

Yesterday, as a fresh troop of Vindolanda archaeologists, we bounded into the first day of excavation with a level of energy and excitement to rival that of Indiana Jones. Eager to start this chapter of our adventure, we were all smiles as we used our trowels for the first time, scavenged through the dirt, and grinned at each other through the muck and rain. Each stone looked like a possible artifact, and no doubt everyone was fantasizing about uncovering the next major discovery on Roman Britain.

Today marks the end of our second day of excavation. Although still smiling and laughing, this blustery Tuesday revealed to us much more than simply another layer of our site – it uncovered the hard work behind the glamour of the field. As we are still new to the digging scene, today our bodies were sore, with stiff wrists and forearms protesting slightly as we took up our trowels once again. This in itself was an important lesson, a reminder of the sweat and grit required to uncover archaeological finds, and that history does not give up its secrets easily.

Aline executing a perfect wheelbarrow dump…
…Elizabeth not so much

However, this physical lesson fits well with Avery’s eloquent post on muscle memory. Having completed our pilgrimages along Hadrian’s Wall, we are now instilling within ourselves a very different type of muscular retention, as we teach our bodies how to effectively dig, trowel and explore. Part of the training is showing our eyes how to pick finds out from amongst the multitude of soil, pebbles and rocks. Although eager to be able to uncover a large inscribed stone, or a perfectly preserved collection of gold coins, with this second day of digging has come the understanding that the smaller finds are just as important. Cassandra and Holly uncovered a Roman bead, and Stephanie and Anna carefully matched together the pieces of a pottery base. Each time, as we crowded around the excited duos, our group was aware that we were slowly adding pieces to the Vindolanda perspective of Roman Britain.

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Holly proudly holds her Roman bead
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Anna holds together the two pieces of a pottery base

Perspective is important. It can be difficult to remember that even the smallest of finds fit within the larger narrative of the people we are trying to learn more about. It can also be hard to see how your digging efforts at a site have brought you closer to developing this understanding. However, whilst we may often be tired, sore, sweaty, or frustrated with an uncompromising rock, it is imperative that we occasionally take a step back to see the bigger picture. Not only can you better see how your trench fits in with the rest of the site, but you can also get a more accurate picture of your own progress. Although up close it may seem your troweling has uncovered very little, standing up you may realize you have revealed a stone formation you hadn’t noticed before, or see a structural pattern unfolding across the site. This big picture view will show how all these smaller puzzles are connected, and how each team member contributes a different piece. Together we are all helping uncover the story of Hadrian’s Wall, a noble task that everyone should be proud of.

It’s His-Story, But How Do We Tell It?

For your Vindolanda Scholars, this has been a week of museums. From Vindolanda to Tully House to John Clayton’s awe-inspiring collections at Chesters, we have explored, read and analyzed a multitude of finds from along Hadrian’s Wall, creating for ourselves a picture of life on the northern frontier. Today’s visit to Newcastle’s Great North Museum, under the guiding hand of Dr. Rob Collins, was expected to be no different.

What came to light, however, was something new. After a week of developing our own narrative of Hadrian’s Wall , Dr. Collins threw a curveball at our understanding of the past. Although all week we had critically examined primary and secondary sources on Roman Britain, understanding authors and their biases, he asked us to question the avenues of the information themselves: museums.

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Evidence confirming Hadrian’s Wall belonged to Emperor Hadrian – firmly ensuring this part of its history is “set in stone”

As one of the best ways of portraying history for the general public, museums choose how to tell the story of the past, and what specific story to tell. However, museums face the challenge of integrating materials and collections from a number of sites and eras, selecting the best interpretation of ambiguous material, and dealing with exhibit spaces that are constantly changing. Their exhibits are designed to appeal to the public, often ascribing more importance to areas and events which have greater mass appeal. In addition, most museums are working with constrained budgets. Even the simple expenses associated with changing a display case (switching artifacts, ensuring safe and adequate lighting) can quickly add up, and place heavy limitations on what museum staff can do.

 

There is no question that museums are invaluable in sharing history with the public. But as a center of learning, people trust the information they are given and buy into the narrative they are presented. As we wrapped up our explorations of the Great North Museum, Dr. Collins encouraged us to be careful when constructing our image of Hadrian’s Wall. Who is missing from these accounts? Are we projecting images of ourselves when we construct images of Roman life? In the same way Romans attempted to “Romanize” the locales of Britain, are we trying to modernize the legends of Roman Britain to contextualize them in a way which we understand?

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Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition provides another narrative for this key military unity

History is at its best a story, a tale of the past from a certain perspective. However, as the Parthenon Marbles have demonstrated in recent news, there is no fixed or right outlook on who can present history to the world and how. As next week heralds the beginning of our archaeological adventures at Vindolanda, we have the opportunity to add our own perceptions of life at Hadrian’s Wall to the current narrative. With today’s Newcastle adventures providing a fresh mindset going forwards, perhaps the most important thing to remember is this: the history of Roman Britain is not my story, or your story, or even our story. It is the story of people from long, long ago, and we owe it to them to tell it right.