My Last View of Vindolanda

I am sitting in the van on the way home today, filthy from the day of excavations, with my hands reeking of anaerobic material, when I remember that today I have to write my last Vindolanda blog post. Looking at the rolling hills, I realize that I won’t have many more days to enjoy this scenery. The livestock grazing in the fields, the quaint little houses that dot the hills, and the raised horizon line to the north on which Hadrian’s Wall runs won’t be every day experiences any more. They will be memories.

I always have a hard time with goodbyes, but in saying goodbye to Vindolanda, I believe this will especially be true. These 5 weeks have been absolutely incredible. I have made new friends, including the field schoolers and also volunteer diggers; I have dug up numerous artefacts last touched by people almost 2000 years ago; and I have grown, both intellectually by expanding my knowledge of the Roman empire and the ancient world, and personally, by experiencing this British culture, and interacting with many people from different areas of the world. The digging at Vindolanda was always hard work – I’m not sure that my body has ever been so sore. But while the work was exhausting, it was also always fun and exciting. I was fortunate enough to excavate in 3 trenches, having started in the North Field, then moving from the East ditch to the Vicus yesterday. Because of this, I saw different strategies and techniques of archaeology, learning under the guidance of multiple supervisors.

Even though archaeology hasn’t always been a dream of mine like it has with others on the trip, my fascination with the ancient world and the Romans in particular has always been constant. At Vindolanda I have been able to explore areas of this passion that I had never thought about before, including the footwear and leather used by soldiers, many sherds of Samian-ware pottery, and the letters on writing tablets. The Vindolanda Field School has been everything that I hoped it would be and more. I am so grateful to have been able to pursue this opportunity, and I know that in the future I will use any excuse to return to my favourite Roman fort.

Signing off,


Saturday in the Lake District: Garett’s Top 5

This weekend was the Field School’s Weekend in the Lake District! Jam-packed with all sorts of activities from Friday night to Sunday afternoon, the weekend was an awesome experience, spanning from educational stops to quaint towns. Saturday was the busiest for sure. There are too many things to tell you about in chronological order, so instead of a narrative, here are my 5 favourite parts of Saturday’s activities in the Lake District.

  1. Mountain Goat Bus

The roads were narrow; the roads were winding. The bus was long and wide, but our driver Richard toured us through the mountains with aplomb, dousing us in interesting tid-bits about the region and the people who lived there. Upholding the reputation of its namesake, the Mountain Goat bounced over the hills, never faltering in its step, taking us wherever we needed to go.

  1. Roman Baths at Ravenglass

We have seen many Roman ruins while in Northern England, but this Bathhouse stands out for how well it is preserved. Many of its walls are at least partially standing, and it was well worth it to stop here and check out the building.

  1. Waterless Sea

“Let’s go check out the Ocean – or actually, the sea,” Beth said.

So we walked along the path down to the Irish Sea. We passed under a tunnel, and expecting the bitter cold waves to greet us, we were encountered with something more unexpected. Sand. It was low tide, and the sea wasn’t there at all! While this meant that we couldn’t dip our feet in, it did afford us the opportunity to walk along what is often the seabed, look at the sea shells and jelly fish stranded on the land, and to skip stones in the shallow pools that remained.

  1. Tiny Steam Engine

The coal smoke billowed out from the engine, coating the cars lagging behind in its wake. Occasionally, the engineer would toot the whistle, announcing the train meandering along the track like a trickling ghyll (a word that Richard taught us, meaning a stream that flows down from the mountains). The only trains smaller than this one run tracks around the base of Christmas trees. Primarily meant for young families, this train made kids of us all once again, and was an absolutely delightful way to spend the sunshiny afternoon marvelling at the scenery.

  1. Hardknott

We have seen so many Roman forts in our 4 weeks in England, and though Vindolanda is obviously our favourite by far, no fort rivals the scenery at Hardknott. It is nestled high in the mountains of the Lake District, a great spot to give the Romans control of the area and to signal its complementary fortlet not far in the distance. The pictures speak for themselves, and this site was really  highlight of our 5 weeks in England.

While these were just the top five attractions of our visit to the Lake District, it was overall an amazing trip and one I won’t forget. What a great way to spend the weekend!





Literacy on the Roman Frontier

This week all of the Field Schoolers will be giving presentations on an artifact in the Vindolanda Museum. The artifact (or, really, collection of artifacts) that I chose are the Vindolanda Writing Tablets. They are wooden leaf tablets, between 1-3mm thick, that the people occupying Vindolanda in the 1st-2nd Centuries AD wrote on for a variety of purposes. Most of them are used as military lists and catalogues, to keep track of the number of stationed soldiers, pay lists, and foodstuffs, but there are also many letters written by different members of the community. Some tablets don’t have anything that offer as much immediate insight into the daily life of the military community; however, when you look closely, you can see clues that point to the development of literacy in the children of Roman auxiliary forces.

See those Letters in the bottom right? Those are the upside-down letters “QUIN”

The tablet above is a fragment that in the bottom right corner has a capital script written upside down. This isn’t part of the original writing that the tablet was originally used for, but is probably a writing exercise for a child. This child seems to have used the who used the margins of the tablet to practice forming letters.

The reverse side of a draft of a letter, reading “Interea pavidam volitans pinna(ta)”. Without context, this fragment of a line from Virgil is nonsensical.

Here, another tablet features part of a line from Virgil’s Aeneid (Book 9, line 473), possibly also used by a child. The line has no purpose for being written, and is not even a complete sentence, which lends credibility to the idea that it was used as writing practice for a child at Vindolanda. There are also other examples in the Empire of lines from the Aeneid  being used for writing drills. While we can’t say for certain that these examples were written by children, the way that they are only written on the margins or the backs of well-written letters and don’t make grammatical sense is solid proof for the two tablets having been used for writing practice. It also makes sense that the children living in the community, one where so many other written texts have been found, would have learned to read and write in such a way. Literacy was a significant part of life at Vindolanda, and to have potential evidence of children learning their Latin letters proves that even further.

The Pleasures of De-Turfing

Some things are oddly satisfying. A couple examples include peeling an entire orange in a single peel, and, oddly enough, de-turfing a huge section of trench.

It takes lots of hands to do this job!

I don’t think too many people who have de-turfed would agree with me. The work can be backbreaking and laborious, much more so than troweling, and the job seems daunting when you look at the selected trench area, still covered in grass. But when de-turfing is broken down and looked at from a positive perspective, it is so pleasing, and even almost fun.

There are two things you need to get started: a section of grassy trench, and a spade. Picking out a spade is an important task; it needs to be sharp, to make the process easier. Once both of these are chosen, the de-turfing can begin! With the sharp spade, place it on the line that you need to cut, and stomp assertively on the top of the blade. It cuts right through, so smoothly, marking a perfectly straight line. The key here is “assertively.” De-turfing requires some serious commitment.

A few more similar strokes, and a grid pattern composed of easily removable rectangular prisms emerges. If done properly, the turf slides right out of the ground, maintaining its shape. Then you fill the wheelbarrow, relishing in the thud that every brick of turf makes when it hits the metal. In their unbroken form, the bricks are closer to being stacked than piled, and they fill the barrow quickly.

It’s time to dump the turf, only after a short more-or-less controlled jog down the slope to the spoil heap. We’ve already seen multiple methods to empty these loads out onto the spoil heap, but my favourite method was only discovered this week. The video below features Giuseppe showing off his perfected wheelbarrow emptying form, something that nobody else can even hope to emulate without losing the load before it reaches the pile.

On top of how great it feels to plunge the spade into the turf, and how perfectly the blocks emerge from the ground, the best part of de-turfing is the end result, when you can look at the trench, now turfless earth with the straightest edges, or at the gigantic mound of dirt bricks that you just spent hours removing. Regardless of how one feels about this toil – not everyone finds so much to enjoy in the work – it is an absolutely necessary part of excavation, to reveal the features of the soil and to give us access to the artifacts just beneath our feet.

Truly a mountain, this is the amount of turf removed from the trench in only the last 2 days of excavation.

The Greatest Quest: Collecting Promotional Lego Cards

One of the grocery stores in Haltwhistle is called Sainsbury’s, the local outpost for one of England’s most prominent grocery store chains. The store in Haltwhistle is small, especially when compared to the massive stores we are accustomed to in Canada, but this is what we expected from such a rural town in the countryside. What we may not have expected was how much this store would immerse us in English culture in the form of their promotional effort that is sweeping the U.K.

At Sainsbury’s, for every £10 you spend on groceries, you receive a promotional item in return: a pack of 4 Lego Cards.

Each card features a different Lego character. The characters take all different forms. Some are people, such as Sam who is on 2 separate cards; some are animals, such as the Toucan or Polar Bear; some, such as the Alien Villainess and Wolf Guy, are humanoid monsters, creatures not at all for the faint of heart. In addition to the character cards are “Create” cards that feature different machines or animals to build.

The Space Shuttle program doesn’t have to be over when you can make your own!
This Alien Villainess is the stuff of my most suppressed nightmares
This is Sam, an adventurer, bookworm, and handyman extraordinaire.

Only rarely have I been so excited as when I opened my first pack of cards, dreaming of finding a Batman card. Batman was nowhere to be found, but the other characters were way too much fun to neglect the game all together. Now, about 10 packs and 40 cards later, while my search for Batman has still proven fruitless, the magic still hasn’t worn on me. If anything the collecting has gotten even more serious, with most of the other field schoolers joining in the hunt, and the others no doubt soon to follow.

We’re not sure how, but this Wolf Guy is different from a Werewolf. The confusion between the two seems to be a touchy subject for him.
The field schoolers in Edinburgh this weekend will know first hand just how loud this Bagpiper can play!
When Avery works out to her 8 Minute Abs VHS, her outfit looks something like this

But the game goes even deeper. Just last night, as we were all sitting in the living room salivating over each other’s decks, we discovered that when we completely assemble all the cards, we can display them all in order in a special album that tells a story connecting all of the characters! The story follows the adventure of two main characters, Lily and Sam, but the nature of the story is totally unknown until we can fill in the album. This is our quest. We must collect each of the 140 different Lego cards by June 13th, when the promotion ends, or we fail to discover what the story is. The stakes have never been higher, and we feel the pressure.

What do you think the story involving the cards I uploaded could be? And maybe more importantly, do we have your support in this mission? Keep checking the blog for updates in our brave and noble quest.

Filthy Hands

Today was our first day in the trench at Vindolanda. Up until now, none of the days had consisted of the physical work that we all knew we’d signed up for. With the exception of the marvellous hikes, our experience had been more similar to a classroom environment, albeit in a much more immersive one, learning about the frontier of the Roman Empire at the museums along the wall, and seeing the sites for ourselves. This morning, however, we were introduced to a very different type of learning and investigation, something that none of us had done before.

We got our hands dirty. Caked in mud after a long day of digging, today our hands endured the cold, the wind, and the rain, in our task of this archaeological excavation.

We got a taste of what is to come in our next four weeks, and experienced hands-on learning in an entirely unfamiliar magnitude. Our university degrees are primarily earned in the classroom, a place where the research is in books, and, aside from the smudges of pencil as we frantically finish an exam, our hands stay clean. The beauty of the Vindolanda Field School is that it provides the opportunity for us students to leave the D.B Weldon Library, our comfort zone, to aid in archaeological research, and to interact with stratigraphic levels of history. This is such valuable learning.  On our first day of excavation, we were beaming, all of us so excited to be immersing ourselves in history, and for the first time in our education, to be really making our hands filthy.

A not-so-candid photo of the team learning to trowel


 2 Museums and Latin Cursive Writing

Alex showing us the Milestone near the Vindolanda Museum.


This morning, one on which the Sun was shining brightly, we were introduced to the Vindolanda Museum. Alex’s limericks led us on a hunt through the museum to search out certain significant artifacts, including the Horse Chamfron, Samian Ware Pottery, and the Lepidina Slipper, none of which any of us had seen before. For the afternoon, we travelled to the Roman Army Museum, featuring awesome examples of Roman military equipment, Victoria’s super informative presentation, and a cameo by none other than Beth Greene in a 3D video about Hadrian’s Wall.



The Latin Cursive Alphabet

One of the most interesting parts in the Roman Army Museum (for me, anyways) was the activity dedicated to teaching the Latin Cursive Script (shown above). Very different than the writing on stone inscriptions, it is in this style of writing that the Vindolanda Writing Tablets have been written. Although our alphabet uses mostly the same letters as the Latin one, the difference between our modern handwriting and Roman handwriting is staggering. Naturally, a few of us tried our hand at writing a few words, and we also deciphered the password for the day, “Barbarus” (or “barbarian”). I challenge you to decode the sentence below, working through both the foreign letter forms and my own questionable attempt at recreating them. It is a Latin sentence, as one in Roman Cursive should be, and I think it’s a fitting sentence to finish with. Tell us what it is in the comments!