The Hidden World of Geocaching

It was a great five weeks at Vindolanda and some of us picked up a new hobby! For those who have never heard of Geocaching, here’s a bit of an introduction. Geocaching is a worldwide community of caches hidden around both urban and rural areas. The official website allows people to freely create their own cache  or find other’s caches through just a GPS coordinate and a clue. These are often small boxes or film canisters with log books and small items. The rule’s are simple: return the geocache to its original spot and if you take an item leave an item. (Our items often included Western pens and Canada pins.) These are all over the world!

I began geocaching when I came to Western as a way to explore the area. It was great to see the more hidden trails in the London area and have my friends join in. I haven’t been searching as actively in the last two years but I figured, we’re in England, why not?

I looked up geocaches in the area and it turned out there were a few around Haltwhistle. I went for a walk, found some, and signed the log book “the Vindolanda Field School.”

An example cache: a lock-and-lock box found at Milecastle 42.

Our first big geocaching adventure was our second big hike. Unfortunately the reception was pretty shaky so we had to guess a lot of cache locations. One of our first finds was at Steel Rigg where we also discovered the wonder that is stinging nettle. We all got stung but it was sure satisfying.

Prem searching at Steel Rigg. Still not stung yet!

Some cache locations can be quite tricky and inventive. Halfway down our Hadrian’s wall hike we heard a bird call. I thought it was strange but continued on. It was only later that I realized the cache’s clue said “you will probably hear me before you see me.” It was a fake bird! We went back briefly to look but the windy day deterred us a little.

Throughout our entire trip I looked up geocaches to track down. It was amazing how many were hidden all around us. (There was one near Vindolanda but we unfortunately never got around to finding it.)

A very well camouflaged cache in a tree stump. Found by me, Prem and Beth.
Alex looking quite proud of himself near the tarn during our Ambleside hike.
Cache found near the Ravenglass Bathhouse.
A National Trust series cache. These often had information on the area in them.
The Summer house reconstruction near a cache on our Staward Peele hike.
Alex and Anthea deciding what object to switch.
Morgan with a rather large cache that we nearly gave up on.

My favourite part of geocaching is the way it brings people together. As a group we searched the area and decided which item we liked the best. We got off the beaten path more often than not but learned a great deal about why that particular location was chosen. These are often created by people with personal stories to tell. Some are memories, some are collaborations, and some are tied to local history.

By the end, our random collection of objects was quite large. To me, each object has a memory tied to it. Even though they are basically trinkets, each had its own difficulties and moments of victory. Who would have thought we would have great finds inside AND out of Vindolanda!

Our collection: trackables, stickers, clappers, pins, Doctor Who toys, and more.

Farewell Vindolanda!

Before this trip, I had never been to Europe, never mind travelling by myself. I was both excited and a little nervous of what I was getting myself into, yet here we are on our last day of field school and I can’t help but feel as if I’m leaving a bit of myself behind here. 

We all came to Vindolanda expecting to participate in an excavation, but I think the living world here in England was just as interesting as the past. I can leave the artifacts behind in safe care, but the people are harder. Here I met my sponsor Bert who dedicated his scholarship to his son Ryan Halliday. Without him I wouldn’t have been able to be part of this amazing experience. Don’t worry Bert, even if your son doesn’t think you’re cool we sure do! 

Bert and I holding bones found in the vicus.

My last two weeks in the fort went by in a blur. Sue, Norman and I were a team and each find became “our” find. This included: an “indo” graffito piece, a dog (or cat) print hypocaust tile, a maker’s seal on a cup base, a partial altar, and an inscription of the word “Fidelis” with another dog print. This was the best moment for me, being able to pull something out of the ground that not only had not been seen for years, but probably has a personal story behind it. I even made the Vindolanda Facebook page!   


Norman and I holding the inscription.

Now we’ve come to the last bit of our trip and all parted ways, but I’m sure us field schoolers will not forget each other in the fall! It’s hard to come out of this adventure not feeling as if you have a connection to the people and places that shared the same great five weeks.  This is the end for now but hopefully not forever. 

See you later Vindolanda!

Sarah Chin

Blood and Iron

After our respectively fun weekends at Friends of Vindolanda night/visiting the border abbeys and Edinburgh, it’s back to work on the site. Last Friday I found myself doing mostly wheelbarrows runs and therefore got a better picture of the Fort site as a whole. Since the ramparts were dealt quite a bit of rain the past couple days, they were a bit too slippery to work on. So each group was given different road surfaces. From walking around I noticed how even though many roads overlapped, they were built with varying degrees of skill and stone size. This however resulted in what is likely several tons of stone being moved out of the Fort excavation. I certainly perfected my wheelbarrow skills by the end of it!

The former rampart team (or “rampant team” as Norman calls us) was assigned to the 213 AD roadway, the via prinicipalis. This runs parallel along the more contemporary main road through the site.

Marta, Sue, Norman, Sarah, Lizzie, and Steve clearing the road.

As you can see in the picture above, the layer above was much more uneven than the layer below. There was also a drain that ran below Steve and Sarah that was pick axed out. This has been giving us a bit of a puzzle to deal with as it compressed the road below. As I mentioned in my post a few weeks ago, finding the road involves taking a step back and looking at the big picture.

Another part in understanding what is going on in the site came to me while I didn’t have a lot of range of sight. When I was troweling the road I noticed a lot of iron in the ground and bone coming out from it. Andy, director of excavations told me it was called iron pan. This was the reason why the road was held together so well. Iron pan is a process that was caused by the Romans pouring animal blood and bones on their roads. This causes iron to build up between the cracks and create a kind of metallic mortar.

Our almost full context bag of bones.

By the end of the day we had finished most of the road surface and it sure looked different. Though we didn’t find much pottery or other artifacts, we all learned an interesting lesson in Roman construction.

Our nicely cobbled, iron pan filled road.

Side note: Fun Fort Finds

This 4th century arrowhead was found by Bill just to the west of us on a later road. He was on a roll and this was one of his many recent small finds in his road section.

This coin was found by Murphy, an American high school student, on his own road toward the south fort wall.  The lettering and face is still quite visible on this silver denarius. But not only is it excellently preserved, it was his first small find! Can you make out what it says?

Old Friends and New Faces

Norman about to remove some mighty large rocks.
Norman about to remove some mighty large rocks.

Its the beginning of a new session out here at Vindolanda and therefore the fort field schoolers have switched with the vicus field schoolers. Our day began with a quick overview by Andy and back into excavation we went. My end of the fort was stationed at the rampart near the south wall. This area is being taken out completely to the ground level, and then even lower to what may be an earlier fort wall below. So we began this project…and ended up being rained out soon after lunch. This didn’t stop us however and after hiding out in the excavation shed for a few minutes we were shuffled around a bit. While some of the fort de-turfed, others like myself were sent to “de-slime” and remove the worst of the mud. After tea time we were ready to excavate our side again and Norman joined me with a pick-axe and spade, ready to go! Despite the weather, I think we managed to make some pretty good progress.

New recruits: Kim and Murphy.
New recruits: Kim and Murphy

As I mentioned before though, a new period of volunteers have begun and we got to meet some long time veterans and some first timers. This is Kim and Murphy’s first excavation at Vindolanda but they sure have been waiting a while. A few years ago they walked Hadrian’s wall and found Vindolanda on the way. They both really enjoyed the site and made their way down to the museum as we all have done. Much to Murphy’s surprise, he discovered he could join the excavation team! There was one problem though: he was only 14 at the time. Kim, his mother, made him a promise that they would come back when he was old enough, and here they are, ready to discover alongside us.

Into the deep

It’s been quite the day at Vindolanda for us field schoolers.  In he last couple of days I have moved from a roadside to join Alex and Bert in clearing the much lower, anaerobic soil in the trench beside us. This area has already been partially excavated and it’s lowest point is the natural grey clay. Unfortunately…this means that I can barely see over the stone wall. Alex has joked about a step stool but I have stubbornly refused. Instead I have mastered the art of buckets and accurate shovel tosses. All height issues aside, these have been some of the most interesting days on the site so far for me. Every scoop of dirt is filled with leaves and branches that haven’t seen sun in hundreds of years, yet look like they fell off a tree yesterday!

Every day has its challenges though and today ours was intermittent rainfall. This had all of us ready for a nap by lunchtime to return rejuvenated for the afternoon.

Sally taking a lunchtime nap.

By the end of the day we had quite a few artifacts to be proud of. Steve and Nick’s group found a partial woman’s shoe with some clear punctures along the sides. We find pieces of leather in many of the anaerobic levels but I feel that a shoe is such a personal item. Unlike our modern tendency to have multiple shoes, the average person would have been worn this shoe until it was beyond repair.

Shoe found by Dolores of Steve and Nick’s group.

In our trench, we have been pulling out mostly bone. Today though, we found a relatively large piece of courseware, and to Alex’s excitement, a piece of mortarium with part of a maker’s seal. This would have worked like a mortar and pestle with the mark resting below the rim.

Me holding the mortarium piece. If you look closely you can see the letters.

Our evening ended with a few “friendly” games of badminton at the local Haltwhistle leisure centre. As I am terrible at racquetball sports I came along just to watch. It was quite the sight to see the difference between Alex and Andy playing with full force, and the casual nature of the rest of the field schoolers. Steve and Prem however held their own against Alex and Andy in what they called the Old vs. the New. The “Old” ended up keeping their spot at the top but all were great sports.

Steve, Prem, Alex, and Andy in action.

Drawing 101

After a week of troweling, digging, and pick-axing, today was a change of pace as we learned the basics of archaeological drawing. Professional academic illustrator, Mark Hoyle, helped us reconstruct various pots and artifacts using artist’s tools. We were given instruction on calipers, compasses, profile gauges, and more. But first, we used our newfound knowledge to copy some very modern coffee mugs.

My attempt at drawing a cross-section of a mug.

Though part of me wanted to draw freehand, I resisted and used the tools provided. This made all the difference as sometimes the eye can be deceiving. When I used the calipers to measure the inside of the mug they would catch in the centre. This was because the mug was thicker in the centre and thinner on the top and bottom as can be seen in my drawing. After we more or less figured this method out some of us moved onto pot pieces and others jumped right into artifacts.

Mary drawing a burnish ware pot.

When an artifact comes out of the ground it looks completely different after it is washed. Though they’re clean, sometimes details are lost in their dry state or they’re missing pieces. This is where an archaeological illustrator is called to help emphasize these small but important details.

Prem drawing the details of a brooch.

This brooch is a good example of the camera being unable to capture all the features of an artifact. Springs and ornate details require a bit of artistry to better represent their placement.

After a morning of drawing and measuring we went down for lunch at the Vindolanda Cafe. Many of us opted to eat outside as it was quite the nice day as far as English weather goes and a great garden view.

The gardens.

The final step we learned after lunch was how to stipple. Stippling is using concentrated dots to create shading and sometime texture in artifacts. This is more effective than normal shading as it can be scaled down in an archeological publication and still reflect what the object looks like.

An attempt at stippling and shading of a leaf carving.

Mark seemed quite impressed with our drawings but we were even more impressed with his. He uses both classic and technological techniques to create his illustrations. He explained how it can take hours to days to weeks to draw certain artifacts. But the result is extremely detailed and accurate. Some of his work can even be input into a 3D modelling system that can be rotated from different angles.

Prem, Rachel, and I with our messy artist workspace

Even though we weren’t quite sure what we were getting into we all soon fell into a comfortable silence, happily sketching away. We discovered illustration isn’t for everyone but we all felt invested in doing our best to recreate our artifacts on paper.

Recreating the Severan Road

Clear road surface versus uneven ground above

It has been another great day in the Vindolanda vicus with terrific weather (sunny with a high of 15 degrees celsius!) and some interesting finds. As we are all dispersed among the site’s open excavations, I am currently in the Severan road portion closest to the main road. This location results in many visitors to the site asking us questions that range from the common “So what do you find?” to the hard to describe “How do you know when to stop?” As I have discovered over the last two days, excavating a road requires stepping back and looking at the big picture. Yesterday we believed the road had been mostly cleaned off but with further clearing, a more consistent surface could be seen below that takes on the appearance of rough cobblestones.

When we took the road down farther to this level, Robyn (our fellow Canadian and all around great person), found a partial glass bangle. I think her first words were “Oh a shiny!” This small but pretty piece was the highlight of my day. It may help in understanding different types of jewellery patterns as well as the presence of women on the site.

On the other side of the Vicus, Alex and Morgan finished off their gravel layer and could now get into the fun part…clay. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as by mid morning Alex found the base of a small Samian ware cup in his square! Careful digging revealed that though it was cracked in several places,  it was actually one entire cup with all its pieces still in place. We all gathered around to get a look at one of the first excellently preserved objects that we will find hidden in the ground around us.

A black, white, and yellow glass bangle piece found by Robyn.
Alex removing the Samian ware cup.
Alex removing the Samian cup.