Time To Say Goodbye

As we were driving to Vindolanda this morning, I realized that I had not taken pictures of the site.  I couldn’t believe it!  In the past five weeks, I never took time out of the day to walk around the site that has grown to mean so much to me.  Every time I thought about it, I would tell myself that I would just do it another day.  Today, it became clear to me that today was that final day.  I hurriedly rushed around the site, trying to take as many pictures as I could within the hour lunch break.

View of the site from the recreation of Hadrian’s Wall

When I got to the west gate of the fort, the side closest to the Vicus, a feeling came over me.  I remembered back to when I originally found out about the Vindolanda Field School.  I was a grade 12 student who hadn’t fully decided on the universities to which I would apply.  I recalled the day that I went to the information meeting.  This was two years after I initially found out about the program.  When I saw the slide show of the site, I thought that nothing could be more amazing than an archaeological excavation.  All of a sudden, I was brought back to filling out the application and the interview.  My trip down memory lane ended with the day that I found out I would be attending the field school.  I was so excited that I woke up my roommates on a morning where they did not have class. It was so strange to envision the steps that had brought me to this place.

From my acceptance to our meetings, it feels like the process leading up to field school happened last month and not six months ago.  So much time has passed and yet at the same time it feels like none has passed at all.  Walking around the site to take pictures was a good time to reflect on my time at Vindolanda.  From the North Field to the East Ditch to the Vicus, I was able to participate in three very different excavations.  Each allowed me to learn different sets of skills when excavating.  In the two excavation periods in which we participated, I was able to meet people from all over the world and I hope to keep in contact with some of them for a long time to come.  I am incredibly thankful to Beth, Alex, Andy, Penny, and Marta for allowing the Vindolanda Field School to run and for running it so successfully.  They were the people that we went to with our incessant questions.  How they answered them so calmly and patiently is beyond me but I am so grateful for them, and what they were able to teach me in a short five weeks.

While today I had to say goodbye to the site of Vindolanda and the people that I met there, I know it will not be goodbye for long.  I will be back at Vindolanda one day.  Going as a visitor would be nice but I am determined to go back as a volunteer excavator.  Waking up on Monday morning is going to be such a strange feeling because it will be the first time in four weeks that I will not wake up early and get ready for an excavation.  It will be a sad feeling but I know that I have many more archaeological adventures ahead of me.  The Vindolanda Field School was only the first step in what I consider to be the most amazing career ever!

From Dream to Reality

One of the first book series I ever read as a child was Little House on the Prairie.  If you haven’t read it, it’s a story about a farm girl travelling across America with her family. This sparked a flame in me that will never be quenched.  These books opened a world of history and I have not turned back since.  From Little House on the Prairie I moved on to the Royal Diaries series.  Spanning from Cleopatra of Egypt to Anastasia of Russia, these books chronicle the lives of royalty all over the world.  It was the information found in the backs of these books that made me realize people were making a career out of uncovering history.

little house on the prairie
Little House on the Prairie
royal diaries
Royal Diaries

By the time I was 12 years old, I learned about a fascinating thing called archaeology.  I had heard about it in movies and TV shows but knew that what I was seeing was fiction.  As I looked into this field, I came to the conclusion that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.  When people ask a child what they want to do when they grow up, most say something along the lines of doctor or teacher.  At 12 years old, I proudly stated that I wanted to be an archaeologist.  Most children my age had either never heard of the word before or didn’t know what it meant.  By the time I reached high school and had to do a project on a dream job, I chose archaeology.  Since archaeology was my supposed dream job, my teacher asked me what job I would actually have. I told her that I would make my dream a reality.  You all can probably imagine the reaction from most people when you tell them that you want to be an archaeologist.  It elicits confused looks and skepticism.  Many believe that the archaeology that gets shown on television is the real deal.  Little do they know that it is so much more than that.

Vindolanda has helped to make my dreams a reality.  Before going on this trip, someone asked me what I would do if I discovered that archaeology was not for me.  Until someone brought this up, it had never even crossed my mind.  Archaeology had been my dream for so long that I could not imagine disliking it.  Once someone planted that seed of doubt in my head, I had one question for myself:  What am I going to do for the rest of my life if I don’t love this?  Everything that I had done in my academic career was leading to archaeology. Although excited, when I got to Vindolanda a little part of me was also nervous and worried.

But, after the first day on site, I already knew that I hadn’t made a mistake. Without having even started to excavate, I realized that I was going to love it no matter what.  The feeling I got when I found my first Roman artifact was indescribable.  The piece of pottery was so small that it would probably get discarded by the post excavation team but that didn’t change anything.  There was no doubt as to whether or not I was on the right path.  That feeling from the first artifact was tenfold when I made my first small find.  Holding the barcode staff used to mark the place of the Roman game piece was one of the most exhilarating things I have ever felt.  Every little piece of animal bone and leather from the vicus connects me to a past that I want to spend the rest of my life discovering.

roman game piece.jpg
Roman game piece

One of the greatest feelings in the world is when you know you are on the right path in life.  I’m so glad that Vindolanda has affirmed this for me and that I’ve been able to experience this amazing opportunity at such a critical point in my studies. When people ask me what I want to do when I get older, I proudly say that I want to be an archaeologist.











From the Ditch to the Vicus

There are currently two sites of excavation at Vindolanda.  One of them, the defensive ditch, is beyond the east side of the fort wall.  The other is in the vicus which was the extramural settlement outside the fort walls.  Yesterday was a very interesting excavation day because about an hour into the excavation, I was transferred out of the ditch and placed in the vicus.  More people were needed in the anaerobic section to sort through the material that was being dug out.  At first, I was a little sad.  I helped open the excavation in the ditch. From the de-turfing, to troweling back the rocks, to dropping smaller trenches within, an emotional connection develops with a trench.  Little did I know, I would become equally attached to the vicus.  My time in my new trench began with sorting through what was passed up in the bucket. There were no trowels and no gloves, only hands covered in gunk. Slowing peeling back the layers of the squares being cut out, I began to think that nothing could be as tedious as this. Then I suddenly realized, oh wait, I’m holding an oyster shell! That thing sticking out of the dirt isn’t wood, it’s an animal bone! After being in trenches where features were more important and artifacts weren’t as abundant, every little piece of bone or shell became utterly fascinating. Today, things only got better.  In the first bucket that was passed to me, I found what is most likely a clavicle (collar bone).

Possible collar bone

If this is the way my day was going to start then it could only get better from there!  Odds and ends of bone fragments and leather scraps slowly began to work their way out of the material that we were sifting through.  After teatime is when the real work began.  For the first time, I was able to go down into the trench.  With my wellies on, waterproof trousers tucked in and my head donning a hardhat, I descended the wall into the vicus.  Every step was a fight to keep my boot on my feet.  Every bucket lift up to the people above was a dance in trying to keep myself upright in the slippery mud.

Excavating in the vicus is very different from excavating in the ditch.  From the clothes that have to be worn to the precautions that have to be taken, the vicus is a very different environment.  The easiest way to see this is by the state of your hands after excavating in each trench.  When you come out of the ditch, your hands are covered in a light dusting of dirt.  When you come out of the vicus, your hands are covered in goopy mud.  Even though your hands are in the need of a good washing, excavating in the vicus is an exhilarating experience and I am so happy that it is an experience that I get to have!

dusty hands
“Dusty Hands” from the ditch
muddy hands
“Muddy Hands” from the vicus

Archaeological Illustration

Yesterday marked the end of the third week of the Vindolanda Field School.  None of us can believe that we only have two weeks left!  While our first excavation period ended on Friday, we still headed to the site yesterday.  As it was pouring rain, we were all thankful that we would be spending our day in a nice, warm building because on the agenda was an archaeological illustration course. Not a big fan of drawing or art classes in general, I did not know what to expect from the course.  Little did I know that it would become one of my favourite things that I have done so far.  Like any course, there are certain things that you need to make it as successful as possible.  While most of us would never have seen these tools save for a few art majors, they were infinitely helpful in our artistic endeavours. The main portion of the day was spent learning how to draw pottery and this is what I enjoyed the most.

As a practice run Mark, our instructor for the day, had us draw a coffee mug. You too can follow along with a mug of your own and learn how to draw pottery accurately! The diameter of the top and bottom of the mug was discovered by placing both ends on a radius chart. The first of the tools used to draw pottery is known as a profile gauge. It allows one to form the shape of the object they will be drawing so it can be copied onto the page.  While doing this, you cannot forget a pencil and piece of paper!!  They are crucial to your work!!!  The metal profile gauge below is in the shape of one of our kitchen mugs.

Once the outline of both sides is traced, a caliper can be used to determine the width of the handle as well as the rim.  This instrument allowed us to calculate the measurement within a tenth of a millimetre.  At least we know we were being precise!


Now, you are finished drawing the mug on regular paper.  The last thing to do is copy the mug onto tracing paper.  Most of us decided to trace free-hand since it was easier than using a ruler.  We were all a bit nervous as the black markers had a tendency to smudge but the pictures turned out alright!

Holly’s final drawing of the mug

I want to extend a huge thank you to Mark Hoyle, our instructor, for taking the time out of his Saturday to teach us about archaeological illustration.  Thank you Mark!

Edinburgh Adventures

As some of you may know, the Vindolanda Field Schoolers just had a free weekend.  Void of lectures and work, we decided to go on an adventure.  For six of us, that adventure led us to the heart of Edinburgh.  On Friday night, we could not believe that the day was finally here!  What started as a trip planned between two of us suddenly came to include four other people.  Trying to plan a train and hostel for six people is not an easy task but we made it work.  Our first stop after leaving Haltwhistle was the Carlisle train station and the reason I mention this is because we found an interesting sign along the way.

Apparently the Carlisle train station has had issues with sumo wrestling, attempts at teleportation and people trying to fly

I have always dreamed of travelling to Edinburgh and I knew that my first stop was going to be Edinburgh Castle.  The castle that I thought was going to be beautiful was indeed breathtaking.  The view from the top was absolutely phenomenal.  Holly, Victoria, and I saw everything that we could within the few hours that we were there and then our next stop was the National Museum of Scotland.  This museum had exhibits on everything from early peoples to industrial machines.  The most fascinating exhibit, however, was called the “The Tomb”. This Egyptian exhibit showcased a tomb that originally belonged to the Police Chief of Thebes. While it was subsequently used by others during later periods, the original owners had a tomb that was larger than those of most of the pharaohs.


Our last stop in Edinburgh was a little-known tourist destination.  Holly told me about it on our way over to the UK and I knew that we had to do it!!  At 3:45 pm on Sunday, we were anxiously awaiting for our tour of  “The Real Mary King’s Close” to begin.  Going into the tour, we didn’t know what to expect.  We were transported back to the way the streets of Edinburgh would have looked in the 17th century when the upper portion of the street was demolished and the lower portion was used as the foundation for the Royal Exchange.  During the hour we spent in the Close, we were able to see the way the poorest of the poor lived and the recreated abodes of some of the wealthy.  As we were walking through the rooms, we realized that some of them were still in their original condition. The crumbling plaster and wood beams were still in their places! A great respect for the people who maintain this Close was felt throughout the tour group.  The tour was amazing, especially our tour guide Pam, and is a must-see for anyone visiting the city.  Before we left Edinburgh, Holly and I stopped for some traditional pub food.  Let’s just say that some of the best fish and chips can be found in the heart of Edinburgh. The next time I visit Scotland, I hope I will not only be able to do justice in seeing the rest of Edinburgh but the entirety of the beautiful country.

Our fabulous dinner




The How To of Archaeology

Today was an absolutely beautiful day to be participating in an excavation.  It was also our second day of what can be considered “real” excavations after the initial cleaning.  Many of us continued to excavate our smaller trenches within the main trench and since we are all new at this, there is still room for improvement.  While we have taken Classical Studies courses before, nothing teaches better than field experience.

Some of the other Vindolanda volunteers must have been surprised this morning when they walked into the excavation shed to see that we turned it into a classroom.  Our day started off with a lesson in stratigraphy by Professor Elizabeth Greene which is why we needed the classroom setup.  Since there was a whiteboard in the room, it was the perfect place for Professor Greene to visually demonstrate stratigraphic layers.  The easiest way to explain stratigraphy is that it is the levels of archaeological remains that build up in a site.  This can be detected by changes in the soil texture and colour, and features or structures found in the layers.

Professor Greene’s rendition of stratigraphic layers

The above picture shows the basics of stratigraphic layers.  It starts off with the first settlement building on the natural ground.  Once their settlement is abandoned and collapses, another group of people may build their settlement on top of the previously abandoned one.  A natural disaster like a flood or an earthquake would leave a very clear indication in the stratigraphic record.  Ditches and various other holes could be made in the ground which would cut into the previous layers and produce even more variety in the layers.  This keeps going on and on until the area becomes abandoned altogether.  In the case of Vindolanda, the area that we are excavating is currently part of a farmer’s field.  The problem that comes from this is that the top layer would be in the plough zone of the farmer which could lead to the more recent structures being damaged.

I think this is supposed to be a Roman soldier

The next teaching moment of the day came by way of the spoil pile that has been building up beside the trench.  This is where the debris that we dig up gets deposited.  Since we are digging up so much of it, the only way to get it out of the trench is using a wheelbarrow.  We learned from our valiant Professors that there is correct way to dump a wheelbarrow on the spoil pile.  Who knew?  Once the wheelbarrow is full, one has to get a running start up the pile.  The debris has to be deposited in a certain way or the pile will start to encroach on the trench.  The running start allows you to get to the top so you can dump the dirt on the other side of the pile.  You then have to turn around and pull the wheelbarrow behind you.  Going down a pile backwards is not the greatest of ideas. Here’s an instructional video demonstrated by our professors, slowed down so you can follow each step and position of this subtle but important exercise.

PS:  The picture stayed on the whiteboard all day!!!

Laundry Day

In this group there are 10 relatively intelligent university students.  We all live away from home when we are in London which means we do our own laundry.  This being said, how many university students do you think it takes to do laundry in the United Kingdom?  Discretion is advised because some may find the answer shocking.  Three of us went out to the laundry room to attempt to use the dryer and the three of us failed in our attempt.  Now you may be asking how a group of people in their twenties are not able to figure out simple dryer.  The answer to that is the dryers are not simple at all.

I thought that, for this post, I would do a blog on how to use the laundry machines here.  Hopefully it will come in handy for this group as well as future groups of field school students who stay in these cottages.

Laundry in the Cottages 101

The Washing Machine

There are various buttons and pictures on the dial.  None of these make a lot of sense. Thankfully, Prem somewhat remembered how they worked.  He did remember that the button that says “Rinse Plus” should never, EVER, under any circumstances, be touched. For the most successful wash, one should select the middle two buttons and turn the dial to Cotton and Linens 40.  The next step in our washing endeavour was determining which compartment the detergent needed to be poured into.  This was because none of the trays were actually labelled so it seemed like we just had to guess. We tried the biggest one on the far left and, as luck would have it, the correct one was picked.


The Dryer

Holly and I were able to put our laundry in the dryer and we thought we would be able to figure it out together.  One look at the machine told us that would not be the case.

What do any of these symbols mean????????

Thinking that Prem would know how to use it as he had been there before, we decided to go get him.  It turns out, he didn’t so after fiddling around with it for a while we decided to ask Paul who is takes care of the cottages and lives on site.  Even he had no idea! At least, he gave us a suggestion and it turns out that he knew a lot more than he thought he did because his first try worked!

The correct placement of the dials on the dryer

For future field schoolers and visitors of the cottage, I hope this will help people in their laundry endeavours.

(Edit: Turns out Prem found the manual AFTER we had finished all of our laundry!)