Au revoir et non adieu!

I can’t believe this is my last blog post already, but I guess time flies when you’re having fun. I haven’t had this much fun while working so hard. The Vindolanda Field School has allowed me to get my first hands on experience in archaeology which was my dream. Not only has this been everything I had hoped for it to be, it has only fueled my passion even more. From deturfing and spading baked earth to finding sherds of pottery and holding the staff of recognition, every moment of the field school was so exciting.

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The best picture I could find show how happy I always am while excavating

Even the times when I wasn’t learning something new about archaeology, I have had a great time. All my friends have made this trip a wonderful experience. I can’t remember a time when we aren’t all smiling and laughing. Communal dinners, stargazing, watching movies, strolls to town, my list could go on and on about all my favorite moments from this trip. I won’t forget the happy glow that envelops my memories from the field school.

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Just having fun at Hexam Abbey

I wish I didn’t have to leave and that I could still be excavating when they continue to drop into the ditch. I wish I could spend an entire season at Vindolanda just continuing to learn so many things about archaeology, like how to correctly identify certain artefacts and getting to know the history of Vindolanda like how well I know my trowel. But I am truly grateful for the time I have had here. Thank you so much to everyone, Beth, Alex, Andy, Penny, Marta and all the friends I’ve made while being here.

Adieu is a way to say good bye forever in French while au revoir translates to “see you next time” or “until we meet again”. Although it may be a while, or maybe it will be next year, I know I will see Vindolanda again. Whether as a volunteer, or a visitor, I will be back soon Vindolanda, so  au revoir!

All Good Things Come to an End

So here it is, my last blog post. I honestly did not think we would reach this point so fast. At the same time I feel like we’ve been here forever with the incredible sense of comfort and consistency we’ve been surrounded by for the past five weeks. Garett, Cassandra and I have been gone since May 10th, 42 days ago, and our time in the United Kingdom continues until June 27th. We have been exposed to so many different cultures, and people, Paris, London, Ireland, Haltwhistle of course and Edinburgh coming soon.

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Myself in London England
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Sycamore Gap
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Cliffs of Moher Ireland
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Paris

To say that I’ve learned so much about myself and other people is an understatement. Living with 3 other people who are not your best friends from school is certainly a way to learn new problem solving skills, and how to have a civilized argument about dirty dishes! But this was also a wonderful opportunity to build life long friendships with some new people, and simply get to know the people who you’ve had class with everyday for the past year. We haven’t even left each other yet, and we’ve all already been in discussion about a group reunion. There are so many things I wish I could do again, like go back to the Lake District, things I wish I could do more of, like hiking to take in the local scenery, and things I wish I could’ve done like sledgehammering or learn Latin (sorry Professor Gervais…if you’re reading this I’ll step up my game by September).

There is truly nothing comparable to the learning experience that is The Vindolanda Field School. It is such a wonderful opportunity to have a small taste of history and archaeology. I am so grateful to Beth and Alex, and all the hard work put in to running such a successful school for us students. But there’s more incredible people in this act that need thanking. Thank you to Andy, for always finding a way to make us laugh, and always being eager to teach us and encourage us to become more comfortable with archaeology. To Penny and her never ending patience when we keep handing her pieces of bark in the Vicus thinking it was a writing tablet. Penny, we’re not sad field school is over and we have to say goodbye to you, just disappointed. Thank you to everyone behind the scenes that make it possible for all us to take part in this once in a lifetime opportunity.

While this has been a whirlwind adventure, all good things must come to an end. It is time to eat all the food in the freezer, say my goodbye to my best friend Jenny the Cat, and eventually clean my trowel off the Vindolanda mud for the last time (for now). These next final days together will be tough and filled with nostalgia. I can honestly say I will be back to visit Vindolanda, and hopefully bring some friends and family along to share the unique, peaceful, and beautiful Vindolanda that has stolen my heart.

Thanks for reading!

Aline

Vicus Update!

Much has happened since Anna’s video tour of the trench in the vicus (which you can watch here). Anna’s tour explained some of the things we were working on during our first week in the vicus, however, that was almost three weeks ago! Since then, everyone in our crew has moved to north side of the trench.

We spent last week uncovering the remains of what is believed to be cavalry barracks from Period III/IV. A sprinkling of vertical wooden posts marks the outlines of rooms and wattle and daub fences. Each has its own small white square nailed into the top to highlight its location. We worked methodically, digging down to a new layer. We began at the northernmost wall and headed south until we reached the wooden drainpipe that cuts through the trench. Then, nearing the end of the week, we turned around and began to dig from the pipe, back towards the northern wall.

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Alex explaining the wonders of the vicus at the end of our first week in this trench. He is standing by the water pipe in the south end. Our excavation efforts for weeks 2 and 3 in the vicus focus on this area between Alex and where the photographer stands. Please note the large puddles of water. Photograph by Avery Lafortune

As we dug past the Period III/IV flooring bracken, it became clear that our site is host to several clay pits. These pits likely date towards the end of Period I or early Period II. For the past few days we have dug and troweled around the clay to discern the shape and size of these pits. Believe it or not, not all earth was created the same and we can tell the difference between what is part of the pit and what is simply top soil based on colour and consistency.

Controlling the water in the vicus is an ongoing battle (which Liz tells us about). Our days usually start with a (well-practiced) draining of the small lake that forms overnight. The water is either a result of rainfall or leakage from the Roman water pipe at the south end (incredibly, this pipe still works!). As part of our attempt at water management, a sump has been dug in the north end. Over the weeks, we have had to enlarge it to better suit the needs of the excavators.

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Panorama of the Vicus trench (click to enlarge)

With all this digging, we have found many wonderful things. Common finds include jaw bones, ribs, and teeth from animals (mostly cows), pieces of scrap leather (often parts of tents), oyster shells, and bits of pottery. We usually find most, if not all, of those things every day. However, we have also found some different, unusual, and exciting objects. Particularly, large tent panels and leather shoes have been found (for more information on shoes see my post). We also found two copper-alloy sewing needles and thin, riveted pieces of copper-alloy which were likely used in tent-making. Aline found a bookmark that seems to be made from a writing tablet and she along with Victoria and Andy have all found parts of tablets. These are very exciting finds because they may have ink writing on them that will tell us more about life at Vindolanda. Large pieces of bright orange samian pottery have also been found, many of which have decorative designs. There are even a few pieces that were found individually yet are clearly part of the same vessel! We did not unearth many metal objects, however, today, Anna dug up a thin piece of metal that is believed to be a hairpin. These are just some of the notable finds we have discovered in the vicus over the past two weeks. The finds will be processed by the post-excavation team or down at the museum, preserved, and studied to add to our growing understanding of the activity in the vicus.

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A basket of artifacts from the vicus post-cleaning. There are several bones (including a jaw bone with teeth) and a large piece of a mortarium. Photograph by Avery Lafortune
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A basket of freshly washed pottery from the vicus. Note that bright orange samian ware! Photograph by Avery Lafortune

We will continue to drop the trench until the end of the week. There is an extra sense of hustle this week in particular because these are the last few days of excavation for this area. Our goal is to dig straight to the bottom and find as much as we can until Friday. Once completed this will be the end of the vicus trench, not only for us field school students but also for the site. Afterwards and after everything has been recorded, the trench will be back-filled and our work will be covered. Excavators will move to new sites. Excavation is a timed search. We dig and we retrieve and when the trench is deep enough and the clock runs out we refill and move on.

Working in the vicus has been a wonderful experience. There is so much to learn and discover and we will continue to do so right up until the last minute of excavation time on our last day.

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Buckets lined up and ready for a big day of digging! Photograph by Avery Lafortune

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.

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Little House on the Prairie
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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Archaeological Clues in Human Remains

Does the skeletal structure of humans interest you? Are you a sucker for a good murder mystery novel? Do you find yourself watching TV shows that analyze forensics? Then this might just be for you!

Today, us field schoolers dove into the world of forensic anthropology (which may also be referred to as bioarchaeology or biological anthropology) with a lecture and workshop run by Dr Trudi Buck. One of the coolest parts about this workshop was when we were given two sets of partial skeletons (plastic cast versions based off of genuine skeletal remains) and were given the tools and knowledge required to make some scientific observations. While I’m sure you’ve read about this lecture in previous years, I thought I would change it up and share some of the specific skills I learned today.

The mixture of (plastic) bones spread out across the table before being sorted and organized. 

We were able to work in small groups with this activity, which allowed us to really get hands-on. Aline and I worked together to separate the two skeletons based on size. We were told in advance that some of the bones belonged to an adult and others belonged to a child.

A view of the spine from the child’s skeleton. 

Once we differentiated the child-size bones from the adult-sized bones, our next step was to organize the bones from the adult’s skeleton to recreate the natural skeletal structure. My background knowledge on biological anthropology is minimal, so I found that this was one of the harder parts of the day but it was a fun challenge. It was especially interesting to see where the bones meet up with each other and how they function based on the shapes at joints.

Avery comparing the interior structure of a human hand to its outward appearance. 

The Age of the Deceased

The lecture taught us how to determine an age range based on certain characteristics of the bones, and how certain aspects change over time. For instance, when trying to put an age range on the skeletal remains of a child, the teeth and jaw are the most accurate method to determine this. When trying to determine the age range of a skeleton that has already undergone puberty, things such as bone fusion and the general ‘wear and tear’ of bones can be used.


Avery examining the fully fused coccyx bone from the skeleton of an adult. 

The sex of the Deceased

In biological anthropology there are various methods that have been used to determine whether a skeleton belongs to a male or female, but the most effective method examines the pelvis. Based on the overall shape of the bones, biological anthropologists can determine sex. Although this is the most reliable way, it is not the only one.

When the pelvic bone is not present, the structure of the skull can be looked at, with general differences between the sexes. If DNA is available from the remains, scientific testing can determine the sex.

A chart and image depicting the general differences between male and female skulls, with the male skull on the top and the female skull on the bottom. 

Other variations between the sexes can be used in situations where neither the skull nor the pelvis has been found, but these rely on general traits and can vary depending on geographical location.

The Origin of the Deceased

Now for those who have followed the blog and are familiar with what I have already written, you’ll know that I am not very science-oriented. But to tell the origin of a human from their remains, scientists do an isotope analysis from the enamel on the teeth. Basically, depending on where someone grows up, the water they drink and the general oxygen levels in their teeth can differ. The oxygen levels can be determined through the isotope analysis, which will provide a general geographical range of where someone grew up.

Dr. Buck explaining the oxygen levels in isotopes. 

Theory versus Practice

In a perfect world, when archaeologists stumble upon human remains, they would be complete skeletons accompanied by some sort of inscription to tell the name, sex, origin, and age of the person to leave out any need for guessing. Short of that, a full skeleton without an inscription would still be ideal. This way the bones might be able to tell a full story and provide at least as close as possible ranges for this information. But often this is far from the truth. Sometimes there are a handful of bones that include the jaw and pelvic bone to give the important information biological anthropologists are looking for. Other times there is only a skull to work from. And even when bones are found, depending on the ancestry of the individual, statistics and averages may point to one sex while DNA points to another. Sometimes there is no DNA to test. But it seems to me that three things that are very important in the field of biological anthropology are background knowledge,  practice, and a hands-on approach. Thanks to Dr. Buck, we got a taste of what goes into this field of study, and what we can tell from human remains.

This activity involved a bit of speculation, a fair amount of hard work, and ended up being a lot of fun!

The plastic skull. 

Bye for now,

Anna

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.

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!