The Post that Never Wanted to be Written

Hey everyone,

I have some pretty devastating news to announce: the 2019 Vindolanda Field School season has officially ended.

I don’t even know where to begin. These past 5 weeks have flown by in a blink of an eye and as exhausted as I am, I think I have fuel for another 5 weeks.

Excavating at Vindolanda has truly been an experience of a lifetime. I don’t think I could pick a better site for my very first excavation (and I know that the other students agree with me on this). In addition to the archaeological experience, which has increased our passion for archaeology, the community here at Vindolanda has contributed largely to our experience. The staff and volunteers have created such a comfortable and enjoyable environment that we all want to come back to Vindolanda.

The VFS 2019 with Alex, Beth, Marta, Andy, and Sammy at the very end of our final day.

Some of us are already back in Canada, a couple are in Italy, I’m in Paris, and our professors (to whom we owe much thanks) are continuing their hard work in England.

Thank you to those that have been keeping up with the blog, to those that have helped make this trip happen for our students, and to those who have continuously invested in Vindolanda. It’s also because of you that we get to experience what we to do to the extent that we do.

Till next time,


Which 2019 Vindolanda Field School Student are you?!

Hey everyone!

Thank you to all of you who have been keeping up with our adventures this summer. We hope that over the past 4 weeks you were able to learn more about us, our interests, and how we spend our time. With the help of the other students we made a fun and short quiz for our audience. Find out which 2019 student you are most like by completing the quiz below and let us know your results in the comments!

Quiz link:


A talk that covered more than the bare bones

Our resident bioarchaeologist Dr. Trudi Buck, from Durham University, presented a wonderful lesson on the deviant dead from Vindolanda for us. She did this after we had finished digging for the day, so you can imagine how tired we were. Despite this, she beautifully managed to keep us awake, enraptured by her hand-made slides.

During this presentation, which was kept low-key, she shared her thoughts about three separate bodies that have come from our site. She really brought to life their lives, painting a colourful, and sometimes brutal, end of life.

We talked about bodies buried in the barracks, in the north field, and even in a ditch. One of our own, Associate Professor Dr. Alexander Meyer, found one of these skulls a few years back!

Analyzing the bones, Trudi talked about how they can be used for stature estimations, (sometimes) sexing the remains, aging, and their cause of death. Depending on what remains, for example, teeth, experts can also look into the DNA to figure out their ancestry, and can use stable isotope analysis to see what their diet consisted of. It’s amazing how much we can learn! All these fall into the osteobiography – a newer way of thinking about the individual and their life.

At the end of her presentation, Trudi took time for questions. She clarified how to tell whether a bone break was post-mortem, peri-mortem, or was a part of the cause of death. She fielded questions about isotope analyses (other experts do that work), and even took a question from Vic.



Top 10 Tips For Excavating at Vindolanda!

Hey all! Since we have been excavating here for a couple weeks now, I thought I’d share some of the things that I have learned so far!

1: Stratigraphy!!!

It is really important that you pay attention to the soil that you’re working with. If you notice a change in texture or colour, this may be an indication that you are actually working in a new context. It can also tell you what area you are working in. For example, many of us have been working in ditches, so the colour of the ditch fill has been a brownish colour, while the edge of the ditch is grey.

2: Be one with the spade

The spade is a tool used to really dig down into the soil. Its sharp edge makes the work a lot easier, but you have to be careful about how much pressure you apply because you don’t want to cut any artifacts in half. By pressing down on the spade, you can feel when it’s cutting easily through the dirt, when you hit a rock, and even when you reach cool things like bones!

3: Cubes are your friends

When using a spade, it is ideal to try and dig the dirt up into nice cubes. This ensures a tidy trench that is one consistent layer rather than many messy layers. A tidy trench means happy archaeologists! This also makes it easier for the next person digging in the trench to figure out where you left off and where they need to go.

4: Hand to thigh

It is important to use the tools properly to ensure that you don’t injure yourself while excavating. When using a spade or shovel to scoop up loose soil, it is often instinct to just use your arms. However, by doing this, it is likely that your arm muscles will quickly become tired out and possibly even that you will pull said muscle. Instead, it is better to place the back of your hand that holds the handle of the shovel/spade against your thigh and push using both your arm and thigh. This allows you to use both your arm and leg muscles, resulting in you having more power behind the tool. It also preserves your energy.

5: Get to know your fellow excavators

There are so many interesting people from all over the world who come to volunteer at Vindolanda. We have been working with people from Australia, America, Scotland, England, Germany and more fellow Canadians! It’s so awesome to get to know these people, to hear their stories, and to experience Vindolanda together with them!

6: Stratigraphy 2.0!

When processing the excavated material it is best to identify the stratigraphy lines in the chunks of soil and pull the soil apart at these lines. If there are any material remains in the soil, the pressure will cause the soil to break away at that spot – revealing the remains.

7: Beautiful Blue

Sometimes in the soil there will be a beautiful royal blue colour. It is easy to think that this is an artifact like a bead, but in fact it is vivianite. Viviante is a mineral that becomes blue as it oxidizes – so as we excavate, we expose the mineral to oxygen which causes it to turn colour. Unfortunately, this is not an artifact, but a cool chemical reaction.

8: Biscuit Barrel

Here at Vindolanda there is a lovely tradition of bringing your favourite cookies and placing them in the biscuit barrel for everyone to enjoy! My personal favourites include Tim Tams from Australia and Tunnock’s from Scotland.

9: Know your limits

When we excavate, the person digging in the trench places the soil into buckets. This soil is then transferred into wheelbarrows where it is processed by sorters who remove all the goodies from it – like pottery, glass, bones and writing tablets. After this, we take the wheelbarrow away from the trench and dump it over the side of a dirt hill. It is important to know how much dirt you can carry in your wheelbarrow before it becomes to heavy for you – especially since we push the full wheelbarrows uphill. I personally dump my wheelbarrow after I process about four full buckets of soil.

10: Sunscreen!

Even though we are working in Northern England where it is usually pretty cloudy, it is important to stay protected from the sun. Especially on a windy day, it can be hard to notice how warm it actually is and how much sun exposure you’re getting.

Meet our fellow diggers!

Every year, over 400 volunteers from all over the world come to Vindolanda to help excavate. Over the last two weeks, our team has met and formed relationships with numerous individuals. Most of these volunteers have excavated at Vindolanda before, but some of them are brand new volunteers, just like us! In order to get to know these volunteers a little more, and intrigued by their decision to come back to Vindolanda, I decided to ask a few of them questions.

Meet Anthea! Anthea has been excavating for the last 18 years and plans to excavate for 10 weeks this year. She is retired and enjoys travelling and visiting her friends. One day when Anthea was in school, a famous archaeologist visited and delivered a presentation on archaeological finds; this peaked her interest. She later learned about Vindolanda through an advertisement in a magazine and has loved excavating ever since she started! Her favourite finds include a stone depiction of a hare chasing a hound and the discovery of the first fort walls. She has only excavated at Vindolanda, but her dream excavation site is Herculaeum!

Meet Norman! Norman has excavated at Vindolanda for over ten years and his very first excavation took place at Housesteads at the age of 10. In his free time he enjoys making models and private flying. He was in the Royal Air Force for 22 years and first came to Vindolanda in 1960 when it was just a grass field! His most interesting find is a brooch found in the vicus a couple years ago; this is now in the Vindolanda museum. He excavates from April to September, making him one of the longest serving volunteers per year. Norman has also excavated at other Roman sites such as Southshields, but when asked where he would like to dig next, he answered Vindolanda!

Meet Jane! Jane has been excavating at Vindolanda since 2008. She enjoys the cinema and the theatre in her free time. She first found out about volunteering at Vindolanda when she hiked Hadrian’s Wall and saw people excavating. She helped to find the first building in the North Field and her favourite small find is a wooden comb! Jane has only excavated at Vindolanda, but when asked where else she would like to excavate, she said the Villa Romana del Casale, a Roman villa with incredible mosaic floors!

Anthea, Norman, and Jane, are only a small fraction of the many volunteers we have the pleasure of working with. I’ll report back soon with another fabulous group of volunteers!

Written by Justin

Sink your teeth into this

Here at Vindolanda, we find a plethora of objects in our trenches. Over these two weeks we’ve already found a bead, multiple leather shoes, a ring, many pottery fragments, teeth, and bones!

As an aspiring bioarchaeologist, I’m super fascinated by the bones and teeth we’ve recovered. So far, team session 6 has found a horse skull, a cow skull, a handful of scapulae, more teeth than I can count, and loads of poorly-preserved bone.

These bones can tell us things like: what animals the Romans kept, what animals they ate / what animals they kept for supplies (such as wool).

When it comes to human remains, we can look at what sort of diseases / conditions the Romans suffered, their ages at death, their sex, and things such as that.

My favourite game to play is Guess the Bone when one comes out of the trench. I can’t wait for Trudi, the bioarchaeologist (from Durham University), to give a lecture about these finds!

So, how do you go about identifying a bone? Well, you could try the good ol’ trick of licking the bone (not advisable) because the porosity of the bone makes it stick to your tongue. Or, you could feel how light it is (lighter than pottery and stones), and look for the porosity, rather than feel for it. After some time, it becomes relatively easy to identify bone, but it’s still exciting to find a well-preserved piece! I personally like the scapulae, because they’re such a unique shape (unfortunately, I don’t have a picture here to show).

Until next time,


Recovery Weekend at the Lake District

Hi everyone!

We’re here at the Lake District recovering from the first full week of excavation. We were put to work this past week y’all… but it couldn’t have culminated any better than spending the weekend here.

It’s absolutely gorgeous here. While we’re relaxing for the most part, we’re still visiting Roman sites and getting educated! I have to admit, this is one of the best ways to learn.

Here we are listening to Victoria’s presentation on Hardknott Roman Fort.

We also had the opportunity to ride this cute little train.

Some of us are currently hiking, others are kayaking, and I’m sitting at a cafe admiring the beauty of this area.

If you’re ever in England, you have to visit the Lake District! Below are a couple more photos that I could t resist posting:

We’ll tell you all about our excavation experiences soon. In the mean time, we’re going to continue relaxing to prepare ourselves for another week of excavations!