History Facts of the Lake District 

History Facts of the Lake District 

Hello avid readers! As many of you may be aware, we students were visiting the Lake District of England this weekend. It is an absolutely astounding and beautiful place, but it is also filled with some incredible history! Here are three short history lessons about the Lake District and surrounding areas.

1. Gunpowder Mills in South Lakeland

This area was popular for gunpowder mills because of the abundance of running water as power to drive the machinery. Abundant in natural resources, the local area provided the necessary ingredients for making gunpowder, especially graphite. This also means that pencils were made locally and there is even a Pencil Museum nearby (although we didn’t visit that.) However, Alfred Nobel the creator of dynamite (and the more famous award and prize) bought out all of the gunpowder mills in order to store all his dynamite which was more effective than gunpowder. Many of the old mills have been converted into luxury hotels. While I couldn’t snap a picture in time, I thought this was an interesting fact our tour bus driver told us on Saturday.

2. Hardknott Fort

As you know from Garett’s post about his favourite memories of Saturday, we visited Hardknott Roman Fort where Holly gave us a wonderful history presentation about the fort. The fort was built under the rule of Hadrian in the 2nd century AD. An inscription from the south gate records the garrisons stationed at the fort, the Fourth Cohort of Dalmatians, which confirms the forts dating. It was interesting to see the history of another new fort especially after the last three weeks immersed primarily in Vindolanda’s history. Some of the class enjoyed a hike Sunday which included the remains of another fort in Ambleside, properly known as Galava Roman Fort. From the photos people shared, it mostly seems that just the minimal remains of the building foundations survive, but the fort was likely a supply base, built under the rule of Hadrian, and strategically placed at the head of Lake Windermere near the mouth of a river, and situated neatly between two large valleys.

3. Beatrix Potter Attraction.

Many of you may be familiar with The Tale of Peter Rabbit, other books and their author Beatrix Potter. On Sunday, Avery, Holly, and I took an excursion to check out the Beatrix Potter attraction. At the attraction we learned that much of the landscape of Beatrix’s stories were inspired by the Lake District. In many of her books, you can see depicted in drawing some of her favourite places of the area. With her publication earnings, she supported the efforts of the National Trust for “Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty.” Her goal was to protect these treasured locations for her, but also to protect the low lying valleys from commercialization and development. As someone who also shares the passion for animals and environment conservation as Beatrix, I was really touched to hear this story. The Beatrix Potter attraction is one of my most memorable moments of the weekend. I thoroughly enjoyed it, thinking of my Mom back home in Canada who absolutely loves the stories of Peter Rabbit and other creatures.

Beatrix Potter Attraction
Beatrix Potter Attraction

Hopefully those of you reading from England know exactly the beauty and peace of the Lake District that pictures just cannot capture. For those of you reading from elsewhere in the world, I truly hope you consider adding a stop to the Lake District if you ever find yourself in England. I can promise you will not regret it.

The importance of observation: archaeology and flowers

Observation is one of the skills archaeologists need to develop. In order to identify changes in the soil layers and potentially different periods, to distinguish between pottery and rocks, to pick out a writing tablet from an off-cut of wood, and to identify the shapes and structures beneath the soil that could indicate a Roman fort, one needs to pay close attention to detail and be observant of the environment one is working in. But observation comes in handy in areas outside of archaeology too, so for today’s blog post I though I would use my keen observation from archaeology and combine it with another passion – photographing flowers – to introduce you to the flowers around Vindolanda.

Foxglove flowers along the North Field wall.

The first flower I would like to showcase is one you may recognize from you garden: foxglove, or Digitalis purpurea. This beautiful plant is native to Europe. A fun fact about it is that it has a variety of medicinal properties: in small doses, the leaves can be a heart stimulant to treat heart failure, while in larger doses the same compound that can treat heart failure makes this plant poisonous. This plant was found along the side of the wall for marking the North Field where we started excavating in our first week, although you often see it growing along the sides of roads too.


Rhododendrons in the Vindolanda gardens.

The second flower is the rhododendron, which you might also see in your garden. The name rhododendron refers to a genus (which includes many species), and is primarily native to Asia, although there are some species native to Europe and North America. This flowering plant was found in the gardens at Vindolanda outside the museum, although you may also see rhododendrons along the sides of the roads since one particular species –  Rhododendron ponticum – is actually an invasive species in the United Kingdom.

A fun fact about rhododendrons is that they love acidic soil, unlike most other plants. (For science nerds like me, most plants do not like acidic soil because they need to extract ions- specifically cations like Mg2+, Ca2+, etc. that are nutrients needed for growth. These cations are attached through attractive forces to negatively charged soil particles- just like magnets where opposite charges attract. One of the ways plants can access these nutrients is to release H+ ions into the soil; the hydrogen ions are more attracted to the negative charge than the other ions and they displace those nutrient ions into the soil water, which the plant roots can then uptake them. H+ ions make the soil acidic; if the soil is already acidic, it is harder for plants to get their nutrients. I do not know why rhododendrons enjoy acidic soil – but if there is any rule to go by in biology, there are always exceptions to the norm).

Bluebell flowers.

The third flower is the bluebell, or Hyacinthoides non-scripta, which we observed growing in the fields along Hadrian’s Wall. This flower is native to Europe and the UK. A fun fact is that this plant is actually protected in the UK, and is typically blue, although it may also be white and rarely is found in pink.  This is one of my favourite flowers.



Some of the lovely bluebell flowers we saw during our second hike.
Cow’s parsley above some buttercups and dandelions.

The fourth flower is the cow’s parsley, or Anthriscus sylvestris. We have observed this growing among the fields surrounding Hadrian’s wall, as well as in the shade along the road. This plant is native to Europe. It has several look alike plants in regards to its leaves and flowers, including fool’s parsley, hemlock, and giant hogsweed. Unlike the latter two (hemlock is poisonious, and giant hogsweed is a dangerous invasive species), this plant is safe.



Blue forget-me-nots.

The fifth flower is the wood forget-me-not, or the Myosotis sylvatica. This is a plant I’ve seen back home in Ontario, Canada, although it is also native to Europe. A fun-fact about this species is that it is found throughout England, Wales, and the Isle of Mann. While you might not be able to tell because this picture is a close-up, the flowers on this plant are tiny!


The final flower I’m going to briefly discuss is the buttercup, a member of the genus Ranunculus. Like rhododendrons, Ranunculus is a genus that includes many species, and I believe the one featured here is likely a creeping buttercup, Ranunculus repens. A fun fact about buttercups is that they are poisonous to livestock, although they apparently have a bitter taste which discourages animals from eating them in the first place.

Buttercups in the grass at Vindolanda.

We have seen many other flowers throughout out trip, from garden roses to wildflowers to weeds (which are just plants in locations we do not like, in my opinion).  I’ve posted some more pictures below – I hope you enjoy them, and can apply the lessons of observation from archaeology to the subjects that interest you.

Left: a field poppy from Wallsend, middle: a rose from the Princess St. Gardens in Edinburgh, right: a rhododendron (one of the non-invasive species) at Vindolanda.

Remembering to Slow Down

Our third week of excavation at Vindolanda has come to an end and every day is still as exciting as the first. Going up to the tea shed before the visitors arrive, before the other excavators arrive, there’s a certain beauty that can’t be described. The day then picks up speed as we head to our trenches to begin excavations. At lunch, most of us voraciously eat to fill the appetite we worked up while talking  about what’s been happening in the other trench. Soon enough we’re back to work, then tea, then work, and all of sudden it’s the end of the day and most people are ready to go home. With this routine, you can easily forget to take in the view of Vindolanda. 

I know I would tell myself “don’t worry, I can look around tomorrow or next week!” I’ve realized this week just how quickly time is running out for me to explore and really take in Vindolanda. So these past few mornings and lunches, I took my time to look around the entire site and take in its beauty. As I dabbled with this idea, some of my fellow field schoolers decided to do the same.

Elizabeth taking in the view Friday morning before excavation

After buying my lunch in the cafe, I spent my time appreciating the beauty of this little valley. The stream meandered its way past the kiln, under the bridge, and in front of the reconstructed temple. If the Romans came down from Vindolanda to this stream, they would have heard the same sounds I can hear right now as the water makes its trek to wherever it ends up. The trees that line the paths as I walk up towards the site sway in the wind and whisper things to those who listen. One could hear the whisper of the trees themselves and imagine that it’s the distant voices and sounds of the Romans coming from the fort just above. 

The stream running under the bridge

I also realized I had never been on the replica of Hadrian’s wall that stands at Vindolanda. I lazily made my way over there with my ear buds in, enjoying the tone the music set to my leisurely pace. I felt like the school children we see each day as I climbed the stairs to the top of the wooden turret and then the stone one. Looking down onto the site from this vantage point feels almost dream like. I can just imagine the various phases: the Vicus, a noisy and busy place outside of the stone fort, the timber forts and barracks would just below with a different kind of ruckus. 

My view from atop the stone turret

I’ve sadly begun to think about how I will soon be leaving Vindolanda. Sad as it may be that I’ll be leaving soon, I have a feeling I’ll be back to Vindolanda, maybe as a visitor, or even a volunteer. But until then I will make sure to soak in all the beauty of Vindolanda while I still have the chance.

The Ancient Romans: They’re Just Like Us!

In today’s bustling world of technology and sanitation, the lifestyle of the Ancient Romans might seem very distant from our own. However, I can promise you that we are closer to the Ancient Romans than you might think! Turns out you don’t have to be in Rome to do as the Romans do.

They hate cleaning

You know the story, you host a few too many dinner parties in your barracks or maybe you have a messy roommate. Either way, people love quick fixes when it comes to cleaning. While you or I might hide things under a bed, the Romans just built themselves a new floor on top of their trash. Genuis!

They love a good seafood dinner

Nothing beats fresh oysters! Judging by the sheer quantity of oyster shells we find in the Vicus on a daily basis, the Romans had some great oyster buffets. They are the perfect meal for anyone who has had a hard day at the office or a tiresome shift defending the frontier.

This is one of the many oyster shells we have found in the Vicus over the past three weeks. Photo by Victoria Boerner

They drop their change

Find a sestertius, pick it up, and all day long you’ll have good luck…or just leave it for someone else to find. We drop our nickles and they dropped their denarii. However, this is actually very useful! On archaeological sites like Vindolanda, we can pinpoint areas of trade and commerce based on the concentration of coins found in a certain place. Next time your pockets feel a little too weighed down with change, maybe think about placing some coins in convenient spots to help out future excavators.

They label their possessions

Living in close quarters with other people means you need to take extra care to label your stuff. When your roommate borrows your phone charger saying “I don’t see you name on it” you must be able to smugly point to your penned initials on the underside. Tygomas knew this well and scratched his name into his amphora to prevent any ownership disputes. Smart thinking!


This is the handle of an amphora. If you look closely, you can see “Tygomas,” the owner’s name, carved into it! Photo by Elizabeth Clark

They break their flip flops

We’ve all been there, enjoying a nice summer day when *POP* the strap of your flip flop detaches from the sole. You can try to pop it back in but you know deep down it is just a matter of time before it comes loose again. No one has the patience for that kind of irritation, not even the Ancient Romans. Sulpicia Lepidina tossed out her sandals when the strap broke for us to find 1900 years later.

They appreciate a good tent

I am sure the Ancient Romans would agree when I say there is nothing worse than a leaky tent. Today’s outdoors enthusiast might go for a nice nylon or polyester-based tent; however, the Romans enjoyed leather tents using a sewing technique that created water-tight seams. We love finding their tent panels to remind us of our shared love of camping.

Aline found a nice piece of leather! Oftentimes the pieces we find were parts of tents or cut-offs from other projects. Photo by Avery Lafortune

These are just a few of the parallels between our society and that of Roman Britain. Although we are separated by almost 2000 years, it appears old habits die hard. There are many other similarities including footprints made in wet cement, children’s writing exercises, and letters home asking for care packages, to remind us that we are not so different from the people of the past.

Update on the East Ditch

Hi everyone, today I will be giving you an update on the progress of the ditch system in the eastern trench! As we have heard from Cassandra in the East Ditch Introduction, this newly excavated trench could be quite an exciting area and could produce some great finds. As of last week, we were beginning to dig and sort through top soil (which is a brown colour) and we continued to do so into this week. Within the top soil up to this layer, there were a few finds such as pieces of pottery and bone, as well as a coin, game piece, and spear base that was mentioned in the previous introduction. Soon we found a more grey layer of silt, probably a sediment from the water flowing through the ditch. In the past few days, we began to dig through the topsoil to try and expose an adjacent clay layer and try to determine where the edge of the ditch is. It took a lot of hard work, some powerful spading and troweling but eventually we got there. It turns out that the ditch is more complex than we had first thought. As is the case with most excavations at Vindolanda, we have layers of ditches on top of each other. The excavated clay edge probably belongs to the 3rd century ditch and the other end of it is underneath a later re-cut ditch. Finding these sorts of features requires careful and patient excavation.

While we were doing this, some of the new Michigan students continued the de-turfing efforts further down the trench. Once they had finished, our goal was to clear the topsoil to the edge of the berm and define the rocks again. While clearing the dirt I came across a small black glass gaming counter which was exciting since it was different compared to the clay ones we had previously found in this trench. Along with the game piece a few coins were found as well as pieces of bone, teeth, and pottery.


My glass game piece


But by far the most exciting part of the week was when we got the go ahead to drop down another layer. This is very exciting because now we are truly starting to dive down into the ditch itself, and hopefully it will produce some great finds. Again we can see that this is a darker grey layer and a more mucky soil to try and sort through. Around this dirt we also uncovered a few larger rocks, which could possibly have fallen into the ditch. Here we can see the layer of dark soil and rocks as compared to the brown dirt earlier in the day, before we dropped down.

Our drop down trench and the difference in soil colour
You can see the excavated clay edge just to the right of the yellow buckets

Unfortunately, while there were no small finds in what we looked through, this is only the beginning of what will surely be a great excavation and I’m so glad I got to be a part of this experience from the very beginning!