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.

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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!

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

Memories for a Lifetime 

Wow what a wild ride it’s been! I can’t begin to describe how much this experience has meant to me, but i’ll try my best. As this week comes to a close, so does my Vindolanda experience… for now at least, and I can confidently say that this has been one of the most amazing experiences I was so lucky to be a part of! Not only was this a great learning opportunity and an exciting and educational 5 weeks, but also an amazing chance to meet new people and get to know my fellow field schoolers. The memories we made here will forever be some of my fondest, including our hard work in the trenches, and our delicious group dinners. This adventure would not have been the same if it weren’t for the amazing people and positivity everyone had towards all our activities, including hikes along Hadrian’s Wall, badminton, and most of all excavating.

Just a few of the many memories captured over the past few weeks

We began this archaeological journey together in the North Field, learning about the Romans and what they have left behind, evidently for us to now find, and slowly working our way towards greater finds in either the east ditch or the Vicus. This experience has been rewarding in every way possible and I can say, although I haven’t uncovered a ton of history, I was thrilled anytime I or others did. It’s not just what you find, it’s how you found it. I know that sounds cheesy but it’s true. Every skill, every technique, every part about archaeology is rewarding in its own way, and knowing how far I’ve come since the beginning is the best of all.

 

My time in the east ditch

I just want to thank everyone who made this experience a once in a life time opportunity, including our amazing professors, Beth and Alex, and every single person I’ve had the privilege of knowing during these weeks.

Now signing off,

Holly

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.