End of May update

Vindolanda Trust - Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Hello everyone and welcome back to the monthly appointment with the Vindolanda excavation blog.

Periods 3 and 4 have flown by, accompanied by an astonishingly long Northumbrian summer: with 9 days of uninterrupted sunshine, much has been achieved on site. The most prominent news is that the Vicus excavation area is finally under way, and following my update on the fort situation, the director of excavations Dr. Andrew Birley will tell us a bit more about progress in the wooden wonderland and adjacent areas.

Without further ado, let us take a look to the discoveries by our period 3 and 4 volunteers.

The fort-junior officers and Antonine.

Period 3 team picked up their trowels, buckets and spades and  continued work started inside the fort by period 2 volunteers:  another reminder, if at all necessary, that every one of our excavators makes a unique contribution, and enables the work of the following teams to progress steadily.

The junior officer's quarters, both in the north east and in the south west corners of the excavation area, have undergone some changes. In the north east building the latest floor surface has been removed, and a lower flagstone floor has been exposed. This matches with the perimeter of a East West oriented rectangular barrack, thin and long ,dating to the 3rd century. A badly preserved partition wall has also emerged, dividing the space in two smaller rooms. In the process of uncovering the floor of the barrack, the largest gaming board ever produced by the Vindolanda excavations has been found: an almost complete example of 12x12 grid incised in sandstone.

Fig1.  The team hard at work in the junior officer's apartment. (Photo by Stephen Fletcher)

In the South West officers' apartment, another beautiful find emerged from the clearing of the latest floor foundations: a large 4th century copper alloy bell, unfortunately missing its clapper.

Fig 2. The gaming board and the bell.

In an impressive effort, the team also uncovered the easternmost wall of one of our large 4th century cavalry barracks, emptying the in process an adjacent drainage ditch.  Such work provided a natural boundary and enclosure for the continuation of the investigation of the central range of Severan round houses. Their floor and surrounding road surfaces were carefully removed to uncover the remains of a large courtyard building dating to the Antonine period. To the carved sandstone base for a screen found in period 2, a column, a north south oriented drain and several other elements have been added: may we be one step closer to the location of the commanding officer house in the Antonine period? Will the discovery of such a building finally reveal who the Antonine garrison was?  Only more excavation will tell.

Fig.3 Antonine column and screen base.

Finally, works are ongoing in the South East corner of the fort, where a large east west oriented structure has been  gradually brought to light, with up to 11 courses of facing sandstone masonry still standing. The structure appears to be the terminal point for at least three important drainage channels. This adds up to quite an impressive the amount of water flushing what increasingly looks like the largest stone built toilet block found in Vindolanda so far. Extreme care will be taken in sampling the contents of drainage channels and surely more and more information will emerge on the life of the Antonine garrison.

Fig.4 The volunteers admire the results of their work on the Antonine toilet block. (Photo by Stephen Fletcher)


The Extramural settlement

In the last three weeks of excavation have seen a return to the land of the third century extramural (town outside the walls of the 3rd century fort) and the underlying timber buildings from pre-Hadrianic forts. It has taken us a little longer than usual to start the work in this area, due in part to the very high levels of the ground water table, which makes working in deep trenches an unpleasant and difficult endeavor at the best of times, but also things were going so well inside the later stone (as you can see in Marta’s comments above) fort we decided to forge ahead with that work.

The extramural excavations takes on two or three very separate aspects this year. We are continuing below the foundations of the large Severan barracks and vicus buildings initially explored in the early 1970’s, work which has produced around 30 writing tablets, hundreds of shoes, a wooden toilet seat and a great deal of good information on the sequencing in the middle of the timber forts. The second aspect is to explore, to the south of the Severan barracks, new third century extramural houses, backing on to a small but exclusive road which linked the centre of town to the Roman cemeteries in this period. Here we are expecting to encounter more of the high status courtyard buildings, and other extramural structures and spaces which could be attributed to a part of the settlement and fill in a blank space in our plan of Vindolanda in this period. Finally, below the new parts of the town, are the remains of the old Severan south wall, ramparts, and defensive ditch. The ditch has, in the past, proved to be an incredible time-capsule, filled with the rubbish and debris of a very short lived garrison (occupied c AD200=212) and quickly sealed by the foundations of the new town above. It is from this ditch that our head on a stake was found in 2002 (by Dr Alexander Meyer) and we hope that if we are lucky there may be more heads to come.

The immediate work, cleaning the trenches from the winter debris and pumping out the water, allowed our team to get back into the pre-Hadrianic. Here we started 2016 as we ended 2015, with large posts, wattle and daub walls, floor coverings of heather, straw and moss and five stylus tablets (two of which can be seen below).


Fig 5. Excavators working in the extramural settlement


Fig 6. Image of a two new stylus tablets together.

Also in abundance were other artefacts made from wood such as barrel staves and lids, wooden spoons and of course the remarkable piece of furniture which looks for all the world like part of a Roman bedstead.


Fig 7. Bedstead? Or from another item. Roman turned wood.

Beads, bracelets and a small phallic pendant were other notable finds from the first few weeks. The trenches are getting deeper as the landscape drops to the south and pleasingly the trend of better preservation for Vindolanda fort periods II/III (Batavian wooden forts) is continuing. On the 30th of May, the excavators uncovered a potential ink writing tablet which is highly unusual. Made from oak, and as thick as a stylus tablet. We will now have to wait for the lab to do its work, something that cannot be rushed, but that will potentially give us a great deal of new information about the people of Vindolanda if it does indeed turn out to be an ink tablet.


Fig 8. Potential new tablet.

Up in the third century levels, the turf has been steadily rolled back and the foundations, corners and trenches have revealed typically massive stone foundations. Here a great deal of pottery and some animal bone have been the main finds of note, however, every now and then some artefacts stand out from the normal crowd, whether they are the rather fine glass bangles, or beads, or this very unusual iron ingot with an inscription carved on its two sides (something which must have happened while the ingot was hot and malleable).


Fig 9. Image of the ingot  (thanks to Scott)

You are welcome to have a go at reading the cursive inscription. We will release our own interpretation on the next update, in the meantime, see if yours matches our own.

The next update will follow in a few weeks’ time, after we welcome the Canadian field school back for the summer. Stay posted to see what happens next, and how good your cursive Latin is. Or better yet, pay is a visit and come and see what is going on live on the site if you can.


Best wishes,

Andrew and Marta

First excavation blog of this 2016 digging season

Vindolanda Trust - Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hello everyone and welcome to the first excavation blog of this 2016 digging season.

It has been four weeks now since the beginning of excavations, when we first ventured out in our new and bright red Vindolanda t-shirts. The weather has been at times challenging, with cold downpours of rain and even a bit of hail. Still our teams worked extremely hard and some wonderful progress has been made. With more than 100 small finds recorded since the beginning of period 1, and all of our strength focussed inside the perimeter of the 3rd and 4th century fort, many changes and developments are already noticeable.

Fig.1 The Vindolanda Excavation t-shirts, fresh from delivery

Starting from the East gate of the Fort, let us explore the discoveries made by period 1 and 2 volunteers. Immediately to the South of the East Gate lies a large squared Decurion’s apartment, only partially investigated in 2013-2015.  A consistent part of its flagged floor has been removed, to reveal the underlying 3rd century wall of an East West oriented barrack. Next to it run a cobbled road and a large drain. During the process of excavation of the floor of the apartment, a wealth of material culture including iron blades and coins, but also a jet hairpin and a complete cooking pot, has been recovered. This pattern is consistent with finds from a similar building, excavated at the beginning of 2015 season and located in close proximity to the South Gate.

Fig.2 The Decurion’s apartment, with the underlying wall and road surface.

Walking towards the West gate, a new visitors’ path has opened: you can now walk to the south of the Headquarters Building and look at the excavators at work from even closer than before. This gives you a great view of the large NS oriented wall and multi layered road surface that is currently being uncovered. Along the way we have found a beautifully made bone comb, used most likely in textile production and located in close proximity to some pottery spindle whorls.

Fig.3 Period 2 volunteers working hard on the road and barrack wall on a very sunny day.

Looking West from this wall, the South facing row of roundhouses uncovered in 2015 has now got a matching north facing row. This is consistent with the unique pattern found at Vindolanda, which sees blocks of 10 roundhouses divided each in two rows of 5. These structures have been carefully demolished and swept, and our hard working teams warmly welcome even the tiniest sherd of pottery yielded from their floor contexts. On the other hand, close to the south gate and partially cut by the later fort walls, are a row of much larger roundhouses, currently undergoing excavation: some of them have been badly damaged by the subsequent rampart and rampart buildings, but thanks to their size and position, they still make for an impressive sight.

Fig. 4 Rows of roundhouses appearing both in the middle of the excavation area and along the south wall of the fort .

Just to the North of what would have been our 3rd century rampart, a small L-shaped wall was starting to appear in 2015. The combined efforts of period 1 and 2 volunteers have turned this into the tallest standing Antonine building in the fort, with 11 courses of masonry still preserved in certain areas. The function of this structure, cut by the later 3rd century toilet block, is still puzzling the team. May it be the earlier Antonine toilet block, bolted onto the turf rampart of the first stone fort? Only more excavation can confirm this!

Fig. 5 Tallest standing Antonine building at Vindolanda (apart from the fort walls), with up to 11 courses of beautifully crafted masonry

The post excavation teams have also been very busy, trying out a new and improved digital system to record the numerous bags of pottery excavated every day. The most productive context washed and recorded in period 2 has yielded more than 1000 sherds of pottery, weighing more than 14 kilos. With all these exciting news and changes in the landscape of the Fort, we are looking forward to a spell of dry weather long enough to allow us to open the Vicus excavations as well. Our next blog update will be at the end of period 4, so stay tuned on Facebook and Twitter not to miss our daily and weekly finds and news.

 Marta Alberti- Site Archaeologist