End of excavations season update

Vindolanda Trust - Friday, October 10, 2014

Excavation season final update


So that is it for the Vindolanda excavations in 2014! The final shovel has been put away, the pump sent off for cleaning and the wheelbarrows upturned. The biscuit barrel in the shed is empty and we have even moved the excavation tool shed to a new location. It will be steam-cleaned before anyone is allowed back inside.

We want to say thank you to all of those who have taken part on the excavations, taken part in the debates about the finds on line and of course especially to those who have visited the site this year. Special praise is due to the hard working but seldom seen post-excavation team, those who have worked in the pottery and bone sheds and in the lab, processing and caring for all of the artefacts that have come from the excavations this season. We found over 1300 artefacts this year, and that is not counting the pottery and bone.

In a few weeks’ time the applications for the 2015 excavations will go live on this website, at 12noon on the 3rd of November. Before the general places for 2015 go live, we have made the veterans draw. This draw consists of all the participants of 2014 being placed into a Centurions helmet and 65 of those people being drawn out. It is our way of saying thank you to those who have supported us in the past and worked on the site, as well as giving the excavations a solid backbone of valuable experience for the next season, something which both the staff and new excavators find invaluable when they come to Vindolanda. If your name has come out of the draw you will have already been contacted and we look forward to welcoming you back next year.

A major change from this season and many of the past will be that Justin Blake, the Deputy Director of Excavations is leaving the Vindolanda Trust team to become a member of a new one, with a new and exciting role, as a police officer. We will all miss Justin and thank him for the tremendous fun we have had working with him over the years and wish him every success in his move. He has almost served his 25 years at Vindolanda (the same time as a Roman Soldier) and can retire from this role with a diploma and a plot of land in Haltwhistle (the best we can do).

It was quite the year on the excavations, a tremendous year for finds, weather and meeting a great deal of wonderful people. As a result I have taken the unusual step of making a list of the top 13 artefacts from this seasons work. We tried for 10 but there were so many good finds it was hard to narrow them down. You might well have your own favourite find of the season which is not on this list. Pop over to the Vindolanda facebook or twitter pages and tell us which artefact was special for you and why.

Thank you again for supporting the excavations this year.

Best wishes,


The top finds from 2014 the Director of excavations pick.

In no particular order, and covering all three areas of excavation are the following superb artefacts. As each artefact finishes its conservation images of all the finds will start to appear below. 

Stylus and ink tablets

19 stylus and ink tablets came from this year’s excavations, each one of them has the potential to give us a direct message from the past, each one will take months of careful conservation before they can be read. They are very rare, and give us information which we cannot get from any other means, making them priceless. Range of tablets cAD85-130.

A Vindolanda stylus tablet

Toilet seat

Wow, the only know surviving example of a Roman wooden toilet seat form the whole of the Roman Empire? This wonderful artefact reminds us of how much we have lost, but also how the most mundane of things that we take for granted have the power to reconnect us with the past. Well-worn and out of use by AD120 it is now being lovingly conserved in the Vindolanda labs. Next we need to find the loo that went with it, watch this space in 2015 for news on this front.

The Vindolanda wooden toilet seat

Gold Coin

Continuing on the rare front, a gold coin of Nero discovered this year was a first for Vindolanda and may well be a last. Gold coins were worth so much that the auxiliary soldiers rarely got paid with them and even then, if you did get one you certainly did your best not to lose it. The fact that it was dropped over 300years after it was minted suggests that this coin had a long history of being past from person to person before being lost at Vindolanda. I can’t help wonder what it was used to buy and how heavy the change might have been! A 4th century deposition.

Justin and Marcel with the gold coin

The gold coin of Nero

Childs shoe

This year we had some 130 shoes from the excavations, Vindolanda has produced almost 6000 of them, but when you get a child’s shoe, especially a small one like this it is a real window into the Roman military world and a reminder that they weren’t all combat troops on the Wall. Dated to cAD85-92

Apollo Mould

Dropped into the side of a large kiln at the site, this lovely little mould would have been used to knock out Vindolanda Apollo figurines to attach to face pots. It is a lovely image, and represents failed enterprise to make our own Roman pottery wares at the site. Mid second century AD.

The Apollo mould - photographed by Adam Stanford

Wagon wheel

So….how big was a Roman Army wagon wheel? Well, thanks to this year’s excavations at Vindolanda we now know. While not complete, this year we found two sections and three spokes of a wagon wheel. cAD105-120.

Wagon wheel excavated by Gary and Anthea

Cavalry Sword

Broken but still razor sharp, complete with nicks in the blade, this is one of the finest examples of a cavalry sword found on the frontier of Roman Britain. Thrown away into the foundations of a building dated to cAD105-120, before Hadrian’s Wall construction started and quite possibly owned by a cavalryman from Spain. Used or broken in anger or combat? We may never know for sure, but this blade has a story of its own to tell.

Cavalrymans spur  

Like the sword, incredibly well preserved and in this case complete and therefore most likely ‘lost’ rather than thrown away. The spur is from a right boot, and the pin in the back - made from copper -remains bright golden in colour and wickedly sharp. Dated like the sword to cAD105-120 and located less than 2metres from the sword find.

Mini stylus pen

We had quite a few stylus pens this year, but again it is nice to get one which is so small that it was likely to have been used by a small hand, perhaps a child’s. Photographed on my own hand this pen looks like a toy. Vindolanda was an incredibly literate society for its time, and it would appear that nearly all members of its society took part in reading and writing. We have more pens than swords from Vindolanda, perhaps the pen was mightier after all. Dated to cAD85-92

Small stylus pen

Silver brooch

Beautifully crafted and a real show of wealth, this silver brooch was one of many rather fine artefacts that came from the 2014 - 4th century fort excavations. It has helped us to appreciate that the people who lived in this part of the fort had more disposable incomes than the average frontier soldiers of the 4th century and therefore really question who they might have been. Have we found evidence for the late Roman field army at Vindolanda and not just frontier soldiers?

Silver brooch

Three wooden bowls

Little wooden bowl, middle-sized wooden bowl and big wooden bowl all found in an Antonine (cAD150) ditch. Think Roman, think pottery, think again! Although they rarely survive these simple but rather lovely wooden bowls once again remind us of the bias of preservation and perhaps that pottery was not always king on Roman sites.

Seal Box

A beautifully preserved and decorated Roman seal box recovered from the bottom of an early fort ditch in the north field.  Used to seal something special, perhaps a package from home or an important message to the very first garrisons at the site.

Samian cup

We get a great number of Samian cups and bowls at Vindolanda in the course of each year’s excavation and this is one of the best preserved examples of a late 1st century type from below the pre-Hadrianic forts.

A beautifully preserved Samian cup

August Excavations

Vindolanda Trust - Sunday, August 24, 2014

Dr Andrew Birley


It has been a while since we had a comprehensive update on the excavation blog, beyond what we have been keeping you abreast with via facebook and twitter as we entered the crucial part of the season when things come thick and fast. The north field excavations have come to an end for the year and you can see what the Vindolanda Trust and the Canadian field school have been up to in that section. The extramural excavations have been extremely successful, with plenty of sensational artefacts and buildings to show for the work, but this is the most challenging environment to work in at Vindolanda, heavy rain turning trenches into almost instant swimming pools or lakes – see how we have got on in the ‘extramural section’ or ‘2nd century fort below the vicus’. Inside the remains of the 3rd and 4th century fort large areas have continued to been uncovered giving a real flavour of the different kind of occupation here as opposed to elsewhere in this fort, indeed, elsewhere along the frontier…… We have four weeks to go before the end of activities this year, and we promise that the final update for the 2014 season will be a cracker.

The North Field

Unseen by the normal Vindolanda visitor- as this area remains active farmland with livestock and to the north of the main site is the site of the North field excavations. Here we have solid evidence for at least one more Roman fort at the site which is quite separate from any of the nine others on the south side of the road.  For the past five years we have had a small team, working under the direction of the Vindolanda Trust as part of its current research agenda, assisted by Dr Elizabeth Greene and Dr Alexander Meyer and the students of the University of Western Ontario field school who have worked beside the Vindolanda volunteers and research staff exploring the remains in this field.

The field school students.

This year the team uncovered an impressive series of southern defensive ditches associated with the early fort. Ditches which produced partial human remains, Roman shoes, pottery and a rather beautiful seal box. All of these artefacts prove beyond doubt that the ditches are Roman, and indeed, the pottery suggests that the at least partially remained open to the elements, at least as a fossilised earthwork up to the beginning of the 2nd century. At that time, or shortly after, perhaps during the early Antonine occupation of the site in the AD140’s a large and impressive series of kilns were built in to the clay bank to the north of the ditches. These features showed up as positive anomalies on the geophysical survey that the Vindolanda Trust undertook over a decade ago of the entire field, but the remains proved to be far more impressive than we expected. Most likely used for the manufacture of brick and tile, but also exhibiting trace elements of pottery production, the kilns and surrounding area of ash pits showed that this part of Vindolanda was a rich production site. The star finds from this area were the remains of a potential potter’s wheel (in timber) and a beautifully preserved mould, used to make images of the god Apollo. The Excavations will take a break in the north field next season to enable the Vindolanda Trust time to conduct some tighter survey work in an attempt to tightly define the edges of the early fort in this field. However we expect to be back out to the north field in the seasons of 2016 and 2017 to finish the current SMC (Scheduled Monument Consent) mandate, and with luck nail down the exact date of the early fort.  In 2015, the Canadian field school form the University of Western Ontario aim to be back, working in the 3rd and 4th century fort and below the 3rd century vicus in the 2nd century timber forts.

Ditches and kiln 3D mapped 

Mould and face of Apollo.

The 2nd century fort below the vicus

The deep trenches outside the walls of the 3rd century fort, below the foundations of its associated town buildings have continued to delight and frustrate the excavators in equal measure over the last few week of July and into August. When the sun shines too brightly the great concern is that the sensitive archaeological deposits will dry out, cracking and damaging very delicately preserved artefacts such as writing tablets, and other wooden and leather artefacts. But it has been a summer of extremes, and once the heavy rain started to fall at the end of July the difficulties of working well below the water table came back with a vengeance which very much reminded us of the start of the season in April and May, making several lakes where there were archaeological trenches.

Wattle and daub fences below the 3rd century town and Severan buildings.

Despite these difficulties, the teams here have produced some fantastic results – carefully showing multiple phases of timber forts below the 3rd century levels, particularly forts III-V which have survived well enough in parts to be able to untangle the outline of their structures. There is no doubt that in period IV (cAD105-120) the area under exploration is in the very heart of the central range of this fort but the question remains exactly which building of the central range is it? Possibly the front of the Headquarters building, possibly the remains of a hospital or perhaps a large cavalry barrack? It is frustratingly too soon to tell for sure, the best bit will undoubtedly come in the early months of next season – especially if the structure is the headquarters building. Below the structures the natural and thick boulder clay of the pre-Roman hillside has been established, falling sharply to the east from one side of the trench to the other. The Romans had thrown in an awful lot of rubbish into the earliest foundations here from cAD90 + (Period II) and as a result some terrifically preserved artefacts have come from these very early levels, including rather beautifully preserved Samian platters, oyster shells, children’s boots,  and writing tablets/stylus tablets and stylus tablet pens. Among the mix are a large number of well-preserved animal bones, dogs, goats, sheep, cattle and small bird and mammal bones.

Big picture of  below the vicus area by Adam Stanford.

On the western edge of the excavations a small and sharply cut Antonine ditch (drainage) running north to south had cut away the start of the period IV floors, but left preserved a wonder wattle and daub fence – the outside of the building. Inside this Antonine ditch were a lovely series of well-preserved and small wooden bowls, a cup, a middle sized bowl and a big bowl. A complete set, tossed into the ditch and a reminder that not every Roman used pottery, indeed, perhaps wooden bowls would have been equal to if not more prevalent than pottery in many periods. These trenches have had to be abandoned for a couple of weeks to let the weather settle down, but in the beginning of September the archaeologists will pump them out and try once more to discover their secrets. As the area is excavated it is also backfilled, with only one or two sections exposed at a time. This is to reduce the effect of oxygen creep into areas that have yet to be explored and to preserve the remains that can only be exposed for a short period of time. It also helps to support the trenches and the consolidated remains above. So when you visit the site, you get a window into a new section each time.

This excavation has produced an absolute ‘one-off’ artefact before the rain filled it with water…expect news of this exciting find to come out shortly in an official press release from the Vindolanda Trust. All I can say at this point is ….you won’t be disappointed.

Inside the remains of the 3rd and 4th century fort.

Whilst the north field and the vicus excavations are deep, wet and difficult, the fort continues to expand on a wide front to expose the remains of the end of Roman Britain and the transition from Roman to post-Roman over the entire south eastern quadrant of the fort, including the via decumana, the main road though the south gate to the back of the headquarters building to the north. Here dramatic results are obtained relatively quickly and this has certainly been the case this year with building after building, street after street coming to light through the hard work of the teams in this area. As always, the end of Roman Vindolanda seems to have been a busy place with plenty of late Roman pottery smashed across its floors and a large number of small coins, beads, iron artefacts and pottery counters marking the final years of debris. Over the final surface of the via decumana (main road) are piles of rubble, sometimes compressed suggesting an ancient formation and sometimes worryingly loose, suggesting the activities of stone robbers or clearance cairns, but all part of the rich history of this part of the site. Fragmentary inscriptions, occasionally small but often large remind us of the pride that the garrisons took in their building work (such as the image of a partial monumental inscription below- recovered a few weeks ago and tossed away as so much unusable rubble by the last people who lived on the site).

Inscribed stone of Caracallan date 

Post-Roman evidence remains prevalent in all areas of excavation in this part of the site, suggesting a long continued tradition of occupation which went well-beyond the end of Roman Britain but an occupation which eventually did little to respect the old Roman roads, building plots or landscape of the internals of the late 4th century fort. Below are a couple of wonderful pictures take of the site, one from the end of September last year, and another from the middle of the summer this year by Adam Stanford. We can’t wait to show you the final photo which will be taken in October this year of how we have got on in this area, how well the buildings look and how much it has added to the story of Vindolanda.

Stanford September 2013

Stanford Summer 2014

Final thoughts

If you like the sound of how things are going and want to come and see the excavations in action for yourself we will be excavating on site Mondays to Fridays until the 20th of September this year. On the 25th -26th and the 28th -29th of August we will be having a daily pottery handling session next to the excavation trenches from 11am – 12noon and 1pm -2:30pm. The next blog update will be at the beginning of October when we round up the season for you and start letting you know about next year’s excavations and what you need to do if you want to join us in all of the fun.

Best wishes,

Andrew Birley

Director of Excavations – The Vindolanda Trust