End of excavation season round up

Vindolanda Trust - Monday, October 05, 2015

Period 10-11 and Roman Society week

Welcome back to the Vindolanda blog for what will be the last excavation update for 2015.

This season has now come to an end, with the help of the teams from period 10 and 11, as well as of our guest excavators from the Roman Society. The weather has reserved a few surprises, with showers and cold wet mist surrounding us for a good part of the day throughout these 5 weeks. However, the morale never sunk and we managed to reach all of our objectives, with some extra surprises along the way. Now the spades have been cleaned, the barrels have been locked up and the last finds are being processed up in the shed.

What a season it has been! New and exciting structures have been uncovered regularly throughout the excavation both in the fort and in the vicus, together with some extraordinary objects which will make the “best of 2015” case even better, if at all possible, than the “best of 2014”.

Without further ado, let’s go ahead on a virtual tour of what has changed in Vindolanda over the last 5 weeks.

The Fort- Antonine beauty and Severan Round houses

Period 10 was engaged in some challenging roadworks in the fort. Picking up from where period 9 had stopped, the volunteers focussed on excavating the last remaining section of the 4th century via Decumana: thanks to their incredible work, our knowledge of the 3 different arteries that run from the North to the South gate across 3 superimposed forts has much improved: underneath the latest road surface, we descended into a 3rd century road level and finally on the beautifully pebble-dashed Antonine surface, with its matching roadside drain.

In period 11 we went in search of the East roadside drain, hoping that the robbing had not interested the whole East side of the Antonine road surface: our efforts were rewarded in the North part of the excavation area, with some beautiful drain work emerging at the crossroads between the via Decumana and Principalis. As the winter approaches, the Vindolanda team will consolidate and protect this road, the fences will go down, and from next season onwards the visitors will be able to see the excavations up close, not limited by the walls of the headquarters’ building anymore.

Roadside drain to the South of the Headquarters’ building

A small detachment of volunteers in period 10 dedicated their efforts to push forward our knowledge of the Antonine fort wall un-hearted in period 7. We progressed a couple of meters towards the South Gate of the Gauls’ fort, in the general direction of what we hope will be a gateway for the Antonine fort itself. In our chase we were interrupted by a rather puzzling pit, dug in antiquity through the sandstone wall: all of the South facing, well squared, building stones were robbed out, leaving only the North facing, rougher part of the wall,  which would have been invisible when butting against the Antonine rampart. Could this be a confirmation that Antonine building materials were removed intentionally and made available to the round-house builders in Severan times?

3D image of outer face of Antonine wall with stone robbing pit dug in antiquity (probably in the Severan roundhouse period)

Part of a drainage ditch opposite our latrine block was also excavated, work that was to be picked up again in period 11. After recording the ditch, the volunteers “went to the bottom of it”, discovering the corner of a very large barrack, possibly contemporary or slightly antecedent to the ones we have been looking at all year.

The corner of our most recently discovered barrack

Whilst giving the finishing touches to the Via Decumana, we discovered how our drain sharply turned from a North South orientation to an East West one, marking the crossroads between the Antonine via Praetoria and the Intervallum road, running just on the inside of the Antonine first stone wall of Vindolanda.

We then concentrated all our fire-power on trying to find the row of five south facing Severan roundhouses that would inevitably complement the one unearthed in 2014. The volunteers’ efforts were rewarded by a stunning alignment of roundhouses, with intact flagged floors and entranceways, facing a roughly pebble dashed terrace delimited to the South by a deep drain. This part of the excavation, and indeed all of the fort, will look stunning in occasion of the next visit of Aerial Cam, which will shoot some more footage and stills of the site form the air, wrapped in the soft autumn’s light.


 A set of five roundhouses: a line of 5 had not been excavated fully since 1929

The Vicus

Excavations below the vicus were closed down for the season on the 11th of September, an auspicious Vindolanda date, the anniversary of the party hosted to celebrate Claudia Severa’s birthday (TVII-291). The final Vindolanda vicus excavation crew, made up from members of the Roman Society, consumed a cake at their tea break to celebrate the day, and with the sun shining brightly on their backs wheeled the last barrows up the excavation shed after another successful season.

Roman Society excavators

On reflection it must be said that it has been a challenging year in this area with the weather once again making life interesting over the four months of work, much of which took place well below the water table and in tightly confined spaces. The results have highlighted the excellent survival of the period III (c AD 97-105) and IV (c AD105-120) wooden fort buildings in the central range of those forts, and below and above, the partial remains of period II (c AD92-97) and V (c AD120-140) timber buildings.  It is too soon to say for certain what all of the buildings were used for, but there are very large differences between the period IV structures and all of the others, in the much greater size of the timbers used and the number and complexity of the room structures and spaces.

There are notable missing features, such as the toilet to go with the toilet seat discovered in 2014, and it is hoped that this will reveal itself to the modern world at the start of next year’s season. In 2016 the Severan rampart, to the south of the current excavation area, will be removed to explore the continuation of the pre-Hadrianic buildings below it and work will start on the final section of the Severan fortlet southern defensive ditch. This is a spectacular area of Vindolanda, a truly sealed time capsule from a time of great change and conflict in the north of Britain which has produced some remarkable results and finds in previous years of exploration in 2002 and 2004. Let’s hope that the bit in the middle will provide us with more evidence from the fortlet and its enigmatic garrison, the people no doubt tasked with supervising the round house dwellers next door.

And that is all from the excavation for 2015! We of the archaeological team wish once again to wholeheartedly thank every single volunteer who helped making 2015 excavation season such a success.

Now to a few important announcements: the veteran draw is taking place on Wednesday the 7th of October. The lucky winners will be notified via email.  If you are amongst them you have 3 weeks to get in touch with us at the email address laurenwilkinson@vindolanda.com and tell us which slot you prefer to occupy. If you have not been lucky this year, or you have just discovered the opportunity to excavate here at Vindolanda, the applications will go live at 12 am GMT on the 2nd of November. Make sure to get on the website nice and early: the North Field will be open again for excavations next year, so we will be able to welcome a higher number of volunteers. Nonetheless, we will still be pretty busy and getting online early is the best way to avoid disappointment.

We are also offering FREE post-excavation places that run alongside the excavations. Four places per period will be available. This will include washing, sorting, and categorising the bulks finds that are found in vast amounts every day at Vindolanda. This includes pottery, iron, bone, glass and building materials. Places will be available from the same date as the excavation places – 12 noon GMT on 2nd the November. More details can be found here:

or by downloading the following:

http://www.vindolanda.com/excavate/volunteer-programme or by downloading the following: http://www.vindolanda.com/_literature_137224/2016_Post_Excavation_Volunteer_Information

It has been a great ride, and as the winter approaches the staff of Vindolanda will continue working for you, as the site will stay open throughout December. We will be closed from the 4th of January to the 5th of February 2016 for necessary maintenance work and staff training, and by the time we come back, the countdown for the 2016 excavation season will have started! In the meanwhile stay tuned and keep following Facebook and Twitter!

Best wishes

Andrew Birley, Marta Alberti and Lauren Wilkinson

Periods 8-9

Vindolanda Trust - Saturday, August 22, 2015

Periods 8-9 excavations

After a short holiday break in such a successful and productive season, welcome back to the Vindolanda blog! We left you with the promise of some spectacular aerial views of the site from Adam Stanford’s Aerial Cam, and here is a preview of the fine results achieved during the recording week.

Aerial picture of the site produced by Adam Stanford

Images like this make not only for excellent visual reference material, but open to us the possibilities of photo rectification and 3D modelling for the entire site, in order to make our planning of structures and plotting of artefacts more and more accurate, keeping up the pace with the advancing technologies.

Corrected photograph - Adam Stanford

Two hard working and dedicated groups have been with us in period 8 and period 9. As per usual, we will deal separately with the contributions they have given in the fort and the vicus. With only 5 more weeks of excavations to go, stay tuned for the “grand finale” of the 2015 digging season in our next blog update.

Happy reading and best wishes

Marta Alberti

Roadworks in the Fort

Period 8 and Period 9 excavators have concentrated their efforts on roads within the fort, clearing up enormous amounts of large cobble stones and, when unlucky, boulders, making up respectively 4th and possibly even 5th century surfaces.

Three main arteries make up the road system of a Roman fort, which followed the same blueprint all over the Empire: via Decumana, via Principalis and intervallum road. The via Decumana, running from the north to the south gate, has mostly been taken down to its original 3rd century level, matching with the standing walls that so strikingly welcome you when entering the site from the east gate. During its excavation, it emerged how the size of the road developed and changed through the centuries.

View of the Via Decumana

On top of the beautifully built pebble-dashed Antonine surface lies the level of the via Decumana that will be opened to the public in 2017, roughly 10 metres in width, with East West oriented barracks facing it. Later in the 4th century the road will expand, “swallowing” these barracks and reaching 10 metres in width.  A new, larger, and north/south oriented cavalry barrack will face the enlarged road through a well preserved doorway. The efforts of period 9 have provided us not only with a changed fort landscape, but with some excellent finds in the meanwhile. Keys have been the star-find of the period, with a small bronze one and a rather chunky iron one being unearthed.

Pictures of the two keys

Both period 8 and period 9 volunteers have also worked on what will be our new visitors’ access to the side of the excavation: the back side of the via Principalis, to the South of the headquarters’ building.  The goal is near, and soon the road will be fully exposed, ready to be prepared for the winter. In the process several bags of sherds and bone have been produced, keeping our post excavation team more than busy.

Picture of the bags of pottery and Liz

Finally the Intervallum road, running all around the internal perimeter of the fort within the defensive walls, minus its late Roman dress, is starting to reveal its pebble-dashed surface, with occasional cobbled patches. Period 8 volunteers have shifted a considerable amount of soil and stones, providing what will be an essential way in for the excavation of the cavalry barracks in the years to come. Finds from the area included a delicate bone gaming counter, bearing on the back what could have been the initials of its owner, “MO”, as well as a beautifully preserved small crossbow broach.

Picture of the gaming counter with 'MO'

 The 3rd and 4th century fort excavation area

Below the Vicus

Wet wet wet, has been the order of the day in the vicus excavations where the spring like volume of rain made ground conditions very challenging for the deep excavations under the 3rd century town buildings. Despite the obvious difficulties the work has progressed very well with a host of rooms, structures and spaces revealed from the heart of pre-Hadrianic fort buildings of periods II-IV (cAD 90-120) below later vicus buildings XXX to XXXII. Copper-alloy brooches, shoes and tent panels, horse gear, five ballista bolt heads, wooden combs, ten stylus tablets (and a few stylus pens) were the most notable from the host of artefacts recovered during the last two excavation periods.

Air photo of the vicus excavations – Adam Stanford

The large timber buildings of the 4th fort, cAD105-120 were gradually and carefully taken apart below building XXX to reveal very different spaces in the periods of occupation below and it was from this earlier occupation at the site that the most information has been forthcoming. It is likely that the decent from the cAD105-120 buildings into earlier structures also marked a journey through a very different use of space and associated cleaning regimes. The period IV buildings, large, spacious and perhaps public were left exceptionally clean and tidy, a stark contrast to the earlier structures which exhibited a great deal more domestic waste (pottery, animal bone, leather, and personal effects) which one might associate with domestic living spaces.

An image of the excavation area of site XXX - Adam Stanford

The most difficult period to get to grips with archaeologically at Vindolanda are nearly always the earliest, the period I and II forts. The explanation for this is partially due to the greater depths involved but also, in the case of the second fort at Vindolanda (cAD 90-97), the further one excavates to the west, very often the less there is to be discovered. At Vindolanda the natural landscape rises to the west of the settlement and earlier building foundations were shaved down to the natural clay to make way for new structures (something which did not happen to the east of the site where greater depths of archaeology exist) and the second fort (built by the 1st cohort of Tungrians) suffered the most in this process.  Therefore the team were delighted to pick up the posts and wattle and daub of the period II fort below the possible barracks of the Batavian fort above (c AD97-105). This certainly bodes well for the continuation of the work in this area for the rest of the season and could lead to some spectacular results going into the 2016 season.

A rather rare wooden spool- almost as good as new

So what is left to find? what are we doing next? We are continuing to explore below the last of the Severan fort and town buildings and have yet to locate the toilet which was associated with the star find of last years excavation, the wooden toilet seat. We are surely close to making that discovery and hope to have some positive news in the next few weeks. The last of the period IV fort structures, carefully recorded and mapped out will be removed to look at the even earlier forts and then the natural landscape of Vindolanda will be explored. The pre-Roman farmers field, and with a little bit of luck we may discover a sign of pre-Roman occupation or very early Roman activity and how it impacted the natural landscape of the site. We also hope to add a few ink writing tablets to the ever growing list of stylus tablets. Whatever happens you can continue to follow the blog, facebook and twitter to find out what happens next with the five weeks of 2015 excavations left to go. 

Best wishes,

Andrew Birley