July update 2017

Vindolanda Trust - Monday, July 17, 2017

Every year, roughly at the end of June, the excavations take a break for a recording week. This is usually kickstarted by our Friend’s night, an exclusive yearly event in which we unveil new features, tour the excavations with the Friends of Vindolanda and generally have a good party! During the recording week that follows, we carefully plan the buildings we have uncovered, welcome specialists who are interested in our material culture, and gather our thoughts. We have now entered the second half of our excavation season, which will end on the 22nd of September. As work continues in the trenches, here is your mid-season updates on the Vicus and Fort excavations.

Below the Vicus – Andrew Birley

The excavations below the foundations of the 3rd century extramural settlement have now come to their close and what a final few weeks we had in the area. Bouts of torrential rain, blistering sun and nothing in between made the final few weeks extremely difficult. Trench shoring had to be put up to protect the foundations of the 3rd century buildings and the heads of the excavators below. But the effort was worth it as a final push in the area produced some remarkable results in both buildings, levels and of course finds.

In several places contact was made with the natural and pre-Roman farmers field below the foundations of the 2nd timber fort at the site (c AD92). This consists of a very heavy mixed clay subsoil which is packed extremely tightly and covered with a thin layer of dirty turf. The dirty turf was of course walked upon by both Ancient Britons and Romans alike and we were fortunate to discover that one of the Romans passing over this area was carrying a pile of ink on wood documents, 25 of which fell to the ground in a 4 metre long area. This discovery was made on the second last day of the excavation in this area, in the final clean-up of the Roman material above the field. On a bright afternoon, one tablet after another came up from the ground, several with their text still legible. The work of unravelling all the mysteries in these documents will continue for Several months, but one of the tablets clearly mentions an officer called MASCLUS, who is requesting leave or a holiday. This appear to be the very same man who over a decade later, whilst leading a troop of soldiers away from Vindolanda wrote back to the base requesting beer. As tablet after tablet came up from the ground the atmosphere on the excavation moved from excitement to almost absolute silence as the concentration of the team of volunteers and staff was completely focused on the job at hand. Many of the students from the University of Western Ontario, based at the site for five weeks took part on this incredibly special day.

Figure 1 a box of freshly won tablets

Figure 2 a part of the tablet team who worked on the area for four weeks

Figure 3 a tablet just after it has been found and washed, this is an oak tablet

Figure 4 the tablet trench

Of course, ink tablets were not the only ones to have been found in the past few weeks and we were delighted that one of our most dedicated volunteers, Graham Ryan, who has now left the excavation for a knee operation found his first stylus tablet after working on the site for almost a decade.

Figure 5. Graham holding his stylus tablet.

Figure 6. Wooden water pipes

Other artefacts of note included a new section of a wooden waterpipes (hollowed out silver birch tree trunks set into oak blocks), several parts of which have been lifted for conservation in the Museum lab, and a grain scoop, made from wood with variable holes cut through it to grade the grain. This wonderful and unique piece has an inscription on its base. I would like to thank all of the volunteers and staff who have worked on the extramural excavations over the past four years. Your contribution has added a huge amount to not only the knowledge of Vindolanda, but through discoveries like the ink tablets also the wider Frontier, the Roman Army and Roman Britain. The next post from the extramural settlement will be in 2018, with the start of the new Research project and you can expect more information about this project to appear on the Vindolanda website very soon.


The South East ditch – Marta Alberti

Excavations of the South-East quadrant of the last stone fort have come to their natural conclusion. Further exploration of the Antonine commanding officer house is limited to all sides by the 3rd and 4th century barracks that have been selected for consolidation. Our stonemasons Jeff and Kenny have started a program of works which, in two stages, will make the whole area accessible to the public.

The excavations team has now moved to the next target. Included in our ‘Frontiers in Transition’ project is the portion of ground between the Eastern Wall of the last stone fort and the path rising from Chesterholm museum towards the site. The area currently under excavation is pictured in Fig.7 as seen from atop the stone fort wall.

Figure 7. People at work on the fort ditch

Here we expected to find:

-4th century berm and ditch

-3rd century berm and ditch

-remains of the Antonine defensive complex.

In the last four weeks, we have de-turfed most of the area and uncovered an unusually large berm, with a steep rocky face falling into dark silt. Upon more careful examination, the large berm turned out to be made up of two separate phases.

Figure 8. 

Highlighted in blue (Fig. 8), is the original 3rd century berm, composed of tightly packed cobbles and contemporary to the perimeter wall (213 A.D.). This would have terminated into a large ditch, whose eastern edge appears to be on the other side of the footpath, outside our reach. To the right, highlighted in red, is a mound of discarded building materials and larger stones.

After a period of abandonment in the 3rd century, the Gauls returned to Vindolanda. Although they maintained the perimeter of the fort, they modified and re arranged many of the structures within, and re-erected the by then ruined outer wall. The demolition material from this bout of activity was disposed of in the eastern ditch, forming the fill we are removing now. The ditch was then re- cut after the abandonment of the fort, the edges were re-formed with the help of redeposited clay and the new feature was mainly used for waste water management

The only sign of the Antonine period (180 -200 A.D) so far is the foundations of its perimeter wall. The investigation of this area will take us deep into the silty layers of three separate fort ditches, and hopefully into anaerobic conditions.

June Update on the Vindolanda excavations

Vindolanda Trust - Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Welcome back to the Vindolanda blog. The weather has been unusually hot and progress rapid. It is unusual to have to actually put water into the trenches at Vindolanda to keep the wooden buildings damp, a first in my 24 years of excavation at the site. It is perhaps unlikely to happen again soon. Enjoy,

Dr Andrew Birley.


From Inside the last stone fort: Marta Alberti

As summer approaches and the days get warmer, Vindolanda’s excavation season enters its 5th period. Here is your monthly update on the discoveries of the volunteer excavators and the Vindolanda archaeological team.

Inside the walls of the last stone fort of Vindolanda we are working in the central range, between two late 4th century rectangular double cavalry barracks. The building which in the previous blog entry we identified as the Commanding Officer’s house for the Antonine period keeps expanding in size and complexity.  Luckily, thanks to a prompt visit by our specialist in aerial photographs, Adam Stanford, we can show you some images from above to help you understand better the changes that this structure underwent.

Things started probably with a north south oriented barrack, with thresholds spaced at regular intervals and matched by small waste water drainage features. The floor was pebble dashed, but coarse and slightly uneven (Fig.1). This phase may date between 140-180 A.D, matching with the large latrine uncovered in 2016.

Figure 1. 

Later, the decision was made to turn this building into a much larger and luxurious structure, by adding the EW wall highlighted in red (Fig.2). The west and east wing were completed, and the floor of the latter was re-laid in opus signinum: a mix of crushed tile and mortar, which made surfaces waterproof and easy to clean. Plugholes, highlighted in green, can be seen at regular intervals. These would have led to underlying drainage system. Perhaps at some point the East wing of the building contained the house’s private bathing suite, or perhaps the floor was laid this way for a more comfortable cleaning.

Figure 2. 

Finally, in the last phase of the life of the building, the South Wing was added, paved with large flagstones and much tighter pebble dashed surfaces. At the same time, the opus signinum floor was cut by a series of walls or wooden partitions, whose only visible remains are shallow foundation trenches and post holes, highlighted in blue.  These subdivided the once airy east wing into much smaller rooms.  

Once the commanding officer house ceased to be used, the large spaces were filled in with masonry from the building itself, as well as lots of sticky, compacted grey clay from the surrounding riverbeds. In the wide central courtyard, several half columns were unearthed, which would have once stood on the ornate façade of the structure. Together with the columns was this lovely bone knife handle (Fig.3) which reminded us of the one found in the anaerobic layers last month, and an intaglio with a carved bull figure (Fig. 4)

Figure 3.

Figure 4.

As work exploring this building comes to an end, and a few finishing touches are given to the rampart and 4th century barracks, a special mention goes to our stonemasons, who have received the go ahead to start the re-pointing work in the SE quadrant. Here they are in fig. 5, starting work on our water tank.

Figure 5.

Watch this space for more info on the vicus excavation at the end of this week, and do not forget to come and see us at the end of the, as on the 31st of May we fire our replica roman kiln once again with potter Graham Ryan and his face pots!

Excavations below the 3rd century town: Andrew Birley

It is slow work in the organic levels of Vindolanda, slow but deeply rewarding. Each sod of earth has to be very carefully excavated by hand and passed up to a team of processors who comb the soil to make sure nothing has been missed. The ratio is 1:4, one person excavating and four people checking the soil.

As the trenches have deepened the road to the south of the central range of wooden buildings in the pre-Hadrianic forts has started to reveal itself. The buildings themselves with their wattle and daub fences have shown up in greater resolution and a remarkable range of wooden artefacts, beautifully preserved in the black organic soils have been excavated. Figure 6 below is an overview of the excavation area and it is now clearer than ever that we are dealing with a cAD105-120 barrack block, possibly for the Vardulli cavalry element at Vindolanda in this period. There are long wooden and thick (oak) kickboards lining some of the walls, perhaps an essential element for horse’s stalls. The organic matter on the floor does remarkably resemble horse manure, compressed flat by the pressure of later buildings above.

Figure 6. (overhead shot)

Above this we have the remains of a period V cook house, a small oven and posts from the building, all of which slowly sunk into the wet barrack floor below (Figure 7).

Figure 7. (period V - Hadrianic - oven)

From these deposits a range of writing tablets (stylus) and stylus pens have been recovered (Figure 8.) A beautifully preserved wooden bowl and wooden spoon (Figure 9) and a decorative copper plates, like this example which may have adorned a wooden coomb, showing a chariot and rider (Figure 10). 

Figure 8. (Stylus pen)

Figure 9. Wooden bowl and spoon)

Figure 10. (Copper plate with chariot).

A particular pleasing feature has been the recovery of another section of the timber water pipe last encountered in the 2003 excavations at the site. Hollowed out tree trunks of birch set into oak blocks and still running with water after almost 2000 years. If only the local modern water company could boast the same! We will show some images of this in the next update once we have the whole system explored.

There are at least two more building levels to look at, and the next few weeks will no doubt add further details about the hearts of timber forts and their occupants on the frontier, long before Hadrian Wall.