End of April update

Vindolanda Trust - Sunday, April 30, 2017

Vindolanda excavations in April 2017

The first four weeks of the excavations at Vindolanda have now finished in the final field season of the ‘Frontiers in transition project’. Two teams of 30 volunteers have stretched their minds and muscles inside the fort and below the remains of the 3rd century extramural settlement, working through bitterly cold weather, sleet, snow and high winds as well as periods of warm golden sunshine. The initial results in both areas have been very encouraging and this time we are going to start with the extramural part of the site before moving on to a full update from the fort by the end of next week from Marta Alberti.

At the end of the 2016 season we had almost finished exploring the southern  ditch of the Severan fortlet in this area, dated to c AD208-211/212 (photograph 1 below).

The Severan ditch as it looked in September 2016.

This produced an incredible 421 shoes, many tones of animal bone including dog, sheep/goat, cow and pig remains and very unusually for Vindolanda at least 2 cats. In 2017 a small 1.8m wide section remained, dividing the two trenches of 2016 and below the large extramural house foundations which had been constructed over the ditch. In the first period we decided to tackle this area, pumping out the thousands of gallons of water from the ditch and getting as close to the later wall foundations as we could safely manage. The result was a clean section edge of the ditch (photograph 2), cut for recording purposes and perhaps not so surprisingly, a further 53 shoes, many of which are a match for the variety and quality of those recovered in 2016. 

Picture 2. A Section of the ditch showing the large stone foundations of a town building above. 

Some of the scrap leather recovered from this section will be sent away for further detailed analysis which may include isotopic or DNA work in the future. This year’s final ditch section also included a rare and finely preserved horse skull.

Picture 3.1. A Horse Skull 

Picture 3.2. A new shoe from the ditch. The stitching on the front is wonderfully preserved, as are the laces.

Continuing with the Severan period theme, the final area of barrack road was excavated, recorded and removed to finish the process of exploring the earlier for buildings in the area which appear a metre or so below the road and associated barrack foundations. Here the team uncovered a very well-preserved Roman bread oven, made from a bowl of clay, filled with ash and burned red through intensive use. This oven and the wooden posts that surround it are the remains of the Hadrianic Vindolanda fort, the fort which was in use during the construction of Hadrian’s Wall. In this period Vindolanda loses many of its traditional barracks which were demolished to make way for cook houses and workshops. The fort remains an active base, and becomes a supply and foundry facility during this period.  As you might expect, the finds here have been dominated by pottery, black burnish wares, cooking pots, storage vessels and mortaria or mixing bowls. The oven has been comprehensively sampled and at the end of the season when the soil is analysed we will get a vivid picture of the sort of meals that the garrisons and Wall builders enjoyed in this period (picture 4 the oven). 

Picture 4. On the right you can see the oven. The earth is black because this level has no oxygen, and is anaerobic. Timbers are well-preserved.

There are 3-4 buildings remaining below the ‘cook house’ of period V, and in the next few weeks we  expect the team to be exploring the final section of the cavalry barracks below, and hopefully looking at the cavalry commanders accommodation at the head of the barracks. We are keeping our fingers crossed that he may have been the sort of chap who kept detailed records of his time at Vindolanda and that we may uncover his identity and a little about the sort of person he was. 

The period 2 team hard at work.

Watch this space for future updates on how this mission progresses in the next few weeks. It has been an exciting start but the best is yet to come. 

Andrew Birley