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.