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

Vindolanda excavations - July

Vindolanda Trust - Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Inside the last stone fort

As we head into the middle of July the team inside the fort are moving their efforts to finish the final part of the southern section of the quadrant and a detachment of excavators have made a start hunting for the via Decumana to the west of the 4th century barrack buildings. Whilst no more gold coins have been found small and bust up fragments of moulded and carved stones have started to appear in the rubble covering the buildings and it cannot be too long before a fragment or better of an inscription will be found in this area.

Late road surfaces continue to show that they have been blocked by the foundations of timber structures – many of which were undoubtedly post-Roman in date and the whole area is covered with a small forest of post-Roman post holes, indicating that there had been a steady continuation of occupation carrying on well after the last ‘official’ Roman garrisons had departed or changed into something else.

In terms of small finds, beads, counters, brooches, spindle whorls and the occasional tool are the most prolific of the finds. The last Roman levels are covered in broken vessels of Huncliffe ware, thought to have come to the area cAD370 +.  Once the front of the 4th century buildings have been located beside the main road we will have an almost complete picture of this quadrant of the fort in that period, one which is entirely different to all of the other quadrants of the fort. The question remains, who were the people barracked in this quadrant? Part of the 4th cohort of Gaul’s or a very different group? Hopefully the coming weeks will provide the answer.

A big view inside the last stone fort

Below the Vicus

The remains of a large period IV building (cAD105-120), built to the immediate south of the via principalis are the most impressive of the remains in this area, situated below the foundations of two very large stone buildings and their associated street which were originally used as barracks for a Severan fortlet before being converted into town buildings in after cAD213.  As the work has continued here a real sense of the shape of the building is beginning to form, its northern and western walls (built out of timber and clad in wattle & daub) standing over 50cm high in places. The floor of the building has produced some remarkable finds including several writing tablets or letters – made of wood. The team was excited to find a partially preserved wagon wheel, half a Roman cavalry sword and some other very well preserved brooches and artefacts, many made of perishable goods like timber and leather (such as tent panels and shoes). The period IV buildings purpose remains at present a mystery, but it could be the remains of either the headquarters building or a hospital – both of which are at present missing from our plans of this fort and which should be situated in the central range which is exactly where the excavations are taking place. We will know more once the plan of the structure fills out over the coming months of excavation.

Seeing the team in action

A new Dog for the Vindolanda collection of Roman Dogs

The new face of Vindolanda from the Antonine period

Under the foundations of this building are the battered remains of two more timber structures and they in turn have been built onto the natural clay soil of the farmer’s field that was here before the Roman army arrived. To make up the ground for the Roman fort buildings a great deal of Roman military rubbish was packed under the floors of the buildings. This material has included a very large collection of leather, textiles and bone. The bones are from deer, cattle, pigs and dogs and sheep/goat and mixed amongst them are a great number of well-preserved oyster and shellfish shells. These shells shine brightly in the dark anaerobic soil, shining light flecks of silver in the ground and remind us that even from the very beginning of the occupation of the site the Roman army managed to supply the garrison with the very best of the foods that were available, from both locally sources supply and the heart of the Empire itself.

Partial wagon wheel under excavation

Each day brings a new and exciting find from this area and as always by coming to the Vindolanda excavation blog you will hear it first.