July update

Vindolanda Trust - Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Period 5 to 7: an update on the works in the fort - Marta

As the middle of July approaches, here we are with another excavation blog update. The Northumbrian summer, with its peculiar alternation of baking sun and pelting rain, has accompanied us to the middle of the season. Before we guide you through the progress achieved by both the excavation and post excavation teams in periods 5 to 7, let us just make a quick premise.

The Vindolanda staff would like to extend a warm “thank you” to all the Friends who attended Friends’ evening on Saturday the 25th. It was a success, and how great it was to see the known faces again and to meet the new Friends! Your support is as essential to us as it is most welcome and we hope the number of Friends of Vindolanda who can make it to this special evening will increase year after year. If you missed this occasion, brace yourself: the updates are coming!

The fort: a tale of latrines, drains and unexpected features.

Let us pick up from where we left in the fort: the Antonine latrine. This building, constructed between 180 and 200AD, was flushed by a large volume of water. Continued excavations to the north of the building itself have revealed a beautiful stone capped and lined drain, matching with a floor level underlying the one we previously uncovered. You can also spot a later drain, feeding a lovely little water tank encased in the building.

Fig.1 3D model of the Antonine latrine before emptying the main channels.

Previous excavations of Antonine level structures had informed us of the peculiar building techniques adopted in this period: after a first phase of timber and turf constructions, the yet unidentified Antonine garrison added some features in stone, and finally completed what we call Stone Fort 1. In search of the original timber toilet, that adherence to this scheme would have made logical, we found something entirely different.

Fig.2 The timber raft supporting the Antonine rampart.

Pictured above you see a beautifully constructed timber raft, with branches of silver birch retaining their bark. This feature, alternated with layers of turf, composed the monumental Antonine rampart in which the latrine is slotted. The presence of the raft minimised subsidence into earlier features like the pre-Hadrianic ditch possibly associated to the first fort of Vindolanda.

A little bit further to the North, within the perimeter of a 4th century cavalry barrack, we descended a bit deeper under the roundhouse level uncovered in period 1 and 2, with the discovery of a mortared courtyard and of a large metal working workshop. The latter is delimited on all sides by large beam slots, all packed with sandstones and clay in the corners to support elevation. The building would have been flanked by two drains running North South and would have had a solid floor of crushed tile and clay. Inside this space, 7 crucibles have been located, together with numerous scraps of metal, lead and lots of evidence for burning and intense heat.

Fig.3 The metalworking workshop and one of its crucibles. Notice the hole in the side: it was used to discard unwanted slag and maintain only the purest metal at the bottom of the crucible.

Fig.3.1 Crucible

Again, to the North of this trench, we venture inside a mysterious East West oriented ditch, so far interpreted as contemporary to the roundhouses. An entire room remains to be explored in the westernmost corner: the subsiding floor of a decurion’s apartment needs to be lifted and the bottom of the ditch needs to be clearly exposed. Further updates on this area will follow as the season progresses.

To the North East of the ditch, the volunteers are opening a passage between two 4th century barrack blocks. This work has produced a mass amount of bone, pottery and iron, which is all being efficiently processed by the post-excavation team. No building has emerged from the rubble yet, so the dismantling of this enormous 4th century road surface proceeds steady, opening a fundamental passage to investigate the insides of the northernmost barracks in the fort excavation areas.

With some beautiful finds such as the clay face and the knife (which you can see on https://www.facebook.com/TheVindolandaTrust ) as well as numerous gaming counters to match our sandstone board and copious amounts of soil samples from the latrine, the fort keeps gradually revealing its secrets. But what has been happening in the vicus in the meanwhile? Let us discover more.

Vicus update - Andrew

After a hard month of excavation in June the team have uncovered some more of the very large and well-appointed 3rd century vicus houses in this areas. The foundations of the buildings were constructed by laying down heavy sandstone blocks (many are over a metre in length) on which either stone or wattle and daub superstructures were built. Ovens, mixed flagstone and earthen floors, paved outer courtyards and impressive drains are just some of the features encountered in this area, features which adorned what must have been some of the most impressive extramural real-estate at Vindolanda in the third century. These houses were spacious and well appointed, situated in relatively quiet part of town on its south western border, behind the bustle of the main street, out of direct sight of the fort walls and to the north of the small road which led from town towards the nearby cemeteries on the hill overlooking the site to the west. Smoke and the smells of life from the use of these buildings would have drifted over the rest of Vindolanda with the prevailing wind in a southwest to northeast direction, but the inhabitants of these buildings would have had some of the cleanest air available to the people of Vindolanda in this period.

A great deal of domestic pottery, animal bone, and items of personal adornment such as beads have formed the bulk of the material cultural dataset recovered from this area thus far.

Vicus buildings under excavation in the sun in June

The buildings slipping from the rampart and over the ditch

A beautiful and rare jet bead from the vicus excavations

Unfortunately for the people who lived in these houses, and despite the impressive engineering and work involved in the placement of their large foundation stones, almost every one of the buildings would have faced extreme structural issues while in use. Half of the houses were constructed over the remains of the Severan rampart mound, a solid clay bank, itself built over an equally robust Roman road from within the period II-VI forts.  The other half over the deep (at least three metres deep) and wide Severan period (cAD200-2012) southern fort ditch.  A ditch filled to the top with soft organic matter, rubbish and silt and then capped with clay and stone. The results of this are that half of the homes had the best foundations, the other half, the worst, and all of the buildings either slipped off the ramparts or bowed into the depression of the fort ditch. Although ultimately failing to provide an adequate foundation, the use of stones and clay used to seal the top of the ditch has afforded us a wonderful window in to the Severan fort, one which is semi-anaerobic or waterlogged with very good preservation of wood, bone and leather. This environment is a semi-anaerobic, rather than fully anaerobic environment because the ditch remained saturated with slowly running water, which in turn continued to carry a small supply of oxygen in the water providing fuel to microbes and bacteria and affording a different level of preservation to that which is found in completely anaerobic environments elsewhere at the site.

Vicus excavations in July, emptying the ditches

Getting stuck in amongst the large building foundations

From these ditches a wonderful range of goods have been found, wooden artefacts, a bashed in shield boss, and of course shoes. At the point of writing this update we have just surpassed the 100 shoe total for the ditch, with an estimated 5% - 8% of the ditch area explored. It is possible that the excavation area may produce another 500+ shoes before the ditch is completely excavated. The shoes sizes are wonderfully varied, from small children’s boots to very large carbatina’s and of course many ladies shoes as well. Two points are pertinent here; the first is that the boots and shoes, along with the other ditch fill, are likely to have come from the nearby Severan barracks, a fort assemblage rather than a vicus one (as there was no traditional vicus in this period and certainly nothing to the south of the fort); the second is that although we have many shoes there is an absence of the other usual leather goods one normally finds with them such as tent panels, bags, offcuts and fragments. Nearly all the shoes are well worn, or have been scavenged for parts. It is therefore clear that we are dealing with deliberate fill, the dumping of leather shoes representing a diverse community of owners who no-longer had a desire to keep them. On some sites one might argue for a ceremonial aspect here, the mass throwing of shoes from the rampart into the ditch before leaving the site. At Vindolanda, where we find so many shoes in different contexts, it is difficult to credibly argue for such an 'event', however, if this trend of largely ‘shoes only’ in the leather department continues then we may well have evidence of something distinct having happened with the discarding of this type of artefact here.

Elsewhere, inside and below the foundations of the Severan barracks to the north the month of June provided more excellent evidence of the lives and living standards of those who dwelt in the early forts at the site. Six new tablets were added which took our stylus tablet total for the year to 11, one more than 2015 with half the season to go. Some very well preserved wooden and copper alloy artefacts were found as well as more graphic pottery and finds. Amongst the floor levels of one of the buildings was an incredibly well preserved barrel stave with a fine inscription (see the picture below). This will take pride of place in the new museum gallery which will hopefully open in 2018, bringing the wooden wonder world of Vindolanda back to life.

The barrel stave inscription - Something....dot.  ALBIN - NORB (ALBINUS - probably name of manufacturer..)

As always, none of this work would be possible without the tough and energising spirit of the teams of excavators, and the encouragement and support of those who come along to see the work take place. Thank you for following the progress of the Vindolanda excavations and let’s see what the Severan ditch, the south eastern quadrant of the last stone fort and the post-excavation team will reveal next.

Best wishes,


Post excavation update -Lauren

Hello from post excavation!

2016 post excavation is now in full swing with volunteers getting their hands on thousands of pieces of pottery already.

Volunteers washing the finds

Each day the pottery bags are brought up from the excavation site for processing, and the first job is to thoroughly wash the contents of the pottery bags - with some being more complicated to wash than others!

A cow’s skull beautiful washed by the team

When the finds are dry, it is time to categorise them. We count and weigh each sherd found and separate them in to Samian, amphora, mortaria, black burnished, other course ware, other fine ware, glass, iron, slag, brick and tile and animal bone. These are bagged and labelled, then stored for further research.

We also come across things that we class as ‘small finds’ which are bagged separately and taken to our curator for conservation. Below are some of the small finds found during post excavation so far this season.

A fragment of a jet bangle

Graffiti on pottery

Iron blade

Very worn Samian gaming counter

Pot lids

Samian maker’s stamp

Some of our volunteers will be attending a pottery training course this month to further their knowledge and understanding of the types of pottery found on the site. In the next blog post you will see what they got up to.

Best wishes,


End of May update

Vindolanda Trust - Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Hello everyone and welcome back to the monthly appointment with the Vindolanda excavation blog.

Periods 3 and 4 have flown by, accompanied by an astonishingly long Northumbrian summer: with 9 days of uninterrupted sunshine, much has been achieved on site. The most prominent news is that the Vicus excavation area is finally under way, and following my update on the fort situation, the director of excavations Dr. Andrew Birley will tell us a bit more about progress in the wooden wonderland and adjacent areas.

Without further ado, let us take a look to the discoveries by our period 3 and 4 volunteers.

The fort-junior officers and Antonine.

Period 3 team picked up their trowels, buckets and spades and  continued work started inside the fort by period 2 volunteers:  another reminder, if at all necessary, that every one of our excavators makes a unique contribution, and enables the work of the following teams to progress steadily.

The junior officer's quarters, both in the north east and in the south west corners of the excavation area, have undergone some changes. In the north east building the latest floor surface has been removed, and a lower flagstone floor has been exposed. This matches with the perimeter of a East West oriented rectangular barrack, thin and long ,dating to the 3rd century. A badly preserved partition wall has also emerged, dividing the space in two smaller rooms. In the process of uncovering the floor of the barrack, the largest gaming board ever produced by the Vindolanda excavations has been found: an almost complete example of 12x12 grid incised in sandstone.

Fig1.  The team hard at work in the junior officer's apartment. (Photo by Stephen Fletcher)

In the South West officers' apartment, another beautiful find emerged from the clearing of the latest floor foundations: a large 4th century copper alloy bell, unfortunately missing its clapper.

Fig 2. The gaming board and the bell.

In an impressive effort, the team also uncovered the easternmost wall of one of our large 4th century cavalry barracks, emptying the in process an adjacent drainage ditch.  Such work provided a natural boundary and enclosure for the continuation of the investigation of the central range of Severan round houses. Their floor and surrounding road surfaces were carefully removed to uncover the remains of a large courtyard building dating to the Antonine period. To the carved sandstone base for a screen found in period 2, a column, a north south oriented drain and several other elements have been added: may we be one step closer to the location of the commanding officer house in the Antonine period? Will the discovery of such a building finally reveal who the Antonine garrison was?  Only more excavation will tell.

Fig.3 Antonine column and screen base.

Finally, works are ongoing in the South East corner of the fort, where a large east west oriented structure has been  gradually brought to light, with up to 11 courses of facing sandstone masonry still standing. The structure appears to be the terminal point for at least three important drainage channels. This adds up to quite an impressive the amount of water flushing what increasingly looks like the largest stone built toilet block found in Vindolanda so far. Extreme care will be taken in sampling the contents of drainage channels and surely more and more information will emerge on the life of the Antonine garrison.

Fig.4 The volunteers admire the results of their work on the Antonine toilet block. (Photo by Stephen Fletcher)


The Extramural settlement

In the last three weeks of excavation have seen a return to the land of the third century extramural (town outside the walls of the 3rd century fort) and the underlying timber buildings from pre-Hadrianic forts. It has taken us a little longer than usual to start the work in this area, due in part to the very high levels of the ground water table, which makes working in deep trenches an unpleasant and difficult endeavor at the best of times, but also things were going so well inside the later stone (as you can see in Marta’s comments above) fort we decided to forge ahead with that work.

The extramural excavations takes on two or three very separate aspects this year. We are continuing below the foundations of the large Severan barracks and vicus buildings initially explored in the early 1970’s, work which has produced around 30 writing tablets, hundreds of shoes, a wooden toilet seat and a great deal of good information on the sequencing in the middle of the timber forts. The second aspect is to explore, to the south of the Severan barracks, new third century extramural houses, backing on to a small but exclusive road which linked the centre of town to the Roman cemeteries in this period. Here we are expecting to encounter more of the high status courtyard buildings, and other extramural structures and spaces which could be attributed to a part of the settlement and fill in a blank space in our plan of Vindolanda in this period. Finally, below the new parts of the town, are the remains of the old Severan south wall, ramparts, and defensive ditch. The ditch has, in the past, proved to be an incredible time-capsule, filled with the rubbish and debris of a very short lived garrison (occupied c AD200=212) and quickly sealed by the foundations of the new town above. It is from this ditch that our head on a stake was found in 2002 (by Dr Alexander Meyer) and we hope that if we are lucky there may be more heads to come.

The immediate work, cleaning the trenches from the winter debris and pumping out the water, allowed our team to get back into the pre-Hadrianic. Here we started 2016 as we ended 2015, with large posts, wattle and daub walls, floor coverings of heather, straw and moss and five stylus tablets (two of which can be seen below).


Fig 5. Excavators working in the extramural settlement


Fig 6. Image of a two new stylus tablets together.

Also in abundance were other artefacts made from wood such as barrel staves and lids, wooden spoons and of course the remarkable piece of furniture which looks for all the world like part of a Roman bedstead.


Fig 7. Bedstead? Or from another item. Roman turned wood.

Beads, bracelets and a small phallic pendant were other notable finds from the first few weeks. The trenches are getting deeper as the landscape drops to the south and pleasingly the trend of better preservation for Vindolanda fort periods II/III (Batavian wooden forts) is continuing. On the 30th of May, the excavators uncovered a potential ink writing tablet which is highly unusual. Made from oak, and as thick as a stylus tablet. We will now have to wait for the lab to do its work, something that cannot be rushed, but that will potentially give us a great deal of new information about the people of Vindolanda if it does indeed turn out to be an ink tablet.


Fig 8. Potential new tablet.

Up in the third century levels, the turf has been steadily rolled back and the foundations, corners and trenches have revealed typically massive stone foundations. Here a great deal of pottery and some animal bone have been the main finds of note, however, every now and then some artefacts stand out from the normal crowd, whether they are the rather fine glass bangles, or beads, or this very unusual iron ingot with an inscription carved on its two sides (something which must have happened while the ingot was hot and malleable).


Fig 9. Image of the ingot  (thanks to Scott)

You are welcome to have a go at reading the cursive inscription. We will release our own interpretation on the next update, in the meantime, see if yours matches our own.

The next update will follow in a few weeks’ time, after we welcome the Canadian field school back for the summer. Stay posted to see what happens next, and how good your cursive Latin is. Or better yet, pay is a visit and come and see what is going on live on the site if you can.


Best wishes,

Andrew and Marta