A guest blog post by Professor Elizabeth Greene.
(The VALP team)
In the past 6 weeks, a team of five (see image above) from the University of Western Ontario in Canada have been working on the Vindolanda Archaelogical Leather Project (VALP) directed by the Vindolanda Museum Curator, Barbara Birley, and Western professor, Elizabeth Greene. Vindolanda is a site that is famous for its stunning organic preservation, leading to an enormous collection of wood, tablets, textiles, and leather. Because these materials were used extensively by the Romans, the artefacts made from them can reveal much about Roman life at Vindolanda and along the frontier. The VALP team has been working on several projects related to the vast collection of leather at the Museum in order to lay the groundwork for future archaeologists and researchers to continue learning about the people that occupied this amazing site so many years ago.
With over 7000 leather artefacts, managing the leather collection is quite a task. Leather artefacts include things like shoes, tent panels, chamfrons, and even the odd tablet carrying case (see image below). Part of our team has been reexamining the previously excavated artefacts to improve the records we have and provide more detail about things like markings, patterning, and measurements.
(A leather tablet case found at Vindolanda)
For example, a shoe (see image below) has many stylistic details and measurements to record. To measure a shoe, a researcher takes the width of the different parts of a shoe (tread, seat, and waist) and length of both the insole and outer sole. Combined with stud patterns and construction types, these details can provide us with information about who might have worn these shoes and for what purpose. Archaeology is a collaborative process so working with the leather has allowed us to incorporate aspects of physical anthropology with Dr. Trudi Buck, who has worked with many of the human remains at Vindolanda.
(A shoe from the 2016 excavations at Vindolanda)
The team also organized an enlightening workshop on the Vindolanda leather and its archaeological environments, where specialists of various disciplines including archaeology, chemistry, bioarchaeology, computer science, and curatorial sciences presented their different perspectives on the leather collection. It was an excellent exercise in collaboration where a team of interested specialists worked together to further our understanding of Roman Vindolanda.
An exciting aspect of this project is our attempt to digitize the leather records. The first step of this process is to determine a proper schema for recording information in a standardized way. This involves properly curating our data and ensuring that we prepare for work that might be done by specialists in the future. A digital record must also be useful to the curator and this process has been incredibly educational in understanding the various ways in which people interact with all of the museum collections.
(Leather photography taking place as part of the project)
With the help of our computer scientist, our team has also been developing a prototype of what the digital collection would look like. This is a very exciting prospect for the future of the Vindolanda collection and we hope that it lays a solid foundation for the possibility of improving the research and catalogue capabilities of the Museum, particularly as our archaeologists find more and more amazing artefacts every day.