End of 2018 excavations

Vindolanda Trust - Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Here we are, at the end of 2018 excavation season, ready for a recap of what we have uncovered during this summer of extremes. From the Beast from the East snowstorm welcoming our period 1 excavators, to the heatwave mid- season; from the topsoil and the Smith’s Chester farmhouse to a depth of 4.50m down, here are 5 things that the 2018 excavation season has taught to our volunteer excavators and post excavators, as well as to the visitors joining us at the trench side.

1)      The position of Smith’s chester Croft’s and the depth of post roman layers.

The precise location and extent of the 17th to 19th century dwelling named Smith’s Chester had been confused amidst old maps and sketches.

Above: Smith's Chesters' position as indicated in Collingwood's Roman Wall, first published in 1867

 The top layers of 2018 excavations revealed a world rich in glazed pottery, clay pipes and re-used stones. One of Smith’s Chester’s yard drains incorporated the fulcrum (top half) of a Roman altar, proving that the inhabitants of the farmhouse holdings were familiar with their Roman neighbours. In fact, part of the 17th century building investigated this summer revealed a floor made from recycled opus signinum. This Roman waterproof mortar was removed from the nearby bath house, which in the 17th century would have still had its vaulted roof in place.

2)      The position, depth and orientation of the Northernmost stretch of the Severan ditch (c. 200-212 A.D.)

In 2016-2017 a stretch of the southern defences of the Severan fortlet, dating 200-212 A.D. had been investigated with spectacular results. More than 420 shoes filled a ditch which was 6 meters in width and 3 meters in depth and held some astonishingly well-preserved artefacts. It was hoped that the northernmost stretch of this same ditch would have been equally as informative and exciting, and to a certain extent the ditch did not disappoint. After some exploration, the archaeological team and the volunteers arrived at the conclusion that the ditch was to be found further north in the excavation area than expected, and that it was slightly smaller than its southern correspondent, albeit with a more complex profile. The ditch was kept eerily clean, perhaps to enhance its defence capabilities. In fact, it laid at the northern end of an almost 22m wide rampart! Although only a few finds were made, the ditch did give us some satisfaction. Research is ongoing on a key find from this feature, and we will be able to tell you more soon. Keep an eye on our press release page!

Above: a 3D model of the Severan ditch.

3)      The position of a stretch of Antonine wall, the first stone curtain wall at Vindolanda dated to c. 200 A.D. as well as the position of some of the Antonine defensive ditches.

Part of the curtain wall of a complex Antonine base (c. 140-200 A.D.) was investigated in 2007. These early excavations left us with the certainty that more laid below the foundations of the curtain wall, and that, to its west, its defensive ditches laid waiting for the archaeologists. 

Above: a 3D model of the Antonine Fort wall and defensive ditch

Two of the NS oriented defensive ditches have been explored in 2018, with two hugely different datasets being collected. While the ditch immediately to the West of the Antonine fort wall was extremely rich in finds (shoes, tablets, and the famed hipposandals- more about them here http://www.vindolanda.com/_blog/thevindolandablog/post/recording-and-interpreting/), the one further out towards the bath house was almost empty. In the last weeks of the excavation season, an interesting discovery was made. Almost at the edge of the westernmost ditch, the layers of anaerobic started dipping again, indicating that a third ditch hides under the grass section, where visitors can now stand. This further ditch will be one of the objects of investigation in the 2019 season. Finally, just as we concluded the excavation, a further Antonine structure appeared, dating to the later phase of this long-lived occupation. Sometime between 180- 200 A.D. the central ditch was backfilled, and a large gate-like structure was built. The archaeological team reckons we could be looking at one of the gates for the annexe, or fortified town, typical of Antonine bases.

4)      The position of period II and III defensive ditches

Just as anticipated in point 3., there was indeed much left to discover under the foundations of the Antonine curtain wall. Four large round posts for the foundation of a rectangular timber building were sank in anaerobic layers. Once removed, the layers revealed the edges of period II and III fort ditch. Here a fragment of ink tablet with legible ink was recovered, together with vast quantities of perfectly preserved bone, seeds, and even some horse flies.

5)      The methods of construction of causeways and rampart rafts in aerobic and anaerobic contexts

Two separate causeways had been built across the ditches mentioned in point 4. The first and earliest one was in turf and timber, constructed with EW oriented oak beams lying on top of a stone foundation.

The second and later causeway was built directly above the first one, but more than 180 years later. In fact, the second causeway was built in stone at the beginning of the 3rd century: it re-used the foundations of the Antonine curtain wall, extending them over the period II and III ditches and the newly created 3rd century ditch. This last causeway was then blocked by a cross wall, once the more comfortable access road of the 3rd century vicus developed, and the need for a safe crossing of the boggy area was overcome.


If all the above sounds extremely complicated, there are a few occasions to learn more and see first hand what has been going on in the excavations. On the 20th of October the Vindolanda Trust will take part to the Hadrian’s Wall forum in Hexham. You can buy your ticket here https://www.queenshall.co.uk/events/10th-hadrian%E2%80%99s-wall-archaeology-forum

Vindolanda is open this winter daily, and from the 5th of November you will be able to visit the museum and standing remains between 10 am and 4pm. We will close for our yearly refresh of the museums on the 3rd of January 2019.

As usual, we would like to extend a warm THANK YOU to all who chose to spend two weeks digging, post-excavating and volunteering with us. Your work is incredibly appreciated, and in more than one situation you all proved to be essential. We hope that you have enjoyed yourself this summer, and that you will talk about it with your friends and family. Sign up for next year volunteering positions is on the 6th of November 2018 at 12pm, but the calendar is already available. Take a look now (http://www.vindolanda.com/excavate/bookings) and make your choice!

We look forward to another year of discoveries in 2019 and will continue to keep the  blog up to date during the winter, but the frequency of posts will go back to once a month.

See you at Vindolanda!

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