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


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