July update 2017

Vindolanda Trust - Monday, July 17, 2017

Every year, roughly at the end of June, the excavations take a break for a recording week. This is usually kickstarted by our Friend’s night, an exclusive yearly event in which we unveil new features, tour the excavations with the Friends of Vindolanda and generally have a good party! During the recording week that follows, we carefully plan the buildings we have uncovered, welcome specialists who are interested in our material culture, and gather our thoughts. We have now entered the second half of our excavation season, which will end on the 22nd of September. As work continues in the trenches, here is your mid-season updates on the Vicus and Fort excavations.

Below the Vicus – Andrew Birley

The excavations below the foundations of the 3rd century extramural settlement have now come to their close and what a final few weeks we had in the area. Bouts of torrential rain, blistering sun and nothing in between made the final few weeks extremely difficult. Trench shoring had to be put up to protect the foundations of the 3rd century buildings and the heads of the excavators below. But the effort was worth it as a final push in the area produced some remarkable results in both buildings, levels and of course finds.

In several places contact was made with the natural and pre-Roman farmers field below the foundations of the 2nd timber fort at the site (c AD92). This consists of a very heavy mixed clay subsoil which is packed extremely tightly and covered with a thin layer of dirty turf. The dirty turf was of course walked upon by both Ancient Britons and Romans alike and we were fortunate to discover that one of the Romans passing over this area was carrying a pile of ink on wood documents, 25 of which fell to the ground in a 4 metre long area. This discovery was made on the second last day of the excavation in this area, in the final clean-up of the Roman material above the field. On a bright afternoon, one tablet after another came up from the ground, several with their text still legible. The work of unravelling all the mysteries in these documents will continue for Several months, but one of the tablets clearly mentions an officer called MASCLUS, who is requesting leave or a holiday. This appear to be the very same man who over a decade later, whilst leading a troop of soldiers away from Vindolanda wrote back to the base requesting beer. As tablet after tablet came up from the ground the atmosphere on the excavation moved from excitement to almost absolute silence as the concentration of the team of volunteers and staff was completely focused on the job at hand. Many of the students from the University of Western Ontario, based at the site for five weeks took part on this incredibly special day.

Figure 1 a box of freshly won tablets

Figure 2 a part of the tablet team who worked on the area for four weeks

Figure 3 a tablet just after it has been found and washed, this is an oak tablet

Figure 4 the tablet trench

Of course, ink tablets were not the only ones to have been found in the past few weeks and we were delighted that one of our most dedicated volunteers, Graham Ryan, who has now left the excavation for a knee operation found his first stylus tablet after working on the site for almost a decade.

Figure 5. Graham holding his stylus tablet.

Figure 6. Wooden water pipes

Other artefacts of note included a new section of a wooden waterpipes (hollowed out silver birch tree trunks set into oak blocks), several parts of which have been lifted for conservation in the Museum lab, and a grain scoop, made from wood with variable holes cut through it to grade the grain. This wonderful and unique piece has an inscription on its base. I would like to thank all of the volunteers and staff who have worked on the extramural excavations over the past four years. Your contribution has added a huge amount to not only the knowledge of Vindolanda, but through discoveries like the ink tablets also the wider Frontier, the Roman Army and Roman Britain. The next post from the extramural settlement will be in 2018, with the start of the new Research project and you can expect more information about this project to appear on the Vindolanda website very soon.

The South East ditch – Marta Alberti

Excavations of the South-East quadrant of the last stone fort have come to their natural conclusion. Further exploration of the Antonine commanding officer house is limited to all sides by the 3rd and 4th century barracks that have been selected for consolidation. Our stonemasons Jeff and Kenny have started a program of works which, in two stages, will make the whole area accessible to the public.

The excavations team has now moved to the next target. Included in our ‘Frontiers in Transition’ project is the portion of ground between the Eastern Wall of the last stone fort and the path rising from Chesterholm museum towards the site. The area currently under excavation is pictured in Fig.7 as seen from atop the stone fort wall.

Figure 7. People at work on the fort ditch

Here we expected to find:

-4th century berm and ditch

-3rd century berm and ditch

-remains of the Antonine defensive complex.

In the last four weeks, we have de-turfed most of the area and uncovered an unusually large berm, with a steep rocky face falling into dark silt. Upon more careful examination, the large berm turned out to be made up of two separate phases.

Figure 8. 

Highlighted in blue (Fig. 8), is the original 3rd century berm, composed of tightly packed cobbles and contemporary to the perimeter wall (213 A.D.). This would have terminated into a large ditch, whose eastern edge appears to be on the other side of the footpath, outside our reach. To the right, highlighted in red, is a mound of discarded building materials and larger stones.

After a period of abandonment in the 3rd century, the Gauls returned to Vindolanda. Although they maintained the perimeter of the fort, they modified and re arranged many of the structures within, and re-erected the by then ruined outer wall. The demolition material from this bout of activity was disposed of in the eastern ditch, forming the fill we are removing now. The ditch was then re- cut after the abandonment of the fort, the edges were re-formed with the help of redeposited clay and the new feature was mainly used for waste water management

The only sign of the Antonine period (180 -200 A.D) so far is the foundations of its perimeter wall. The investigation of this area will take us deep into the silty layers of three separate fort ditches, and hopefully into anaerobic conditions.


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