Date published: 10th June 2020

My first experience of archaeology came at the age of about 5 when I was taken to see a newly-excavated Roman mosaic in my home town of Malton. The so-called “Town House” in the vicus at the auxiliary fort of Derventio was grander than anything yet found at Vindolanda – though I still have hopes!

I was educated as a scientist and my professional life has been mostly in information technology. Then, in retirement, I took an OU degree in Earth Science.

My limited hands-on involvement in digging up the past started about 20 years later when I met Malise, now my wife of nearly 50 years, who has been a life-long archaeology enthusiast. In 1972 she brought me from our home in Derby to Vindolanda to do a week’s excavation directed by Robin Birley. Over the following years we had much involvement with the Derbyshire Archaeological Society, of which Malise was programme secretary. However, it wasn’t until 1997 that we started coming to Northumberland every year so that Malise could first excavate and then do post-excavation at Vindolanda.

For the first 10 years I just acted as her chauffeur and spent my days examining the fascinating local geology. But in 2008 I joined in a discussion on site about the sources of Vindolanda’s stones – and found myself volunteered. The results of my 5-year project can be read (if you’re bored during lockdown!) on the Vindolanda website.

Eventually we could stand living in the city no longer and moved to Haltwhistle in 2013. Since then I’ve become a Vindolanda Guide and have learnt so much about the fascinating history and archaeology of the site, and of the Roman period in general.

Item 1 – “My altar”

In 1972, when I’d been digging in a trench in the vicus for just half an hour, I unearthed this strange little altar. It’s the only object of interest I’ve ever excavated so it has a special place in my affections. Of course, like all such finds, it was whisked promptly out of my grasp and it was 40 years before I was to touch it again. Over the years I’ve often said “Hello!” to it in its cabinet in the museum. Then, in 2012, the Trust asked me to examine all the stone objects in the museum to see if there are any which might be from exotic sources which, sadly, there don’t seem to be. Barbara kindly took my altar from its case and allowed me to hold it while Malise took the photograph.

Item 2 – Vindolanda in one of Britain’s richest archaeological landscapes

Britain has many world-famous archaeological areas – from Avebury/Stonehenge to the Orkney Islands – but the central section of Hadrian’s Wall is one of the richest. Not only are there more Roman monuments than anywhere else in Britannia, but there is also abundant evidence of past human activity from 20th century industry back to the Iron Age and probably earlier. In the photograph, though not in all cases discernable, are 19th century stone quarries, the course of a 19th century waggonway, Crindledykes lime kilns, limestone quarries (Roman to recent), Barcombe Colliery (19th & early 20th century), an Iron Age hillfort with the defences of a Roman signal station within it, bell pits for extracting iron ore (age unknown), the Long Stone (1784), and two Roman quarries (one re-opened in 1837 for construction of the Newcastle-Carlisle railway). The list would be much longer in a 3600 panorama. And at the heart of this magical landscape sits the beautifully-excavated site of Vindolanda.

Item 3 – The Edge of Empire 3D film and its star

The 3D film at the Roman Army Museum is brilliant. The technology, the story, the action, the photography are all stunning. The feeling of really flying with the eagle is mesmerising. Most memorable of all was the opportunity to meet, when it was all being filmed in 2010, the star of the show, Sima the eagle. No human film star had a fraction of her presence. Malise’s photograph catches perfectly her air of utterly confident composure and concentration.

Item 4 – The wooden underworld

I always enjoy telling our visitors on my tours about the things – wonderful things! – we find in our deep layers and what they will see in the new gallery of the museum. But this humble birch log exemplifies what is, for me, the most fascinating thing of all, that it looks almost identical to silver birch trunks I see around me in the Northumberland landscape every day.

Item 5 – The stones

I’m sure none of the many friends I’ve been priviledged to make at this friendliest of places will be surprised at my last choice – the stones from which Vindolanda was built. Excavators always get a great thrill from the artefacts they find. But it seems sad to me that they seem to appreciate less the stones – the things they excavate most – which show the structure of the site and provide the context for their “finds”. As the excavators know, I like nothing better than to get up close and personal with a lump of sandstone using my trusty hand lens. They say I’m “praying to the stones”. And why not, the stones aren’t just 2 thousand years old, they’re 325 million years old. Most of them are sandstone, with the occasional mudstone, limestone or whinstone (the last only 300 million years old). And every once in a while you find a fossil – a sea shell, a crinoid (sea lilly) or, as in the photograph of the SE corner of the fort wall, the cast of a root of one of the world’s first great trees from the tropical forests of the Carboniferous period.