By Katie Wyse Jackson - University College Dublin

Insects can provide fascinating insights into the lives of people in the past. They can inform on topics such as hygiene, waste disposal, food sources, storage, and trade practices throughout history. This study of insects at archaeological sites is called archaeoentomology and is the basis of my Master’s research which I am undertaking at the School of Archaeology, University College Dublin. I am looking at the insects present within the Period III fort at Vindolanda (AD 100 to 105), and exploring what we can infer about the lives of those living and working at the site. This blog serves as a (very) quick introduction to my research, which I hope will be of interest to those curious about how the inhabitants of the site may have lived.

Photo of Vindolanda main street through the fort on a sunny day in August 2023.

Vindolanda in August 2023

I came to Vindolanda in August 2023 to process several freshly excavated soil samples using a process called paraffin flotation. Insects are preserved extremely well in waterlogged material, so the layers with anaerobic preservation from Period III are ideal for this form of analysis. Flotation is the process by which lighter archaeological materials, such as plants, seeds and insects, are floated out of a soil sample using water and collected for easy examination. What is the paraffin for? Paraffin preferentially sticks to the insect remains which are present among all the other plant and inorganic material in the sample. This means that when the water is added, insects are more likely to float to the surface, allowing for the collection of as many insects as possible.

Light microscope looking at Insect remains from Vindolanda

Extraction of insect remains under the light microscope

Under a light microscope, the floated material is sorted. Insect remains are extracted and identified down to species level. This part of the process involves the most patience! Every insect taxon has preferred living conditions and habitats. Therefore, we can reconstruct past environments based on which species in different quantities were present in a sample. For instance, I am currently finding many grain pests within the samples from Vindolanda. Species such as the Grain Weevil, Sitophilus granarius, which often frequent modern kitchen staples such as flour, and the Saw-Toothed Grain Beetle, Oryzaephilus surinamensis, are cropping up in high numbers. In the same samples, dung beetles such as members of the Aphodius genus are common, indicating less-than-ideal hygiene within this space. Additionally, beetles indicating mouldy material have been very common. Analysis of the different beetle species present, their ecological preferences, and the numbers in which they appear will allow for a more detailed picture of this space to be developed.

Left: Wing casings (elytra) of Oryzaephilus surinamensis

Right: Almost complete wing casing (elytron) of Aphodius sp.

Alongside the wealth of fantastic research done on the artefacts and landscape of Vindolanda, forms of analysis such as archaeoentomology offer a different angle from which to explore the site. Given the exceptional anaerobic preservation of much of the material, Vindolanda offers ideal conditions for insect analysis. These tiny creatures can offer crucial insights into living conditions in Roman Britain in ways that cannot be otherwise found, adding depth to our understanding of the people who lived at the site. As my research progresses, I look forward to finding and sharing more exciting results about this fascinating site and its inhabitants.