Barbara's top 10 finds from Vindolanda

Starting her work for Vindolanda as a volunteer on the 3rd to 4th century Commanding Officer’s residence in 1997, Barbara soon realised that it was a site that could capture not only one’s imagination but a unique opportunity to discover personal histories of those who lived here in the past. After two season of volunteer excavations and finishing her undergraduate work in her native Colorado, Barbara started work at Vindolanda as a curatorial assistant in 1999. Over the years, she has developed a growing understanding of the collection and her work now is based not only in the care of the artefacts but also the conservation, interpretation and display of them in both Vindolanda’s museum and the Roman Army Museum. As the Museums’ Curator, she has worked with the Vindolanda team to develop current exhibitions as well conserved thousands of objects and overseeing the museums’ education and volunteering programmes. Her areas of interest in the collection has a huge range but she is particularly interested in how the Romans presented themselves and their choices of personal adornment which is represented in objects such as jewellery, beads and hair combs.

We have asked Barbara to give us her personal top 10 finds from the Vindolanda collection, and here is what she had to say:

10) Assassin’s dagger – I remember when this object was found, and it is remarkable condition. Still sharp. It bears the stamp of the cutler QUINCUS who made it and I find it interesting that as today, quality products were marked with the maker. At the handle end of the knife it has been fashioned to look like a finger ring, meaning the owned could have concealed the blade behind the hand.

9) Calendrical Clepsydra - This fragment of an ancient timekeeping device was found during excavations between the east granary and the headquarters building in 2008. It is a piece of the rim of a much larger object, known as calendrical clepsydra, which is known from fewer than a half dozen similar artefacts. It was used to measure the hours of the day, by tracking the level of water in a bowl as it dripped out a small hole in the bottom. This fragment is labelled with the name of the month (September), the first of the month (the kalends), the fifth of the month (the nones), the thirteenth (the ides), and the equinox (aequinoctium). Clever those Romans!

8) Duck brooch – Found in 2018, this beautiful silver brooch, in a trompetenmuster or trumpet-scroll design was found in the Severan ditch. It is thought that the duck was a symbol of honesty, simplicity and resourcefulness as well as transition due to their migratory nature. It makes my top 10 not only as it is a stunning object, but it’s not perfect. When I was conserving it as well as when I made the mould for the replica so we could sell it in the shop, I was struck by the small notch on the top of the back of the duck. It is a reminder that it is handmade and imperfections are part of the artist journey. The replica of this brooch is available in pewter and bronze, you can see them in our online shop.

7) Gladiator glass – I would not be surprised if this object made it on most peoples’ top 10 list. Not only is it a beautiful imported object but it has an amazing archaeological story. It was probably made in Cologne (modern Germany) where many painted vessels are known to originate, and it shows scenes from a Gladiatorial combat hand painted onto the glass vessel. Archaeologically, it was used in the Tavern and broken there where one piece was buried in a pit in the floor to be found in 2007. The rest of the bowl was taken out in the rubbish and thrown into the fort ditch 20 metres away. In 1992, a large piece from the vessel was found in the ditch. These two pieces fit together perfectly when reunited in 2007. In 2012, while working with our glass specialist, we found that we had a small fragment with two legs of a gladiator which fit perfectly onto the 2007 fragment. We were very excited and consulted the database to find that the legs fragment was found in 1972 in the flood deposit from the fort ditch. This glass vessel is literally a puzzle that we keep working on and supports the ongoing excavation of a site like Vindolanda. When will we find the next piece?

6) Three melon beads on a leather thong – no top finds list from me would be complete without at least a few Roman beads. It is hard to pick just one, but these hold a special place in my research for me. While looking at beads one can start into the very complicated area of understanding who used them. Often beads, as jewellery are considered more feminine objects and no doubt women in the ancient world would have worn beads but some beads illustrate the possibility of other uses. Melon beads, with their large perforations (holes) make an excellent case for other uses. Due to Vindolanda’s anaerobic (oxygen free) conditions and the survival of organic material, we find objects like this set, 2 faience and one cobalt blue glass melon beads on a leather thong. What were they attached to? Could it be part of horse tack as seen in a tombstone illustration from Germany? Could it be decoration for other equipment? Could they be a really chunky necklace? We don’t know for sure, but it is good to ask the questions.

5) Copper alloy votive hand uncovered in 2018 – This little object is possibly associated with the temple of Jupiter Dolichenus. The hand is slightly cupped to take a small votive statue which would have been inserted into the hole in the palm of the hand. When in conservation, as I cleaned the muck and dirt off if it, I was reminded of a toddler’s hand and as I cleaned it revealed the delicate markings of nails and knuckles. Truly precious.

4) Trewhiddle style strap end – On display at the Roman Army Museum, this little object’s date range is from the late 8th to the 10th century. It was found in 1980 and is a complete Thomas Class A, Type 1: Trewhiddle style, with the mousehead terminal. Made of copper alloy with a silvered or tinned inlay over the central panel, the ears, nose, and mouth. The two rivets remain for securing the leather or textile, and the trilobite palmette (three leaf palm like foliage) is also inlaid with ‘silver’. The main panel has been smoothed due to wear and some of the original decoration is lost. Strap-ends of this type are common finds across Britain from Anglo Saxon contexts, and many are found in the North, including Cumbria, Yorkshire and six from Carlisle Cathedral. Another similar, but not as well preserved Trewhiddle style strap end was found during the granary excavations in 2008. Vindolanda’s understanding of its late to post Roman occupation is expanding with every excavations season and we are currently designing our new Post Roman gallery which we hope to open later this year. 

3) Masculus tablet – Not surprising that one of the tablets would make it into my top 10. There are so many to choose from. I know many of the Vindolanda team have already mentioned the Julius Verecundus archive but for me it is the Masculus tablet the stands out. Not for what is says (which is very interesting) but because of my emotional tie to it when I conserved it. The first step with most objects when they arrive in the conservation lab is to remove the excavation mud and dirt. Tablets are no exception but as you can imagine it can be a slow and fragile process. Up until 2017, when this tablet was found, I had not had much practice with confronting tablets. This is when the thin folded sheets of a tablet are still stuck together, and we have to very carefully loosen them through the cleaning process. As I did this with the Masculus tablet, after working with it for quite some time, it opened and there in front of my eyes I could see the writing. It was so well preserved clearly I could see his name. Shivers when down my spine as I realised that I was probably the first person to see that writing since Julius Verecundus read it nearly 2000 years ago. 

2) Votive jet foot – Small and not perfectly formed, I think what fascinates me about this piece is the missing toe. Yes, it only has four toes. On display at the Roman Army Museum this little object was probably a votive piece either for requesting the gods help for healing or thanking the gods for healing the person who only had four toes. Made of jet, most possibly imported from Whitby, North Yorkshire it had a hole at the top and could have been strung on a cord.

1) Fretted comb – I could have done my top 10 on different combs and the collection has over 160 of these small, imported beauties. As far as my research has led me, it is the largest single site collection of wooden hair combs from the Roman period. Made of box wood, these delicately carved objects would have had a very important role in nit management (not eradication, try living in cramped conditions with at least 7 other men in the ancient world: probably everyone had nits). Owning your own comb and making sure you could identify it was important. Many of the combs from the collection show different designs, modifications and personalisation but this one is the most highly decorated. In addition to the skilled carving of the teeth, this comb has fretted terminals and in the centre, a thin copper alloy plaque illustrating a soldier. A similar comb can be seen at Tullie House Museum in Carlisle but with a different plaque. This one was found in 2010 and is on display in Vindolanda’s Wooden Underworld gallery. In 2017 another small plaque, this time showing a two-horse chariot race was found and given its size could have also come from a comb like this one.

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