By Craig A. Harvey

After a two-year delay caused by the pandemic, our research team working on the North Field excavations and the industrial aspects of the site has finally been able to return to Vindolanda from Canada, and we are excited to share with you some of our ongoing research. As you may remember, the North Field excavations between 2009 and 2014 brought to light a new area of the site, which included, among other features, two ceramic kilns. These kilns suggest that this area may have been used for industrial activity between the second and third centuries CE. As the team now prepares for the final publication of the North Field excavations, we find ourselves working with several unique and interesting artefacts, one of which is a perfectly preserved clay mould.

This mould, slightly larger than the size of a clenched fist, features the impression of a bust of a young woman (or possibly the god Apollo) as you can see in the image here. The face of this individual is rendered in fine detail, suggesting that this part of the mould was made by pressing the clay around a model. The neck and chest of the figure, on the other hand, are much less finely produced and may have been made by carving and shaping the clay by hand or a tool.

While this object clearly functioned as a mould, the type of products it produced is much less clear (e.g., figurines, appliques, etc.). The form and features of the mould are unlike those used for casting metal, and its discovery near two ceramic kilns strongly suggests it was used to produce clay figurines. Ceramic figurines have been found at Vindolanda, but most of these are made from fine white clay known as pipeclay and were not produced in Britain itself, but rather imported from Gaul and the Rhine-Moselle region. Perhaps this mould was used instead to produce local copies of such figurines?

A similarly enigmatic ceramic mould with an impression of a female portrait was uncovered from the eastern colonnade of Lincoln’s forum in the late nineteenth century. Like the ceramic mould from Vindolanda, it is unclear what the mould found in Lincoln produced, but it seems to have been similarly formed by pressing the clay around a model. In this case, it has been suggested that the archetype was a copper alloy steelyard weight. Such weights acted as a counterweight on a steelyard balance while weighing goods and objects.

While the exact use of the clay mould from Vindolanda may be unclear, its discovery in the North Field is further evidence for the industrial character of this part of the site. The analysis of this object is still ongoing, and the results presented here are only preliminary, but it is hoped that its final publication will be out soon. In the meantime, you can see the mould for yourselves on display in the Vindolanda Museum!