Continuing the blog series on Archive Archaeology, read more about the importance of archives in archaeological research. Learn about the findings in the archive and the Vindolanda principia at the upcoming webinar.

Just as one would plan for an excavation or work in the lab, archaeologists plan carefully to make the most of their work in the archives. As with any research project, it starts with a question, and some guesses as to where the answers might be. Published material makes for a good starting point, and it can also open a whole series of further questions, and occasionally rabbit holes, that different sorts of archives might answer. Because archives can be organised in any number of different ways, tracing not only the projects and institutions, but also the people and physical places mentioned can lead to unexpected new sources.

Research into Roman Vindolanda can make for an unexpectedly grand tour. Starting at the site itself, there are archives all over Northumberland, around England and Scotland, and across the Channel in Germany.

These archives included a wide variety of material – everything from the original excavation notes and photographs, where one might expect to find pertinent information, to letters and newspaper articles that mention in passing surprisingly exciting details of the archaeology.

One of the challenges of archival research is the hope, heartbreak, and sheer volume of material to review. A deep dive might begin with the hope of finding something specific, but if that had been easy to find, it would have happened already. Working with an archive means pouring over page after page, photo after photo, often to discover that the long-sought information simply is not there. Perhaps that particular collection will lead to investigating another (and another, and yet one more) in hopes of answering the question, but often there will be a “negative evidence is still evidence” for that question. 

While searching for a needle in a field of haystacks requires both patience and hope, there are many gems to be discovered along the way. Particularly with archives of individuals, it is a rare opportunity to intimately know a person – their voice through their letters, their peeves and passions, their travels, friends, and family. These details combine to build a clearer picture of the person, and their work, and can lead to unexpected connections. Following the trail of correspondence leads from one person’s archive to the next, and it may be in that second or third archive that an answer to the first question emerges.

The Vindolanda Trust are taking the first steps to facilitate more research into their archives. In addition to its own archaeological records, the Trust holds the legacies of a number of Roman frontier scholars. Dr. Catherine Teitz is assessing the archival collections so the Trust can begin the long process of organising and digitising them. We look forward to sharing our findings along the way!