Date published: 7/7/2020

I have been examining the small portable wooden objects in the Vindolanda collection for several years. Despite having spent many hours looking at these delicate items the fact that they have survived, in sealed, oxygen free, damp layers, from nearly 2000 years ago still gives me a sense of wonder. Many of the objects show great skill in their production and by examining them in detail they can speak of the trees from which they were made, the crafts people that manufactured them, the journey they made from where they were created, and the people that ultimately used them.

Amongst the many remarkable objects are small, circular, containers with lids, originally made by a turner on a lathe. They are nearly all made from boxwood, a very slow grown tree with a close dense grain, ideal when making objects that need fine features combined with strength. Boxwood was, for example, regularly used to make the double sided combs you can see on display at the Vindolanda museum, the strong fine character of the wood allowing for the fine teeth of the comb to be made so that they could withstand repeated use. The same characteristics enabled turners to produce the small lidded boxes, also known as pyxides. At Vindolanda these had fine thin walls and neatly fitting lids, with a height around 4 -5 cm and a diameter of 3-4 cm. At least one example from the fort had contents that may have been some form of ointment or cosmetic, but these small boxes may also have served to contain smaller items of value.  Boxwood would not have grown locally, and it is likely that these objects were originally made far to the south of Vindolanda.

As an archaeologist there is often a need to try out techniques to better understand the items we find through practical, research driven, engagement with materials and different ways of making. However, the object shown here is not part of that type of formal research work. Instead, it is simply a product of the fact that I find these objects aesthetically pleasing and, as I also turn wood as a hobby, their form has inspired my own creativity, using different wood types and modern tools, to create my own variation on an ancient theme.