Published April 2021

Experiencing Vindolanda’s collection of wooden artefacts - Pat Hirst

Lockdown!  So, what is Vindolanda doing during these trying times?  The site is closed, the museum is closed, as is the cafe, the shop is trading online only, and most of the staff are on furlough!  But none of that stops the background work from continuing:  thank goodness for modern technology, (and I never thought I’d say that!).

Some lucky local volunteers have been helping with the wood archive project.  Yes, I know anything with archive in the title sounds really boring - dusty tomes spring to mind - but this project means we get to see a treasure trove of artefacts that have been found on site over the past 50 years, so what’s not to like?

Apart from the discoveries displayed in the new ‘wooden underworld’, Vindolanda has thousands of objects that the public never sees.  Some of them are kept in boxes in the wood evidence room in the museum - that is the glass-fronted room on the right at the bottom of the stairs.  All these objects have at one time or another been catalogued, but now those catalogues need updating for modern times, and made available to a world-wide audience courtesy of Collection Index+.

That’s where the volunteers come in.  Before lockdown, when things were a little more relaxed, we were going through all those boxes, weighing, and measuring some of wood that’s been uncovered.  Now, we work from home, entering all the data into a spread sheet, with a context/wood number identifying where and when it was found.  A detailed description of the conditions it was found in is also recorded.  Each object will then eventually go into the appropriate numbered box, and, because of the proliferation of some of the objects, they are sometimes subdivided into different wood types.  Combs and tent pegs are an exception, since all wooden combs probably could have been imported ready made from Northern Italy and are always made of boxwood, which doesn’t grow very well in Britain.  All the Vindolanda tent pegs, apart from one, are made of oak, which was readily available.  There is an excellent video explaining the different types of combs on the website.

There are barrel staves and bungs (neither retains the smell of the contents of the receptacle unfortunately), bowls and boxes, sometimes with lids.  Occasionally there are spoons or scoops and plates, along with the odd bath clog sole, with the leather having rotted away.  There is a box for scrapers - leather scrapers that is, since strigils were usually made of metal.  I can at least recognise the Latin names for some woods now even if I can’t remember them at other times!

Unusual items include locks and keys, handles and knobs, all carved by hand almost 2,000 years ago.  It’s so easy to forget that there were many skilled craftsmen carving all these objects without the help of equipment that we take for granted.  Turned chair or table legs and wheel spokes, axles and rims, pulley wheels and even rope are all put into the appropriate box. Rope is either plaited or twisted, and the type of manufacture is carefully noted. One piece of rope was in the shape of a noose, hopefully for leading an animal and not for hanging.

Helping with the project is a fascinating insight into the many thousands of artefacts found at Vindolanda, and the processes that museums go through to store and disseminate the information to help researchers.  Who thinks museums are boring?

Discovering Vindolanda’s wood collection – Liz Pounds

“A Tent Peg”!!  Yes, beamed Anneke, enthusiastically holding a specimen aloft. “We are going to study tent pegs.” What could we discover from this everyday object?

Of course, these were not ordinary tent pegs, but 2000-year-old Roman army pegs amazingly preserved in the anaerobic conditions at Vindolanda. With detailed observations, we were required to note every characteristic.  A whole vocabulary was invented for the anatomy of a tent peg! Cross-sections (triangular, trapezoidal?), notch (angle, depth?), head shape and waist length were all noted.  Curiously, we discovered many with pointed heads.  Some showed signs of use with malleted heads.

As I held the peg, I thought about its journey from oak wood, felling by axe and shaping into a billet of radially split oak for greater strength.  Knife marks were spotted from the crafting of the peg.  Perhaps a wooden handled knife was used, the decorated handle, key to the owner’s identity.

A charred peg was found. We pictured a soldier whittling it one evening by the fire, dropping it and having to start again! So many different shapes suggested many makers. Peg whittling was probably a regular occupation for generations, all over the Empire.

Then, great excitement!  We were to meet Kevin Robson from “Ancient Britain” and help erect his replica leather Roman tent! It had a frame inside to bear the weight and guy ropes supported the tent on the frame. Standing alone in the dark interior, I tried to imagine this tent as ‘home‘ to eight men.  Kevin demonstrated the whittling of oak tent pegs, producing one in just a few minutes.  We had a chance to show our prowess with the mallet and test out the different shaped pegs.

Next, it was time to share our experiences with the public.  A selection of different pegs were chosen and interested visitors were genuinely thrilled to learn about and take photos of themselves holding a Roman tent peg!!

Hazel, willow, alder, birch and oak – wood was a vital material. Every object in the store has a unique story. Each was grown, selected, handmade, used, altered, lost and found.  It is fascinating to hold them and record measurements, check for conservation problems, rewrap in clingfilm and decipher their ‘contexts’ from Robin Birley’s handwritten notebooks.

Vindolanda has a remarkable range of everyday objects.  Some are familiar such as clogs, bowls, spokes and locks, others such as half-moon scrapers could have been used for leather cleaning and some are unfamiliar with unaccountable strange holes.

My favourite objects must be the rope section. They are willow with amazing twists and plaiting. Made by someone’s hands two thousand years ago and miraculously preserved for me to hold today!

Pat and Liz are part of the volunteer team working on the Digitising Vindolanda's Wooden Collection Project funded by the Designation Development Fund though the Arts Council England. To find out more about our Designated collection please visit this page.