Friday, May 22, 2015

Vindolanda 2015 Day Ten - Things that Survive

Another two weeks of digging have flown past.  Good weather, good friends, good finds.

I made my last hike from the Twice Brewed Inn to the site today.  I hope to be back next year but the Inn has been sold and I fear the needed improvements will make it a bit too upscale for my vagrant tastes.  Sadness on this point but good memories over the years and a final Pub Quiz Victory to cap it off.  Our magnificent First Prize was a small green anthropomorphic pear.  I think it was a cider company giveaway.

Archeology is more about how things change than about how they survive.  We are so often just seeing the faint ghosts of things.  Here we have 1800 year old oyster shells:


A lot of things survive in forms that are recognizable if you know what you are looking for.  Here we have a Roman shoe.....from its size it is felt to be that of a toddler:


Other things come down to us in better shape.  Bronze items found down in the anaerobic layers sparkle like gold.  This is some sort of medical tool.  It could be as mundane as an ear wax remover!


Sometimes the process of change is surprisingly fast.  Here is the same sheep jaw I showed the other day.  When exposed to air for a day or two it acquired the odd pigment spot that you can see here.  This form of change is due to something called "Vivianite" and is a natural process.  Or perhaps the Romans actually invented "Blue Tooth" technology!


Things that survive and things that don't.  I have a lot of friends here, some old some new.  Of course I realize that humans are finite but I like to imagine that long after I stop coming over, they will all still be here at least in spirit.

But at least the stones survive.  Pretty much forever by human standards.  Here is the Roman mile stone I walked past this morning.  Still by the side of the Roman road, right where it was left almost two millennia ago.  I think it is there for good.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Vindolanda 2015 Day Nine The Good Stuff

Even when you are digging down in the anaerobic layers, hunting for small delicate things, you still encounter the occasional big whopping artifact......here is a huge chunk of amphora complete with the stub of the handle.


But most of the time you are standing over a wheelbarrow, crumbling big lunks of mud, dirt and other "stuff".  It is full of twigs, sticks, horse manure, etc.  It looks like this:


I was a little "chuffed" early on when I found these scraps of leather.  This is something I had not encountered in the past.


But then one of my digging mates, Mark, over in the other trench, started hauling up huge chunks of leather from what appear to be panels of a tent later used to cover a floor.  This is only a small part of it:


Well, OK.  I had dug right next to him last week and was feeling badly that I had found more artifacts than he had.  But as I patiently crushed up lumps of cold, icky stuff I looked into my barrow and found something rather marvelous.....


Behold, the first writing tablet of the 2015 season!  Perhaps my minimal contribution to the advance of archeological knowlege.  Who knows what it might say when it is done with conservation?  I have looked long and hard for one of these and it was exciting to find a specimen, albeit only a partial one.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Vindolanda 2015 Day Eight

A brilliant day of weather today.  Good company and good archeology.  We are working down in the anaerobic layers this week, a complex network of posts, fences, walls and drains.  All interspersed with mud, and better yet with what is called "laminate".  This is a dense mat of various stuff.  Twigs, bark, heather and bracken and moss that they used to cover their floors, horse manure - who knows, maybe human also - and naturally anything that got dropped into it.

From bottom to top of our site there is probably three centuries worth of archeology.

When one set of buildings got wobbly, or when the fort had one of its intermittent abandonments, well, the poor Roman soldiers got the order to bash down the existing wooden buildings.  Later new ones were put up after a new layer of clay was laid down.  Today we found evidence of the demolition process.  Specifically we found this:


This is exactly what it looks like.  A broken off half of a crow bar.  Imaging the frustration of some poor hard working lad who was assigned to knock down an old building....his crow bar breaks and he just tosses the broken half down next to the fallen timber we found it adjacent to!

The deep layers are murky and complex:



Remarkably that is wood put into place circa 100 to 150 AD. Since then Empires have risen and fallen, Man has visited the moon, we have technology that lets me sit in a 300 year old pub and send pictures around the Earth.  And the humble sticks and planks are still right where Roman soldiers plopped them 1800 years ago.

A few other pictures from our trench:


A sheep jaw sitting on a perfectly preserved oak plank.


A sprig of heather from floor covering.


Carving on a stone.  Was it just an illiterate fellow scratching X's and I's ?

More fun tomorrow, with the weather looking fabulous.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Vindolanda 2015 Day Seven - Hail Caesar

The weather man got things more or less right today.  After a reasonably pleasant morning we got hit by a mix of precipitaton.  Rain....and solid white stuff.  I don't know just how you differentiate between hail and snow.  As we took an early tea break and implausibly hoped it would all just blow over I decided to make a couple of small snow men.  The maniacal face in the middle is my pal Pete the Builder.


The name Vindolanda actually derives from an earlier Celtic name.  It recalls a presumptive pre-Roman settlement and translates loosely to "White Fields".  Well, we had 'em today.  Another odd name:  the section of hill across the road from us is one of the highest points along the line of Hadrian's Wall.  It is called Winshields Crag.  The name has nothing to do with wind shields really, but this is a view in the parking lot of the Twice Brewed Inn.


Yucky stuff, we all were cold and bedraggled when excavating was halted for the day around 2:30.  But during the time we got in there were a few things of note that turned up.

This is a pot lid.  Normally these are the lowliest of artifacts, just a bit of flat stone or worn out pot that was hand chipped into a cover for a vase or pot.  But today I found one that was so nice I initially mistook it for some sort of jewelry:


It was made out of the base of a goblet or drinking cup.  I rather liked it.

But the main reason for digging in the organic layers is to find the things that otherwise would not be preserved.  Late in the digging day Pete - yes, that Pete - was busy trying to expose a huge bit of Roman timber.  It is an unusual shape, sort of a taper.  And it has some notches cut into it.  We don't understand it yet, none of the other wooden bits coming up look anything like it.  It might be intact enough to give us a date from analysis of growth rings.  Better weather tomorrow.  It would almost have to be!


Monday, May 18, 2015

Vindolanda 2015 Day Six Mud Slinging

After last week's idyllic weather a certain amount of karmic payback was inevitable.  In wooden writing tablets unearthed in the deep, mysterious anaerobic levels here at Vindolanda the Roman soldiers complained about the weather, and it must be admitted that they have a point.  Today we had brilliant sunshine, driving rain, a couple of brief hailstorms.  Yuk.

My assignment this week is in fact being part of a team that is working the deep layers for the first time this season.  Last year the teams found great stuff preserved down in the dark, smelly mud.....a set of wooden bowls, a wagon wheel, a few precious writing tablets and what is felt to be the world's oldest wooden toilet seat.

Of course at season's end things were just left to sit.  The low lying area filled back up with water and Nature took over to some extent.  Our assignment as pioneers for the 2015 season involved pumping out water, clearing out down fall from the walls, and dealing with Mother Nature.  Algae had to be scraped off of features, weeds plucked.  At least one frog had to be relocated!



Here is the area after our first loose clean.  The wooden posts of a Second Century AD structure are marked with white tags.  They are in rows because this was a "wattle and daub" wall.  Posts were driving in.  Flexible sticks were woven between them.  Clay was packed into the space between two (or is it here three) such fencings and you had a wall.  Not all of ancient Rome was towering marble monuments after all.

It is wet, mucky work and in constrained work space.  Here you can see some of the weeds that have not been pulled yet.


Water keeps seeping into the site.  This has been a problem for a very long time.  Here we see a somewhat later (Severan era?) drain that crosses the site.


Lots of work today, and some dodging of weather.  So no finds of a remarkable nature on our side of the trench.  We did find several pounds of amphora fragments.  These sturdy Roman storage vessels have always been popular for repairing road surfaces and part of what we were clearing next to the drain was one of those.  But in the trench just next to us they had better luck...


First shoe of the season.  Vindolanda has an extensive collection of these, perhaps the world's largest assemblange of Roman footwear.

On to unknown layers tomorrow.  If the weather cooperates.  The forecast is dire, the sort of  stuff that would make an ancient Roman curse all of the many deities he worshipped!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Vindolanda 2015 Day Five - Christianity in Ruins

A delayed post, but one appropriate for a Sunday.

We finished cleaning up our late Roman road surface and were delighted to find our curvy drain resume after it took a brief hiatus.  Doesn't this look great!


Hey, wait a minute....what is going on at the end of the drain?  It just dead ends...


So, what we have here is an area of disturbed soil, lighter in color than the adjacent dark layer.  It is about five feet by two feet and was carved right into a late Roman road.  The alignment is in a perfect north-south axis and it is near the back of what was felt to be a post Roman church.  Hmmmmm..


There were a few hours of enthusiasm for the theory that this might be a post Roman grave
for a religious person of importance.  Vague references to there being a bishop here in the early Dark Ages danced about for us briefly.

Alas, alas.  This is certainly a post Roman feature but really far post. There have been excavations at Vindolanda in the 19th and early 20th century that were noted more for the zeal of their digging than for the completeness of their paperwork.  This seems to have been a test pit from one of them.  We are not the first crew to imagine that the area next to the headquarters building might have some interesting features.

But post Roman Christianity on the site is fact, not fancy.  Walking through the area we excavated last season a surprise popped up on an exposed rock.  Something that was not noticed at the time it was excavated...



Chi Rho, a classic Christian symbol on a slab of stone from the 5th, 6th or perhaps even Darker century!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Vindolanda 2015 Day Four

A breezy day of digging.  I had on every available stitch for part of the day.  No rain at least.

Our mound of jumbled rock - formerly the dwelling of a Late/Post Roman inhabitant - has mostly been cleared back showing the 4th century road surface underneath.  This is not the finely fashioned surface of the Via Appia.  No, by that point in time the attitude was as it always is in declining Empires "meh, good enough".


A before and after study.  When you are troweling away it is not sufficient to see what is exposed, you want to see what is coming up next so as not to take a swipe out of it.  Now, as you dig you find a limitless number of green pebbles.  But if you ever see something like this....stop at once.



It is subtle but note the greenish tint leaching into the surrounding soil.  This means there is a bronze object there, the tint is copper oxide. When carefully exposed it turned out to be this:


It is not entirely clear what this is, something late Roman and decorative.  Sometimes they have a flat panel with an inscription so the real "after" photo will have to come after conservation.  Of course the eye tries to make sense of things.  When I brought this over to the head Archeologist I told him that I thought I had implausibly found a Roman era cartridge from a .303 Enfield rifle.

As this was my only find of interest today I will add a couple of pictures from elsewhere on the site.

Imagine you are a Roman, walking around in a fort made up of stone streets.  Also imagine that mud and less savory but equally sticky substances are everywhere, especially after a heavy rain.  Well, you might step into something squelchy and be unable or unwilling to pull your sandal out of it.

And there it sits for 1800 years until somebody excavates the street paver in question and finds the nails from your sandal still sitting there in perfect array!