Vindolanda, May 2014

Vindolanda, May 2014

I’ll be digging at Vindolanda, as usual, in May 2014, and I’ll be aiming to write a running report of the fortnight here. I can’t guarantee to write an update every day, but I’ll, at least, post a few thoughts on the ongoing excavation and some photos when I can.

The fortnight when I’m digging should be fun and pretty sociable, as there are a few of the usual suspects also digging at the same time:  Snowglobe, Sarcanon, Liz, Lisa, Brinno, Nigel, Badger, Sue.

I’ll also try to post links to other Vindolanda blogs, and to get this started, here’s the official Vindolanda blog:

There is also a Facebook group for Roman Frontier fans. This isn’t Vindolanda-specific but, inevitably, Vindolanda does crop up and a number of Vindolanda veterans do appear in there.

Day 0

I’ll set the scene with a view familiar to all WeDiggers. It’s slightly murky because this was late in the day, but the weather is good and expected to stay so for at least the first few days. Here’s hoping.


Several of the Old Guard met in the Twicey for orientation drinks. A few diggers are staying here for the duration but even for those who aren’t, this will be the WeDig Headquarters Building and Spiritual Home for the next fortnight.


Hmm, Badger is looking a bit mysterious :/

Day 1

While the Period 3 Diggers crack on in the late Roman/early sub-Roman contexts of the south-eastern quadrant…

Andy has set up a scenario which isn’t exactly girls vs boys but…yes…girls vs boys.

A gang of us, Lisa, Liz, Sue and me, are currently working on the eastern rampart, which has been described to me as “a pile of crap” . It will, no doubt, be a very informative and enlightening pile of crap, but it’s just a bit rough and ready. Not the nice, neat, well-constructed type of rampart seen elsewhere.

So at the start of the day, first turf goes to Sue.


And at the end of the day, de-turfed, topsoil off and the top of the rampart exposed. Liz inspects our handiwork.


Not much in the way of finds in this stuff, not even much pottery, but we’ve all come away from Day 1 well satisfied with progress.

Onward and downward tomorrow. 😀

Day 2

More of the same today; stripping off turf and removing topsoil to get down to something rampart-like, this time on the inside of the south-eastern rampart.

Once again, Sue was in like Flynn.


And you can see where we got to be the end of the day.


Nothing much to report in the way of finds, but we weren’t expecting anything much out of here. Other diggers have been finding some interesting bits and pieces though.

More tomorrow. 😀

Day 3

The weather forecast for today was slightly grim. We were expecting rain by about midday so we were definitely trying to squeeze in as much digging as possible.

We did start the day with…you guessed it…more de-turfing.


and, yes, there was more shifting of topsoil involved.

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Today, at least, we did get a few more pottery sherds in trench and a couple of other bits and bobs.

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It did rain a bit today and we finally gave up a ghost at about 3.30-ish, so we didn’t lose much of the day.

We left the site soggier but undaunted.


Day 4

The day stared off a bit blustery and the forecast suggested that we might end up losing a bit of the day to rain. We didn’t in the end, so that was good.

Walking down to the site with Snowglobe, we spotted a drone overhead. This is a drone that produces the aerial photos of the site, which, I understand, was owned by the TV production company who were due on-site today.


Today the girls’ team was going to be down one member, as Liz was in London with her son, who was collecting his Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award (congratulations Liz and Son 😀 ). However, we had an able and welcome stand-in in the shape of Marilyn. We decided that we are now called ‘Team Fantastic’.

No de-turfing today, but lots of earth-shifting. It was heavier work today because of last night’s rain, so we got off to a bit of a sluggish start, but we soon picked up the pace and got plenty done.


We had a bit more pottery today, which cheered us, and a couple of other bits and bobs. I particularly like this little bit of mortaria, which has the grit embedded in the interior surface.


And these nice chunks of samian,

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After lunch Andy asked for some strong volunteers to help turn over a monster stone. This was a nicely shaped slab and exactly the sort of stone that might have an inscription on one face. Alas this one did not.


We’ve pretty well finished the heavy spade-work…


… and are now troweling back layers to see if we can find the inter-vallum road. So, onward and downward.

Oh, and I was on tool shed duty today with Scott. Here’s Scott doing his duty 😀


Day 5

Well, today Team Fantastic almost turned into the Soggy Bottom Band.


Yes, that is a rain drop on the camera lens.

This morning was a bit of a wash-out. Not so much because of the rain that was falling this morning, which was manageable, but because of the rain that fell last night, which threatened to turn the site into a quagmire. A few people did some pot washing and an even fewer others did a bit of ‘water management’. The rest of us went off and amused ourselves for a couple of hours.

After an early lunch we did manage to get on site and get digging, with a revised barrow-run (the original barrow run had turned into a death trap) and instructions to pray to the Storm God to take the rest of the day off.

Team Fantastic spent the day trowelling with mixed results. A couple of bits and bobs came up and some pottery, including this lovely little pot base (in two pieces)


What I can say at the end of Week 1 of Period 3, is that we’ve moved a lot of earth. We’ve opened up new areas, at least one of which will now be finished off with, hopefully, the inter-vallum road exposed, The area we’ve been trowelling today will be someone else’s home next week, as Team Fantastic are moving on to pastures new. I hope that they have as good a time in there as we have.

I leave you with an image of Team Fantastic, All for Trowel and Trowel for All.


And the Boy’s Team. They haven’t had the foresight to come up with a name, but I think that we can go with Team RRRRRock!



I have been informed that the Boy’s Team is now called The Aces of Spades.

Awesome name boys. 😀

Period 3, Week 2

Day 6


Today there was a lot of rain. There was a lot of rain yesterday, and on Saturday too, but today it threatened to turn our excavation trenches into hell-holes.

Team Fantastic and The Aces of Spades have moved over to the vicus (civilian settlement) to dig for victory. There’s been a little bit of a shake-up, personnel-wise, as Sue has joined the Aces of Spades (so she can see for herself how things are in the man-trench*). This is the Man Trench this morning once Andy had pumped out most of yesterday’s rain.


And Team Fantastic has acquired a fantastic new team-mate, in the shape of Jeff (we need him, he’s tall). Here is our new home for the next week,

avec rainwater (from the north)


sans rainwater (from the south)


This muddy hole contains such an array of archaeological periods, I hardly know where to begin. Suffice it to say that we’ve got everything from Hadrianic to Severan, and our goal for the week is to dig down to the top of the anaerobic layers where all the organic goodies like shoes and writing tablets can be found. We, of course, will see none of that delicious stuff. It will be for later diggers to get the glory, but we are very happy to play up and play the game.

Liz and I set to work shifting boulders and digging out spade loads of solid grey clay to get to the context below. This thick layer of clay had been deliberately laid down over earlier buildings in order to provide a level surface on which to build the later ones. This is great because to seals in those earlier layers and helps to preserve those anaerobic conditions J. But it’s also heavy and just has to be shifted by sheer willpower and shovelling. Some of the boulders we shifted were pretty big. NB, this green stone is not a coin**.


It might sound like Liz and I drew the short straws, but in this scenario I think that it’s actually the ‘barrow-wranglers’ who have a harder time of it. They have to pass empty buckets, received full buckets, quickly duck out of the way when we fling shovel-loads at them, sift through solid clay to check for artefacts (trust me, there are absolutely no artefacts in this stuff), and empty the damn wheelbarrows. This is hard work. Lisa and Jeff, we salute you.

Here’s Jeff sifting through entirely-artifact-less grey clay.


Hang on a minute, what’s going on over there?


Scott is breaking rocks. This was our cue for jokes about how he probably has plenty of experience of this. He’s from the US and I understand, from films set in the 1930s, that this forms a part of the penal system there.

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But no, he hasn’t committed a felony (that we are aware of), he’s making short work of a monster rock with Andy’s new mallet. This sort of activity, battering a giant rock with a hammer, is a source of great interest and amusement to us all, so we stopped to watch.

Lunch, and then it was time to swap roles in Team Fantastic, as Liz and I took a turn at barrow-wrangling, only to be scuppered by the onset of a downpour that just would not quit. Andy eventually called time and we had to make do with a pottery session lead by Kate. The disappointment of not being able to dig was somewhat tempered by the fact that Kate’s pottery workshops are really rather excellent 😀 .

The weather forecast for the rest of the week is pretty good, so I confidently predict that this is the very last post in which I’ll be using the r-word. “Oh weather gods, hear my plea…”.


*this gag is site/team specific.

** this gag will only make sense if you’ve dug at Vindolanda.

Day 7

Glorious sunshine.

Today was a day of t-shirts, briefly scuppered by the r-word which must not be named. The weather gods are toying with us.

This morning Liz and I were barrow-wranglers. ‘Mules’, Andy chose to call us, but I don’t think that’s very polite, so I’m sticking with ‘barrow-wranglers’. Lisa and Jeff did sterling work shifting clods of the grey clay out of the trench, so Liz and I had a pretty relentless stream of barrows to sift through and empty over at the spoil-heap. Hard work but worth it, as we were able to shift a lot of pretty uninteresting material fairly quickly.

This afternoon, Liz and I took to the spades again, in search of laminate. Here’s Andy showing up the first little bit of the layer that we were after,

And this is what it looks like close up once it’s dug out.

This stuff is organic matter; twigs, branches, bracken, foliage, which the soldiers used to cover the floors inside their barrack rooms. They’d basically put down a layer of this stuff to insulate the floor and make it more comfortable, then when it got a bit manky, they’d lay down another layer on top, and so on and so on until it formed thick, compacted layers. There are sometimes artefacts found in this stuff, as the inhabitants of the rooms would drop things, or just chuck them on the floor, and those things would get caught up in the layers. But that’s for later, as we were just getting to the top of the laminate layer.


I had been assured that this would not happen, but this is Northumberland,  so such assurances are futile.

We took an early tea and then, when it eased off, got stuck in again. A bit wetter, a bit muddier and with a certain amount of ‘water management’ required (some of it rather desperate), we eventually got the laminate level uncovered.
As today was a very muddy day, not only for Team Fantastic, but also for the Aces of Spades, a lot of tool washing was required before we knocked off for the day.


Day 8

Sun…all day 😀 The lovely breezy sun that doesn’t knacker you out when you’re moving wheelbarrows of grey clay.

The day started off much as yesterday did, with Jeff and Lisa spading out yet more of the grey clay; poor Jeff and Lisa, and Liz and I shifting it to the spoil heap; poor Liz and I. There is little more that I can say about this except that we did it.

This afternoon was much more interesting. Having exposed the laminate level across the area of the trench we were concentrating on, it was time for Liz and I to start carefully lifting blocks of the laminate for the barrow-wrangling team to search through.

Here are Jeff and Lisa, wrangling barrows.


This has to be done more carefully than just shovelling out as it’s possible for organic objects like shoes to survive in these levels. We were expecting the laminate to be fairly thick, maybe up to 20cm or more, but when we started cutting it with the spades, it turned out to be very thin, only 3-4cm.

And what, pray tell, was underneath…?

A cobbled surface! A road? A yard? Not sure yet, but it was very exciting.


…and close up, as it was uncovered.


Our barrow-wranglers were under strict instructions to find something with a big smiling emperor’s face on it, so that we could get a date for the surface, but alas, so far this has not come to pass. Oh well. Andy seems pretty happy with it being Hadrianic.

As Jeff and Lisa had not had a turn at lifting the laminate, we swapped back again after tea time. It’s important for all the members of Team Fantastic to gain different types of experiences; what it’s like to work with the laminate, identifying the different layers and surfaces, and all that. This is how we expand our experience and knowledge, rather than just being workhorses.

The day ended with us starting to push back into the adjacent area of the trench, dropping down to the laminate level. We thought that this would be more grey clay, but actually it was much more mixed up material, so clay, some sandy silt, some earth, so a bit lighter and easier to manage. There was also more organic material, like this:


We also had a significant increase in the amount of pottery we were turning up, so there’s definitely something different going on here, even though it’s right next to the earlier area.

A couple of interesting things that we’ll be back for tomorrow are this scapula, still in the trench as it runs under the section that we haven’t dug yet, and we’ll be looking for more of this fantastic pot, possibly a face pot, which popped out just near the edge of the trench.

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A very good day. Hard work, but very rewarding.

Day 9

Well. That was a very good day indeed.
It started off with a little light drizzle in the air, but that quickly disappeared and the day was fine.

Liz and I set to work removing the mixed earth/clay layer on top of some flagstones to reveal what was underneath and from the first strike of the spade we started to get interesting finds and features. Liz quickly found the sole of a leather shoe and as the Staff of Recognition was being fetched Jeff also turned up part of a leather sole from the chunks I’d put in the barrow for sorting. Shortly after that Liz and I both turned up some more leather scraps from nearby as well. We had lots of pottery all day, including this lovely piece of a black pottery from the Hadrianic period.


And this interesting piece of roof tile, with scratched criss-cross markings.

My favourite find of the day? This timber and wattle fence.


It might be a little difficult to see in the picture, but basically, the white tags indicate the positions of upright stakes, and the wattle runs along in between them. The stakes are a bit soft on account of their being waterlogged but, otherwise, it’s pretty solid.


We seem to have the flagstone edge of a period 4 drain with the timber and wattle fence on the other side, possibly an indication of some dwellings or enclosures in that area, covered by a period 5 road (the gravel, small stones and boulders over the top of the fence on the left of the image).

The plan for tomorrow, the last day, is to go down the drain 😀 . Hopefully we’ll find some interesting artefacts and organics down there.

Day 10 – The Final Frontier

Another fantastic day for Team Fantastic.
We started off by cutting back part of the bank above the western end of the drain, to expose the other (southern) edge of it. This wasn’t particularly difficult or heavy work, but we were going carefully because of the proximity of all those timber posts and wattle.

Before long Liz pulled out a Staff of Success-worthy find, but before Jeff could even get the Staff over to the trench, I turned up a beautiful piece of glass. Now glass isn’t usually particularly Staff of Success-worthy. It’s only if it’s painted or otherwise distinctive that it gets fired in. This particular piece was a beautiful amber-coloured chunk (I think it’s a piece of handle), with gold flecks in the glass.


We’re used to Andy looking at our proudly displayed finds and saying “oh, just chuck it in the bag”, but on this occasion he was pretty interested in it, as he said that he hadn’t seen glass like it on site before. Hopefully we’ll get some info on it in due course.

Anyway, after these lovelies had been fired in we went back to actually digging and were turning up a good quantity of pottery, including some nice large sherds.


Jeff and Lisa also did some digging and cleaning up in this area before lunch, ready for us to get into the drain in the afternoon.

As the space in the drain is much more restricted, we started with Jeff digging out and the rest of us searching through the removed material. This stuff was very twiggy with a strong organic smell. But contained relatively little in the way of artefacts. However, the drain itself proved very interesting indeed. Andy couldn’t resist jumping in, and even had a couple of his ’mad moments’ in there, just chopping out a lot of material that we would have been too nervous to hack at in that way. But Andy is the boss, so that’s ok.

What did emerge from the edge of the drain was a pretty-well complete horse’s cranium. Teeth and all.

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Andy was delighted. Here’s Andy looking delighted.


We had had a lot of visitors coming up to the fence to see what we were doing and asking questions, so quite a few of them got to see the horses head, and Lisa did sterling work explaining the trench and the area in general, and showing some of the finds to the masses.


Here’s Jeff at work chopping out the drain fill.


To find…

And here’s the wattle fence partially cleaned up.


And as it was the last day…

After tea we were finishing off where we could in the already exposed area of the drain, and it became clear that there were two phases of construction there, with the wattle side wall giving way to planking. You can see here where the side of the drain changes from the wattle to planks.

You can also see, just in the centre base of the drain, what looks like it might be a cross-brace. It’d be interesting to see if there are more of these along the length of the drain.

Throughout the day, we all had to do a certain amount of ‘water management’, as there were trickles seeping in all over the place. They weren’t too bad really, but we kept ending up with puddles here and there, and the occasional deluge. That’s why there were still puddles in the trench at the end of the day. Impossible to stop, but manageable.

So that’s it. Here is our lovely trench.

We’ve had a great time in there and I’m lucky to have been working with a fantastic team. I only wish that we could have had the full 2 weeks in there, but because Justin was on holiday for the first week that wasn’t possible (Justin is allowed holidays). Whoever gets this one for the next period is in for some treats. There’ll be quite of lot of material to shift out, but the archaeology is really good and there’ll probably be some good finds.

TTFN from the Vicus Gang of Team Fantastic and The Aces of Spades.


Post Script

Digging, digging, digging. Well my trowel certainly looks less shiny and new than it did two weeks ago.

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Before ……………………. After

But for two weeks in the wild north, I must have been doing something else. Surely!

Well, as usual, I’ve spent more time in the pub during the past two weeks than I do for the rest of the year together. The pub in question? The Twicey of course. Sunday night pre-dig meet-up, coffee, diggers, wifi, cider, vegiburger, diggers, Tuesday night quiz (with added Loop question :D), diggers, the oddest ‘tagine’ I’ve ever seen or tasted (no photo, alas), Brian, sticky toffee pudding, diggers. You all know the place, so I need say no more.




I always end up there at some point, usually in Tesco or in the Abbey, or both. Hexham Abbey looks better than Tesco.



By the end of week 1, I had a desperate desire for a cappuccino, so I spent some of the weekend in Café Nero.

Not much walking, especially as there was an apocalyptic rain storm over Once Brewed on the Sunday. But there was a bit of a digger’s outing to Whitley Castle on the Saturday, which involved getting a train ride, getting absolutely soaked, getting blow-dried by the howling wind, and a hike back to Alston.

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Here, Badger finds Alston a welcoming place.


I did also go and have a look at some lumps of rock at Limestone Corner. I realised that although I’d been to the ditch on the north side, where the Hadrian’s Wall Path runs, many times, I’d never looked on the south, vallum, side. I wanted to see if I could spot any lewis slots in the rocks (I couldn’t), and have a look at the vallum at this point.

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A visit from Jo. Yay! 😀 . She drove up form Durham for the night. We went out for dinner at The Sampson in Gilsland (great soup), then back to the Twicey (where else?) so that she could catch up with digger mates and have some sticky toffee pudding.

A budding romance, which shall go unnamed. You know who you are.

I did have a wobbly, induced by being in the countryside for too long. The result of this was me, stood on a grassy knoll, swearing at cows (sorry cows. I know that you’re not to blame). I’m ok now.

Dinner at The Crown Inn in…actually I’ve no idea where it was :/ , and the Blacksmith’s Arms in Talkin.


At the former we learned a folky-dokey song which we adapted and sang in the trench, to the delight of absolutely no one. At the latter we had the amusing sight of Scott coming face-to-face with a proper early 80’s style prawn cocktail. He’s from LA, so this is in no way normal for him. He said that it was not at all what he had expected and that ‘interesting’ was just about the right word to describe it. Oh, how we all laughed

Then there was also the rather odd moment when Andy started to pitch his idea for an Auf Wiedersehen, Pet-style TV series. I’m not really sure how this happened, but the premise of the show involved a Geordie call-centre moving to India. I’ll just leave you to make up the rest.

So, Period 4 people (and Periods 5, 6, 7, 8….), have an awesome time. Dig heartily. Be gracious with your finds and be not downhearted if you end up with nothing but mud and stones. This is archaeology, not treasure hunting. Go to the Twicey quiz on Tuesday and, if you manage to ‘win’ something, put it in the diggers’ hut. It’s tradition. Onward and downward.



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