Britannia, Frontiers of the Roman Empire, Hadrian's Wall, Hadrian1900, Roman Army, Vindolanda

Digging at Vindolanda

This summer, in the year we celebrate the 1900th anniversary of Hadrian’s Wall, I participated in the excavations at Vindolanda, the famous frontier fort and settlement in Northern England at the edge of the Roman Empire. Vindolanda is a fascinating excavation site, one of the most productive in the world.  

Every year, between April and September, over 350 enthusiastic volunteers from all backgrounds and countries come to Vindolanda to participate in the longest-standing excavation on Hadrian’s Wall. They sign up for two consecutive weeks of digging when online applications open in November. The Vindolanda excavations are so popular that places are quickly filled, selling out faster than Glastonbury

Together with Rick, Wayne and Dave, my American housemates, I joined a team of 25 other volunteer excavators from 20 June to 1 July 2022 (Period 7). We rented the magnificent four-bedroom Codley Gate House, a farmhouse dating to the nineteenth century but recently remodelled. It is located in the shadow of the Vindolanda fort, next to the Chesterholm Milestone, the famous Roman milestone still standing at the side of the Stanegate (the Roman road between the forts of Corstopitum and Luguvalium). The Vindolanda Trust owns the farmhouse, and all proceeds from the rental directly support the archaeological research programme at Vindolanda.

Codley Gate House and the Chesterholm Milestone.

In 1929, Vindolanda was bought by Eric Birley (1906-1995), who, at the time, was a 23-year-old historian and archaeologist working on Hadrian’s Wall. It was Eric Birley who carried out the first scientific excavations of Vindolanda. He was followed in his task in 1949 by his son Robin Birley (1935-2018). Now Robin’s son, Andrew, is in charge of the ongoing excavations at the site. Andrew is also the nephew of Professor Anthony Birley (1937-2020), who wrote the excellent biography of Hadrian “Hadrian: The Restless Emperor” in 1997.

The Vindolanda Charitable Trust was established in 1970 with the aim of excavating the Vindolanda site for the education of the public. Since then, they have continuously excavated the site for almost 50 years. The Vindolanda Trust also operates the Roman Army Museum at Carvoran (5.6 miles west of Vindolanda). The museum is adjacent to the Roman fort of Magna, where excavations are planned for 2023. Andrew Birley became director of excavations in 2005 and CEO in 2015. The Vindolanda excavations run Monday to Friday under the supervision of Andrew, deputy director of excavations Marta Alberti and site archaeologist Penny Trichler. 

Our foursome with the archaeology staff (Penny, Marta, Dave, Wayne, Carole, Rick, and Andrew).
Andrew Birley and me.

Vindolanda is an auxiliary Roman fort just south of Hadrian’s wall. The first fort on the site dates to the late 1st century AD (around AD 85) and was followed by a succession of later forts, built one on top of the other over the next 300 years or so, until the end of Roman Britain and beyond.  The visible remains are primarily from the fort constructed during the Severan period (AD 213) with later modifications. Various detachments of Roman troops (500-1,000) were stationed at Vindolanda, mostly auxiliaries.

An active and large civilian settlement or vicus adjoined the fort for some of this time. The Vindolanda excavation is therefore revealing key information not only about the military history of Britain under the Romans but also about the lives of ordinary people.

A view of Vindolanda with the 3rd-century AD bath-house in the foreground.

Over the past 50 years, a plethora of stunning artefacts have been unearthed, and ongoing archaeological work on the site continues to reveal a wealth of insights into both military and civilian life. Each year brings exciting new discoveries that shed light on what life was like at Vindolanda. One particular highlight was the discovery of the remarkable cache of wooden writing tablets in 1973, but in the last ten years, more extraordinary finds have been uncovered, including the only Roman boxing gloves found anywhere in the Roman Empire. The gloves, and many other artefacts, have been preserved thanks to the levels of anaerobic (oxygen-free) soil conditions in the pre-Hadrianic excavation layers. 

During the 2021 digging season, a beautifully carved sandstone relief was uncovered by two volunteers from Newcastle close to a large 4th-century cavalry barrack. It depicts a naked male figure holding a spear and standing in front of a horse or a donkey. The identity of the figure is a mystery as there is no inscription. Deputy Director Marta Alberti has been piecing together all the clues to try and establish who the carving may represent. The most likely explanation is that he is a depiction of a god, possibly Mars, the god of war, or Mercury, the god of commerce, communication, and travel. Horses and donkeys are often associated with Mercury (Source). The artefact is now on display in the Vindolanda museum.

I was, of course, hoping for some great finds from our Period 7 excavations! However, Vindolanda is not just about finding wonderful artefacts and exceptional tablets. It is also a lot about the structures, and the remains can tell us a lot about the people who lived there. Due to the size of the site, the excavations will take over a century to complete, and undoubtedly, many more treasures will be uncovered.

The excavations rarely disappoint, and continue to provide some of the most stunning examples of Roman and early British material culture to come from nine forts and nine centuries. The Vindolanda Trust

An outline map of the positions of the early wooden forts. Period I is in red (AD 85-95), periods II and III in blue (AD 95-105), and the probable position of periods IV and V in green (AD 105-120). In black, the 3rd century stone fort.

The current excavation area is the southwestern quadrant of the 3rd-century fort (constructed in circa AD 213). However, the archaeology of this area extends from as early as AD 85, pre-Hadrian’s Wall, right way through to the post-Roman Period at Vindolanda. Severan roundhouses (AD 200-212) and finely built Antonine structures have recently been uncovered.

The southwestern quadrant of the 3rd-century fort and its location within the grounds of Roman Vindolanda.

The Antonine structures were first reported on by the Vindolanda Trust a couple of weeks ago and are thought to be associated with the first stone fort at Vindolanda, which was built in the Antonine period (AD 160-200 – Period 6 of Vindolanda’s occupation).

At the end of May, one of Vindolanda’s latest discoveries made a big impact in the news. A stone carved with the image of a phallus alongside the words SECVNDINVS CACOR was unearthed by one of the volunteers digging during Period 4. The artefact will be on display in 2023 for us all to see.

The southwestern quadrant is a rectangular portion of ground between the Vindolanda granaries and the southern fort wall. It is the area they are currently busy researching and one they will be working on until 2023. You can look back at how the archaeological team finished the 2021 excavation season by watching this great video here that sums up what they uncovered and where they left the excavation area in 2021.

On the first day, we met in front of the Hedley Center. We walked up the very steep hill to the Robin Birley Archaeology Centre (the excavation HQ), where we were given an introduction to the excavations and a health and safety brief by Andrew Birley. We then had a quick tour of the excavations, and I was eager to hear about my trench assignments despite feeling pretty nervous about my lack of prior experience. My fears disappeared quickly as the team at Vindolanda is very welcoming and friendly to all their volunteers. They certainly help the untrained excavators feel more confident.

Monday introduction at the Robin Birley Archaeology Centre.

We were then assigned trenches in small groups (4 or 5 people), and the archaeologists provided explanations of our excavation area. I was tasked with three other volunteers (Ged, Jackie and Judy) to a trench north of the excavation area, just behind the 3rd-century schola (an officers’ mess and club), excavated and thoroughly investigated in 2021. Over the previous weeks, volunteers had been busy exploring the top levels of the anaerobic (lacking in oxygen) with timber fence posts and wattle walls, revealing buildings from Periods 4 (AD 105-120) and 5 (AD 120-138) at Vindolanda.

Let’s start digging!
Monday morning trench assignments with Andrew Birley and Marta Alberti.
Our trench.

It was time to get down the trench and get dirty. We started by gathering our tools to carry them to where we were assigned to dig. Tools included a trowel, a brush, a dustpan, a plastic bucket, a kneepad, a spade, a mattock, and a wheelbarrow. A typical day of digging at Vindolanda involved a lot of shovelling, scraping, mattock swinging, emptying buckets of dirt and wheelbarrow processing of anaerobic.

Our team started the first week by clearing the layers of non-anaerobic soil. We then venture into the pre-Hadrianic timber forts preserved below, working in a black anaerobic level of one of the late 1st/early 2nd-century wooden forts. Upright timber posts were revealed as we opened up the deeper anaerobic layers, and we hoped to find the first shoes and tablets of the 2022 season.

My trench mates (week 1), Judy, Ged and Jackie.

As usual in the anaerobic, only one of us was in the trench at a time, generating large chunks of soil for the others to sort through by hand inside the wheelbarrow.

Ged working in the anaerobic layers of one of the early wooden forts.
Wheelbarrow processing of anaerobic soil.

Over the first week, we found various leather and wooden objects, some sherds of Samian ware, pieces of glass, plenty of animal bones, dozen nails, and one significant find we can’t report. I also unearthed pieces of a flue tile. Box flue tiles are hollow box-shaped tiles that allowed hot air to travel from the underfloor heating system (a hypocaust) up through the walls of the building.

An interesting find came from a later period wall adjoining our trench and was posted by The Vindolanda Trust on social media. It was an elegant fragment of a Samian ware drinking cup or bowl decorated in relief with erotic scenes. 

The two figure decorations in the medallion are an erotic group depicting a drunken Silenus, the Greek god of drunkenness and winemaking, pleasuring a Maenad, one of his female followers, from behind. The vessel was made at Lezoux (not far from Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne in France), in the Gaulish sigillata workshop of the potter Cinnamus from the middle of the 2nd century AD (source). Lezoux was the most important ceramic production centre of the Roman Empire during the second half of the 2nd century AD. 

Another fragment of this Samian ware was found three hours later, which seems to have a representation of a nude Venus on a pillar, a bird and a temple. A third fragment was found a week later.

Samian ware cup with Venus and Silenus medallion dated to the Antonine period (AD 150-160).

The small excavation finds arrive at the excavation HQ in plastic bags, marked by a context number to be cleaned, logged and further analyzed. We were all, at one point, given the task of washing the finds. I spent one afternoon doing just that, hoping that the cleaning of some pottery would reveal a maker stamp, a graffito, or a painted decoration. We used brushes, toothbrushes, and small picks to remove all the soil and mud from the finds. I washed a substantial amount of pottery, bone, glass and nails. The finds are then left to dry to be categorized and bagged by post-excavation volunteers.

Washing and brushing small finds.

However, when a more significant artefact is found, it receives a unique identifier, its own bag, and its exact findspot is recorded (i.e., plotting the horizontal and vertical location within the trench). This was the case when two wooden writing tablets (that turned out to be blank) were found in the anaerobic levels below the 3rd-century scola on the first day of our Period 7 excavations.

While many people were assigned to new trenches at the beginning of week 2, Judy and I remained at the same spot. We were joined by Sav, Pippa, Mary Ann and Justin, who runs the Digging Vindolanda blog.

Week 2 started under a grey cloudy sky.

A film crew from a French production company were with us all week, filming for a documentary on Roman legionary daily life for the channel France 5. They interviewed Andrew Birley, flew drones, and filmed the interesting finds and the volunteers at work. The documentary will air in 2023.

We started week two working in the same anaerobic level as the previous week. Again, only one person was allowed in the trench while the others were processing the blocks of anaerobic material. We had a pretty good day for finds as we unearthed the first leather shoe of the season and a wood comb.

Pippa is in our trench, about to unearth the first leather shoe of the season.
Unearthing the first leather shoe of the season.

 

We spent the following two days removing the last remaining layers above the anaerobic material of our trench. We also expanded our zone south a few feet by clearing the foundations of an Antonine wall. No significant artefact was found except for some fragments of bones and a handful of small potsherds. However, we unearthed a double line of wattle and daub fence that formed part of the Hadrianic period cavalry barrack’s exterior wall and a second oven associated with the early Antonine, last timber fort.

Justin and Mary Ann are in the trench. Mary Ann is removing the top layer to connect to the same anaerobic level in the adjacent section of the trench.
The oven in orange, the double line of wattle and daub fence in yellow.

We were back in the anaerobic level for the last two days. There were some finds that we can’t share the details of but were related to the Roman military. However, I retrieved an intriguing piece of wood from the anaerobic (image below). Justin suggested that it had the shape of a wooden bath clog, which the Romans used to protect their feet from the hot floor in the bath-house. However, Marta wasn’t too convinced about Justin’s clog hypothesis.

My possible bath clog and a previously excavated one.

The video below shows what we achieved in two weeks of excavations. We made some great progress in the anaerobic trenches, exposing more of the Hadrianic cavalry barracks and another Period 5 timber building (AD 120-138). We also exposed more of the double wattle external wall and of the two ovens from the Antonine period.

We had our Period 7 team photo taken on Thursday afternoon. It was the occasion to show off our Vindolanda Excavation T-shirt.

Team Photo
My three American flatmates and I at the end of our excavation period.

On the last day of our excavation period, work stopped at 3:30 pm. Marta gave us an end-of-session roundup of progress made during the period and a summary tour of the excavations. Below you can see the progress we made in the aerial photos, with our trench highlighted in red.

How it started… Picture taken at the beginning of our Period 7 / How it’s going… Picture taken at the beginning of Period 8.

In the latest weeks of excavations, the new teams of excavators have been opening up more of the Antonine period, revealing more of the beautiful cobbled yard. To the north of the excavation area, they have been busy exploring more of the top levels of the anaerobic with timber fence posts and wattle walls, revealing buildings from periods 4 and 5. The weather had been mostly dry and hot, so they had to stop digging into the deeper anaerobic trenches to protect the artefacts. With conditions easing after some rain, they uncovered some amazing finds, including a beautiful trumpet brooch in complete working order and a wooden shovel.

Digging continues until 23 September. Places for the 2023 excavations will be made available in November 2022.

If you aren’t already, you can sign up to The Vindolanda Trust monthly newsletter to be kept up to date with the excavation progress, events and lectures, and news from all across the Trust.

Sign up to the Vindolanda Trust Newsletter

Digging at Vindolanda was an unforgettable experience, and I plan to excavate again in 2023. I have dug up numerous artefacts last touched by people almost 2000 years ago, and I am so grateful to have been able to pursue this opportunity. It has been a dream of mine since I got hooked on ancient history, especially with everything Hadrian-related.

Digging at Vindolanda isn’t an overly hard job, but it can be physically demanding. Yes, we were all a bit tired at the end of each day, but it was good tiredness because we had accomplished something great, and it was always fun and exciting. Knowing your limits is important, and I quickly learned not to fill my wheelbarrows too full with dirt. When we excavate, the person digging in the trench places the soil into buckets. This soil is then transferred into wheelbarrows, where our trench mates process it. After this, we take the wheelbarrow to dump it over the side of a dirt hill, a hundred metres away from our trenches. So, knowing how much dirt you can carry in your wheelbarrow is essential before it becomes too heavy. Therefore, I made more trips to the dump hill, but they were less exhausting.

Holding the spade
Holding the spade
Trowelling

I learned how to use various tools to excavate different material levels (a mattock for removing the hard-packed soil filled with rubble, a spade to dig out the dirt into nice cubes, a trowel for scraping away hard surfaces), as well as the ability to identify different finds. I even learned to recognise the smell of black anaerobic.

The Vindolanda site is set in such a stunning landscape, and with the weather mainly on our side (except on the last day), it was a highly enjoyable fortnight for me. I left Vindolanda feeling that I had a taste of many aspects of field archaeology and that I had become part of a team.

I am so happy to have tasted field archaeology for the first time at Vindolanda. It was a dream come true, and I am deeply grateful to my American friend Richard Beleson for making it possible. I would also like to take this opportunity to express my appreciation to Andrew Birley and his associate archaeologists, Marta Alberti and Penny Trichler for their support and encouragement. Finally, I want to thank my American colleagues for providing me with great company and wonderful conversations.

 

2 thoughts on “Digging at Vindolanda”

Leave a Reply