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

Digging at Vindolanda (2023)

Another fortnight of digging at Vindolanda ended earlier this month. It was my second season of excavations there, and I enjoyed it as much as I did the first time last year (read here). As I was alone this time, I booked the Excavate & Stay two-week placement and stayed at the Hedley Centre located near the Museum. I stayed there with three bursary students (Grace, Emmy and Edward) and a couple from Australia (John and Janet).

The Hedley Centre.

The Vindolanda Trust has been accepting volunteers on to its excavations since its foundation in 1970, and over 8000 people have benefitted from this challenging experience. The demand for participation in the 2023 excavations was unprecedented, as more than 3000 people were waiting to apply for under 200 places.

The 2023 excavation area is still the southwestern quadrant of the last stone fort, an area extending from as early as AD 85 (pre-Hadrian’s Wall), right way through to the post-Roman Period. It is a rectangular portion of ground between the granaries and the southern fort wall that the Vindolanda Trust had a Scheduled Monument Consent (permission to dig) for 2018-2023, so the permit to excavate and research in this quadrant will end at the end of this excavating season. Their main objective in this quadrant was to learn more about the Severan Period (AD 208-212) and its unique roundhouse complex. They also explored post-Roman levels, discovering more evidence for Christianity at the site. They excavated 3rd and 4th-century buildings with well-preserved stone carvings and uncovered timber barracks sealed in oxygen-free anaerobic mud.

The next Scheduled Monument Consent will most probably be for the 4th century AD northeast quadrant of the Vindolanda Fort, which was last excavated in the early 1980s by Paul Bidwell and is comprised of the north and east intervallum streets and rampart areas, a latrine in the northeast corner, and two back-to-back barrack blocks. The Vindolanda Trust estimates it will take another century to reveal the site completely.

The southwestern (red) and northeastern (blue) quadrants and their locations within the grounds of Roman Vindolanda.

But before reviewing the 2023 season, let’s look back at last year’s dig. Thanks to the hard work of hundreds of volunteers from all over the world, the Vindolanda 2022 excavation season brought significant progress in the work on the southwestern quadrant of the last stone fort. In 2022, the team completed the excavation of a large 4th-century cavalry barrack and an accessory building to the south. Underneath its foundations, a rectangular construction cut filled with debris was also uncovered, amongst which was a stone carving representing a phallus and an inscription reading ‘SECUNDINUS CACOR’.

Another important outcome of the 2022 excavation season was a greater understanding of the Antonine period (c. AD 130-200). A carefully laid metalled yard covering the western part of the quadrant between AD 160 and 200 was equipped with monumental gate foundations to the north, finely carved stone drains in the middle, regularly spaced column bases, and two much larger carved pillar bases to the south. Below the Antonine layers, the team worked hard to explore buildings from periods I (c. AD 85 -90) to V (c. AD 120-130). They reached the natural soil that the Romans uncovered when they first arrived at Vindolanda in the confined space within the 3rd-century schola (an officers’ mess and club), passing through the investigation of Hadrianic and pre-Hadrianic spaces.

The southwestern quadrant of the last stone fort is part of the 2018-2023 SMC- Understanding the Severan fortlet and roundhouse complex at Vindolanda. More than 1000 volunteers have contributed to revealing these structures and finds.
The natural subsoil was reached here. This is the trench I worked on in 2022.

You can learn how the archaeological team finished the 2022 excavation season by watching this video here in which Marta Alberti, the Deputy Director of Excavations, and Curator Barbara Birley give a round-up of this year’s excavations and highlight some of the features and finds from the site.

The 2022 excavations produced a wide range of wonderful and well-preserved artefacts. Over 800 new objects were added to the collection, including leather, wood, metal, glass, pottery and stone items. Some of them are currently on display in the, including the Secundinus stone featuring a carved phallus and the phrase “SECUNDINUS CACOR” (Secundinus, the s***ter’) and an extremely rare copper alloy cornu mouthpiece dated to AD 120-128.

Recent finds from Vindolanda 2022.

2022 was also a year of celebrations, as we commemorated 1900 years since the building of Hadrian’s Wall with the Hadrian’s Wall 1900 Festival, which was filled with hundreds of events and activities across the length of the Wall, including the Bunting Challenge at Vindolanda, when 1900 flags of bunting decorated the replica section of Hadrian’s Wall between 22nd-30th October 2022. I also participated in the festival by giving a lecture in the Hadrian’s Wall Gallery at the Great North Museum in Newcastle (watch here). In addition, I wrote this Top 10 Sights along Hadrian’s Wall article for World History Encyclopedia.

The Hadrian’s Wall 1900 Festival special display in the Vindolanda Museum included a silver dish decorated with a bust of Hadrian in high relief from a Private Collection.
Silver dish decorated with a bust of Hadrian in high relief, around AD 130. Private Collection.

I also wanted to go back to the 2022 season because our Period 7 team last year had a French film crew on site for several days, with almost everyone being filmed at some point. The documentary “Dans la peau du légionnaire romain” (translated as “In the Skin of a Roman Legionary”) was finally broadcast in France a couple of weeks ago on France 5. The documentary is currently only visible if you are in France, but here’s a capture of the moment when I appear with Andrew Birley, who speaks about the animal bones that had just come out of our trench, including a smoked shoulder of beef. Our team was digging around two ovens from the Antonine period, so we found many animal bones with butchery marks.

“Dans la peau du légionnaire romain” broadcast on 08/06/23 on France 5.

Now, to the 2023 action. I joined a team of 18 other volunteer excavators from 26 June to 7 July 2022 (Period 7); three of them, Justin (who runs the Digging Vindolanda blog), Pippa and Dolores, I knew from last year. On the first day, after the standard introductions and health and safety briefing, Marta took us on a detailed introduction to the history of the site and a tour of the excavating area. Her talk also focused on the threat of climate change and its dramatic effect on hidden and visible archaeology. Hot and increasingly dry summers have led to the decay and destruction of artefacts within the uppermost anaerobic layers, especially organic materials like writing tablets, leather, wood and textiles.

Anaerobic conditions are a result of the ground being waterlogged due to the rising water table at Vindolanda. The objects are almost entirely deprived of oxygen, and there is very little bacterial activity which would normally destroy such buried objects. Anaerobic conditions at Vindolanda have produced large quantities of shoes, other leather items, cloth and wood.

The excavations in July 2022 and June 2023 were hindered by the arid nature of the summer and extreme heat, making it difficult to operate in the precious anaerobic layers of the site as those areas would quickly dry out and be damaged once they became exposed to the hot and dry conditions. They had to add water to the trenches rather than pump it out. To monitor the effect of climate change, the Vindolanda Trust has recently installed a series of deep probes into the ground within the Vindolanda complex to monitor and measure environmental conditions (meteorological, soil moisture, conductivity and temperature, water level and pH of the ground). All the monitoring probes are linked to a Vindolanda weather station which gives them live data on wind, temperature, rain and atmospheric pressure at the site. The data collected should help preserve this history for future generations.

Marta gave us the extended, first-day introduction to the buildings and history of the site and a tour of the excavation area.
One of the three ground monitoring stations was installed at Vindolanda to measure environmental conditions.
All the monitoring probes at Vindolanda are linked to a weather station. This meteo station gives them live data on wind, temperature, rain and atmospheric pressure at the site, providing accurate updates every 15 minutes.

In the first week of digging, I was assigned, along with three other volunteers and students, to a Period V level (c. AD 122 – c. 130) trench to remove the clay cap that separates us from the anaerobic layers beneath, which is from the early wooden forts (c. AD 85-120). Finds were scarce, with a few pieces of a glass vessel, one fragment of Samian ware and a whetstone. We also uncovered an oven with hard, yellowish baked clay nearby and black ash.

Our trench Week 1, Day 1.
Our trench Week 1, Day 2.
Me in the trench on week 1, day 3.

The only two artefacts measured with the total station was the whetstone (to record precisely where they were found). A whetstone is a tool made with a fine-grained stone and usually used with water to sharpen various cutting tools from different contexts (domestic, commercial, agricultural, medical, industrial, and military) (see more here).

My uncovered whetstone was a cylindrical whetstone made from a greenish-grey basalt.

After six weeks of drought, we experienced some typical Northumbrian weather with a mix of sunshine, torrential bursts of rain, and breezy days with winds gusting to 40mph. On the third day, the excavations were cancelled in the afternoon due to the rain, but our time was not wasted, as the entire team was treated to an in-depth tour of the Roman Fort of Magna, the new archaeological dig under the care of the Vindolanda Trust that began on Monday 3 July (see here). They took us through the entire five-year archaeological and environmental project for the excavation: from Milecastle 46, across the Vallum ditch, to the fort itself. This ground-breaking research has been supported with a £1.625m grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The excavation area at Magna, which covers the site of Milecastle 46 in year one, has been stripped of the turf.

The site of Magna covers an area larger than Vindolanda and has the same preservation layers of organic remains, and it is also under threat from climate change. The extremely fragile preservation ecosystem in which they exist must be carefully preserved to survive into the future. In April 2022, the Vindolanda Trust used the money it had raised through the Magna appeal to install a state-of-the-art Van Walt probe array into the field at the site of Magna. 

The Van Walt probe array at the site of Magna includes a weather station, underground monitoring of temperature, PH, moisture content and the oxygen-reducing potential in the soil.

Back at Vindolanda, we continued removing the clay deposits and stones from the upper levels, revealing more of the small oven with its ashy debris. But the most important discovery from our trench was an alarming feature. I ran across two holes (see pictures below) generated by recently degraded timber posts from Period IV occupation (c. AD 105 -c. 118). These now appear throughout the site of Vindolanda because of climate change-induced drying, which allows oxygen to penetrate the soil and leads to the decay of the wood and other organic materials. Documenting these holes will be important to analyse the dramatic impact of climate change on archaeology, as we fear that finds which haven’t yet been discovered may soon be irreversibly damaged.

Our trench Week 1, Day 4.
The two holes I uncovered in our trench. This means that wattle and daub fences, leather shoes and tablets are no longer preserved as well as they were before.
The holes created by the recent loss of wooden posts from Period IV were revealed by Justin in week 2.

Other teams in week 1 were busy exploring the early pre-Hadrianic timber forts, and wonderful artefacts were uncovered, including an ink writing tablet from Period I (c. AD 85 -90) in nearly perfect condition, with a V-shaped notch in one of the edges that enabled tablets to be bound together – typically in pairs. The fragile find is now undergoing painstaking conservation work and should reveal ink writing. Other artefacts were posted on social media, including this beautiful bone-handled knife.

The last day of week 1 brought more great artefacts, including this sherd of a mortarium showing two repairs, one made using lead, the other using copper alloy to plug the hole. As reported by the Vindolanda Trust on Facebook, this is the first time they have seen copper alloy used to repair a ceramic vessel. Our trench, however, did not produce any more finds.

Our trench Week 1, Day 5.
Me in the trench on week 1, day 5.
Visible here are the compacted clay layers laid down above demolished buildings to create clean platforms for the new structures. These clay layers sealed the ground below and created anaerobic conditions.

The beginning of Week 2 often brings changes across trench assignments. My small team was moved to an adjacent, narrow trench, where we spent the entire week excavating in oxygen-free layers and gradually bringing to light the foundations of wooden buildings, part of a barrack block. We uncovered rows of thick oak posts running in a north-south direction that supported the wooden floor of a Period IV pre-Hadrianic cavalry barrack occupied by soldiers of the first cohort of Tungrians. Dressed oak was used for structural timbers, and some rooms were floored with timber planking. We also uncovered a well-preserved Period IV wattle and daub fence forming part of the barrack’s exterior wall.

Our trench Week 2, Day 7.
Our Period IV wattle and daub fence.

Further troweling across the trench revealed round timber posts made of birch from Period III of occupation (c. AD 100- 105), when the ninth cohort of Batavians built the third timber fort at Vindolanda. My task for the rest of week 2 was to trowel the entire adjacent trench to the same level, revealing more rows of timber posts from Periods IV and III.

Our trench Week 2, Day 8.
Our trench Week 2, Day 8.
Trowelling in the trench.

These two trenches yielded virtually nothing except for a small fragment of decorated Samian ware (or Terra Sigillata). However, a wonderful sherd of Samian pottery decorated with a hare was uncovered in another trench.

Roman Samian pottery found in Britain was mainly made in Gaul’s southern, central and eastern areas (France). However, Romano-British Samian was also produced in places such as Colchester, but the clay was inferior and not popular, and production did not last long. Pottery is the most numerous of all the finds that come from the Roman frontier, and the large number of sherds recovered is often overwhelming. In the next five years, it is anticipated that the volunteers at the sites of Vindolanda and Magna will uncover up to 200,000 sherds of pottery from the excavations. The Vindolanda Trust is raising funds for the Pottery Appeal, a 5-year research project to study their Roman ceramics collection. You can donate here https://www.vindolanda.com/donate/race-to-100k.

Samian ware fragment from my trench decorated with foliage.
Samian ware fragment from another trench decorated with a hare.

There were some great features and finds in the adjacent trenches. Just beside me, Molly excavated a beautifully well-preserved Period IV wattle and daub fence that generated a leather shoe. Justin and Emmy, one of the three bursary students working in my week one trench, exposed Period III layers and revealed pieces of leather deliberately incorporated into fences and posts, perhaps used for better isolation. This trench delivered some interesting finds towards the end of the week; see Justin’s blog here.

Marta generated a 3D model of the Period IV fence using the Scaniverse app.
The shoe found by Molly.

We had our Period 7 team photo taken on Thursday afternoon. It was the occasion to show off our 2023 Vindolanda Excavation T-shirt.

Period 7 team photo.
My team: Max, Grace (one of the three bursary students) and me.

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

How it started… Picture taken at the beginning of our Period 7 / How it’s going… Photo taken at the beginning of Period 8.
In red trench one / in green trench 2.

I checked out of the Hedley Centre on Saturday morning and went climbing up to the Vindolanda quarries (Barcombe Hill quarries). It offers fantastic views over the entire site and as far north as Hadrian’s Wall and Sycamore Gap. The quarry has a 4m-high stone face stretching for about 14.5m. At the extreme northern end is a crudely-incised phallus and the Roman inscription ‘XIII.’

The view of Vindolanda and Hadrian’s Wall from the quarry.
A phallus incised at the northern end of the Vindolanda quarry. Considered to be a good luck charm that is useful for warding off evil spirits, the representation of the phallus is common in Roman times.
The two quarry faces on the southwest summit of Barcombe Hill. The most southerly one has been reworked in the 19th century, but the northern one, shown here, remains untouched since Roman times. The northern quarry has a 4m-high stone face stretching for about 14.5m. The Barcombe Hill quarries are considered to have been used in the Severan rebuilding of Vindolanda.

Earlier this week, the BBC Tyne & Wear posted a video with some great coverage of the three young bursary students that excavated with us at Vindolanda. In 2023, Historic England and the Vindolanda Trust banded together to offer ten students the opportunity to participate in the Vindolanda Excavations. Students were granted a bursary to work on a two-week placement, excavating alongside professional archaeologists and volunteers.

Digging continues until 29 September. Places for the 2024 excavations will be made available in November 2023.

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.

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4 thoughts on “Digging at Vindolanda (2023)”

  1. Wow! What a great experience this must have been again! 👍

    And you look great in the pics – especially in pink boots.. 😀💐💐

    Thanks a lot for sharing this to us in all the details! 🙏🙏

    Greetings from Austria! ThP 🙋‍♂️

  2. Thanks so much, as always, for your continued excellent work!

    I am glad my favorite place on Hadrian’s Wall made your Top 10 list: namely, the various sites around Benwell/Condercum, including the vallum crossing and the Temple of Antenociticus, which I was able to visit in 2003. I enjoyed my time in Newcastle on that occasion very much, and visiting Wallsend, South Shields, and the museum in Newcastle itself, and hope to be able to return there at some point in the future, and see other places along the greater length of the Wall as well.

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