Sunday, June 22, 2008

I'm back from Vindolanda!

Kirsten Campbell, to all her blogger friends, greetings. :)

I'm finally back from digging in the dirt at Vindolanda. Well, actually, I got back on Friday afternoon, but this is the first time I've been sorted and recovered enough to sit and down and type up this little account of wot I did on my holidays. I tell ya, it wasn't easy spending a fortnight without the Internet, especially when I was needed to look up certain bits of trivia. One evening I had to phone home because I'd been struck by the urgent, inexplicable need to know when Marcus Junius Brutus was born (85 BC, btw).

In short, I had an absolutely brilliant time. Being lectured on archaeological practice is fine and all, but it's nothing compared to actually getting in there and getting your hands dirty (figuratively and literally!). A great experience, along with (mostly) great weather and great people.

But you probably want some more detail than that. Detail, and pictures. :)

So... um... yeah. Vindolanda. Celtic name meaning "white field", Roman auxiliary fort, pre-Hadrianic Stanegate frontier, famous writing tablets, etc., etc. The current excavation project is trying to ascertain, according to the Director of Excavations, the learned and fantastic Andrew Birley, whether the fort walls really did form a great divide between the garrison inside the fort, and the population living in the vicus - the civilian town outside, with excavations focused on a section of the vicus, and on the granaries in the central range of the fort. Must say, this was what really got me interested, as the soldier/civilian split is a theme which pops up more than once in my books.

Me, I was working on Andrew's team around the granaries, where they've uncovered a nice stretch of the via principalis, the main street of the fort, and, to quote Eddie Izzard, a "series of small walls". And a very nice series of small walls, it is, too (where the later stone-robbers haven't made off with parts, of course). Feast your eyes on the pretty, pretty Roman stonework (the tags have something to do with soil sampling, I think), here -

- and here (black bag leaning against the buttress is mine):

The first day (Sunday), I was working on the via principalis. After a morning of de-turfing (aaargh), I managed to uncover a couple of paving stones, and also the cobbles of the earlier metalled road beneath the paved surface. During the course of the day, I managed to find my first shards of pottery and glass, and the first of many, many nails. Nails turned out to be a regular fixture over the two weeks, scattered willy-nilly through the rubble layers. Honestly, it's like they just chucked them about when they were done with them. And I'm not even talking wee nails here; I'm talking those big, mean Roman ones with the square heads ("Jesus nails", as Andrew called them).

Actually, my very first find, almost as soon as I put trowel to soil, was a fossil, which no one cared about, so I was told I could either throw it away or take it home with me. So I stuffed it in my bag and brought it back with me. I was kind of surprised to find it there, since in stratigraphic terms, a fossil shouldn't be above a Roman road. I'm guessing, since it was in with the rubble, that it came from the quarry on the hill.

So, after the first day - after all the physical labour, fresh air and sunburn - I fell into bed around half seven, woke up again about half ten, then back to sleep again about eleven. Then it was up at cockcrow (literally - for the first week, there was a cockerel who made it his business who sit under my window about five in the morning and crow incessantly till eight) for day two.

Spent the second morning dislodging more stubborn rubble with a pickaxe, then after lunch, me and another girl, Miranda, were whisked round to the back of the granaries to start getting rid of more rubble in order to get down to the road surface. Over the course of the week, this area gave up loads of nails, bits of bone (we decided we must have uncovered the equivalent to at least one cow!) and charcoal, as well as a few shards of Samian pottery (the people in the next trench found some very nicely decorated bits) and some bits of greyware (standard army pottery). Miranda also unearthed an interesting wee anomaly:

See those two slabs of stone lying parallel on the left? They definitely appeared to be there on purpose, though, as Andy pointed out, they tend to be associated with the ramparts of a fort, and shouldn't've been lying in the middle of the road like that. Verrry interesting and, silly me, I forgot to go and see on my last day if they had made any headway in finding out what they were doing there. Damn.

On Tuesday, I finally met the Dutch students who were staying on the same farm as I was. They were working in the vicus group and were dead nice, though one of them was a bit quiet. Either he just didn't have as much English as his friend, or I scared him. My ugly mug has that effect on people. See:



Anyway, on the Tuesday I unearthed my first find which merited its own individual bag. Oh, yeah! It was the first of three arrowheads I found in the trench that week. I asked Alex, one of the supervisors, if it was Roman, or more likely to belong to the post-Roman period of occupation that the granaries saw. He said it was hard to tell straight away from the typology, but it was probably Roman. Yay! A Roman arrowhead! I didn't expect to find anything like that. :)

That was in the morning, and in the afternoon it was back down to earth to uncover more nails and bone. Managed to find the near-entire shoulder blade of something bovine, but it was so spongy it came apart almost as soon as I touched it. :( Spent the rest of the afternoon shovelling rubble, trowelling soil, and wheeling my barrow up and down the spoil heap. I'm quite an indoor sort of person, but I actually relished all the physical work, aching muscles and cramping hands, and all. I think the sense of anticipation stopped it from being complete drudgery. You never know what'll come out of your next trowel-ful; you'll see something small and round-edged peeking out from the dirt and you'll stop and think - to steal yet another joke from Eddie Izzard - "Is that a bit of grit? Is that a piece of money? Or is that the treasure of the Sierra Madre??" For me, it always turned out to be a bit of grit. I didn't find any coins (though others did), and I definitely didn't find the treasure of the Sierra Madre. ;) Though I did rack up some cool little finds over the course of the fortnight, mwahaha.

On the Wednesday morning, before excavations started at ten, I went for a short walk to find the Chesterholm milestone, one of the only Roman milestones in Britain still standing in its original place. I found it easily enough. It's very weathered and you can't read anything on it any more, and standing there by itself in the shaded corner of the field, it looks like something that would transport you back in time if you touched it, in a sort of Romano-British Outlander, lol. It actually gave me an idea for a daft time-travel comedy along those lines. :) Here it is, anyway:

And I just couldn't resist taking a photo of this place here, next to the milestone. It looks like the sort of place you'd expect to see some Hobbits having a picnic! :)

That day, we were joined by Andy, who was trying to find more of the granary wall while we carried on with the road. Turned out most of the stretch had been pretty much taken away by later stone-robbers, leaving one of those damned robber trenches. I had a good laugh that day, though, 'cause when Andy found out I was at Glasgow, he regaled me with tales of "Mad Bill" Hanson, one of my professors, who apparently starts foaming at the mouth if you suggest the possibility that not all extramural settlements were necessarily called vici. (If Professor Hanson should at all chance to read this, I'd like to make it clear that I didn't say any of this. I just listened.) Apparently, things can get a bit intense in the Romano-British field of archaeology! ;) Anyway, I spent the day listening to Andy and Alex nattering, and occasionally talking myself. I'm not sure what impression I give from this blog, but I can actually be quite shy, and it takes a while for me to realise that it's okay to talk to someone, that they're not going to eat me. ;)

Andrew also mentioned the possibility of there being the traces of round huts under our stretch of road, built during the Severan period (208 - 212, or thereabouts) to accommodate African soldiers while they fought against my lot, as he put it. I made a mental note to include some round huts in my Severan novel. ;)

Thursday, I made another friend. A feline one. I don't know what it is, but cats like me. One tried to follow me into one of the university buildings once, and I'm the only one our Cleo actually likes (my "familiar spirit", we call her). This one, I met on the path outside the Vindolanda site. It was balancing on a fence some way away, but when it saw me, it came over and started mewing and rubbing itself against me. I stayed and talked to it for a few minutes, then I went on my way. And it followed me. And kept on following me. Down the path, and then up again, until I was beginning to worry it'd end up trailing me into the excavation site. And it did the thing Cleo does, where she follows me, then goes on ahead for a little bit, then stops to wait. I'm still trying to work out what it is about me that they like. Anyway, we seemed to reach some unspoken agreement, because the cat eventually stopped trailing me and sat on the path, watching me leave. Weird. And here's a picture of him, with the fort wall in the background. He was a nice cat. I'm sorry I never found out his name.

Thursday was one of my best days when it came to miscellaneous rare finds. In fact, that was the day Alex remarked, "Kirsten, you're on fire today!" My first find was this half of a pair of Roman tweezers:

I also found two more arrowheads; here's a nice close-up of arrowhead no. 2:

- and this thing, which might either have been part of a bronze bracelet, or part of a post-Roman penannular brooch (two examples have already been recovered from the granary sites):

I also recovered these small finds:

From left to right, they are: a hobnail from the sole of an army boot, a boar's tooth (the guy in the next trench found a tusk!), and a "T-clamp", used in hypocaust construction. Not a bad little haul! :D

Needless to say, after Thursday's success, I was all flushed and excited by the time it came to pack up early in order to switch over with the group in the vicus and take a look at their excavation site. Their supervisor, Justin, talked us around the trenches, which have turned up the traces of a metalworking workshop, amongst other things, judging from the brooch-mould they found. Earlier on, a small altar-stone was also turned up at the edge of the vicus site, and it's a baffling little find. It's not that it's untranslatable; it's illegible. They put a couple of photos of it up in the excavation hut, and it really is impossible to read. I thought I could make out an E, but that was about it. It looks like it was carved by someone with only the vaguest idea what the Roman alphabet looked like!

Anyway, I think this is the ideal place to pause, since I'm getting tired, and Blogger's freaking out about the number of photos I'm trying to upload. Stay tuned for week two, in which I visit Hadrian's Wall, ridicule some posh people (strictly in my head), am accosted by plotbunnies, and uncover my most exciting find (possibly ever).

Btw, in other news, when I got home the other day, I found out that my exam results are out. I passed them all! Hurray! I've cleared the first hurdle! Also, I got a letter from the university, letting me know that I've been awarded the Weston Robertson Memorial Prize, for distinction in my Celtic class. I was over the moon, especially (I admit it) when I found enclosed a cheque for £60. Now, what's that catchphrase? "Screw the rules, I have money!" ;)

Glad to be back! I'll be over to snoop around your blogs and see what I've missed soon!


Gabriele C. said...

Sounds like you had a roaring good time, you lucky girl.

Hehe, maybe that stone was carved by some German used to runes who mixed them up with the Roman alphabet. Next time I'll get there - and it seems I must since you keep digging up new stuff, lol - I'll have a look at that riddle.

Three arrowheads, yay. It must have been a very popular weapon. But why would Romans just throw away nails? I mean, the metal has some value and can be remolten into something else if the nail no longer worked well as nail.

Kirsten Campbell said...

Heheh, you might be right about that stone. A mysterious altar... just the thing to make the plotbunnies breed. ;)

I was surprised, too, about the nails.I mean, if you take a place like Inchtuthil, where they weren't able to take them back with them, they still hoarded and buried them at the time of demolition, whereas at Vindolanda the nails were all over the place, bent and unbroken ones alike. Another mystery.

Celedë Anthaas said...

Whoa!! Love the arrowheads. I'm getting more and more torn between my love for old stones and my fascination for Gibbs free energy, lol.

And I'd love to have a go at the illegible altar stone (one day I want to crack Linear A...)

D'you by any chance know which uni those Dutch students were from? *hopes it's VU Amsterdam*

Oh, and the cat? Definitely a George :)

Kirsten Campbell said...

Well, I like old stones, but then I'm slightly biased. ;)

Sorry, can't remember where the Dutch students were from. They told me, I know they did, but I can't for the life of me remember what it was.

George the cat. I like it. :)

Jack Dixon said...

Very nice post, Kirsten! I wish I could have been there - just your account and photos are fascinating. Can't imagine having been there to touch it all.

Thanks for the great post!


Kirsten Campbell said...

Lol, you're welcome, Jack. :)

It was a fascinating experience, right enough. Much more up-close and personal than reading Tacitus or Suetonius. And while it would be amazing to find something gold and shiny, it's picking out those little mundane finds that connect you best to those people living there in the past. With each artefact, I couldn't help but imagine who the last person to touch it was; and when I paused to realise that I was the first person in at least 1600 years to pick it up... it was oddly poignant, in a way.

Harry said...

Fabulous! It's so nice being an armchair adventurer back to Vindolanda. I had to miss it for the second season in a row. (Exchange rates, fatherhood, responsibilities, gack.) And I'm psyched that the cat's still there. I've got pics of him invading Andy's "Friend's Night" talk at the fort back in '06.

You, your stories, and your pics would be -most- welcome at my Vindolanda digger's Web site, If you do post there, you'll have a very willing audience.

Oh, and if you ever get back to Vindolanda, look for the second milestone too. When you first get on the long straight road that takes you directly into Vindolanda from the west, the stump of the stone (about a foot high) is visible just to the left of the road. So not only one stone in its original place, but two (well, 1 1/2) in a row in their original place.

Glad you enjoyed it there. And grats on the great finds.

Kirsten Campbell said...

Welcome back, Harry. :)

So, that cat's a regular around those parts? Lol. Glad it's not just me.

Ah, the website. I keep meaning to get over there, but it always slips my mind...

Damn, two milestones? I thought there was only one. I'll look out for it next time. Thanks. :)

Harry said...

Great to be back, thanks! Yeah, there's a story that the 2nd milestone was intact til the 1800s when the top was lopped off and split in two to make a field gate. Typical.

Oh, and you want a good Hobbit tree? Check out (This is not a Rickroll, honest.) It's down along Haltwhistle Burn. I can just see Elijah & the boys tumbling down the hillside beside it (movie moment, apologies to purists).

Anyway, no pressure on the site. OK, who am I kidding, mild pressure on the site. But friendly pressure. Honest. And helpful! For instance, Justin said something about Dutch guys from the U. of Leiden. Methinks the mystery is solved.

Harry said...

Frick. It cut off the Flickr picture link. No biggie. Just a cool old gnarled tree looming over a dark forest path.

Kirsten Campbell said...

Hmph. Bloody stone-robbers. Ruin everything, they do. >:( They totally demolished the Arthur's O'on monument in Scotland, too.

Don't worry; I like the LotR movies! Gnarled old trees are good for the imagination; there are a good few in the woods behind my village.

Leiden... hmm... I think that rings a bell. Thanks!

I will get to the site in time... I'll make sure of it. :)

K.A. Denby said...

You cannot possibly understand the envy I am feeling at this moment. What an experience! And practically in your back yard!

By the way, it does look like a place Hobbits would have a picnic. I know I would. I need to share some pics from the wedding after it's all said and done. It promises to be not unlike Bilbo's Birthday Party. A celebration under the old oak trees if you will!

And "ugly mug"? That is a load of (what would a Brit say?) bollocks!?

Thanks for the interesting post.

Kirsten Campbell said...

You're welcome, Kristopher. Glad you enjoyed it.

My back yard? I just wish. :) Northumberland's a couple of hours' train journey away.

Lol, I hope your wedding isn't too much like Bilbo's party. Don't want you doing a vanishing act during your speech, y'hear me? XD

Lol, that pic was taken on one of my rare good days. I'll take that "bollocks" as a compliment, though. :)

Kelley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
K.A. Denby said...

Oops! Didn't realize that Kelley was logged on to this computer. I accidentally posted under her log in.

Anyway, so, that's what, a couple hundred miles? That's a quick drive from here to Houston for me! The book I'm reading now is written by an American relating his experiences in Britain, and one of the first hilarious things that he points out is that the British drastically overestimate distances and travel times between them. I think you have just demonstrated the stereotype!

Kirsten Campbell said...

Lol. Or maybe you just underestimate them. ;)