Thursday, June 26, 2008

Vindolanda, week II

Finally, I'm back with the second part. This should've been up before now, only I've not really been in the mood for blogging at any length these last couple of days. Anyway, without further ado, here's week two of my fortnight at Vindolanda.

After the first Thursday, I had two days off. Friday wasn't very exciting; I went into Haltwhistle - a very charming, ever so "English" town - and stocked up on supplies at Sainsbury's, then mooched around the cottage for the rest of the afternoon. Saturday was more interesting. Rested now, I decided to go out and take in some of Hadrian's Wall. The couple who owned the farm and cottage where I was staying very kindly offered to drive me into Haltwhistle (in fact, they drove me to and from Vindolanda every day; they were absolutely lovely) where I caught the Hadrian's Wall bus out to Carvoran (or Magna, as it was once known). I had a dauner around the Roman Army Museum and its haunted gift shop. Well, how else do you explain the avalanche of books that rained down on me even though I'd barely touched one of them? Lol! I bet it was the ghost of a Roman soldier who was once garrisoned at Magna. Would explain the hostility towards me, a rogue Caledonian on the wrong side of the Wall! ;)

So, after that minor embarrassment, I started on the short (but ultimately steep walk) to Walltown Crags, where, perched on the ridge, you can find - not the remains of Milecastle 46, as I originally put - but in fact Turret 45A (thank you, Harry, for pointing out my mistake), and a very well-preserved stretch of Hadrian's Wall itself. Here's the turret; it was just one in a system of watch towers strung along the Wall. It would have been a couple of storeys high and manned by a few soldiers, perhaps just a contubernium or two, I'm not sure...

The part of the Wall still standing here really is impressive. Say what you like about them Romans, they knew how to build stuff. At Walltown Crags, part of it was still standing at about two metres high.

But, I think what's most compelling about Hadrian's Wall is how closely it follows the topography of the Stanegate ridge. It must have had a profound effect on the Caledonians who watched it being built, this edifice that dominated the horizon, rising and falling as the land did. I wonder what the Iron Age equivalent for "OMGWTF!?" was. ;)

Here it is, looking east, rising towards the milecastle:

Imagine the manpower involved in building that thing. And imagine the jaws of Hadrian's staff hitting the ground as he outlined his plan for a bloody big wall stretching from sea to sea.

Anyway, I stayed up there for a while, taking in the views south - where you can get brilliant views of the South Tyne Valley - and, of course, north. It was glorious sunshine, and I'd brought a packed lunch with me, so I settled myself down next to the milecastle and sat there munching my Danish, perched on the very edge of "civilisation". Looking north from there, it was possible to see just why they chose the ridge for the ultimate frontier. Miles of empty land, stretching away north to the shadowy line of hills in the far distance...

Of course, sitting there by myself, I was very much a sitting target for the plotbunnies who happened to be lurking in the area. While I sat and gazed northwards, I encountered a few tense Roman sentries, Dux Fullofaudes (nope, I don't know what he was doing there either) and some die-hard Picts scaling the precipice. The effect might have been more phantom-like if it had been the dead of night, rather than high noon. But you know what plotbunnies are like; they'll risk anything to snag an unsuspecting author. ;) Anyway, after telling the various characters I'd think about their proposals, I managed to make my escape, 'cause my bus to Housesteads was due. They complained, but I think I managed to get away before any of them stuck seriously.

So, yeah, Housesteads (Vercovicium). Yet another Roman fort, just to the east of Vindolanda, and situated quite awkwardly, I thought, on the side of the hill. I mean, it was quite a step up the via principalis, and the slope puts the praetorium, the commanding officer's house, at quite a wonky angle. But, hey, those Roman builders knew what they were doing, and it's stood the test of time, so what do I know?

Anyway, I was on the via principalis - that is to say, climbing the slope, when I was caught behind a very slow-moving group of posh people, so I had to listen to them. For an insufferable smart-arse, I have an odd aversion to listening to other people trying to be clever. Ah, life's little mysteries. The best part was when one of the women remarked, "It looks very Roman, doesn't it?"

You don't say.

After looking around Housesteads - more lovely Roman stonework! - I'd intended to go on to Carrawburgh/Brocolitia to have a look at the mithraeum. Unfortunately, I'd had a bit of a mix-up with the bus timetables earlier in the day (ie, my timetable was telling fairy tales), so I'd lost a good couple of hours, and didn't have the time. Ah, well. Next year, maybe. :)

After Saturday, it was back to the daily grind. After one week, they tend to switch people about from one part of the site to another, to let them get a wider view of the site. This week, I ended up working on the east wall of the other granary, right next to the headquarters building (principia). It was pretty much the same idea as the previous week: we were to get down to the road level and see if we could find the wall. In order to do so, we first had to clear away the backfill from previous excavations carried out in the 30s (I think). Which meant that for the first two days, what bits of bone and pot we did find were out of context, and had simply been overlooked first time round. Still, if it's gotta be done, it's gotta be done.

The previous week, I'd noticed, there had been quite a few students involved; this week, there were less students and a good few retired couples who had been coming for the last few years. I met one couple who had come down from Edinburgh: the husband was an ex-Latin teacher and had, as a student, excavated at Birrens under Professor Anne Robertson, so at tea-break we chatted about Roman Scotland, the Antonine Wall and the Gask Ridge. Then I had a smart-arse moment when I corrected another guy on something to do with the Inchtuthil nail hoards. I don't think he took too much offence, though; he came over to talk to me the next day. Then there was the other guy who asked me if I'd broken all my nails yet. Cheeky sod.
I got on all right with pretty much everyone, though there was that time when someone asked me what I was doing at uni and I told them: Archaeology, Celtic Civilisation, and Latin. A woman I was working alongside - an otherwise perfectly nice woman - paused and said to me earnestly, "You do know the Celts didn't speak Latin, don't you?" (facepalm)

I'd had a bit of a cold over the weekend, and on Tuesday, I felt too lousy to go out. So I sat around the house, moping and thinking, "Bet this is the day they find something amazing." Still, I felt a bit better in the evening, so I figured I'd see how Wednesday went before deciding whether or not to go home early.

Wednesday morning was all right, though I still felt a bit light-headed, and you could follow me around the site with the help of the trail of used snot-rags that fell out of my pockets. Most of the backfill had been cleared out of one section, where a buttress had been uncovered, leading us to hope that there was more wall to find. So, while I cleared away the last of the dirt to get down to the road surface, another guy's taking a pickaxe to the rubble and dirt to find the wall. Unfortunately, after hours of back-breaking work on his part, all that turned up was another robber trench. Turns out the stone-robbers of antiquity had done a pretty thorough job on this side, though for some strange reason they'd left that single buttress standing there by itself, and given us all false hope. >:( It wasn't all bad, though. Now that most of the backfill had been cleared from the road, I and the couple who were excavating just along from me were now on the surface where artefacts could be found proper. They found a nice little coin, which was bagged up and taken away to be cleaned at the lab.

By the end of lunchtime, I'm feeling rotten again. Guy next to me is still having no luck, and he remarks to me, "You know what? I'm going to build a time machine, go back in time and wait for those stone-robbers with a gun, then I'm going to come back and excavate again, and the wall will still be here!" I offered to help. Damn, inconsiderate stone-robbers.

It gets to about four o'clock, and suddenly, I have this splitting headache that comes out of nowhere. I'm convinced now that I'm not going to make it through another day and I'll be spending this evening packing my stuff. Then, I'm brushing up some soil, when something suddenly pops out from where it was wedged between two cobblestones. I pick it up and look at it. It's a die, a bit brown but otherwise in perfect condition. Now, for most of that week, the backfill layers had turned up things like ballpoints and batteries, so when I pick up this perfect little die, I decide it has to be modern. I'm about to chuck it away, when the guy next to me, obviously desperate to be away from the Robber Trench of Doom, suggests he'll go and show it to Andy anyway, for a bit of a joke. So I give it to him and get on with my sweeping. Then I realise he's taking his time, so I glance up, and Andy and Beth are taking a hell of an interest in it, and some of my fellow volunteers are coming over, too. Andy shouts across to me, but the wind's in my ears and I can't hear him. I clamber out of the trench and the shout comes: "Kirsten, it's Roman!"

For a moment, I'm speechless. "R-Roman?"

"100% Roman," says Andy.

Roman die, made of bone, with the number dots incised. By now, my 100% Roman die is attracting a lot of attention, a lot of people oohing and aahing and running for cameras, myself included. Andy jokes that he reckons it's one of the commanding officer's dice. Turns out that dice are pretty special little finds. And I found one. On my first ever dig. I'm grinning like an eejit right now as I type this. :D

And here it is, my star find. The zoom on my camera isn't all that great, but if you click on the photo here, you should be able to just make out some of the numbers on the faces visible:

My personal favourite find of the fortnight. It earned me a thumbs-up from Andy, who told me, "Kirsten, over the next few years, you'll go on hundreds of digs, but you'll be hard-pressed to better that." My headache seemed to disappear after that. Talk about a miracle cure. :)

On the phone that evening, my mum said, "Now you'll have to bring in a character who likes dice." I laughed and agreed, then I realised if I did, I ran the risk of creating a Romano-British Ryuuji Otogi. And I really don't want to have that on my conscience. ;)

So I stayed for the Thursday after all. I didn't really find anything else that day, though we managed to uncover most of the road surface in our section, with some really frantic trowelling and shovelling during the last twenty minutes. More than anything else, I just wanted to prolong my time with the folks on the dig. It was quite a sad moment, really, when the time came for us to tidy up and sit on the granary walls for the end-of-the-week speech and group photo.

Here's my trench, with the buttress and a bit of road:

And here's the group, flocking to the arse-parking spot at the end of the day:

Of course, that was the day for buying rubbish from the gift shop for the folks back home. The Vindolanda shop has a rather droolworthy stock of books on Roman Britain, though amongst them I found The Wall: Rome's Greatest Frontier, by a familiar name, Alistair Moffat. I haven't entirely forgiven that Before Scotland travesty, so, it was with morbid curiosity that I flicked open The Wall to a random page. First thing I saw was yet another rant which added up, more or less, to, "Waaa! No one studies the people who lived on the sites of the forts before they were kicked off their land by that ebul Roman army!" (As Andrew pointed out to me, if there are British settlements beneath the forts, they're underneath up to eight or nine layers of Roman occupation, and several feet of stratigraphy, which makes studying their inhabitants kinda difficult, to say the least.) So I... didn't buy that one. I did, however, buy myself a little beanie Roman legionary. Guess what I called him. C'mon, guess.

And that, as they say, was that. I had a brilliant time getting in and involved in a real dig, and I'll definitely be going down again in the future. And plotbunnies ran unchecked across the South Tyne valley. I noticed that on the very first evening, when I went out for a walk with my dad. Everywhere we looked, there were bunnies scampering across the roads and through the fields. Big, epic ones that sat there and refused to budge, and little, shy ones that were there for a moment, then hopped out of sight before you could get a good look at them. Sure, they looked cute, but I recognised them for what they were! I'll be writing all July. :)


Gabriele C. said...

The bunnies are all over the wall. I even found some in the garden of my B&B in Corbridge.

So you got to see Housesteads in sunshine? Argh, and I had my only rainy afternoon there. I got to the Army Museum but didn't have enough time to walk up the Walltown Craigs. I so have to go back. But I did see Brocolita. :p

Haltwhistle is a charming little town. I had my quarter there for three days.

I'm so with that guy who wanted to shoot the stone robbers. And yay for the die find. I bet the little Roman will be Marcus. :)

Kirsten Campbell said...

Funny how many bunnies were running around Hadrian's Wall country whilst we were there, don't you think? :)

If it makes you feel any better, by the time I got to Housesteads, it was getting on a bit, and the clouds were drawing in. A shame you didn't get to Walltown Crags, though. The views are spectacular.
But I think I'll have to make do with your photos of Brocolitia for now.

Damn, how did you guess he was called Marcus? :P

K.A. Denby said...

I am ridiculously envious!

Kirsten Campbell said...

Green isn't a good look for you, Kristopher. ;)

Harry said...

Fab die find!! So funny that 2000 years later they still look the same. I love it.

Glad to see Part II -- more reliving! Awesome stretch of Wall that you walked. Couldn't have picked a better one. Fun climb from the quarry up the crag, eh? I love the part where the wall is actually lower than the outcrop right behind it. Brain trust at work there. Your pic is actually one of the turrets -- I think Mucklebank. There were two of 'em in between each milecastle. Milecastles are bigger affairs, 50x60 meters, north/south arched gates, internal buildings, able to hold maybe 20-30 sweaty Tungrians. (Not to be confused with proper forts like Housesteads.) Mucklebank's an awesome turret though. Most were destroyed right down to their foundations by the Romans themselves under Severus. I guess he decided they didn't need them. Methinks in the end he was wrong!

Sorry. This lesson brought to you by "American Smart-Arse on a Rainy Sunday Night." Anyway, thanks for another fun post. I just love that there are folks that really dig good old stones as much as I.

Gabriele C. said...

Harry, you should come over to my blog and check the sidebar for links about the Roman places I visited. Lots of old stones there. *grin*

Kirsten Campbell said...

Harry - Nothing wrong with being a smart-arse. (grin)

I did wonder about the milecastle/turret thing. Milecastles usually had barracks in them, didn't they? I could've sworn the sign up there said "milecastle 46", though. Hm. I wonder if I've simply put up the wrong photo. Erk. I'll have to rectify that when I get my new computer. >.< Boy, I'm glad there's people here to point this kind of thing out to me!

Btw, what's not to dig about old stones? :)

Crystal said...

This is all SO COOL Kirsten! I love all the pictures of your time on the dig and the die find! Oh I bet you were like a kid on Christmas morning!!!

Harry said...

If only my inner brain had pointed out to -me- that I meant 50X60 feet, not meters. So much for being a smart-arse, no?

MC 46 is up there. But it's just a grassy earthwork. More lousy stonerobbers.

If you wanna see some of the best milecastles, Google Milecastle 48, 42, 39, and 37. 37 still has part of the north arch; 48 even has a few stone stairs in its corner.

The whole system still amazes me. I really love the forensics, trying to figure out what came first, what was used when by whom. Great stuff.

Kirsten Campbell said...

Crystal - Just spreading the festive cheer! :)

Harry - Don't worry, we all have our off-days. ;)

It's easy to get caught up in the minutiae of these constructions, isn't it? It's all fascinating.

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

Oh how I've enjoyed reading your Vindolanda posts - brings it all back. Thanks! You'll really have the bug now, especially after that super find. But even the "ordinary" finds are special, aren't they? A direct link to our ancient past and its people. It really takes your breath away to know you're the first person to touch that artefact since it was lost or thrown away by a real person nearly 2000 years ago.

Congratulations on passing your exams so well and for getting that prize! Are you going to spend the summer writing? I hope so!

Kirsten Campbell said...

You're welcome, Sarah. :)

Yeah, I've got the bug. As I said to Jack, it's the ordinary finds that are the most poignant, when you stop to think of the real people living real lives two thousand years ago who owned them. I always stopped to wonder who the last person to hold each artefact was. It was nice to "get in touch" with the past like that. I've always loved the Roman period, and after Vindolanda, I feel so much closer to it.

I think I will be spending all summer writing away now. Definitely. :)

K.A. Denby said...


I cannot seem to navigate to Crystal's blog anymore. Have any idea what gives? Can you send me the link?

Kirsten Campbell said...

Kristopher, she posted last week that she was thinking of going private, and asked us who visit to leave her our email addresses. I can't get to it either, so I think she's probably getting it sorted out just now.

Crystal said...

K.A and Kirsten...I haven't gone private yet....Hhmmm. Don't know why you can't get on. I'll be back!!

Crystal said...

Just copy that and see what happens. It should lead you straight to it. Either that or just click on my picture here on your comment section and see if that works. I'll be back tomorrow to see if your still having problems!

K.A. Denby said...

Okay, well the link worked. Thanks. But your profile says that it is set to private. Weird. I always had just clicked the picture from past comments to get your blog.

Is there a way to save blogs from the dashboard?

Crystal said...

K.A.-Yes, you can save from the dashboard. I was playing around with Kirstens and it saved. It shouldn't be private..that is weird. I haven't even looked into switching it over yet and still debating on it as well. Hope you have a great evening;)


Crystal said...

Kirsten- Hey sweet! Just had a second and thought I'd jump over and wish you a wonderful weekend!!!