A chance meeting over the fence with an enthusiastic volunteer who was excavating in the north west part of the roman fort at Vindolanda back in 2009 sent my life in a whole new direction. That summer an ancient and beautiful altar dedicated to Jupiter Dolichenus had seen the light of day after nearly 1800 years and its discovery fired my imagination, I’d excavated in the 1980’s at Wroxeter roman city and other sites but my interest had been on the back burner as family and work took me into my middle years now after seeing that block of old carved stone I was re fired with a desire to discover the past that lay sleeping under the turf. I signed up that winter and joined the 2010 excavation and 8 years later I’m still getting my hands dirty in the soil (and sometimes ancient horse manure!).
Vindolanda sits roughly a mile south of Hadrian’s wall but by the time the wall was built in 122AD Vindolanda had been in existence for at least 35 years or possibly longer as part of the fort system along the Stanegate roman road which ran past Carlisle to Corbridge roman fort.It operated for the whole of the roman period and ongoing excavations are revealing its use in the post roman period, this faint footprint of a world after the roman period has survived unlike other sites which were swept away in the rush to reveal the Hadrianic levels by the 19th cent excavators.
The stanegate west of Vindolanda
I walk to the site everyday when digging in May, the stroll down the Stanegate roman road to the Vindolanda west gate is a good warm up for a days work with a trowel and wheelbarrow. Feet on an ancient route underfoot with new life overhead and in the fields as curious lambs skip to the fence and skylarks endlessly chatter on the wing. My companion, Tim from Wisconsin in the US is a veteran of Vindolanda and is one of many international excavators adding to the melting pot, we talk as we walk and sometimes we just enjoy the landscape in silence, we are friends brought together by decisions by a long dead roman surveyor 2000 years ago and by the determination of the Vindolanda trust to create a unique place to experience the past through archaeology.
I have friends all over planet now that I didn’t have 8 years ago, bonded by shared experience on site and in the evenings and days off, tales of finds, pub quiz’s lost, beer consumed and aches proudly announced. We share the trenches and the diggers tea shed with its rich tea biscuits and sometimes home made cakes from Normans wife. We plan trips together and study the newly cleaned pottery drying after the post excavation team have cleaned away dust and dirt.
The Vindolanda excavation team are now completing its “frontiers in transition” project looking at the people who lived along the wall. Visitors to the site ask me what’s my best find as a volunteer, tough question? The incredible preservation at Vindolanda has produced some jaw dropping finds over the years and I’ve been lucky to have been on site to see just a small fraction lifted from the trenches, last year I excavated a writing stylus tablet which once would have been filled with wax to write in, the ipad of its day. This year I witnessed the uncovering of roman shoes to add to the over 6000 uncovered so far now in the Vindolanda trusts collection. My favourite find was a section of crowbar buried in the timber it last gave its attention to, why did it end up there? For me it was a personal connection with one individual some 1900 years ago who lost it, We’ll never know I guess, its frustrating not to be able to tell him I’ve found it! My finders reward is more than money ever could be, it will live in my memory for a long time.
On a sunny day the walk back up the Stanegate past its roman Milestone is a good way to talk over the day and unknot tired muscles, on the grey days there’s never a lack of offers of lifts which are gratefully accepted.
Vindolanda opened new doors for me, gave me a new sense of worth, brought me friends and lifts the spirits as the new excavation season approaches and also I’m more wary of leaving my tools lying around as they may not be found for 2000 years!
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