Fragments of Ancient Empire, 4/2005

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October 8th, 2006, 2:03 am #1

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04 April, 2005
Fragments of ancient empire
By Jamie Diffley, The Evening Chronicle

The archaeological season has begun at the Roman site of Vindolanda, bringing in volunteers from all over the world. Jamie Diffley went along to ask why they dig it.

Pressed down in the clay, almost completely covered by the dirt, lies an object. Could be a piece of Roman pottery, perhaps some glass. To the untrained eye it could just be a piece of ordinary rubble.
"It is ordinary rubble," says archaeologist Andrew Birley, loading it into a wheelbarrow, which will then be dumped by the side.

Unlike me Andrew does have a trained eye. Indeed he has two. They're trained in the exact art of spotting artefacts from when Roman soldiers held sway over great parts of the North East.

Former Haydon Bridge High School pupil Andrew is one of five professional archaeologists working at the Vindolanda site, near Haydon Bridge in Northumberland. The area was home to Romans from 85AD for hundreds of years, in fact longer than America has been in existence as a nation.

"The Romans were here until about 410AD and around 150 years later it was abandoned completely," says Andrew, standing on the site. "It's very hard to say who the people were who lived here after the Romans, but we know they were a Christian community. We have found lots of religious artefacts and the remains of a church dating from 400AD, which is older than Hexham Abbey. We do know the name of one person who lived here after we found a tombstone. `Brigomaglos' was probably the big chief and as far as we understand was the leader with a band of Welsh raiders."

All that from a tombstone.

Andrew is overseeing a team of volunteers who have come along to Vindolanda for this year's excavation season. Every year the Vindolanda Trust, the registered charity which owns and runs the important site, holds a six-month excavation programme, inviting volunteers to get on their hands and knees and literally scrape away the present to reveal the past. To take part you must first register as a Friend of Vindolanda, which costs a flat fee of £35, whether you stay for one week or for the full length of the dig. This year 287 people have done just that.

And they are not local volunteers in anoraks interested in the things everyday Romans left behind. These volunteers in anoraks interested in the things everyday Romans left behind come from all over the world.

Like 21-year-old Tess Dahl, from Stockholm.

"I'm here for a few weeks for the dig and to visit people," says Tess, who, although used to frostier climes, is wrapped up from head to toe. "I came to a dig at Bamburgh a couple of years ago and heard about Vindolanda on the internet. They have a really good website."

The first excavations at the site were carried out by the Rev Anthony Hedley in the early 1830s. Rev Hedley was a leading light with the Newcastle Antiquaries Society but died in 1835. For the next 100 years the land lay in the hands of local farmers until in 1929 it was bought by Eric Birley, grandfather of Andrew and the first of three generations of Birleys to be involved in Vindolanda.
Eric was a professor at Durham University and founded the archaeological department there. After the Second World War the land again belonged to the farmers but in 1970 Eric, his son Robin Birley and other like-minded individuals got together to form the Vindolanda Trust.

Early excavators slept on site in tents and washed in the stream. Interest in the site began to grow and the Trust started to charge visitors a nominal fee. By 1974 it had attracted 80,000. But Vindolanda gained international recognition in 1973 when a series of wooden tablets was unearthed. The tablets represent correspondence between Romans based at Vindolanda and were dug up by Andrew's father Robin Birley, who is still based at the site. Although just mundane scribblings (one is from a trader moaning about the state of the roads) they were of massive significance.

A panel of experts recently voted them the top treasure ever to be dug up on British soil. Now they reside at the British Museum in London. "It's not because we don't have the expertise up here, but we don't have the resources," says 30-year-old Andrew. "Each case which houses the tablets cost a quarter of a million. But we are extremely lucky in the North East to have such a rich history, and there is plenty more to be uncovered."


The 38-year-old is studying for a PHD in archaeology at Newcastle University and is interested in the later history of Vindolanda. "I've done a bit of archeology before and did a dig up at Bamburgh," says Mark, from Newcastle. "I'm interested in what happened after the Romans left the area. There is lots that have been preserved here because of the clay and we will slowly be going through the different levels."

Two-days into his dig, Mark has already unearthed examples of pottery and Roman glass. Working alongside Tess Dahl, whom he met on a previous dig in Bamburgh, Mark is carefully digging away at the clay. "It's hard work," says Mark taking a break. "But it's fascinating to uncover how they lived."


The dig is the second time retired chemist Jim has visited Vindolanda - all the way from Delaware in, as he puts it, "the good old US of A." The baseball-capped American is with his daughter, 23-year-old Amy, for his week-long trip. "I took a course in Roman Britain at university back home," begins the 54-year-old. "One of the lecturers had spent a summer over here and brought a skull in to show us. The first time I came over was in 2003 and I stayed for two weeks, but I missed it last year. It's amazing to see what these people did and just how civilised they were. The technology and the skills they had were excellent and when they left, so too did that level of understanding for many, many years. I have found pottery which dates back 1,800 years. When they were making this America was just woods."


Despite the overcast weather, the muddy conditions and the fact the 56-year-old is scraping away clay in his hands and knees, David is remarkably relaxed. "There's something very calming about the whole thing," says David, who teaches classics at Giggleswick, North Yorkshire. "I love getting my head down and speculating on what you find and building up a picture. It's not very easy, especially at somewhere as complicated as Vindolanda."

This year is the fourth season David has been involved. Over the years he has found glass, pottery and even a silver coin. As I talk to him he is brushing the dirt away from an animal bone. "I think we are stood in a kitchen and in the corner is the place where they used to cook the animals. It's amazing to see what these people did and just how civilised they were. The technology and the skills they had were excellent and when they left, so too did that level of understanding for many, many years."

Vindolanda writing tablets

The first of the tablets were unearthed in 1973 since when more than 2,000 have been recovered. More are still being unearthed to this day. The tablets are about the size of a small notepad (6-8 inches) and less than an inch thick. They were made of local wood and the writing surface was smoothed.

An iron-tipped, wooden-handled pen was used which was dipped in an ink made from carbon, water and gum. The writing was done in two columns to allow for a folded down the middle later. Once the letter was completed, it was scored between the columns and folded in two. The sending address was then written on the outside. Then were then sealed using wax around the edges.
They lay undiscovered underground until Robin Birley unearthed them.

Some typical examples of the contents of the letters include: "Please send me 20 chickens, 100 apples (if you can find nice ones), 100 or 200 eggs (if they are for sale at a fair price.)" "Unless you send me some cash, at least 500 denarii, the result will be that I shall lose what I have laid out as a deposit."

But the most famous one is a birthday invitation to a woman named Lepidina. It is thought to be the earliest example of female writing anywhere in the world. The full transcription is: "Claudia Severa to her Lepidina, greetings. I send you a warm invitation to come to us on September 11, for my birthday celebrations, to make my day more enjoyable by your presence. Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius greets you and your sons. I will expect you, sister."
Last edited by SacoHarry on October 8th, 2006, 2:12 am, edited 1 time in total.