The Persistence of Misinformation

SacoHarry
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Joined: August 22nd, 2006, 9:29 pm

December 10th, 2009, 5:06 pm #1

It's a story like this that reveals, to me, one of the biggest conundrums of modern archaeology. There is an excellent Web site on the northeast of England: http://www.englandsnortheast.co.uk/. On it you can find an incredible variety of historical & geographical tidbits for the whole region, from prehistory to the modern age. Should be flat-out brilliant.

Then you get to the section on South Tynedale, including Vindolanda: http://www.englandsnortheast.co.uk/SouthTynedale.html

Again, some of it is brilliant. But some is now known to be flat wrong. The author describes a mansio (Roman inn or stopping point) out in Vindolanda's vicus. Trouble is, there is no such thing. This information is out of date by, now, at least 17 years! In the early 1970s, Robin and crew were digging in the vicus, and came across this massive building with many chambers, a kitchen, a courtyard, latrines, and domestic-type artefacts. They assumed it was part of the civilian settlement, and called it a mansio. For years after, in large books and small tourguides, the structure was described as such -- an inn for travelers. It wasn't until the early 1990s that the Trust came to learn that it wasn't a mansio at all. It turned out it was a building from a period before the vicus, and in fact was the commander's home (praetorium) for the short-lived & oddly shaped Severan fort (Period VI-B). Since then, reports & guidebooks have described it right. And you'd think that after nearly 20 years that info would have trickled out into all possible nooks & crannies. But apparently not!

So back to the conundrum: archaeology is a learning game. You do your best to piece together a story from very fragmentary information. And you invariably will go back and re-examine earlier work in light of new discovery. That's the nature of the game. But at the same time, a publicly accessible site like Vindolanda is about educating regular folks as to what the past looked like. Each new discovery comes with uncertainty, and with the potential to completely rewrite a previous generation's worth of work. So what to do? Do you go ultra-conservative, unwilling to make any pronouncements? How can you advance knowledge that way? Moreover, how can you keep the public's imagination fired that way? A place like Vindolanda thrives on tourists, who flock to the site in the hope of seeing & learning something. Yet you certainly can't go the other route, making leaps of fantasy, knowing full well that you're filling people's heads with rubbish. That's a good way to build massive distrust, both with John Q. Public and with academic peers. It's just dishonest.

So clearly, with each discovery, you do your best to weave a sensible story based on the best evidence that you have, balancing restraint & speculation. The trouble is, misinformation persists. Despite the best efforts of great minds, much (most?) of what was known about Vindolanda in the 1970s has been overturned by more recent work. During the intervening years, thousands of people have come and gone from Vindolanda, filling their heads with things that we now know aren't true. And, as evidenced by the Web site above, sometimes it takes decades for everyone to "get the memo."

Yet what is the Trust supposed to do? Not present information for fear of getting it wrong? I'm glad I don't have to make the calls, day to day, about how to present a site that is, by its nature, evolving every year. So I'm curious, what would you do?
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SacoHarry
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Joined: August 22nd, 2006, 9:29 pm

January 3rd, 2010, 2:51 am #2

Another example of the "mansio" myth living on 20 years post-debunking: http://archaeological-buildings.suite10 ... roman_fort (see the last paragraph)

This document was apparently just created this past November. The mansio bit is not the only flaw (Vindolanda rebuilt in stone when it became part of Hadrian's Wall's defenses??). What's troubling is that this Web site is, as of 2 Jan 2010, on the first page of hits when you Google "Vindolanda"!
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SacoHarry
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March 4th, 2010, 5:08 pm #3

Another gem (from planetware.com):


This is a brilliant plan.

Of Housesteads!
Last edited by SacoHarry on March 4th, 2010, 5:12 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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SacoHarry
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July 11th, 2010, 3:25 pm #4

Turns out a Roman fort in the Netherlands also contained preserved writing tablets: http://www.nu.nl/wetenschap/2289290/rom ... recht.html. (The site is in Dutch; if you have a newer browser, there's probably a "Translate" feature you can use which will help give an idea of the text.)

Three things are striking:

* These were found 30 years ago by "amateur archaeologists" (apparently digging deep enough to reach preserved organic remains).
* They then sat in somebody's freezer, submerged in water and partially frozen (a non-optimal preservation method!), for a generation.
* (Translated) "Never before have so many pieces of Roman writing tablet [been] found in one place." Umm, Vindolanda anyone?

There's actually no mention of Vindolanda at all in the article, with its thousands of tablets & fragments. Or the fact that the type found in the Netherlands (recessed wooden planks meant to hold wax & therefore reusable) is almost impossible to decipher because of the numerous overlapping pen-scratches they hold. All of which they'd know if they'd known anything of the work of Vindolanda conservators.

At least they're now reaching out to experts at Oxford who have some experience & understanding of this material. Better late than never?

For followups (involving strong opinions), see Roman Army Talk's forum: http://www.romanarmytalk.com/rat/viewto ... 6&p=267418
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Brinno
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Brinno
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July 11th, 2010, 10:07 pm #5

Being Dutch and having nothing else to do on World Cup Final-night :'( , I have translated the article Harry mentions, and I tried to translate it as literally as possible.
There's certainly some mis-information to be found in it, but I wonder if the journalist or the archeologist is to blame here. I can not imagine that an expert on the Roman era would not know about Vindolanda's tablet-finds. The "amateur archeologists" by the way, were described in another article I saw yesterday as two brothers who were teenagers at the time. Certainly no experts on conservation, but still, science should give them credit for finding, recognising and preserving this wonderful find. They have not been digging meters deep, but found the artefacts on a large heap of soil.

Translation:

Roman writing-tablets discovered in Utrecht

Utrecht - Since last Friday the province of Utrecht has become owner of a unique archeological find: more than a hundred pieces of writing tablets from the Roman era.

"This is enormously important for science", archeologist Wouter Vos said during the presentation of the tablets.

The wooden pieces have been found at the Roman fort Fectio at Bunnik. Never before so many pieces of Roman writing tablets have been found on one location.

"It is really unique, such a large concentration on one location", according to Vos. The collection is also remarkable because so many tablets are fairly complete and reasonably well preserved.

Conservation

That proper conservation has been the work of two amateur-archeologists. Thirty-two years ago already they found the Roman find, but it's value had not been recognised until four years ago.

According to Wouter Vos their knowledge of conservation, under water and in the freezer, has been of great importance. "Otherwise this all had been lost." The two declared to feel honoured to hand over the remains now to the province.

Incredible

After research by an archeological bureau and the "Vrije Universiteit" it appears that the tablets were probably official documents from the military archive of the Roman army.

"We have a part of the archive, that is incredible", Vos said. They probably are testaments, contracts and debt-statements that have been thrown in the Rhine.

Decipher

The most important is: what exactly was carved in the tablets? An expert from the university of Oxford shortly will start with decipherment of the texts.

December next year hopefully this will lead to results after which the public will be able to admire the big find.
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Andy
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Andy
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July 13th, 2010, 7:33 pm #6

December?

Hmmmmph, it would be nice to think so, Christmas spirt and all of that. However...... the speed at which those new tablets are to be dechiphered by the experts may be somewhat over optemistic. It could be that the public will be offered a glimpse but if the same experts are involved as those that looked at the Vindolanda tablets (and I suspet that this is the case) then I am afraid you may be in for a much much longer wait. We are still waiting for texts on tablets recovered from 2001 at Vindolanda, well, from the experts at least :-)


Andy
Last edited by Andy on July 13th, 2010, 7:35 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Brinno
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Brinno
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July 13th, 2010, 9:10 pm #7

According to "De Volkskrant", a Dutch newspaper, the British expert who is going to work on the decipherment is Dr. Roger Tomlin, a university lecturer in late Roman history at Oxford.
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Andy
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Andy
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July 14th, 2010, 10:22 am #8

I have recently spoken to Roger, and that information is correct. He is likely to be assisted by other people who have worked on the VT material in the past, including Alan Bowman, also at Oxford.
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