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From Aug 2006 - Nov 2013 WeDig provided a live forum for diggers & fans of Vindolanda. It has now been mothballed and will be maintained as a live archive.

Here you will find preserved 7 years of conversation, photos, & knowledge about a site many people love. Vindolanda gets under the skin. (Figuratively and literally as a volunteer excavator!) It's a place you remember, filled with people you remember!

Thanks for 7 great years!

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A Bag of "Typical" Finds

"What am I going to find?" Question #1 for most people preparing for their first dig. What exactly is in that ground that I'm going to be spading & troweling through? At Vindolanda, the answer can get very lengthy -- just take a look through the museum. But for every headline-grabbing showpiece, there are bags & bags of other material that don't get as much attention. But that hardly means they're boring.

Sure, everyone hopes to pull out the next great museum piece. But there's also something satisfying about the "big three" ordinary kinds of finds -- potsherds, nails, and bone. There's nothing quite like the feeling of pulling that first sherd out of the ground. Even a humble little piece of ceramic can set the imagination humming. And at a site like Vindolanda, you can be fairly sure your dig will uncover a lot of it.

So what can you expect? Well, it's impossible to describe just one "typical" kind of find-spread. It depends on the date of the area you're digging, the kind of activity that took place there, the status of the people doing the activity, and even the soil conditions. Still, the picture below shows the contents of one bag of artefacts found in June 2009. And this could be considered a "typical" spread for a 4th-Century environment within the fort-proper. Much of the excavations running through 2012 will be dealing with similar levels & contexts, so this is about as "typical" as possible. It's about 90% various pottery, with the restNote, any rare or special items like coins, jewelry, leather, painted pot, weapons/tools, etc. go straight to the conservation lab -- if you find anything of the sort, let your supervisor know right away. And congrats! nails, iron bits, and bone. Mouse-over the terms on the right to highlight them in the image. And see below for more about each.

Vindolanda over time
Amphorae
Black-Burnished
Local Greyware
Tile & Brick
Crambeck Ware
Samian Ware
Nails and Iron
Bone
Misc. Pottery

As you can see, the catch-all term "pottery" covers a lot of ground! Pottery can range from huge storage jars -- amphorae -- to bits of tile and brickwork, to any of a hundred different varieties of cups, bowls, pitchers, platters, jugs, etc. Entire texts have been written about the range of pottery that found its way into Roman Britain. The kinds you find will help tell a lot about who was using the space you were digging, and when they were using it. Some details follow:


Amphorae
: Amphorae were the storage & transport workhorses of the Roman world. They usually carried wine, oil, fish sauce, and other perishables, and could travel thousands of miles. Sherds are coarse, usually tan-orange in colour, & up to 1" thick. Intact amphorae could be 3-4 feet long! So their remains can survive in large chunks, often including the neck & handle. If you find amphorae pieces, make sure to check for inscriptions & stamps!

Black-Burnished
: Black-burnished ware is among the most common pottery found at Vindolanda in nearly all levels. The military -- at least the regiments on the northern frontier -- had a contract with the makers, who ran a factory in SW Britain for hundreds of years. Black-burnished ware comes in the form of pots, plates, cups, beakers, pitchers, bowls, etc. It was the all-purpose tableware for Vindolanda's cohorts. Its surface is smooth & polished, generally quite handsome, and often has criss-cross or other geometric patterns
incised along its sides.

Local Greyware
: In addition to maintaining trade with distant contractors, the military also kept its own potters of varying talent on-site. Local greyware is very common at Vindolanda, and is easy to recognize by its uneven firing, irregular coloration, and home-made appearance. It's best described as "make-do" pottery -- kitchen wares and storage containers for folks who weren't too particular. It's also quite common in most levels.

Tile & Brick
: Tile & brick is everywhere at Vindolanda, especially in the earlier levels. By the 4th Century, it was somewhat more rare, as roofing had changed from tile to slate. But tile & brick still often served The pieces in this picture seem to have been banged around in the ground for quite a while, as their edges are all rounded and worn. It's likely that they were old rubble that was tossed & mixed in the dirt for decades or centuries before the Romans relaid it as backfill.for flooring, fluework, drain-lining, etc. It comes out of the ground a bright orange-red, often with criss-cross scoring if it was intended to be plastered. It's sometimes found in tiny chips, and sometimes in slabs as big as a person's head. It is usually very soft & can be crumbled by a fingertip, or dissolved when rubbed under water.

Crambeck Ware
: Crambeck ware is one of the "signature" late-4th Century pottery types at Vindolanda. A product of Yorkshire, Crambeck ware stepped in as other sources in the later Empire failed & disappeared. It came as bowls, pots, platters, jugs -- either grey, white, or red. It is fine-textured, and always contains much fine quartz sand tempering. The one in the picture is actually an interesting "parchment ware" mortaria, a special grinding bowl that contained bits of iron slag to help grind up foodstuffs.

Samian Ware
: Samian ware was the upper-middle-class fine tableware of choice in the early Roman empire. Careers have been made studying samian ware alone -- its trade routes, production centres, artisan "schools," etc. No other kind of Roman pottery can be as closely dated as samian. So in contemporary levels it is extremely valuable. However, the samian ware industry collapsed empire-wide in about AD 230. It is a testament to how popular this delicate, polished, orange-red fineware was to Vindolanda that it can still show up in 4th Century layers. The sherds from this bag had been banging & bouncing around in the ground for over a century before finally ending up in 4th C Roman backfill -- where they then lay until June 2009.

Nails and Iron
: It's not all pottery! Nails of all sizes can be found in most levels -- from huge structural iron nails to small copper sandal hobnails. Roman iron smelting was advanced, but carbon content was often low. Less carbon means less rusting. Roman nails can survive remarkably well. Sure, some have turned to unrecognizable lumps. But many nails still come out of the ground as straight & true as when they were lost in the straw 1600+ years ago. If you liked pulling out a piece of black-burnished ware, wait till you get an ancient nail in your hands.

Bone
: Bones and teeth are not omnipresent. Romans tended to do a good job of clearing out animal remains from their houses. So ditches & pits contain huge amounts, while floors & backfill tend not to. The collection in this picture suggests that this bag does -not- represent a ditch or pit! Bone is extremely useful in figuring out a trench's kind & quality of activity, as well as giving a broader, more vivid picture of life in Roman Vindolanda. Though superficially looking like pot, it takes very little practice to see the grooves in a tooth, or the sponge-like structure of a bone.

Misc. Pottery
: A pottery expert could possibly identify the pottery in this picture easily. (The orange bits may even be a variety of Crambeck ware.) But mortal beings will always run across pieces that just don't fit into an easy category.


It's a good moment for perspective. Across several hundred years, the Roman world saw literally hundreds of pottery factories churning out thousands of designs, some original, some knock-offs of other "brands." Some were world-wide in their reach, some were regional, some were purely local. And your trench may have a very local product made in, say, modern Albania, which a Roman soldier or official happened to own and bring to Vindolanda, and which got smashed when it fell off the edge of a table, then relegated to a dump. So, the above picture and guide will help you get your feet wet. It will hopefully help you make a little sense of some of the more common things you might find in a 4th C trench. But Vindolanda is always full of surprises, and you just never know what will come up in that next troweling or spadeful.

That's part of the joy of it. Happy digging!


References:
The following Web site and book are invaluable for someone just beginning to tackle the topic.
The potsherd Web site in particular packs a ton of information into an easy-to-understand breakdown. Well worth a visit.
www.potsherd.uklinux.net/
Pottery in Roman Britain by Guy de la Bedoyere

Page created by Harold Johnson