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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.

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The Persistence of Misinformation
Topic Started: Dec 10 2009, 12:06 PM (525 Views)
SacoHarry
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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 This information is out of date by, now, at least 17 years!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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Another example of the "mansio" myth living on 20 years post-debunking: http://archaeological-buildings.suite101.com/article.cfm/vindolanda_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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Another gem (from planetware.com):
Posted Image

This is a brilliant plan.

Of Housesteads!
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SacoHarry
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Turns out a Roman fort in the Netherlands also contained preserved writing tablets: http://www.nu.nl/wetenschap/2289290/romeinse-schrijfplankjes-ontdekt-in-utrecht.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/viewtopic.php?f=17&t=29576&p=267418
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