Vindolanda is a magical place—a site occupied by the Romans over several centuries. Evidence from the ongoing archaeological digs suggests that it was in use before Hadrian’s Wall was built.
This was my third year of taking part in a volunteer session and each time, even though it is ten days of unaccustomed physical work, I am always reluctant to leave.
It is such a privilege to be part of the excavation team. Scraping away at the soil with a small trowel, uncovering pieces of pottery and animal bones, nails, boot studs—and if we’re lucky, a coin or a ring—it is a thrill to think that these objects have lain undisturbed for almost two thousand years.
I was working in the fort, known to be the last stone fort built on the site, as I have done for the last three years. Hard to believe that four years ago it was a grass-covered field. Layer upon layer has been removed to provide the archaeologists with a growing portfolio of evidence of how life was lived in the fourth, third and second centuries.
A large part of the fort was a barracks for the cavalry and the soldiers would have slept with their horses. On the second day, I was working in the decurian’s house. His position entitled him to more luxurious quarters that even included a section of under floor heating.
Visitors often stop by the fence to watch the excavation in progress, usually to call out—‘have you found anything?’ The more knowledgeable ones add—‘of interest?’ I didn’t mind the questions as they afforded a chance to get up off my knees for a few minutes to explain what we were doing. One of the visitors made me laugh when she said the kneepads I had placed on top of a wall section looked like a large bra. I told her they were useful for when I needed to lie down to excavate.
Along with the team of diggers there’s a post-excavation crew who work tirelessly cleaning and cataloguing the daily finds.
Excavating the fort is relatively clean work compared to working in the vicus, the civilian settlement. The moist conditions here help preserve the artefacts. This year alone, over 400 shoes have been taken out of one ditch. But extracting these requires painstaking sifting through each barrow load of claggy mud. Dog and cat bones were also found—no human remains as yet.
Volunteers and visitors come from all over—Australia, New Zealand, America, Canada, Europe, and all parts of the UK. Volunteers’ ages for this particular session ranged from 19 to 79. It is a fantastic experience, not just the digging, but also spending time with people who share the same enthusiasm for this period of history—being able to see it, feel it, touch it.
I didn’t know that the excavation bug would take hold during my first dig session in 2014. The main reason for going was to undertake research for my debut novel, Starting Over. The sequel to this book, Arc Over Time, was released during my second visit in 2015. I told one of my trench-mates about my writing and he promptly downloaded Starting Over when he got back to where he was staying. This year I felt more comfortable telling anyone who asked that I wrote lesbian fiction when I wasn’t excavating. Although I don’t expect a massive upswing in sales, it did feel good to be able to talk about it and I was encouraged by the positive responses.
This magical place continues to linger in my memory until the next time I visit and I hope I will be able to do so for many years to come as more secrets of the past are revealed with each layer of soil removed.
Detailed information about the extraordinary work carried out at Vindolanda is available on the website and blog. And if you’re in the area, it’s worth taking the time to walk around the site and visit the museum.
The Starling Hill Trilogy: