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Vindolanda
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adamsfam
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 Posted: Sat Jun 4th, 2011 08:37 pm
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Dr. Deb, My wife and I are planning a trip to England in September and will be visiting Vindolanda.  Do you have any suggestions on places to stay and sights or activities not to miss while we are in that area or England in general?  I know you've participated in the digs there many times so any information you can give us would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks,

Adam

DrDeb
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 Posted: Sat Jun 4th, 2011 09:58 pm
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Dear Adam: I'm tickled to receive this query in the Forum because I think Vindolanda is one of the greatest places on Earth and it is really too little known. Anybody planning a European vacation should consider stopping there!

I have not participated in the digs at Vindolanda; rather, I am a member of their research staff. I am the site zooarchaeologist, with responsibilities not for digging -- that's done by other staff plus a big cadre of volunteers -- but for processing and curation of all the bone once it comes up from the ground and to the lab. I sort the bones by element and identify each species from which they come, repair broken stuff ("jigsaw piggy"), note any interesting CSI-type stories that a given bone may have to tell (i.e. fractured and healed in life, evidence of particular diseases, maldevelopment, etc.). I number each bone and maintain the permanent catalog, and prepare the bones for storage. I also get "first dibs" on choosing what merits research and publication; currently I am working on the dogs, the horses, the wild fauna, and the microfauna. So I am one busy lady when I am on site: it's dawn to dusk work each and every day, as hard as I can possibly go -- and it's also bar none the most fun I have each year. I love every minute of it while I'm there and can't wait to get back the next time for more. This year I'm slated to be on site from June 20th through about July 20th. If you come during this time, we may be able to meet.

As to where to stay: I cannot tell you that. There are lots of nice B&B's in the immediate area, and Inns which are also pubs. Many of them book a fair ways out so you'll need to make arrangements a few months in advance, at least. For assistance in finding places to stay, just go to the Vindolanda website at http://www.vindolanda.com, and they have a whole section just for that.

As to what you'll want to see while at Vindolanda: We have two really great museums, one on site at Vindolanda itself and one four miles up the road which is called the Roman Army Museum. Your admission ticket to Vindolanda gives you the option for a discount if you get tickets to both. Neither is the whole cost very high; this is not Disneyland, folks -- I think admission is something like $20 for the whole shebang.

Both museums are simply stuffed with artifacts, and the educational experience is very high quality. At the RAM you will see the latest version of Andy Birley's "Eye of the Eagle" film, which is a dramatization of life at Vindo. in Roman times, with helicopter-shots that give you an excellent overview of the whole thing. I hear the latest version is in 3D no less -- can't wait to see that myself this year.

As to artifacts, because our director Pat Birley and her staff were able to land a simply huge English Lottery grant last year, we're in better shape than we've ever been. At last it has become possible to have the actual, very famous Vindolanda Tablets actually on site -- this requires high security as well as a totally climate-controlled case because of the fragile nature of the items. There's a film that goes with the tablets too, with Robin Birley himself explaining how he initially found them and how they learned to read and translate them. The Vindolanda Tablets are the oldest original handwritten documents in Europe, and among the oldest in the world: imagine having the Epistle to the Corinthians in St. Paul's own hand, for example -- the Vindolanda tablets are of an equal antiquity.

The other thing about the artifacts on exhibit at Vindolanda is that they cover every conceivable category. My special thing is bones/animals, but there are also some (fairly grisly) human remains, plus pots, silver plate, iron locks and tools, weapons and armor, horse gear, toiletries and medical instruments, textiles, stonework, tiles, shoes and other leather goods, jewelry -- so obviously I am not the only expert they employ on site. It takes a whole faculty, no kidding, to adequately curate and report all that comes out each year from the digs at Vindolanda. The best thing about both of our museums is the regular upgrades that every exhibit gets: in other words, when they make a find that is cooler or of better quality than a similar item already on exhibit, they replace the lesser object with the better, so you're always seeing the very best they have, and it's almost 100% real stuff.

You will also, when visiting, want to go outside the museum at Vindolanda and walk through the actual fort. The foundations of the buildings, and part of the fort wall, is still there. There is a walking tour that takes you through all of it. Plus there are life-size reconstructions of a section of wooden fort and a section of stone fort, and you can go up inside those and really get a feel for what it must have been like to be a soldier there on patrol or lookout duty nearly 2,000 years ago.

If you're there anytime between April 1st and about September 15th, you'll also find Andy Birley, our dig director, and other archaeologists busy down in the pit(s). We also have, as I said, big volunteer crews each year -- some of our volunteers have been coming for many years. Both they and the Ph.D. archaeologists are right there, just on the other side of the safety barrier, and you are welcome to ask them any questions you like.

As to sites in the local area: Vindolanda sits just at the edge of England's largest national park, the Lake District. There is abundant hiking, fishing, and camping there among the lochs, moors, and tarns of the wildest part of England. Plus, Vindolanda sits only 2 miles from the Hadrian's Wall national hiking trail -- people make summer treks by hiking sections of the wall, or even the whole thing -- kind of like our Appalachian Trail. Hadrian's wall extends from Newcastle-upon-Tyne at the east end to Wallsend at the west. Along the Wall, there are inns and pubs at convenient intervals. There is a bus that will take you from the Wall trail to Vindolanda also. Learn more about hiking the Wall via the Vindolanda website, where I think there is a link to the Wall's own website.

As to the rest of the country: Well, I'm highly biased of course; my whole interest lies in museums. So for me, the must-sees and highlights have included the British Museum (Natural History) in London and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, as well as (for us horse nuts) the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. I also enjoy churches, and have visited the Cathedrals in Salisbury and Bath. If I ever get any time in London I'll have to see Westminster Abbey as well. I've also been to Rosslyn, but that's up in Scotland of course. I'm also a C.S. Lewis fan so getting to go into the "Eagle and Child" pub in Oxford was a special treat that I'll never forget.

Hope this helps....and I do hope you have an enjoyable time on vacation. -- Dr. Deb

 

ruth
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 Posted: Mon Jun 6th, 2011 10:54 am
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Dear Dr Deb, May I courteously suggest that while you are in England you find the opportunity to see the stage production of War Horse at London's New Theatre - it is the most powerful evocative drama of the futility of war but the show is made doubly powerful by the amazing presence of the life-size puppets of horses. I am sure you will be intrigued and amazed at the technical achievement of producing these puppets (not perfect action, but such incredibly stage presence for inanimate objects - but that's the power of drama when it's well-done). I do happen to believe that the British National Theatre produces some of the best acting in the world, and whatever my, or anybody else's thoughts on a Disney-Spielberg film version, the experience of life drama is totally different. Anyway, Dr. Deb, I do recommend it.
With best wishes,

DrDeb
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 Posted: Mon Jun 6th, 2011 07:06 pm
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Ruth, thanks for the tip, but you understand that I am at Vindolanda entirely by the courtesy of their Board of Trustees. I am their employee and they do really have a job for me to do: dawn-to-dusk for a month, and even at that we don't always get everything done. London is a long way from Northumberland, and I do not drive while in England -- so even to get to the train would require asking somebody a favor. Therefore, I doubt that I'll be able to make it to the show. Maybe someone else is planning to be in London this summer and would enjoy seeing it.

Alternatively, I have a suggestion for you: you could come up to Vindolanda not only to see the wonderful museums and walk over the actual ruins, but also because every year we have a series of lectures by experts who work at, or who work on, Vindolanda artifacts or aspects of Romano-British life. This year's schedule:



June 16th – Elizabeth Greene – "The assemblage of leather goods from Vindolanda"


June 30
th
– Dr Deb Bennett -"The Dogs of Roman Vindolanda: Artefact and Art"

July 14
th
– Barbara Birley – "Roman Jewellery from Vindolanda"

July 28
th
– Prof Anthony Birley – " The Emperor Caracalla: Genius, Madman or Criminal?"

Aug 11
th
– Bob Hefford – "Colour at Vindolanda"

Aug 25
th
– Dr Andrew Birley – "The nature and function of extramural settlements on

the northern frontier of Roman Britain"

Sept 8
th
Robin Birley – "The rebirth of Roman Vindolanda"

Tickets for the lectures are 10 Pounds for the general public, 7 Pounds for Friends of Vindolanda, and the event features an after-lecture soiree with free wine. Come and enjoy. -- Dr. Deb

ruth
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 Posted: Tue Jun 7th, 2011 08:15 am
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Dear Dr Deb, Thanks for the reply, the lectures sound fascinating, will definitely try to get to yours on the 30th June. I know Northumberland well and love Vindolanda, but didn't know they also did lectures open to the public, thanks so much. Anyway, War Horse is opening in New York, for anyone interested in the US, those full sized horse puppets are just so amazing, and there's always the film... Thanks again, Ruth

adamsfam
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 Posted: Mon Jun 13th, 2011 05:16 am
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Dr. Deb, Thank you for your detailed reply. We will be going in Sept. so we will not be able to cross paths,so to speak. We will be asking alot of questions at the sight. I pesonally am interested in farriery at vindolanda and all that that entails. Thanks again,     Adam

DrDeb
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 Posted: Mon Jun 13th, 2011 08:53 pm
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Well, Adam, ask away....look for Justin Blake or Andy Birley, our dig captain and dig director, good buddies of mine both, and tell 'em I sent you. And if you're there in time to catch Robin Birley's talk -- do please go! Robin is the Grand Old Man of Vindolanda, a wonderful speaker, and someone I greatly admire.

As to farrier tools: you'll find quite a few tools on exhibit in the Vindolanda museum, some of which obviously could have been used by a farrier, i.e. pull-offs/nippers, and rasps. You will notice further the extremely high skill of the Roman ironmonger: those guys had charcoal-fired forges, very sweet iron to work with (what today we could call "wrought" iron), and they could do literally anything.

One thing that is NOT on exhibit are the two beautifully-made iron horseshoes (not hipposandals: horse shoes) that we have from deep levels at Vindolanda. Because down at the deep levels conditions were anoxic -- therefore, the shoes did not rust. They are from absolutely secure, sealed layers; so there's no doubt about the antiquity. They date from about 90 A.D. One is a front shoe for a horse weighing around 900 to 1000 lbs.; another is a rear shoe for a mule. Both have beautiful chamfering and the mule shoe has caulks.

If you're going to London, and want more on this, I would also suggest you make a point of going to the British Museum (Natural History). This is one of the two greatest museums of natural history in the world. Upstairs they have a large Roman exhibit, within which you will find several cases stuffed with tools, hipposandals, and other objects made of iron. You will also want to visit the Medieval section, where you will find my favorite set of "Stetson hat" shoes meant for treating founder cases/sinkers. Rough but effective. The whole thing not to be missed if you're researching the history of farriery. Have a ball, and yes, you're picking the right month: September is their most rain-free time, so it will only rain every third day! Cheers -- Dr. Deb

 

adamsfam
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 Posted: Mon Sep 26th, 2011 12:23 am
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Dr. Deb, My wife and I have returned from England and wanted to report on our time at Vindolanda. We thoroughly enjoyed and were intrigued by not only the ongoing work but also by the first class display of artifacts, 3D media production, and down to earth welcome we received from the staff. I spoke with Andy Birley and told him you had sent me and that I was a former student of yours. ( I've taken your farrier anatomy/biomechanics class with my son) He was immediately more than pleased to answer questions and told me he had spoken to you that very morning about some bones that had been discovered down near Wells (canine).  Very nice person. Also while we were there a not so small bit of excitement arose as a brooch was unearthed by one of the dig sight volunteers which we were allowed to look at. It's always strange to think that the last person to touch that piece of jewelry was a Roman. In the process or context of that find my wife and I got a chance to visit with a volunteer named Kate, who by the way thinks very highly of you . She said you would remember her if I mentioned something concerning her, Robin and "stamps" She didn't explain further. All in all had a great time at Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum and that whole region. We stayed at a farmhouse B&B just outside of Hexham. Thank you for your prior insights.

DrDeb
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 Posted: Mon Sep 26th, 2011 04:24 am
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Well, I have to tell you what Kate was talking about with Robin and the stamps. "Robin" is Dr. Robin Birley, Andy's dad, who is the most senior scientist at Vindolanda, now emeritus. Robin's in his 70's but of course still comes in to work every day, and is usually there earlier than anyone else....been at it since he was a teenager, back in the 1940's, under his father, Eric Birley, who founded the anthro. dept. at the University of Durham.

Robin is beloved of everybody -- I myself would do anything he could possibly ask, and I enormously enjoy it anytime he'll consent to give us a lecture or when he stops by the hut up on the side of the hill there where we have the lab, just to talk....he knows so much about Vindolanda and there is nobody else, really, to replace him. Robin's a great big fella with broad shoulders and the general demeanor of a colonel in the R.A.F. .... his bark is much worse than his bite.

It's due to Robin's persistent hard work that we have the tablets, as you learned by watching the film of him explaining the birthday party invitation and the army day-list and other contents of the tablets. But besides the tablets and his general expertise in the layout and architecture, Robin is also our potsherd guy.

Now you watched the diggers at work, so you realize how muddy it is down in whatever hole they're in....Andy wrote me a couple of months ago and said it had been so rainy since I left there in mid-June that they had to abandon their 'plan A' for the year and move to a different spot, because the sump pumps were just overwhelmed -- the darned hole would fill up as fast as they could pump it out. You might have realized just from walking over the outdoor exhibits that, if it weren't for the paved paths, it would get pretty squishy, because in fact the whole hill is artesian.

So, the poor diggers to begin with are up to their knees in mud, and second, whatever artifacts that come up are pretty well covered in mud, too, as you must have noticed from looking at the brooch -- they brought it to Andy and then somebody got a bucket of water and they washed enough mud off to tell what it was. Well -- a brooch is one thing, but a potsherd is a dime a dozen, and so although all of them are collected, neither potsherds nor most bones create that kind of instant excitement. So what happens to them is they are carefully bagged up and brought up to the hut in a still pretty muddy condition.

Now what Kate does for us, bless her heart, along with a couple of other of our best volunteers, is wash potsherds. She also washes bones. Because our diggers are great people but they're not experts, a certain amount of bone generally gets put into the potsherd bag, and vice-versa, because the specific gravity and the 'feel' of a lot of the pot-clay and bone is just about alike, and they can't tell 'em apart. So Kate also sorts the bones from the shards and that's very helpful too. And I do the same work, sometimes, when I'm there, because Kate isn't there all the time. One sits at one of the tables up at the diggers' hut with a plastic dishpan full of water and a soft brush, and takes one fragment after another out of the bag and gently scrubs the mud off and then lays the sherds out on a tray to dry. "Dry" being a relative term in the United Kingdom, you understand; we generally have to run an electric heater/blower to get either bones or potsherds dry, because without it, well it rains all the time, so nothing gets dry unless you do.

So -- a couple of years ago Kate and I were both there at the same time, and we had been very busy -- somehow we could always use another week to get the job done, no matter how hard we go at it -- and we'd been piling up quite a few trays of clean shards to dry. Now, some shards are pieces of broken amphorae, and amphorae are different from other kinds of containers, because they were manufactured at only certain places, and they were stamped before being fired with an impression unique to the maker. And a sort of 'stratigraphy' or chronology of these stamps has been worked out by Roman archaeologists in Italy and other parts of the old empire, so that of all the kinds of potsherds that there could be, one with a stamp on it is the most important. And Robin knows all about these stamps.

So one afternoon, as he often does, he came up to the hut and we were just sort of having a pleasant conversation and all of a sudden Robin spots this shard lying in the corner of one of the trays, and he says "What! What! What's that!!" and is having a perfect cow he's so excited. And Kate and I are going "What-what-what-what" to his "What", because he'd spotted a stamp, of course, and was just as excited about that as I was when they pulled a load of bird bones out of the Roman well in early June. We all have our wierd little specialty! But it did teach me what an amphora stamp looks like and you may bet your bottom bootie that now I keep an eagle-eye out for them and so does Kate, and we joke about it up in the hut, that the most important thing we can do on any given day is find Robin a stamp and bring it to him.

Actually, to me, the most important thing Kate ever did was realize when she was washing the microfauna that came out in 2008 from under the Roman granary that some of the 'odd little balls' she was finding in the washpan were actually owl pellets, and saved me a couple of them without breaking them up. This is important because I don't have any actual owl bones, but pellets prove there was an owl there nonetheless.

So I am very glad to hear that you had a wonderful time, got to talk to my friends Kate and Andy and maybe Justin too, and thought the whole thing was top-class. I think so too, and I'm very proud of the huge grant they were able to get and even more of how they used the money so wisely and so well, to upgrade both the Roman Army Museum and the Vindolanda Museum, bring the tablets home, and provide thousands of people with a really unique look at how life was lived in the distant past. -- Dr. Deb

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 Posted: Tue Jul 3rd, 2018 07:10 pm
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Dear Dr Deb
I will be in the UK for a few weeks during August. Have just read your informative post on Vindolanda and will try get to see it and the Natural History Museum! Kind regards, Theresa


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