Winning the Archaeological Lottery
September 10, 2017 8:44 PM   Subscribe

A Roman cavalry barracks has been found near Hadrian’s Wall, containing thousands of military and personal items left there some time before 122 AD. The early second century building was built and abandoned before the wall was constructed. So far, the excavation has found pottery, textiles, hair combs, wooden spoons, bowls, and two complete cavalry swords.

The items were preserved under a layer of "black, sweet-smelling and perfectly preserved anaerobic soil", which was itself under a concrete floor laid down by the Romans during the second century. The barracks may have been abandoned during the British rebellion. The team doing the excavation is headed by Andrew Birley, the son of the archaeologist who discovered the Vindolanda tablets in 1973. Previously. Previously. (First post; feedback welcome!)
posted by ALeaflikeStructure (35 comments total) 81 users marked this as a favorite
 
I am so excited about this! Vindolanda is a great site, what with the bog that preserves shit anaerobically (notably the tablets but now also this!!!!). My husband and I took a vacation to Arbeia, the easternmost fort of the Hadrian's Wall network, where we participated in the ongoing archaeological digs there for two weeks. On the weekend they took us to Vindolanda and we got to see a bunch of the artifacts there, and the fort's remains, and the excavations, so we have been talking about this all day, extremely excitedly!!!!! Having dug ourselves on similar excavations, we were mind-blown by what an amazing find it was ... our whole summer season turned up a couple neat pots, a lot of shells and bones from dinner waste, and one neolithic stone blade. A find this big is like ! !!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Especially after the tablets were found there, which are themselves an amazing find with an enormous set of data, like (one of) the first example(s) of writing in Latin by a woman. Vindolanda and its bog are just archaeologically kick-ass. It also helps that after the Romans withdrew, the area along Hadrian's Wall didn't return to Roman levels of household wealth and comfort and technology until the Victorian era or later, so nobody was really fucking around with the forts for 1500 years, it was just stray sheep being chased back and forth by reivers.

It's really a spectacular site, if you're anywhere in the neighborhood of Hadrian's Wall, definitely visit Vindolanda.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:16 PM on September 10 [37 favorites]


This is great (and a great post! thank you!).
posted by rtha at 9:21 PM on September 10 [1 favorite]


Wow! What an amazing discovery. I can't wait to hear more about what they find.
posted by mogget at 9:23 PM on September 10 [1 favorite]


> our whole summer season turned up a couple neat pots, a lot of shells and bones from dinner waste, and one neolithic stone blade.

A few years ago when we were in England, we spent a good long time in the British Museum, mostly in the Romans Were Here rooms, and it was hilarious how many of the labels were like "Discovered by a farmer plowing a field" or "This amazing and perfectly preserved gold plate was found by a nine-year-old playing in a stream."
posted by rtha at 9:24 PM on September 10 [12 favorites]


This is so amazing! Thank you for the post!
posted by corb at 9:50 PM on September 10


This looks astounding. My mother's side of the family was originally from Northumberland. I'll have to add Vindolanda to my list of places to poke around if I ever get up there. I should plan another visit to England.

I only dabbled in archaeology when I was studying anthropology, and my hat's off to them. That is one painstaking job. It's find like these though that make it worth it.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 11:08 PM on September 10


It is so difficult for Americans to understand the length of history present in the rest of the world. Sure, we have our Mesa Verdes and stuff, but when I was an exchange student in (then West) Germany in the late 80s, I went to a town and saw a house, just a house that people were living in, that was built in 911. It wasn't like a castle or anything, it was a half-timber style house in the town of Celle, which wasn't bombed during WWII, and I'm sure it had been repaired and rebuilt over the centuries but 911. That is when it was built.

This is a great post, and I love learning about the Romans across Europe. Also from my year in Germany -- the very famous Köln (Cologne) Cathedral, gigantic old thing, is right next to a Roman excavation site.
posted by hippybear at 11:45 PM on September 10 [13 favorites]


@hippybear If you're ever passing through Athlone in Ireland stop for a drink at Sean's Bar, established 900AD. Briefly owned by Boy George in the late 80's.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 12:03 AM on September 11 [8 favorites]


it was hilarious how many of the labels were like "Discovered by a farmer plowing a field" or "This amazing and perfectly preserved gold plate was found by a nine-year-old playing in a stream."

My great-uncle found a Roman coin once on a country footpath, by accidentally kicking something that went "clink".
posted by Catseye at 1:16 AM on September 11 [4 favorites]


Wow, this is amazing!
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 1:18 AM on September 11


> Köln (Cologne) Cathedral, gigantic old thing, is right next to a Roman excavation site.
By a strange coincidence, this is not too unusual. In fact if you want to find a new Roman site and don't care much for the preservation of gothic cathedrals then I have a good strategy to suggest. It turns out there are some advantages to cultural appropriation after all :)
posted by merlynkline at 1:40 AM on September 11 [5 favorites]


You just have swords lying around everywhere, huh?
posted by Literaryhero at 1:42 AM on September 11 [6 favorites]


This seems to be a common theme in many archaeological finds.

The story behind how 2 lads digging potatoes found the Ardagh Chalice has been imprinted on my memory since I was a child.
posted by Homemade Interossiter at 2:54 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


what with the bog that preserves shit anaerobically

I'm more interested in the swords tbh
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:19 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


I'm more interested in the swords tbh

Oh, you're one of those guys.
posted by curious nu at 3:54 AM on September 11 [20 favorites]


well if it's shit or swords I'd rather be one of those guys than one of those guys
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:57 AM on September 11 [24 favorites]


It is so difficult for Americans to understand the length of history present in the rest of the world. Sure, we have our Mesa Verdes and stuff, but when I was an exchange student in (then West) Germany in the late 80s, I went to a town and saw a house, just a house that people were living in, that was built in 911.

My first wife grew up in Europe. When we were first dating, we lived in Toronto, and I used to occasionally point out some grand old building that had been built in 1854 or something. She casually mentioned once that her dorm in university had been built in the 11th century. Ah.

The flip side of that is that a few years later, post breakup, I was living with a woman from Vancouver who used to walk around Toronto goggling: "SOME of these buildings must be FIFTY years old!"
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:49 AM on September 11 [5 favorites]


My archeological find was digging a trench in Germany and finding live WWII ammunition. The farmer put them on the street and hit them with his shovel and they sprayed sparks everywhere. Still, not as cool as a sword!
posted by starfishprime at 6:51 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


> Köln (Cologne) Cathedral, gigantic old thing

Many probably already know this, but construction of the cathedral stopped aroud 1560 with only around one quarter of the buildin finished (basically only the eastern part of the nave and the tower foundations were completed).

Construction then resumed in 1842 and was completed in 1880. So, at least compared to "regular gothic cathedrals", "old thing" might be a bit of a misnomer ;)
posted by SAnderka at 6:53 AM on September 11


Americans think a hundred years is a long time ago.

Europeans think a hundred miles is a long way away.
posted by notsnot at 7:09 AM on September 11 [20 favorites]


> "You just have swords lying around everywhere, huh?"

It's pretty much the basis for our system of government.
posted by kyrademon at 7:39 AM on September 11 [21 favorites]


People have lived in the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico since at least 1150. We might have even more old buildings in the Americas if colonists hadn't, y'know, killed 99% of the natives through plagues and active warfare and worked very hard to eradicate their homes and other buildings.

Back to the FPP: this archaeological find is truly amazing. I'll be very interested to see if anything found overturns any assumptions we currently have about the Roman army.
posted by rednikki at 7:47 AM on September 11 [10 favorites]


Time for me to plug the late and sorely lamented TV show Time Team, whose reruns can be found on Youtube. They dug up all kinds of cool stuff in the course of nearly 20 years--I was re-binging on it just this weekend!
posted by orrnyereg at 9:09 AM on September 11 [3 favorites]


So cool!
posted by latkes at 9:32 AM on September 11


The northern UK is a very unusual part of the Roman world in that it features anaerobic and waterlogged soils. That's why the vast majority of surviving organic (wood, leather, correspondence etc) Roman material culture comes from either the UK or Egypt, where aridity is the preservative. Thanks, unique taphonomic environments!
posted by Rust Moranis at 9:35 AM on September 11 [8 favorites]


Heck, Cologne/Koln's name comes from what the Romans called it: 'Colonia etc. etc.", as in the English word (of the same root word) colony.
posted by Quindar Beep at 9:38 AM on September 11


(The Germans, in turn, inflicted "Kolonia" on the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia.)
posted by Quindar Beep at 9:40 AM on September 11


I am surprised by "sweet-smelling and perfectly preserved anaerobic soil" because I am accustomed to people calling the result of actinomycetes sweet and they mostly don't like anaerobic soils. Very acid and also anaerobic, perhaps?
posted by clew at 10:01 AM on September 11


This is wonderful and hopefully it will provide more evidence about the multi ethnicicity of the Romans; especuially after the vile recent outbursts against Mary Beard.
posted by adamvasco at 10:10 AM on September 11 [6 favorites]


clew, my compost gets acinomycetes when starved of oxygen, so I would definitely think they like anaerobic conditions, but would they not break down the wooden parts of the swords? Maybe the sweet smell of the soil was ancient roman treacle, poured under concrete to level the foundations. Mmmm.
posted by Laotic at 10:38 AM on September 11


These new discoveries are great, but personally I'm most excited about the 25 new writing tablets discovered earlier this summer:
The tablets are still being conserved, before being scanned with infrared light which should make the faint marks in black ink legible, but the cursive script is invariably a cryptic crossword puzzle that will take experts many months to solve.

However, the archaeologists have already spotted that one of the tablets may refer to a character already well known from the original find: Masclus was then writing to his commanding officer asking for more beer supplies to be sent to his outpost on the wall. In the newly discovered letter, Masclus is requesting leave – possibly with a painful hangover.
posted by verstegan at 10:39 AM on September 11 [3 favorites]


You're right, Laotic, actinomycetes are anaerobes or prefer anaerobic conditions. Although my really wet compost piles get different, stinky, sulfurous, cultures. Actinomycetes possibly like anaerobic spots in complexly aerated environments? (Am in PNW. My really wet compost piles have been soupy.)

And your point about actinomycetes being lignin-decomposers is really good!

A loving, adventurous, not too technical description of the ecology of compost piles.
posted by clew at 11:11 AM on September 11 [2 favorites]


This is exciting news and also a great first post!
posted by Room 641-A at 5:03 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]


Homemade Interossiter: "The story behind how 2 lads digging potatoes found the Ardagh Chalice has been imprinted on my memory since I was a child."

Cf. Roald Dahl's "The Mildenhall Treasure".
posted by Chrysostom at 10:57 PM on September 12 [1 favorite]


A day will come when sacred Troy shall perish,
And Priam and his people shall be slain.

posted by cacofonie at 7:15 AM on September 13


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