Journey to the Edge of Empire: Notes from Vindolanda Week 1

When the UK government announced the first national lockdown in March, we were only at the very beginning of our pottery-scanning programme, having visited the Museum of London for a few days the previous December, and MoLA (Museum of London Archaeology) for a total of three weeks between February and March. We had plans for much more scanning in 2020, involving work with volunteers and pottery collections at MoLA, as well as the University of Leicester Archaeological Services, Colchester and Ipswich Museums, and Vindolanda Trust. Unfortunately, as the saying goes: the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry (particularly where a global pandemic is concerned). For nearly seven months, our scanning was put on hold as we followed government guidance to stay at home… until this past week when we were lucky enough to be permitted to travel to Vindolanda for our first research visit since March! Unfortunately, this visit would be much scaled down (no volunteers), but everyone was happy to be back in pot-scanning action. So on Monday, armed with our masks and copious amounts of hand-sanitiser, we set off for the Roman fort of Vindolanda, on Hadrian’s Wall!

Socially-distanced team members Daan and Santos enjoying lunch at Doncaster Railway Station in-between transfers.

When we arrived, we were greeted by Vindolanda Trust staff including CEO and director of excavations, Andrew Birley, who showed us our accommodation, the Vindolanda Museum, the archaeological site, and our workspace: the brand-new Robin Birley Archaeology Centre, which is located immediately next to the remains of the fort! It has been surreal being able to take lunch breaks outside whilst admiring the fort and surrounding Northumberland countryside in autumn. In all weathers, the views have been stunning – something I’ll certainly miss when I return to my at-home office in Leicester.

Our workspace, the brand-new Robin Birley Archaeology Centre, is located immediately adjacent to the archaeological site.
We pass by the archaeological site to and from work each day. Best commute ever!

When it came to our scanning work, it was really great to get back into the swing of things. Despite the long months of lockdown, everyone quickly settled back into the process of photographing the Roman samian ware sherds. The vibe of this new workspace was definitely different to that of our pre-lockdown workstations at MoLA, as we had a much smaller team, with each member occupying a separate workspace three metres apart from all the others in order to observe strict social distancing. Still, covid-safety compliancy could not stop good banter, and Vindolanda Trust staff were always keen to stop by and ask how we’d been getting on. A brief Skype check-in with our local project pottery specialist, David Griffiths, rounded out a productive first week.

Arch-I-Scan team members were thrilled to be resuming our scanning work with the Vindolanda Trust’s collection of Samian ware sherds.

At the weekend, we managed time to both relax and explore. There was a group trek into the nearby town of Bardon Mill to top up on necessary supplies (as well as not-so-necessary, and admittedly a bit premature, mince pies!) Daan and I also managed a day’s walk along the Hadrian’s Wall path, where we were able to see turrets, milecastles, the nearby Housesteads Roman fort and Sycamore Gap, which lies just about a mile to the north of Vindolanda. I personally loved visiting Vindolanda and Hadrian’s Wall when I did the full national trail hike two years ago, and seeing everything again has been just as exciting, if not more so, this time around. I’m eager to see what the next two weeks of work here brings!

Daan and Victoria enjoyed some hiking along the Hadrian’s Wall trail at the weekend.

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Victoria Szafara

About Victoria Szafara

Research Assistant for the Arch-I-Scan project, University of Leicester; Postgraduate research student in the School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester

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