Friday, May 29, 2015

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Winona, Gilmore Valley

One of the very earliest breweries in "outstate" Minnesota was established in 1855 near Winona in what is called Gilmore Valley.  The proprietors shifted around a bit but for most of its 22 year existence it was run by a man named C.C. Beck.

This was a rather large enterprise for its time, with an output of 2,500 barrels in 1875.  It was noted that 200 tons of ice were required annually to keep the beer cold down in the storage cellars.

A catastrophic fire in 1877 destroyed the brewery and Beck decided to retire to farming.

Beck's storage caves were extensive and their remains can be seen near US Highway 14 at Gilmore creek, on the edge of the St. Mary's University campus.

Here is the setting.  The building to the left is a cottage owned by the University.  Two stone structures are to the right.

Here is one with a conventional door.  I think this may be a later addition. This was probably the back wall of the brewery.

The area behind this is a hillside, but it looks as if this cave may have collapsed leaving a depression. Between this and the next structure are some odd chimneys.  They look like ventilation shafts so likely there are more caves beneath.  But they also look newer than 1877 and appear undamaged by fire. The caves were probably used for some other storage purpose after the brewery burned.

The second area of stonework is deeper down and partly buried.  It has what looks like a conventional cave entrance.

The barriers are sufficient to prevent unwelcome visitors but of course I snapped an arm's length picture of the inside....

These caves are on private property and look unsafe.  Leave them alone please.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Vindolanda 2015 - Cleaning Up.

I am home.  Back at work in fact with all the traces of Roman horse manure laboriously scrubbed out of my fingernails before my first shift.

Of course the work back at the site continues on without me.  One can only hope that the supervising archeologist on occasion looks at the current crew as they wobble their way down the wheelbarrow run and recalls our hard working team with a smile....

Some of the finds from our session need a quick revisit.  Remember this one?

A heavy bronze cylinder, it was said to be of uncertain use.  Well, in a museum at another Roman site I found an entire display case of these.

My example probably corresponds to one of the ones on the left.  The information that accompanied this display again said they were not certain about these artifacts, but it was considered likely that they were ornamental bead work for cavalry horses.  That would fit the context of where we found it, in what is fairly certain to have been a barracks for a late Roman cavalry unit.

We find lots and lots of pottery shards.  Amphorae are the big boys, some of them are over a half inch thick.  On a very muddy day we hauled up some big slabs and put them into the pottery bag for washing.  Next day we learned that one of them had writing on it:

This was incised in the clay when the amphora was made.  Lots of them came from Spain.  A very long trip to end up in a cold, slushy trench on the northern frontier of Brittania.  Note also the iron nail fused onto the surface.  This is a "graffito" rather than a maker's mark.  Meaning unclear.

Ah, remember our writing tablet?  Here is a closer look;

Squint away, it might say something but I can't see it.  The process of stabilizing and reading these is very complex.  This is a "Stylus tablet".  Covered in wax it was a sort of ancient "Etch-a-Sketch" that could be wiped smooth and used again.  Note the raised edge.  I was quite happy that we had found this little guy, and still have hopes it might have a brief message fragment on it.  A few days after we left, and presumably not far from where we were excavating, a much better example came up.  From the official Vindolanda site:

This appears to be the back side, but as you can see there is a lot of tablet waiting to yield its ancient secrets.  Or maybe just an 1800 year old grocery list....

Monday, May 25, 2015

Mussolini and the Virgins

To most people Roman religion was simply a tossed salad of whatever deities the Legions picked up on their march around the known world.  You kind of got the feeling that diffusing the piety among so many objects of devotion made all concerned a little luke warm about the whole enterprise.

But one specific Roman cult is widely remembered.  Even those with a casual acquaintance have heard of The Vestal Virgins.

The worship of Vesta, goddess of hearth and home, goes way back.  It may in fact have been borrowed from the Greeks who had a similar deity named Hestia.  In addition to the similar names each of these guardians of family life had priestesses and a Sacred Flame that had to be kept alight at all times.

In the Roman version the priestesses were the Vestal Virgins, usually six in number.  Being a Vestal was in some ways a good job.  You were signed on at a young age and the duties were strictly ceremonial.  They had their own posh accommodations in the Forum, they got great seats at public events, they had various legal rights that were otherwise unavailable to women in that day. They could even pardon convicted criminals, this being just about the only way to get a sentence commuted in Rome unless the Emperor decided in your favor. (And how often in history did THAT happen!)

There was a catch of course.  Virgin meant just that.  You were signing on for a 30 year stretch of celibacy and if you were caught cheating on it you got buried alive.

The temple of Vesta and the adjacent House of the Vestals were important spots, so when the Forum was being cleared of medieval rubbish you would think that impressive ruins would be found and preserved.  The place had been knocked about quite a bit in Late Imperial times and what remained got burned up in the lime kilns in the 15th Century.  If you want the Pope to look upon your monument with favor it would be better to be less pagan.  Constantine or Emperors mistaken for him had a much improved survival rate.

In the 1930's Mussolini was trying to recreate the Glory of Empire.  He did a lot of things that modern archaeologists have come to hate.  He plowed a whopping big road across the north edge of the Forum, destroying who knows what.  And when his teams wanted to have a nice inspirational Temple of Vesta they just took the existing sad little piles of rubble and rebuilt it.  And what was their guide to doing so?


Yep, the Temple of Vesta as you see it today is almost entirely a 20th century concoction of Fascist archaeologists working off of tiny images from Roman coins! So lets take a look around.....

I visited on a blazing bright day when the back lighting was brutal.  You couldn't get a photo from the other angle because like so many areas of archaeology in Rome, things were fenced off.  Budgetary issues are rather dire I understand.  One of the places you could no longer walk around in was the garden area of the adjacent House of the Vestals.

Again, there was a lot of modern imagination going on in the reconstruction of this.  Many statues and bits of same, representing past Vestals were found stacked up waiting to be tossed into the the lime kiln.  The best ones went into the museums.  These bits and bobs were put up on podiums.  When it was possible to go in there I understand that young ladies would often hop up on the empty ones and try their level best to look Virginal...

In general the signage inside the Forum is both minimal and pretty bland, but even it has to admit that the Temple of the Vestals is largely a 20th Century construct. How bad is it?  Have a close look at one of the main front panels.  See that little bit that looks different?  That is original stonework.  The rest.....

Much more Roman stuff to come but I need a little time to organize.  I think it will be "Roman Mondays" for the rest of the summer.....

Friday, May 22, 2015

Vindolanda 2015 Day Ten - Things that Survive

Another two weeks of digging have flown past.  Good weather, good friends, good finds.

I made my last hike from the Twice Brewed Inn to the site today.  I hope to be back next year but the Inn has been sold and I fear the needed improvements will make it a bit too upscale for my vagrant tastes.  Sadness on this point but good memories over the years and a final Pub Quiz Victory to cap it off.  Our magnificent First Prize was a small green anthropomorphic pear.  I think it was a cider company giveaway.

Archeology is more about how things change than about how they survive.  We are so often just seeing the faint ghosts of things.  Here we have 1800 year old oyster shells:

A lot of things survive in forms that are recognizable if you know what you are looking for.  Here we have a Roman shoe.....from its size it is felt to be that of a toddler:

Other things come down to us in better shape.  Bronze items found down in the anaerobic layers sparkle like gold.  This is some sort of medical tool.  It could be as mundane as an ear wax remover!

Sometimes the process of change is surprisingly fast.  Here is the same sheep jaw I showed the other day.  When exposed to air for a day or two it acquired the odd pigment spot that you can see here.  This form of change is due to something called "Vivianite" and is a natural process.  Or perhaps the Romans actually invented "Blue Tooth" technology!

Things that survive and things that don't.  I have a lot of friends here, some old some new.  Of course I realize that humans are finite but I like to imagine that long after I stop coming over, they will all still be here at least in spirit.

But at least the stones survive.  Pretty much forever by human standards.  Here is the Roman mile stone I walked past this morning.  Still by the side of the Roman road, right where it was left almost two millennia ago.  I think it is there for good.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Vindolanda 2015 Day Nine The Good Stuff

Even when you are digging down in the anaerobic layers, hunting for small delicate things, you still encounter the occasional big whopping is a huge chunk of amphora complete with the stub of the handle.

But most of the time you are standing over a wheelbarrow, crumbling big lunks of mud, dirt and other "stuff".  It is full of twigs, sticks, horse manure, etc.  It looks like this:

I was a little "chuffed" early on when I found these scraps of leather.  This is something I had not encountered in the past.

But then one of my digging mates, Mark, over in the other trench, started hauling up huge chunks of leather from what appear to be panels of a tent later used to cover a floor.  This is only a small part of it:

Well, OK.  I had dug right next to him last week and was feeling badly that I had found more artifacts than he had.  But as I patiently crushed up lumps of cold, icky stuff I looked into my barrow and found something rather marvelous.....

Behold, the first writing tablet of the 2015 season!  Perhaps my minimal contribution to the advance of archeological knowlege.  Who knows what it might say when it is done with conservation?  I have looked long and hard for one of these and it was exciting to find a specimen, albeit only a partial one.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Vindolanda 2015 Day Eight

A brilliant day of weather today.  Good company and good archeology.  We are working down in the anaerobic layers this week, a complex network of posts, fences, walls and drains.  All interspersed with mud, and better yet with what is called "laminate".  This is a dense mat of various stuff.  Twigs, bark, heather and bracken and moss that they used to cover their floors, horse manure - who knows, maybe human also - and naturally anything that got dropped into it.

From bottom to top of our site there is probably three centuries worth of archeology.

When one set of buildings got wobbly, or when the fort had one of its intermittent abandonments, well, the poor Roman soldiers got the order to bash down the existing wooden buildings.  Later new ones were put up after a new layer of clay was laid down.  Today we found evidence of the demolition process.  Specifically we found this:

This is exactly what it looks like.  A broken off half of a crow bar.  Imaging the frustration of some poor hard working lad who was assigned to knock down an old building....his crow bar breaks and he just tosses the broken half down next to the fallen timber we found it adjacent to!

The deep layers are murky and complex:

Remarkably that is wood put into place circa 100 to 150 AD. Since then Empires have risen and fallen, Man has visited the moon, we have technology that lets me sit in a 300 year old pub and send pictures around the Earth.  And the humble sticks and planks are still right where Roman soldiers plopped them 1800 years ago.

A few other pictures from our trench:

A sheep jaw sitting on a perfectly preserved oak plank.

A sprig of heather from floor covering.

Carving on a stone.  Was it just an illiterate fellow scratching X's and I's ?

More fun tomorrow, with the weather looking fabulous.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Vindolanda 2015 Day Seven - Hail Caesar

The weather man got things more or less right today.  After a reasonably pleasant morning we got hit by a mix of precipitaton.  Rain....and solid white stuff.  I don't know just how you differentiate between hail and snow.  As we took an early tea break and implausibly hoped it would all just blow over I decided to make a couple of small snow men.  The maniacal face in the middle is my pal Pete the Builder.

The name Vindolanda actually derives from an earlier Celtic name.  It recalls a presumptive pre-Roman settlement and translates loosely to "White Fields".  Well, we had 'em today.  Another odd name:  the section of hill across the road from us is one of the highest points along the line of Hadrian's Wall.  It is called Winshields Crag.  The name has nothing to do with wind shields really, but this is a view in the parking lot of the Twice Brewed Inn.

Yucky stuff, we all were cold and bedraggled when excavating was halted for the day around 2:30.  But during the time we got in there were a few things of note that turned up.

This is a pot lid.  Normally these are the lowliest of artifacts, just a bit of flat stone or worn out pot that was hand chipped into a cover for a vase or pot.  But today I found one that was so nice I initially mistook it for some sort of jewelry:

It was made out of the base of a goblet or drinking cup.  I rather liked it.

But the main reason for digging in the organic layers is to find the things that otherwise would not be preserved.  Late in the digging day Pete - yes, that Pete - was busy trying to expose a huge bit of Roman timber.  It is an unusual shape, sort of a taper.  And it has some notches cut into it.  We don't understand it yet, none of the other wooden bits coming up look anything like it.  It might be intact enough to give us a date from analysis of growth rings.  Better weather tomorrow.  It would almost have to be!