Monday, May 30, 2016

Tree Shaped Tombstones - An Enigma

Here is an attractive specimen I found in the cemetery of Thorp, Wisconsin.

A nicely executed monument with ferns and a rather jaunty bird atop the traditional "broken branch". The lettering identifies this as the family marker of the Holtzhausens.

Oddly, the "scroll" where there should be birth and death dates is blank.  I have run into this on occasion and have no plausible explanation.  Did they forget to set aside a little extra for the lettering to be done after they were gone?

There are of course the usual subsidiary markers.  Next to one of them we find this:

At first this caught my eye for the sheer rarity of a marker referencing the Spanish American War. The whole affair only lasted ten weeks and was essentially a cake walk apart from that unpleasant Yellow Fever.  But when I drove away from the cemetery the few wisps of data I carry around on this obscure subject started to nag me.

The Spanish American War began and ended in 1898.  Walter Holzhausen was only 16 years old when it happened.  Sure, you could speculate on an under age enlistment.  Or perhaps stretch the duration of the conflict to include occupation duty.  In the Philippines there was an insurgency from 1899 to 1902 that actually cost more lives than the preceding fight against Spain.

But no, I think this marker is in error.

The 14th US Cavalry Regiment was formed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in March of 1901.  It was destined to serve in the Philippines during the Insurgency but it appears poor Private Holzhausen never left the United States.  An article in a local paper says he died in an accident at Fort Wingate, New Mexico on Christmas Day of 1901, about a year after his enlistment.

Friday, May 27, 2016

FIRST 2016 Campaign Final Video

Excellent compilation of footage from the beginning of the FIRST season to the end.

Very proud of this bunch.  They will be a Force to be Reckoned With next year...

Only four months before the Robotics stuff starts up again!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Signs of the Times - England 2016

"Two countries separated by a common language" is a bit of an old saw, but it does have an element of truth to it.  Especially in situations where you have no parallel information to help you out.  I find signs in the UK to be a source of entertainment and occasional puzzlement.  Here's a few from the last few weeks.

I had never heard the term "Fake Bands".  Who knew that there were actually "Top Fake Bands" as it says in the fine print.  I neglected to take a picture of it but on the adjacent wall there was an advert for a local "Pub Golf" event.  Yikes.

A garbage truck in the Cotswolds.  As our view of the UK is heavily colored by James Bond flicks I expected spies in tuxedos and dark glasses to be emptying the bins.

It means drive slowly.  In this little hamlet the children seemed just fine but their dog, a scrawny whippet, did seem a bit dim witted.

And speaking of dogs.....Lets just ignore the notion that any spot a dog fouls is likely to be at least fairly warm.  This must be set aside for a larger question.  Are there in fact actual Dog Fouling Enforcement Officers?  What are the qualifications?  Do they have any additional duties?  Do they have to collect "evidence"?

This was over the River Eden in Cumbria.  Now I don't know about you, but to me "Collapse Imminent" suggests that I should get a blanket, set out a picnic and wait for the bridge to go down. I mean, imminent suggests you won't have to wait very long.  Or is this another of the silly Health and Safety things that the Brits kow tow to?

Recent flood damage.  No to the picnic lunch, but also no to going out for a closer look.

Let's close on a historic note, one that surprised me.  First a mile stone:

And then the unobtrusive little brass plate:

Tuesday, May 24, 2016


Three weeks of being away and roughly 14 hours of travel.  I made it back feeling great.

I suspect this feeling was a little off target as I appear to have had at least one phone conversation and did half of a New York Times crossword with almost no memory of either.

But the next morning I was up early (or slept in if you follow my previous time zone), stretched and went out on the porch with my morning coffee.

Things looked great.  The lawn had been mowed, the flowers were blooming.  The air smelt like spring, and after the sheep meadows and excavation dirt of the prior two weeks it also had an intangible familiar scent to it.  It smelt like home.

The only discordant note was a very pesky robin sitting on a nearby bush lambasting me in chirpy bird talk.  What? Hey, I kept the feeder full all winter, the back yard pond is open for bathing, what more do you expect of me?


I've always suspected that if I stayed away too long shiftless squatters would move in, and it seems I had the right of it.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Vindolanda 2066

2016 was another fun season at Vindolanda.  Good digging, fun people.  In addition to the usual crew we had the pleasant company of a young lad named Will, Break Year slumming a bit before going off to a Big Name University.

He was a good sport about it all.

Will is the young and slightly puzzled fellow in the above photo.

I have gotten used to being twice the age of young adults and now have to face the reality of being, as in this case, three times their age.  But this does appeal to my odd sense of humor.

Will took to excavating readily.  Who knows, he may become a regular.  I imagine him on site fifty years hence regaling a generation yet unborn....

"Stop yer whinin' ya mewling cubs.  Why I started digging here long before we had HoverBarrows and back when your fancy Excavator's Spa and Therapy Centre was nothin' more 'an a hut with mud on the floor."

"Ah, we had some times back then, we did.  The Terrible Ancients still strode the land.  Their pint glasses held a gallon and every spade they threw filled a barrow.  Gone they are now, all over the edge of the spoil heap to wherever we all tumble"

"Except....except maybe The Old Badger.  They say that years ago - this would be after Her Ladyship passed of course - he was tricked into entering a Care Centre.  The day after his hundredth birthday party he opened his eyes and looked about slyly."

"He mumbled something about walking to Vindolanda, but of course none of the nursing staff paid him much mind.  That was their mistake because before they knew it he had tossed the blanket off his lap and jumped up wearing a pair of old hiking boots he had been hiding somewhere."

"He was out door before they knew it and hasn't been seen since."

"I've watched for him every May since then, but I'm getting a bit rusty myself and turn the task over to you now.  Oh, m' Lads, Lassies and Othertypes, you may think he'll never get here, but I wouldn't bet against him.  It's a long walk and the road is not straight.  But I never knew him to give up on a thing he set his mind to."

"Yes, he's overdue, but when he felt like walking he never would consider accepting a ride."

Friday, May 20, 2016

Vindolanda 2016 Day Ten and Last

Some years the last day of digging is characterized by a frantic burst of activity, as excavators scramble to expose that enigmatic feature or keep trying desparately to find the coin that has eluded them all week.  But this year seemed different.  We started the two week session opening up a huge area, one that will keep teams busy for the rest of the year. When there is a 12 foot deep ditch and you have exposed the first 18 inches of it there does not seem such a sense of urgency.

An odd day.  We had a short but intense rain storm.  Here a shifty trio of diggers hide under the corner of the tea shed.

But just minutes later we were back into brilliant, spirits lifting sunshine.  I think it shows up this amphora top nicely.

We kept chasing our mystery wall here and there but never did quite figure it out.  It is real, but seems to have been bashed about in later years.  Perhaps the loose stones and empty voids suggest stone robbing.  Ah well, a later team will have to take it on.

The entire second week I was out in what turned out to be the less interesting side of the dig.  Everyone got rotated through for at least a brief stint in the great anaerobic preservation layers.  This is a new policy and I think a good one. Crumbling the chunks of laminate is great fun and a skill few archaeologists learn.  I can see that most of the newbies have been bitten by the bug and will be clambering for a return next year.

As for myself, well probably I will come back.  Nine seasons of digging seems a lopsided number.

Each year I leave the site with such mixed feelings.  Good times were had.  At least a few interesting things were found.  Friendships renewed and new ones begun.

But leaving means a return to "the real world".  And I walk away from the site with a last longing look.  There is always, always something great to be found just another inch down.

In that sense I am like Moses, ever fated to see the Promised Land but not to be allowed entry.

Farewell Vindolanda and all your dark mysteries.  Farewell.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Vindolanda 2016 Day Nine

The days pass.  We scrape our trowels back and forth. Wheel barrows are loaded with dirt and rock, laboriously pushed up the spoil heap and tipped over the side.  The pottery shard bag bulges with the "oopsies" of ancient times.  Clouds gather, threaten and toss us a few token drops of rain as they scud over the hills silently saying "just kiddin'".

The morning flies past as hours tend to do when your holiday is nearing an end.

A good time to ponder small marvels.

A bit of Roman glass.  It gets put into the pottery bag where it will be cataloged and stored away on the off chance that some future researcher will be interested in knowing what sort of upper status drinking vessels were on Hadrian's Wall in the Second Century.

1800 years since it last saw the light of day. And you can still hold it up and see through it, noticing the fancy ridges and the swirling pattern of bubbles.  It would be a good thing to take a drink out of.  But of course the great appeal to us of the Romans is how much kinship we feel with them.  They enjoyed a quaff of well earned fermented stuff at the end of a hard day, and so do I.  In my case ale instead of wine.

Oh, the "Where's Walldo" hunt for what should have been a whopping great wall along the side of the road.  Well now.  What have we here?

Yes, it is a wall.  Of course it is running north-south instead of the east-west it should be following.  And the type of stone suggests it is earlier than it ought to be.  And we might, or might not have a corner under the big whopping stone.  Under that stone there are mysterious hollow cavities.

One day left to try and make some sense of it all.

Pub Quiz

When digging at Vindolanda my long time home has been the Twice Brewed Inn.  Convenient, friendly, and a quirky sort of place where you were made to feel welcome even if you dragged in with some digging dirt on you.

It was sold and renovated in the off season, so I am having to cope with change.  Much of it good by the way.

But the famous "Twicey Quiz" is no more.

This shook me to the core.  The Twice Brewed Quiz was a revered institution, one that had been officially proclaimed the Worst in Britain.  It was also great fun.

No Twicey Quiz?  Why it would be like the ravens leaving the Tower, a harbinger most certain of impending calamity.

But we adapt.  Another local pub had a quiz last night and we had a good contingent in attendence.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Vindolanda 2016 Day Eight


We were tasked with finding the front wall of a building that fronted onto our road surface of the last few days.  "It's right there, for sure!".  We tried extending our excavation north-south, east-west and downwards.  No wall.

I must admit, playing "Where's Walldo" has limited appeal.  But it must be done.  The spirit of Rome still lingers faintly about Vindolanda and today I was thinking about one of the lesser Deities/Virtues that was likely worshiped there:  Disciplina.

The god of training, duty and work.

Among the stones, grass roots and disturbed worms there were very few finds in our trench.  A small brooch, a non descript bit of lead.  So you start finding interesting things where you can.

As we "de-turfed" we came across these modern artifacts.  A plastic whistle and two 1970s coins.  I like to imagine a school group going through, the high spirited kids turning pocket emptying cartwheels while the harassed teacher blew her whistle until it flew out of her mouth entirely.

Every year I keep my eyes open for that peculiar natural phenomena known colloquially as a "mud stone willy".  This happens when a bit of soft stone gets shaped by time and water erosion until, well until geology imitates biology.  Not a bad specimen for the 2016 entry....

I have mentioned "pot lids" in passing.  These are just bits of flat stone that are chipped at until round enough to cover the top of a bowl or vase.  Not very exciting.  I have not shown one yet because they just look like stone hockey pucks.  This example was "close but no cigar", deemed to be natural and not artifact.  Geology trying to imitate artifact...

I prefer to show finds that came up in my trench but alas.  So for your edification this is what a really corroded and degraded Roman sword looks like.

And so it goes.  Tomorrow we will dive deeper looking for that wall that may have been robbed out for stone, or perhaps is elsewhere, or maybe does not even exist.  And if it does not, well, there will be something else down below.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Vindolanda 2016 Day Seven


Lots of 'em.

That is the theme today.

Some days are interesting for the small finds, those little bits and bobs that fall between the cracks of time and of pavements and show us what the Romans carried with them 1800 years ago.

Other days are interesting for the features, the unexpected walls and wells and floors that pop up where you were not expecting them.

And some days you just find random rocks.

If you are feeling imaginative you can make the above stuff into a road surface.

A few big random rocks ended up on top of all of this.  They had to be dealt with.

Stare at rocks long enough and you start to notice things.  Here we have an area where plow marks show up on the higher up stones.  You have to respect the determination of long ago farmers who tried and tried to coax crops out of the stoney ground up by the old Roman remains.

Stare a while longer and you will start to imagine things.  This rock caught my eye and I spent a good five minutes trying to convince myself that somebody had started to carve it into a small altar and had given up part way!

And so we reach the end of a Day of Random Rocks.  I spent more time than usual at the fence chatting with visitors.  Most are interested in what we are finding, while the more erudite are intrigued by dates and features.  And when trying to explain the subtle, addicting draw of Vindolanda I have to acknowledge both of these.

But some days it is more about the people.  I close with a shot taken at afternoon tea time.  Old friends...speaking in - from left to right - a Proper Public School accent, a labyrinthine "Geordie" language, and some kind of Lowland Scottish English.  Good times and good friends.

Even if I only understand about one quarter of what is said.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Life, Death and Prizes!

I swear, every year I come over to the UK I find "the Tabs" a little more outrageous.

I thought Life! Death! Prizes! was a description of the contents of this august publication. Maybe it in fact is.  But when browsing a bookstore in Carlise the other day I discovered that it is also the title of a book from a few years back.  The things you learn traveling.

Vindolanda 2016 Day Six

Sometimes one area of the excavation gets a little ahead or behind other areas and diggers
get moved about.  So from the damp mysterious anaerobic layers out onto flat ground.  I spend Monday clearing debris off a Third Century road.

Necessary work of course.  But less exciting.  Near the surface you don't find things in great condition.  And even clearing the road is a matter of picking through disorganized rubble from fallen walls intermixed with silt from flooding.

Here is the road stretch at the beginning of the day, before we lifted the turf.

And here it is at day's end.  Rough, stony ground.

It doesn't sound interesting and at times it isn't.  Rock and rubble need to be removed and inspected, the clay and dirt areas troweled.  Finds are unlikely but not impossible.  I came up with two stone pot lids and the next digger over got a clever little yellow glass bead.

But at the end of the day we still had a wonky looking roadway and had at most spots not gotten down to the proper surface yet.  More tomorrow.

A few yards over there was this odd find.  A flat bit of stone, probably slate.  And some peculiar markings.  Did somebody start to make a game board and give up on it?

As today's digging report is brief I will toss in a bonus post.

I find myself fighting fatigue and a very dodgy wifi connection.  But onward tomorrow and may there be small interesting things wedged among the cobbles.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Vindolanda 2016 Day Five

We had a "normal" day of Northumbrian weather today, grey, windy and much cooler.  Knock wood, no rain.

As we dropped our trench a few more centimeters it became obvious that we were in a very complicated area, in fact the most confusing place I have seen in many years of excavation.

On the left a hard packed clay floor.  Running down the middle a woven wattle and daub fence.  On the right a bewildering assortment of posts, planks, randomly tossed in slabs of stone, patches of clay.  It has the look of persisting and very slipshod attempts to repair something.  As of end of day Friday, we don't know what kind of building we are in, or why the two areas are so radically different.

We continue our pattern of recent days, few finds but interesting ones.

Shoes are a common find on site - the museum has about 6000 of them - but somehow I had not come across one before.  Here I pose with my foot as a reference point.

We are obviously in the layers where organic items survive.  Our two most interesting finds of the day were both wooden.  Once you spot an artifact of this sort you of course trowel it clear with great care.  Usually while doing this you can't tell quite what you have.  Lets see a couple of artifacts through their excavation and "show off" stages.

A roughly oval piece of shaped oak plank.  It has holes bored through it in a regular pattern.
This might be a barrel top cut down and repurposed or perhaps a bit of furniture.  A chair back would be more plausible than the various alternatives put forward.  I mean, the Romans were clever but had not invented skate boards in the late First Century.

Another series of three.  You really can't avoid taking a slice out of wooden artifacts in this sort of environment so the first picture shows a round hollow bit of wood.  The white stuff adjacent to it was just brittle crumbly material.   The second picture shows a nice bit of wood that has been turned on a lathe, with the final picture showing all.

It looks nice enough to be a chair leg or something similar.  But the hollow in the middle, the trace of lead at one end and the cross hole right near our model's thumb make this a probable section of wooden water pipe.

Alas the only section we found so no help with managing the water that steadily seeped into our trench all day.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Vindolanda 2016 Day Four

A nearly unprecedented fourth straight day of cloudless skies and gentle breezes.  Old hands here at the excavation site grow nervous feeling that eventually we shall have to pay for this with cold and damp.

Speaking of damp one of my first tasks of the day was frog rescue.  One of the trenches from last year that we are back filling was partly full of water.  The current residents needed a new home when clods of turf and barrows full of dirt descended upon their little kingdom.

We are now at the level where wooden planks are appearing. Some kind of floor, with an adjacent wood lined drain.  The familiar musty odor of anaerobic preservation wafts up in places.  We don't know exactly what we are dealing with in terms of type of structure, but the finds have been scarce for a while.  One nice bit that came up was this large slab from a Samian ware bowl.  Great decoration on it....I especially like the guy wearing curly toed elf shoes.

I mentioned the other day that I won't be showing many metal objects.  All ancient sites worry about night time visits from thieves with metal detectors.  The odds of them actually finding something are zero because of the litter of nails, rusty metal bits and just the local iron containing rock.  But they would make a mess and probably hurt themselves in the process.

Some of the metal on site is near the top and corroded beyond interpretation.  I always like to look around for stones with "things" adhered to them.

I think one small object would be safe to feature today.  In organic layers we cut chunks and laboriously crumble them by hand.  It is the only way to find the delicate artifacts like writing tablets.  As I broke one chunk apart this lovely little thing popped out.

Purpose unclear.  It could be a sort of bead/pendant that is held by a string wrapped about its middle.  I have also seen it described as a fastener, something pushed through cloth or leather to form a "button" over which a loop could be placed.  Officially I guess it is "copper alloy stud".

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Vindolanda 2016 Day Three

I should sub title this post "The Edge of Anaerobia" as we spent a brilliant, sunny day flirting with the very edge of where anaerobic preservation allows organic material to survive.

First a view of the trench from above.  The orange area of burning can be seen clearly.  You may recall that this was a large baking oven.

Ovens are not a place for small finds, anything organic becomes ash and it was probably hot enough to put paid to most metals.  But they do have a large amount of packing clay around them.  When I was briefly ahead of the schedule of cutting and crumbling for finds I quickly fashioned a crude "cave bear" to provide some company for the plastic dinosaur in whose company I started the excavation week.

We had relatively few finds but they were all interesting.  We seem to be on a roll for graffiti. Here is the handle of an amphora (huge pottery storage jug) with the number eight  (VIII) on it. It would make sense for this to be some sort of inventory number.

Here's an odd one.  Just at the edge of preservation we came up with this heel from a Roman shoe.  The leather is brittle and nearly fossilized but the pattern of hobnails can be clearly seen.

Ever wonder what a delicate wooden comb looks like when it sees the light of day for the first time in 1900 years?  Happy to oblige.

Forecast for tomorrow is favorable.