Friday, May 31, 2019

Robin of Risingham - a Halfling Plumber?

When we have a day off from excavations a merry band of diggers usually sets off in search of obscure Roman remains.  On a sunlit day we stopped off to visit a certain "Robin of Risingham".  This is, or in a sense, was, a figure cut into a stone face.  It used to stand about four feet high and there are sketches of it and of a possible inscription dating back to the days of Gentlemen Antiquarians centuries ago.

Alas, as described in an 1827 edition of "A History of Northumbria", the statue was intentionally chopped off at the waist.  The farmer who owned the land was quite fond of it but his son - who comes across as an unpleasant lout - got tired of people walking across their land to see it and had Robin's upper half cut up into stone gateposts.  Here's Robin today.

Nearby is a modern reconstruction of what he used to look like.  This is half scale, so Robin is a Halfling in more than one sense.  He is suspected of being a British influenced version of Sylvanus, the forest god, but various other interpretations have been put forth.

The first photo I show here is a "before" picture.  Robin had accumulated a pretty good coating of the local moss.  We had a discussion about whether pulling this off versus leaving it on is better for the long term survival of the structure.  Below you can see the decision.

To be honest without the modern reconstruction you could interpret this a couple of ways.  My first thought was that Robin of Risingham was facing backwards here....basically mooning us.  As sometimes happens this led to another discussion.  It seems that one or two individuals on the excavation site could benefit - oh, hell, the entire crew would be the beneficiaries - of longer tailed shirts for bending over while working. I present without further comment a link to a company that might perhaps be contracted to provide special variants for the official excavation T-shirts we all receive on our first day of work......

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Packing Light for Digging

When I go overseas on an archaeology jaunt I have my rules.  Carry on bag only.  Bring nothing extra.  I have always considered extra "stuff" when traveling as impedimenta. It's basically like carrying an anchor around.

But how to manage two weeks of grubbing about in mud and dirt, then another week of add on walking holiday.....and fit it all into the over head compartment?

I sometimes cheat a little, leaving digging kit in England with friends.  But I don't like to impose.

I will also on rare occasions shop local thrift stores - called "Charity Shops".  I only do this when the long range weather forecast proves faulty.  

But generally my carry on only digging kit works out just fine.  A few tips.

1. Don't get muddy.  But wait, mud is everywhere on a dig site.  True.  So I wear my rainsuit pants when I am working in waterlogged strata or on any day it might rain.  I favor the Frogg Toggs brand.  They are tough, wind resistant and sometimes I don't need to bring an extra warm layer like fleece.  (Note that in the above picture it was hot and dry.  I just let the Carhartt work pants take their chances.  They are pretty much the same color as the dirt anyway.

2. Minimize the numbers of shoes you bring.  They are difficult to pack and you can only wear one pair at a time anyway.  Lately I have brought these ultra light weight Wellies for actual on site wear.  Also my hiking boots for back and forth to the site.  And I have one pair of shoes for pub wear.

3. Nothing wrong with washing up things in hotel rooms.  I carry along a small supply of laundry soap.  For the benefit of border security staff the bag of white powder is labeled "Laundry Soap".  A gallon zip lock bag, a pinch of soap, agitate a bit...and the place I stay has a drying room with racks and an industrial sized heater/dehumidifier.

4. Leave stuff behind.  Sometimes you acquire things on a trip.  One item into the bag means one item taken out.  Shoddy garments go to the trash.  Last year in Belgium I noticed a collection bin for used clothes.  I donated generously.

5. Repair capacity.  Small sewing kit, partial roll of red duct tape, short length of paracord.

6. Only bring one set of presentable garb.  You wear this on the plane so it almost does not count as packing.  Mostly you'll be hanging out in pubs with other people who appreciate digging about in dirt.  They are tolerant.  But on occasion a nicer bistro or an invite to somebody's domicile could warrant a bit better apparel.

7. Electronic devices are problematic.  Bring as few as you can manage.  Your phone can probably do everything that your laptop, alarm clock, watch, camera could do.  Back up cords and chargers...maybe if electronics are a priority for you.  If not, assume most hostelries have a lost and found full of international converters and phone chargers. 

8. Empty bags of various sizes.  For lunch, dirty laundry etc.  And I always carry a small pocket kit.  Sunscreen (seldom used in Northumbria), assorted emergency medications, an extra bootlace, a lucky coin.

9. I am able to fit everything necessary into one bag.  I am quite fond of the Osprey Porter 46.  It has very comfortable back pack straps that fold in when you don't want them catching on the inside of overhead compartments.  Quite comfortable to carry for miles if necessary.  I understand the newer models have a laptop pouch would would be a nice feature for the small Chromebook I use for travel.

10. And always remember, the ideal pack up has you using each and every item you brought.  On the coldest day you should have on every layer you own and be just warm enough!

Monday, May 27, 2019

A Choice of Doors....

Many of my UK friends are formidable travelers and make it to the US on occasion.  Of course they usually go to the customary destinations, New York, Florida, California. I should think they all manage there quite well.  But on the chance that any of them actually take me up on the offer to visit the rustic provinces here in the Midwest, I have tried to prep them for various local customs that they might otherwise struggle with.  Don't ask the hotel clerk at a sketchy hostelry to "Knock you up in the morning."  Just....don't.

Tavern life is another area where local customs vary.  There are a few bars in walking distance that I might step into and face an awkward moment.  

One odd quirk of rural drinkeries out our way is cutsie names on the bathrooms.  If you have had a libation or two you might stand in temporary bewilderment in front of signs saying "Inboard" and "Outboard", or "Pointer" and "Setter".  Along those lines I was faced the other day with this dilemma....

No, the board promising INFORMATION will not help you.  But this was at the cute little railway station featured on Friday, one that has been restored to retro railfan standards.  The doors for Lamps and Porters do not lead to bathrooms.  (Gents and Ladies are on the other side of the station building).  The room for Porters was where baggage handlers would stay awaiting customers.  The Lamps door leads to a workshop where people filled, trimmed and maintained the oil and paraffin signal lamps of a pre-electricty era.

Just another little view of Settle, where I suppose we are all Setters, other horizontal/vertical orientations notwithstanding. 

Friday, May 24, 2019

Back and Settled

Home after a long stretch of traveling.  After Vindolanda we went down to the Yorkshire Dales to do a few days of walking.  To get there we rode the Settle - Carlisle Railway, one of Britain's most scenic rail journeys.  

Settle is a nice town to set up base in.  It also has provided me with what I expect will be an anniversary picture every year for the foreseeable future...

Yes, my Better Half could probably have done better, glad she just "Settled".

More travel tales in the weeks ahead.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

An Eccentric Museum

On our way back from excavating at Vindolanda I proposed a stop to our gracious drivers.  The Museum of Classic Science Fiction in Allendale. 

Allendale is an odd town.  It is a tidy little place full of stone the middle of what looks to be barren wastelands.  In times prior there was a lot of mining in the area but this is now gone.  

It is also the home of a little museum that is the brainchild/labor of love of one man, Neil Cole.  

It is not hard to find the museum, parked out front is a rally car with a built in TARDIS.

On a more contentious note, the Dalek in front of the museum has apparently drawn the ire of some elements of the community that find it a bit....incongruous.  Here Mr. Cole holds forth with members of our little band of travelers.  I suggested he consider aiming the Dalek up the road at its main adversary just to see what might happen.

The core of the collection is vintage Dr. Who material but I found the other items more interesting.  An Ape, from the planet of same.  That's the one in back btw.

A Klingon head appliance used in one of the better Star Trek movies.

And speaking of Star Trek, this is part of the "Borg" costume worn by Patrick Stewart in Star Trek Next Generation.  I observed that the  crotch of this costume seemed quite outsized.  Mr. Cole confided that, no offense to Sir Patrick, it is all padding.

There was even a case of costume parts from Alien and from the later and lamentable Prometheus, a movie Mr. Cole, and I, both hold in disappointed disdain.

You learn a lot talking to a True Enthusiast.  I had not for instance known that Peter Jackson is a serious collector of Sci Fi memorabilia. 

I also learned that a regular visitor to the museum is a man called "George the Klingon", who rides the bus up from Newcastle.  In full Klingon regalia naturally.  George is said to be entirely fluent in Klingon.  I neglected to ask if he spoke anything else.  But I should think that if he was a true son of Newcastle and spoke the local "Geordie" dialect that it would take a full Professor of comparative linguistics to tell the difference between that and Klingon.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Catrigg Force

Lest the title confuse you, I don't believe there are any Cat Special Forces involved.  Although one never really knows.

Better half and I are ensconced in the wilds of West Yorkshire, doing a bit of walking.  It is a footloose existence, we get up in the morning, look at a map and decide we'll go somewhere.  Today it was Catrigg Force.

In the local lingo a "force" or sometimes "foss" is a waterfall.  Rigg means a good sized hill.  Nobody seems to know how cats got involved.  Catrigg Force is a waterfall about a mile outside of Stainforth, which in turn is about three miles upstream from Settle.

The walk goes up a the hill by way of the "Cat Steps".  These are of unclear antiquity, probably not - as the local legend claims - created by the Giant of Winskill.

After a bit of meandering, The Force is with you.

The first glimpse is not impressive.  The stream is about three inches deep!

But when you go down a side path into a deep, cool wood it looks a bit more inspiring.

It drops 12 meters into a deep gorge.  When we visited it there was not much water going over, as it had been dry, but it is said to be really something in a rainy season.

At the end of this walk over the sunny uplands, you really deserve a nice pint.  The Craven Heifer in Stainforth looked just the ticket....but it was closed for repairs!

Craven as it happens is not an aspersion on the character of this cow, it is the name of the local district.  The specific heifer mentioned lived in the early 1800's and was so majestic that she became known as "The Craven Heifer".  Several pubs including this one were renamed in her honor.

Oh well, just a longer walk to the needed refreshments.  Our trek homeward was along the River Ribble, and went past Stainforth Force, another waterfall.  This is a salmon river and this looked like a substantial obstacle to upstream travel.

Back to our lodging with heavy legs.  Two refreshments each (ale and G/T respectively) did much to restore them.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Vindolanda Day Ten and Last

And so another archaeology jaunt to Vindolanda comes to an end.  We've had great weather and lots of fun with old friends.  The actual archaeology, while fascinating in a long term sense, was a bit mundane this year.  The team washing up post excavation finds has been rather idle.

Last day pictures.

When digging in layers of organic, anaerobically preserved stuff, the technique is to cut chunks of it with spades, then hand it up top.

It then gets hand crumbled, looking for the small, subtle treasures such as wooden writing tablets.

Quite a bit of the stuff we had to crumble was still a bunch of hard clay, but towards the end we did have a bit of the proper "laminate".  This is a mixture of wood, straw, manure and other materials.

One component is bracken.  This is a fern like plant that still grows on the hills above.  It was used as floor cover and is a great place to find small objects.  Imagine dropping a coin into a mat of smelly shag carpeting.  This is from circa 200 AD, but you could walk up the hill and grab a handful that looks just the same.

No finds of note for me today.  A few bits of broken pottery.  But others did a bit better.  The anaerobic layers preserve metal completely without tarnish or oxidation. This bit of copper is felt to be from the edge of a Roman shield.

Farewell to the frontier of Roman Britain.  Many more mysteries still lie slumbering.  We'll see if the goddess Fortuna steers me back another year.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Vindolanda Day Nine

A somewhat abbreviated report today.  Although the anaerobic layers of ditch fill were reached today they proved to be largely empty.  This is a bit disappointing, you see deep black organic fill you dream big...

But looks can be deceiving.  Yes, there were twigs, bits of bark and a thin layers of what might be straw.  But mostly this was black, muddy sand.  Or sandy mud, its hard to say.  One shoe did come out of it.  But this seems less an intentional deposit and more like somebody stepped in some black muck and had his shoe pull off in it.  We move to the right in this picture tomorrow.  Last Stand for clever finds for this digging session.

In general fort ditches are hit and miss.  You might get a wagon load of perfectly preserved stuff.  You might get muddy sand.  Excavating structures tends to also be hit and miss but provides more personal artifacts that I find more compelling.

Beautiful weather again.  The walk to "work" is grand.  I noticed this on the way.

We keep meaning to have a pub round table discussion as to whose politics are weirder these days.  Probably it would end in a draw.

Last day of digging tomorrow, fingers crossed.
Addendum.  The cool little green beetles we find on site do not actually appear to be preserved from Roman times.  They must climb into the trenches and expire there.  One was crawling about today looking quite fit.  Oh, I suppose they could be like those ancient scarab beetles you see in all of the Mummy movies, but they seem so whimsical and harmless.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Vindolanda Day Eight

Another bright, sunny day.  Anaerobic preservation levels were reached at several parts of the site including our little trench.  The technique in these deposits is to cut sections of the trench fill with a sharp spade, then crumble them by hand into wheel barrows.  It is the only way to find small, subtle things, especially those made from wood or leather.

Here's a nice shoe from another part of the site:

Also a folded up section of Roman tent made out of leather:

That end of the site had a very good day indeed.  Top find was this Roman knife.  Iron blade, handle made from - I think - wood, lead and leather.  (note, I'm normally not going to show metal objects here but this one was already shown on the official Vindolanda twitter feed, so should be OK.

Oh, and what did I find?  Well, lots of clay and rock, now mixed with twigs and sticks.  Very occasionally a bit of pottery.  So far nothing of great importance.  After you stare long enough at not much, you start to notice little things.  Check out this tiny 1800 year old beetle found in the anaerobic layers!  Still beautiful and iridescent after all these centuries.

Oh, and this might be the other side of the bench support uncovered yesterday.  Up the slope a ways and with the tricksy parts still buried.  It will stay there for the time being.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Vindolanda Day Seven

Basically a day spent clearing the way for the dive into the deep fort ditch.  I was given a helper or two, pointed to a patch of packed clay and rubble and told "make it go away".  Purposeful labor under a hot sun.

But even in barren layers a few things always turn up.

Here's a broken spindle whorl.  This does not look like much but was an interesting little domestic artifact.  It was, as I understand it, used to help twist wool into thread by making it easier to spin rapidly about.  The central hole here looks small and only partly formed.  These were usually, in a frontier site, made from old bits of broken pottery and I rather suspect that this one broke in the process of boring the hole.

Here is what a better specimen, also made from an old pottery fragment, should look like:

On a nearby part of the site there is also a stepwise approach to the deep ditch.  Here they have found some more interesting stuff.  Today they really thought they had an altar on their hands.  But it was not....although it was something very interesting.

Here's a happy crew of diggers posed around the Roman stone bench support they dug up!  None of us had ever seen one before.  It has a level of swank that suggests it came from someplace nice before it was tossed out as upper ditch fill.

There was a film crew on site today from Smithsonian televison.  I suppose I might end up as background footage to whatever they end up doing, but they did not to my knowledge directly interview any of the diggers on hand today.

Black anaerobic layers one inch from where we stopped work today.  Although there are never any guarantees, things might start getting interesting tomorrow.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Vindolanda Day Six

Magnificent weather today.  But the archaeology is a bit mundane.  We have some whopping great fort trenches to get to.  But quite a bit of later rubble and clay packing lies between us and the trench fill.

Occasionally the rubble has interesting artifacts in it.  Here is the bottom part of a ceramic wine goblet....with an interesting hole bored in it.  What is the point of drilling a hole in a wine glass?  

Elsewhere on the site an ongoing excavation that is cleaning out a Roman toilet drain is moving along much faster in the dry weather.  The quality of the excavation is very good.  Interestingly the original drain construction was very shoddy despite being associated with a bath house built to rather high standards.

When it is hot on site you must remain hydrated.  I am assured that this bottle is plastic, so as to be unbreakable.  And that it contains only iced tea.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Digger's Day Off - Saving Lives instead of Souls

On our weekend between digging sessions a bunch of us Old Hands go here and there on little adventures.  Usually there is some historic site involved.  Saturday was no exception.  We had a fun trip up to Holy Island, home of Lindisfarne Priory.  Tons of History.  This is where the fabulous Lindisfarne Gospel comes from.  I'm not going to show you any of that stuff.  I keep getting distracted by small interesting things.  

On the island I saw this set into a wall.

R.N.L.I is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.  I had been vaguely aware of them, you see their distinctive coin boxes in many local businesses.

They have been around a while.  I actually prefer their original name, the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck.  It serves a function similar to what the U.S. Coast Guard does in American waters, helping mariners in distress.  But it is entirely funded by the public and manned by volunteers.  Think of it as akin to a nation wide volunteer fire department.

While waiting for fish and chips in Sea Houses I noticed a sign indicating that there was a R.N.L.I. charity shop by the harbor.  I ducked in to find the shop just closing up, but still open was the door leading into the boathouse.

On the walls are tablets describing their rescue operations over the years.  

Those from 1914 to 1918 are particularly busy.  The Great War did not shut down commerce and fishing to the extent that the Second World War did, and quite a few small craft fell victim to mines and torpedoes.  The numbers listed are lives saved.

That is not to say that that 1939 to 1945 were quiet years.  Some of the lifeboats went to Dunkirk.  And the crews, by this time mostly older men, had plenty of sailors and aircrew to rescue.

An interesting diversion.  Instead of highlighting Lindisfarne and the saving of immortal souls I got interested in the Life Boats and the saving of mortal lives.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Vindolanda Day Five

The stint digging in and around the 17th century farm house is done.  It was a bit confusing.  In many places dating is complicated by the fact that mostly they were using recycled Roman stones which lay about in abundance.  And how many ways are there to build a drain?

I did finish the area with something a bit interesting.  We think this is the doorway of the farm house.  But what is that area of black, sodden stuff off to one side?  There was also a swath of charcoal right over the threshold stone, you can see it in the cut. Something happened here, but exactly what is unclear.

Next stop is a fort ditch underneath the area.  Several of us were detailed to cut this down in small sections so as to get to the actual ditch fill beneath.  It is somewhat tedious, these layers are mostly barren, sticky clay.

It still has to be broken up by hand.  You can't practically trowel this stuff.  You can, when so inclined, fashion it into various naughty shapes....

Obviously the weather and company were brilliant.  Actual finds were few today although a quern stone with a partial inscription did turn up on another part of the site.  

Weekend off for local adventuring, back to digs on Monday.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Vindolanda Day Four

An interesting day and with much improved weather.  The plan was to simply bash out the remains of the 17th century farm yard and move on to the layers below.  But of course plans always are subject to change.

In the photo above you see a surface of packed yellow clay.  This is capping the fort ditch we are aiming to dip down into.  But what is going on with those stones embedded in the clay?  Up by the trowel we have a clear straight line of them, and in the foreground a more random looking batch that are trying very hard to "be" something.

And end of day.  Three parallel lines of stones.  Maybe drains?  But why three?  We have in our little crew of workers not one but two people with voice training.  I've proposed that tomorrow, for posterity, we have a chorus of "Singing in the Drain".  I got the peculiar looks that I have come to know so well.

Still not much in the way of small finds.  And what there is remains a mixture of items from the much newer layer above and the older layers below.  I found a Roman era implement thought to be for applying makeup.  And next to me came up this item.

Well look at that.  A button.  These seem to be unknown to the Romans and so is suspected of being 17th century.  Here's a view of the other side for those very interested in such items.

Certainly this tells us nothing at all about the Roman era in Britain.  But it is interesting to note that while the time separating this artifact from the Roman one I found is perhaps 15 centuries, the distance separating them is mere inches.

Fair skies predicted so more digs on for tomorrow.