Monday, May 30, 2022

America's Best on Parade

Although I will still be posting things from my UK trip for a while I am obviously back in the States.  Being gone a month is long enough that you see your home with new eyes again.  Certainly there is much that is difficult to explain to my overseas friends....or even to my fellow citizens who apparently no longer recognize their homeland.  Problems?  Sure.  No shortage of them.  But the Promise is also there.  It always has been.  I think it always will be.

On Friday a new tradition was on display.  When Covid bit hard in 2020 there was no gathering for high school graduation.  A big gym packed with people did not seem prudent, and if we are being honest few of us ever enjoyed the ceremony that much anyway.  Instead there was a parade through our community.  Graduates in cap and gown riding in the beds of pickup trucks and such.  Proudly being driven by their parents or friends.  Decorations elaborate or simple.  Signs and flags showing what was important to them or where they were heading for college or other destinations.  It was charming, and has continued even as Covid slowly, grudgingly releases its grip on the land.  A few pictures and thoughts from the 3rd annual Grad Parade.

Despite being very well organized - police escorts at the start and finish - moving 375 graduates through town can take a while.  I'm told at the end their diplomas are handed to them through the vehicle's window!

So many pick up trucks.  This young lady is joining the Air Force.

A vintage entry.  Lawn chair, cooler and boom box in the back.

Of course somebody will always turn up in a Limo.  Probably will do so for the 20th Class Reunion too.

How do you even get something like this?  American flags were much on display.

Not sure why but here is a Turkish flag and another I could not identify.  Another vehicle had flags from El Salvador and Mexico.  Everyone got cheers and thumbs up.

Presumed family business entry number one.

Almost for sure family business entry number two.  The sign on the door has the somewhat confusing message "The Future is Bright".  Still kinda cool.

Personal Favorite Entry: Runner Up.  A Shriner Car!  For those who know not of such things the Shriners are a fraternal organization that often "does" parades with little squadrons of these things doing formation driving.  Well played, Sir, well played.

Personal Favorite: Second Place.  This is a large cardboard cutout of the grad.  The signboard says he is already in Marine Corps Boot Camp.  Note also the flag on the front of the car.  Looks like grandpa sitting proud in the back seat.  I am 99.9% sure he also served and will have a Corps tattoo on his arm.

And my absolute favorite?  I'm not going to show that picture.  It was clearly a Special Needs student.  But he was every bit as proud to be going down the parade route in the back of a pickup truck wearing his cap and gown.  He had three younger kids - siblings? - and a dog riding with him.  All of them, even the dog I think, were smiling.

So there you go.  A bright sunny evening when a parade happened to go past our weekly neighborhood cocktail hour.  For the better part of an hour the problems of the world were of no consequence.  Its often said that small towns lose their best and brightest when they graduate and move away.  But not all of them do, and some of course come back the better for their wider experience.  But for those who leave, well, we consider it part of our duty as Americans to once a year marshal our best and send them off to help fix a broken world.  It looked to me as if they are ready to make a good start on it.

Friday, May 27, 2022


Yesterday's post on the various iterations of the word CACO of course got me thinking.  I mean, any word that has that as an element would have to be related, no?

First the background.  As a Latin word for excrement caco goes back to the Greek kaka.  The Romans borrowed much from the older civilization.

Cacophony in its current usage just means loud and discordant.  Annoying maybe.  Many years ago we had a teenage garage band on our block and that pretty much defines the word.

Phony of course means sound in this context.  And the caca part?  Well somewhere between the earthier Greek and Roman versions it meandered through French and just came to mean "bad or evil".  A fair description of most garage bands although when Kenny the drummer with bright red hair down to his waist really got going the execrable version of the root word would not be out of place.

Oddly the term phony in the sense of something fake has an entirely different etymology.

Note, the photo below is not Kenny and his mates.  You google up Worst Garage Band ever and horizons open up for you....

Thursday, May 26, 2022

An Insult for the Ages

It was my second to the last day of excavating at Vindolanda.  The area I was working on was not very interesting so when a bit of excitement was evident over on the other side of a ruined wall I strolled over for a look.  And this is what had been found.

I've had to be quiet about this until now.  There is a policy that when something really interesting comes up the Trust that runs the site gets the first chance to announce it.  Their press release can be found HERE.

It was a friend of mine who found the darned thing.  He is always commendably good about covering up to avoid sunburn but I insisted he take off his hat and stand proud for a photo.  I consider it the best picture I've ever taken on the site. 

He looks understandably quite happy.  The red and white marker pole is used to sight in the exact location of the find.  It could be my imagination but it appears to be standing a bit taller and prouder than usual.

So, who was SECUNDUS and why did someone write/carve such insulting things about him?  CACOR is not one of those words you learn in Latin class.  It means "excrement".  The word survives to this day in various forms.  "Caca" in Spanish is obvious, and "kack" is a seldom used English variant.  The specific ending here suggests SECUNDUS was "a shitter" if one assumes the person carving it was fully literate.  Phalli are pretty common in Roman art and can have various meanings including Good Luck.  Here it sure seems derogatory.

Alas there are things we will never know.  For instance, who was SECUNDUS?  There have been writing tablets found at the site mentioning individuals with this name but these were decades if not centuries earlier.  And it is a pretty common name in Roman times.  Technically it just means "the second" but it is felt to not indicate a second born child or a "Jr.".  No, it may just indicate someone born in the second month of the year.  This by the way also helps explain the frequency of Tertius, Octavius and variations on months of the Julian calendar, Marcus, Julius, Junius.

The time spent on this carving suggests depth of feeling as well as a lack of concern about being detected.  You probably would not dare to openly insult your Centurion this way.  The most logical explanation would be a grievance between two soldiers of equal rank, perhaps messmates.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

UK Geocaches, some faves and observations

One of my minor Covid lockdown activities has been geocaching.  Fun, a bit of hide and seek, and an excuse to do more walking.  As I knew I'd have a little down time during a month in the UK I decided to hunt a few caches there.  The comparison between the hobby in US versus UK is interesting.

First of all the UK has way more cool places for geocache hides.  Castles, ruins, natural landmarks, etc.  And it meshes well with the extensive public walking paths that crisscross the landscape.  

With all that going for them there seems to be little motivation to create tricky hides, clever camo etc.  You get to a spot, look where the cache should be and there it is, usually in a regulation Official Geocache container.  For those who like to swap little trinkets this is much more common in the UK.

Here's a couple of my favorites in the limited series of caches I had in walking range.

A cache at Thirlwall castle.  This is a short stroll from one of my accommodations.  The actual cache was pretty easy, and as you can see its a standard geocache container.  You'd think a site where a magic dwarf is said to be guarding a hidden table made of gold would be a bit more exciting.

Another place I could walk to was called Allen Banks.  It is a nature preserve along the very picturesque Allen river.

There were numerous geocaches in this preserve but the one I really wanted to find was near the remains of a summer cottage that had a floor made of sheep knuckle bones!  As it happens it was  pretty cool - how could it not be? - but did not quite live up to high expectations.

As in the US there seem to be long chains of geocaches that follow the better known walking and biking routes.  Given the reality of needing to do ten miles plus daily on some of them the time for diversions could be limited.  Especially as some of the same issues I encounter in the US are present there as well.  Caches that are no longer there (a big storm at Allen Banks wiped out several) or have been replaced in creative but misleading spots.  But as an add on activity it is fairly resource efficient.  I found that my phone app was sufficient to locate most of these although the gps unit is always a bit better.

Monday, May 23, 2022

Vindolanda 2022.....Jet Lag Musings

Back from a month of excavation at the Roman site of Vindolanda.  I can't say I'm over jet my age it comes in waves but roughly 24 hours after my departure from Newcastle I'm at least momentarily feeling great.  When I'm tired I lie down and am unconscious for a while.  When I wake up I don't look at the clock to decide whether it makes sense.  Coffee and pepperoni pizza are consumed in significant quantities when the whim suggests.

Traveling at the tail end of the Covid era was peculiar.  There were fewer direct changes than I expected.  Although I must say Heathrow airport choosing to close about 80% of their bathroom capacity was uncalled for.  But there were plenty of things that had changed in three years.  No more kiosks to print boarding passes, it is pretty much all "wave the phone" now.  Even the tedious scrutiny of customs officials entering the UK is gone.  You hold up your passport to a camera, smile and go through.  I don't want to think about what sort of algorithms go into the machine deciding to give you the green light or the red one with a locked gate.

This was a bigger trip than my usual.  Four straight weeks of excavating instead of two.  My packing and prep was near perfect.  With periodic washing up and thrift store buys I always had enough garments that were in acceptable state.  Not easy to do with carry on luggage only and for an activity that involves mud.  My lapses were minimal.  Three pairs of reading glasses was barely enough.  Sat on one pair, lost another.  A couple more pairs of socks would have been handy.  I again carried along shorts and never wore 'em.  As is my usual custom I tossed various worn out items in the bin at the end of my stay.

I figured out buses, trains, a botched airline reservation, several weird variants on how showers work and managed to trek across the landscape via public footpaths that existed only on Ordnance Survey maps.  I'm feeling pretty good about that.

Four weeks versus two.  I wondered if I would get tired in all the various ways one can.  Physically, just plain homesick, etc.  Nope.  I'd compare it to the difference between having a half pint at your favorite pub - just enough to take the edge off your thirst - versus a full pint savored at leisure.

Ahhh.  Tasty.  And again in 2023?  One hopes, and it is hope that sustains us.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Vindolanda 2022 Day Twenty and Last - Moses

Yesterday we had to retreat from the deeper anaerobically preserved end of the site.  It was just too wet.  Of course when there are tantalizing bits of post and floor fragments emerging it is hard to step away just when things start to look good.  But this is an inevitable part of excavating at Vindolanda.  Your time runs out.  Quickly when you do two weeks, at a more leisurely but still inexorable rate when you do four.  At the end you are always Moses looking out over a Promised Land you will not be allowed to enter.

I've used that expression a few times but only yesterday bothered to look up the origins of it.  Without getting too theological it really sounds like a difference of opinion on excavating technique.  Moses was supposed to speak The Word to a rock and water would flow forth.  Instead he whacked it a few times with his staff and got the same result.  We followed our supervisor's instructions precisely, spoke many words, got lots of water flowing forth, only smacked things we were supposed to smack.  And yet the Promised Land is beyond our reach even if it is mere inches below our feet instead of seen afar from a mountain top.  Sigh.

And so it was an uneventful last session.  Scrape, scrape, scrape.  A few bits of pottery, part of a quern stone.  Then pack it up for another season.

Quern stone bit was actually kinda cool.  Super light weight, hard to believe they used it to grind grain.  If you look closely you'll see it is really porous.  Basically it is a rock imported from far away volcanic areas where this "tufa" is common stuff.

I'll have a fair bit more to say in a few days when jet lag wears off.  No promise on an early report of our surprising find from yesterday, I understand a press release is being puzzled over.  Sometimes Life imitates Monty Python....

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Vindolanda 2022 Day Nineteen

We started the day soldiering on in our anaerobic trench.  Various posts and other wood emerged, but overnight rain had "recharged" the soil and continuous streams of water coming in forced us to higher ground after lunch.  Before that happened a few mildly interesting bits came up.

Since evidence of a 2nd century AD murder was discovered inside the fort some years ago I always get a bit nervous when I find ambiguous bits of bone.  Could this be human?

Nah, evidently goat, so we are OK.

The other interesting thing that emerged from the tenacious mud was this:

Concrete.  So what?  Well it is 1800 year old Roman concrete.  This was an uncommon building material and mostly reserved for high status buildings with private bath facilities.  It "might" be a clue to the location of the commander's house from an earlier version of the fort.  I dug a bunch of this stuff back in 2017.

The afternoon was spent on higher ground, but so far neither finds nor features are worthy of comment.

I realize this is a thin report, and acknowledge that I'm holding back.  Because today on site one of my friends found something really, really good.  It is under social media quarantine for the time being but I'll share it as soon as I can.  Really outstanding....

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Vindolanda 2022 - Day Eighteen

Yesterday's sun and wind dried the site off pretty well.  It did rain a bit overnight but frankly the engineering put in place by the Romans 1800 years ago still works.  The drains still take the water out.

So it was back to the deep anaerobic layers.  The day got off to a great start.  In the first half hour we found the remains of wooden posts and a possible wattle fence.  It is pretty hard to show these up in photos until they are completely excavated.  And we seemed to only have a corner of what was projected to be a 2nd century AD building.  Lots of overburden had to be shifted in our approach to what was hoped to be "the good stuff".

Along the way you do start to see the remarkable level of preservation in these layers.  In the upper levels any nails you find are just big blobs of rust.  Here's one that could have just come from the hardware store.

Bone also is pristine albeit a bit darkened by time.

My favorite find of the day was this odd bit of worked wood.  It was the same corrugated look on both sides.

I'm told it is pine, a wood that in Roman times would have been imported.  Best guess?  Part of a beer tankard!

Tomorrow we dig into the anaerobic layer a bit deeper, maybe there will be some things of interest.  

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Vindolanda 2022 Day Seventeen - Photons!

I always check the forecast when I roll out of bed in the morning.  Today it indicated about a 2% chance of rain during excavating hours and a temperature that would approach 70 degrees F.  Unusual for this part of the world in springtime.  So....

Apply sunscreen before departure?  Yes, serves as waterproofing just as well.

Short sleeves?  Yes, but...

Leave rain suit behind?  No, no way.

Sunglasses?  Borderline call.  Nice for the walk into the site which is going into the morning sun, but I've never been able to read soil changes with them on.  So, baseball cap it shall be.


In follow up to yesterday's post on altars repurposed as building material.  Once you start thinking that way you start to see things.  So I zeroed in on this, another beat up sandstone altar fragment built into a floor surface.

Now this makes the fifth time I've been on site when such a repurposing is present.  I asked how often it has happened over the long years of Vindolanda being excavated.  "Hundreds of times" was the answer.

It was a bright sunny warm day.  As the lower end of the site is still soggy I spent the day continuing yesterday's excavation.  But instead of a nice clean floor it turned into a jumbled up pile of large and small stones.  Purpose?  If indeed it had one it is not obvious.

I think it is a rubbishy post Roman wall going through an earlier floor surface but that's a semi educated guess.

So a day of unexciting archaeology.  No small finds.  Only a few bits of pottery and bone.  At the end of the day...

A pint of bitter and some microwave Tikka Masala.  A nice end to a sub par day of digging.  Which, it must be said, is still much better than most days doing anything else.  Hoping for dry weather tomorrow.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Vindolanda 2022 Day Sixteen - Crumbling Piety

Last week we had no time lost to weather.  Today that caught up with us.  Rained off in the morning we had a couple of interesting lectures.  We then got out for a while in the early afternoon but the lower end of the site where we'd been working was very wet so several of us were moved up to a floor surface.  Fairly interesting as these were pretty trashy people.  Much pottery and part of a metal lock came up before the rain resumed.  Here's the top of a perfume container.

On wet days you at least have plenty of puddles in which to give things a quick wash before a photo.

In lieu of more current things I'll show a little something from three weeks ago.

We'd been digging along happily when we noticed that the top of a stone built into a jumbled up wall had curious linear grooves in it.  You'll often see these near the surface where they are plow marks, but this was too deep down and the marks stopped short of the edges.  The lead archaeologist said we probably had an altar.

Altars are actually not all that uncommon on the site.  In addition to the big ones found in temples and official buildings there were smaller personal altars.  Most were about the shape of a shoebox just a bit bigger.  Here's an example from the site's museum which shows similar decorative grooves on its lower edge.

And another example from the site.  This is a bigger, more on the size we were looking at, and is actually a reproduction.  The original is of course in the museum.

We had high hopes, but when the protruding stone was excavated a bit more it proved to be just a broken off stub.

Cheap, crumbly sandstone.  No visible markings.  A few other random fragments are still embedded in the wall.

We can relate to many things from the Roman era.  Or sometimes just be close enough in our attitudes to see things in relief.  

The Roman Empire had a vigorous pantheism.  Every new regiment coming into the fort from another region brought along their own beliefs and carved their own little altars.  Usually they have a dip in the top called a "focus".  That's where you'd pour a libation in offering to your god.  Overarching it all of course was an official Imperial cult where you had to give nominal allegiance to the Emperor as divine, or at least an authority so high, so powerful, so literally august that disobedience would be unthinkable.

In some ways it was an easy going system.  It seems nobody was particularly bothered about using left over altars from other faiths as building blocks.  In our time we tend to be more generically respectful.  Even my agnostic friends take their hats off when they enter a church or mosque.

History of course is the study of change.  The old system was imperfect.  As was what replaced it.  Any pagan religious brick a brac that endured to the late Empire's conversion to Christianity was bashed to bits by iconoclasts of the new Faith.  And the over arching cult morphed from an all powerful, darn near divine Emperor into a Papacy that preserved the language and much of the panoply of the Imperial court in a vigorous monotheistic system.

Change.  Seldom all bad, seldom all good, always continuing to evolve.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Vindolanda 2022 Day fifteen - Breathe Deep

A good day even though we found very little.  If I might explain.

For the last three days we have been doing a complicated approach.  The layers of archaelogy where things are perfectly preserved by anaerobic conditions are not easy to get to.  They are down there a ways.  They are under sealing layers of heavy clay.  There have been assorted test trenches dug down into them.  It is heavy work.  Ah, but when you get close.....

There is a distinctive smell to anaerobic layers.  Nothing quite describes it.  It is a sort of musty, fermented, damp wood sort of thing.  You get brief whiffs of it to keep your spirits from flagging in the long descent through heavy clay.  And then you get a proper spade full, hold it up and take an intoxicating slow sniff of it....

 Some random things have of course popped up.  Nothing great, but hints.

Perfectly preserved silver birch sticks.

Moss and twigs.  Next week we will dive deeper.  Not into areas where artifacts are guaranteed, but where they are possible.  And when you are down to where wood and leather are preserved, and where metal comes out clean and free of rust and tarnish....well the sweet smell of success is decidedly musty and damp.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Vindolanda 2022 Day Fourteen - Home Turf

Of course we should start with a cool find.  But they have been scarce on site of late.  Lots of teams out pursuing the less exciting part of archeology, tracing features.  But here's a nice bit of decorative pottery with a hunting dog chasing a deer.

I have been "on the ramparts".  That sounds pretty exciting but is really not so much.  Ramparts were the earthen berms that were on the inside of fort walls.  Despite the relative lack of finds - after all these were not occupied spaces - they are complex.  Have a look:

A lot goin' on.  In the foreground is a wooden "raft" circa 180 AD.  The earth ramparts would have these to reduce slippage and erosion.  The mashed up brown area is actually a previous test trench circa 2006.  Other layers and colors are things I can't explain in short format.  Here's what I specifically was working on:

This shows the top of a rampart.  It was made with many layers of cut turf.  In the States we'd call it sod, but this is somewhat offensive in the UK.  You would not want to ask the lead archaeologist if he "...wants the SOD OFF!".  Remarkably the stuff is still intact after 18 centuries.  You can even see the grass.

Well that's the news from the trenches today.  As for the days ahead, we'll see what's down there.


Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Vindolanda 2022 Day Thirteen - Creepy Crawlies

On occasion you have a day where nothing interesting happens archaeologically.  I spent the day taking out chunks of clay from a rampart.  There should not be anything interesting in that clay.  And there wasn't.  My finds for the day were one oyster shell.

So, in lieu of cool digging stuff how 'bout some pictures of small UK critters?

I've seen these guys before.  I call them Mordor Slugs.  Their official name is Black Slug and they are an invasive species.  They've even made it to the US.  Ugh.

And another mollusk.  You know, I could get back on that snails and slugs of Great Britain website and ID this one for you but heck, its just a cool little snail.

When out geocaching I was hunting intently around some fenceposts and came across this fella...

It is rather disappointingly just called a Common Lizard.  First I've seen on my many trips to the UK.  Sadly I missed a chance to see a very interesting newt that was living in a puddle near today's dig site.  Well you can't win 'em all.

Perhaps the archaeology will be better tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Vindolanda 2022 Day Twelve - Also Ghosts

A mixed menu of tasks today.  As you often, but not always, work the two weeks in the same small group here's a picture of the four of us at start of day.

Bright sun, driving rain, winds strong enough to move you slightly (plus side, the site stays dry), the usual Northumbrian forecast.  We have by the way a retired meteorologist excavating this week.  When it rains he sits alone, friendless at lunch break.

We did some clearing of fill from a prior excavation season for most of the morning.  Then we got a new assignment.  Under some big paving slabs was an area of burning that might give clues to a demolition phase at the end of the Severan period.  First those slabs have to go.  Everyone seemed to enjoy taking the sledge out and bashing a few stones to moveable size.

Then it was finer work.  Isolating a promising area of charcoal and such for environmental sampling.  

We had a couple of small finds.  One might be a coin fashioned into a bit of jewelry.  So overall a fun day with no time actually lost to weather.

At the end of the day I took a sentimental journey.  I was getting a lift (in the UK don't say getting a ride, its a bit naughty) but had a wait.  So I trekked up the hill to our former diggers HQ at the Twice Brewed Inn.  Once a quirky, low tech, inexpensive hostel it has gone full posh.  There is an automatic plate detector in the parking lot so you have to pay.  I remember when hot water for the showers was beyond their capability.

I had well earned a pint for my day's exertions and my 2 mile hike at the end of same.  But there is a very odd sensation being in a place you know well, once loved , but have seen radically change.  You look around and at first get a pleasant sense of nostalgia.  Not everything has changed after all.  I remember leaning against that wall after my fourth pint.  The view out the window has not changed in a thousand years.  But when you stay a bit longer.....ghosts start to whisper.  Not angry or unfriendly ones, but memories of times gone by, of Absent Friends, of meals enjoyed in good company and served by people you know who are both friendly and sarcastic.

I found myself becoming a detached observer, a sort of archive of the memories.  It would be the sort of thing my alter ego Badger Trowelsworthy would do regularly.  I felt myself slipping into the Trowelsworthy persona.....

Ok, enough of that nonsense.  I took my last swig, assured the ridiculously young waitress that I needed nothing more and waited for my lift outside in the brilliant sunshine and brisk wind.  The ghosts retreated into the far corners of the Twicey where they belong.

Monday, May 9, 2022

Vindolanda 2022 Day Eleven - Weighty Matters

Back on the stones of Vindolanda for another two weeks.

It is a new crew, I'm the only digger continuing on from last session.  So the pre dig site orientation was pretty much the same as the post session wrap up on Friday.

It is as usual a mix of veterans and first timers.  And, as is also usual, they've given me three  newbies to break in.  They are a good crew, able to move a bit of dirt and at the same time suitably cautious with big boy tools such as the mattock.  So we had leisure to discuss how to tell a bit of stone from a bit of pottery and how you recognize metal objects.  The latter involves looking for color, shape and weight that are not quite natural.  Like this guy who turned up just as the supervising archaeologists turned up to check on our progress.

It is a lead weight.  Note the yellowish white lead oxide, the shape not quite natural and of course when you heft this thing you know exactly what it is.  What it was used for is another question.  I've seen similar things used as plumb bobs but their shape differs.  Lead weights for fishing nets have turned up.  But this seems likely to be something used in the weights and measures process.  Note the marking.

Always nice to start out a session with an interesting find, and better still one that is not metal detectable so I am at liberty to show it.  Moving on from our day one task that was mostly debris clearing we could get into more interesting material - weather permitting - in the days ahead.