Student unearths footprint from antiquity

On June 25, the Classical Studies student Melanie Benard unearthed a tile with a human footprint that was accidentally – or perhaps even mischievously – pressed into the freshly made object more than two millennia ago. The discovery was made at Western’s Field School at Vindolanda.

Special to Western NewsOn June 25, Classical Studies student Melanie Benard unearthed a tile with a human footprint that was accidentally – or perhaps even mischievously – pressed into the freshly made object more than two millennia ago. The discovery was made at Western’s Field School at Vindolanda.

Western student Melanie Benard joined Western’s Field School at Vindolanda to take a step or two into the past. But what she dug up last week during the archaeological dig set her back on her heels.

On June 25, the Honors Specialization in Classical Studies student unearthed a tile with a human footprint that was accidentally – or perhaps even mischievously – pressed into the freshly made object more than two millennia ago. The partial print of an adolescent’s right foot has been dated to 160-180 CE.

“This was the first artifact I had found,” she said. “I knew straight away it was a footprint. It is so exciting to have discovered something which links you directly to that individual nearly 2,000 years later.”

Thousands of tiles have been found at Vindolanda, some occasionally with the imprint of an animal. This is the first time a human print has been discovered at the site.

“This find is really extraordinary,” said Elizabeth Greene, co-director of Western’s University Field School. “It brings full circle the story that Vindolanda has to tell. The thousands of leather shoes from this site – more than 6,000 – give us a unique perspective on the people who lived at Vindolanda. But this footprint highlights even more that archaeology has the potential to illuminate the lives of otherwise voiceless individuals from antiquity.”

In May 2012, Greene, along with fellow Western researcher Alexander Meyer, brought the first group of Western students to Vindolanda for hands-on archaeological excavations. Western remains the only North American university to participate in this experience through an established field school.

For six weeks in the summer, the professors and students journey 6,000 kilometres and nearly 2,000 years to a third century Roman fort, located one mile south of Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England. Vindolanda is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its importance in the history of this region and the Roman world in general.

Western’s school was developed over the last decade as Greene, a Roman archeologist, and Meyer, a Roman historian, acted as supervisors for the excavations and volunteer program at the fort. The school aims to give students training in two aspects of archaeological inquiry: the techniques of field excavation and the archaeology and history of Roman Britain.

“Vindolanda is a fascinating place,” Meyer said. “We are very fortunate to be able to bring our students here so they can play their part in piecing the jigsaw of the past back together and further the understanding of an ancient civilization on this northern outpost.

“I imagine the boy or girl who stepped in this newly produced tile was in more than a little trouble.”

Excavations at Vindolanda continue until Sept. 25. Weekly highlights from the digs are posted on the official Facebook and Twitter pages of the Vindolanda Trust.

Once the footprint tile has been conserved and researched, it will go on public display within the Vindolanda museum.

“Finding something which would be considered special enough to go on display in the Vindolanda museum, with all the other amazing artifacts, was one of the ambitions of the Field School,” Benard said. “We are all absolutely thrilled.”