Uncovering family ties across the ages

Elizabeth Greene has spent the best part of the last decade in the hills of northern England playing in the dirt. And she can’t think of a better way to earn a living.

“It’s just cool and fun digging in the dirt. It’s the best,” says Western’s new professor in Roman archaeology (Department of Classical Studies). “I can make mud patties in the summer when I’m bored.”

While likened as the female Indiana Jones, don’t be fooled by Greene’s easygoing demeanor. Beneath, the Boston-born Greene exudes a genuine excitement in unearthing key evidence surrounding the notion families were an important part of the social structure of military settlements in the Roman west.

Located in the hills of Northumberland, Great Britain – between the modern cities of Newcastle and Carlisle – Greene has been supervising excavations at Vindolanda, which lies just south of Hadrian’s Wall. The site, situated on the original Roman frontier line of the Stanegate Road, dates to the last quarter of the first century AD.

Hadrian’s Wall was a defensive fortification in Roman Britain begun in AD 122, during the rule of Emperor Hadrian. It was the first of two fortifications built across Great Britain; the second being the Antonine Wall, lesser known of the two because its physical remains are less evident today.

Countless excavated objects tell a remarkable story of a place generations of soldiers and their families called home. More than 4,000 pairs of leather shoes, many belonging to women and children, along with Roman writing tablets outlining these family relationships, have been located.

“There was a Roman military fort, and then right next to it was the settlement that was just outside of it. That was all encompassing the Roman military community,” says Greene, who earned her PhD from the University of North Carolina before coming to Western.

Thanks to anaerobic preservation on the site (meaning no oxygen gets into the soil and, therefore, no bacteria grows) little breakdown has occurred. What’s left are with tonnes of whole bone, leather, textiles and wood products.

Greene’s dissertation, Women and families in auxiliary military communities of the Roman West in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, argues families were an important part of the social structure of military settlements in the Roman west, not only later in the second and third centuries – as is the current understanding – but from the earliest periods of military occupation.

“Evidence of women and children in the earliest period of occupation, right when the Roman military is conquering and settling a new provincial region, suggests that despite popular belief women and children were travelling with military; living in temporary settlements right from the beginning to the end,” she says.

The movement of soldiers and their families by way of Roman military service is an interesting lens onto cultural change in the Roman Empire. Greene’s research, combining archaeological evidence, documentary and literary sources, illuminates the social history of the Roman world and the lives of ordinary people in Rome, Italy and the provinces.

After supervising excavations at Vindolanda for the past decade, Greene will now co-direct the Vindolanda Field School. Beginning next year, the field school runs for five weeks during the summer with a set program of daily excavation and weekly field trips.

“It’s cutting edge,” Greene says. “It’s a site with the opportunity to handle some pretty unique archeological material. The thing with archeology is you never know what’s around the next shovel.”

She admits the feeling the first time she found a leather shoe was “so incredible you can’t even believe it.” She looks forward to being a part of her student’s exciting discoveries.

The field school will explore a different area of the site, one previously unexcavated. “We think we have out there some very early forts, and hoping to find footwear in those instances as well,” she says.

While sharing a passion for teaching and research, Greene admits the love of learning – in particular her love of archeology – keeps here motivated.

“You learn at your maximum potential when you admit to yourself that you don’t know everything,” she says.