Field School glimpses into Roman Empire’s past, students’ futures

Western researchers Elizabeth Greene and Alexander Meyer, along with nine Classical Studies students, journeyed 6,000 kilometres and nearly 2,000 years for the experience of a lifetime. For six weeks this summer, Greene and Meyer led students in an archaeological dig at Western’s Field School at Vindolanda. A third century Roman fort, the site is 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.

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

This week, Western News asked three students to reflect on the experience upon their return.

To revisit the entire experience, visit the blog at

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By Daniel Pearce Turner

When I was a little boy growing up in London, one of my favourite pastimes was searching for the ‘treasures’ – coins, toys and the like – that my parents buried in the backyard sandbox. I remember fondly being outside, covered in dust and grit and so excited by the prospect of another discovery I could barely breathe. Nearly 20 years later, with a growing Classical Studies education under my belt, I realized the world is a sandbox waiting to be explored.

My first stop on that journey was the Vindolanda Field School, Summer 2013.



There’s a certain magic to archaeology that needs to be experienced in order to be understood fully. It is, in essence, a perfect blend of structure and spontaneity. A well-planned excavation like the Frontiers in Transition program currently underway at Vindolanda may take months to arrange, but the invaluable discoveries that occur throughout transpire in a moment. There were many instances during our six-week program wherein a seemingly empty stretch of earth would suddenly yield a beautiful shard of 1,800-year-old pottery or the first hint of an important archaeological feature.

One of my favourite ‘wow moments’ occurred in the remaining few minutes of a work day when I discovered an iron arrowhead – my first small find – in a clump of dirt no bigger than my fist. Working in near constant proximity to the unknown, driven by the allure of the ‘What if?’ was the most incredible feeling and the closest I’ve come to reliving that childlike wonder. But, of course, the field school offered so much more than mere fuel for the nostalgic fire; it was the most practical and authentic learning experience a student could have hoped for.

As a strong visual learner, I relish the availability of educational materials such as diagrams, photos, etc.  If something helps me build a mental picture of the ancient peoples, places and events I’m studying, I consider it an essential learning tool. One thing, however, that textbooks and lectures simply can’t portray (despite its infinite importance in the archaeological world) is physical space. Before field school, the 73-mile length of Hadrian’s Wall was just a number in my head; then we hiked several stretches and I began to understand its full grandeur. Before field school, I saw Vindolanda through aerial photos and top-down plan drawings that fit on a single textbook page; then I walked among its ruins and was overwhelmed by its true immensity. Furthermore, a number of the forts we visited boasted multiple building/occupation phases that inevitably overlapped one another, contributing to a complexity of space I had trouble understanding in the classroom. Several on-site tours, however, worked wonders to clarify this archaeological concept, for which I am incredibly grateful.

Through this pure, unfiltered immersion, I gained a new appreciation for the ancient world, for my Classical Studies education, and for the people involved in preserving history. I was pleasantly surprised as well by the mix of volunteers at Vindolanda. While many were students like myself, a great number were simply enthusiasts – a pleasant affirmation of the idea that no matter what my future holds, whether I succeed in academia or follow a different path, I can always rediscover the wonder that archaeology evokes.

Daniel Pearce Turner is a fourth-year Classical Studies student with a minor in English Language and Literature.

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By Robert Woodcock

I have studied Classical Studies at Western for the last three years and my degree has been enhanced greatly by my experiences at The Vindolanda Field School. The most impressive aspect was excavating: defining Roman archaeological features and finding Roman artifacts.

In recent years, Vindolanda has become one of the most well-known Roman fort sites in the world. It is hard to miss this site in texts on the history of Roman Britain, and as the focus of Classical Studies has become more humanized it appears more frequently in studies on the Roman Military and Empire in general. This is due to the rare, elucidating and very personal artifacts preserved by anaerobic conditions, the most important of which are hand-written ink-on-wood tablets that provide enormous first-hand documentation on a period and a community left largely unmentioned in other sources.



For me, the most spectacular find of the season came completely unexpected. At the end of my last day of excavating in a trench run by Andrew Birley, the site’s Director of Excavations, I was defining the remains of an interior wall in a wattle and daub (wood and earth) structure. At first I uncovered a small knob of wood that looked like it may have been part of the timbers of the wall. Soon after, Birley came to check my progress and was intrigued by the piece of wood protruding from the wet soil. With the confidence of a lifelong excavator, he found the other end of the yard long piece, removed some more soil and pulled it out of the ground with a pop as a puddle from the other side of the piece emptied into where I had been digging. He handed me the piece to wash off in a puddle. He explained what I was holding was a door threshold that had been reused as part of the wall, the knob on its left was to attach with a mate for a double doorway, the cut out in the back right with a nail still sticking out was where the threshold attached to the door frame and two round notches on the threshold’s face were where the door’s axel and perhaps a locking mechanism acted. The piece was still intact as the day it had been built into the wall and looked strikingly like a modern equivalent. It was heavy; I could feel the grain of the wood and the ware from its use as I ran my fingers over it removing the last of the dirt.

My greatest find at field school wasn’t the sort of artifact that will be written about in history books or displayed in a museum; it was a personal artifact. Someone had crafted that piece of wood by hand and someone walked over it for some time. To be the first person to feel the fine craftsmanship of a 1,900-year-old antique is an unforgettable feeling.

Robert Woodcock is a fourth-year Honours Specialization in Classical Studies student with a minor in Greek and Latin.

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By Amanda Zafar

Growing up, I had always dreamed about archaeology and actually being the people I watched in documentaries who uncovered history on a daily basis. Ten-year-old me could never have believed that this is something that I could actually do.

This program was designed to give us a very all-encompassing experience, and I can honestly say that I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the world of archaeology from many different perspectives. We had the valuable opportunity of meeting many talented people from various niches in the field. They showed us different ways to engage with the material culture throughout the archaeological process. Having conversations about different aspects of the Roman world, be it from a historical or archaeological viewpoint, shows how much of our understanding of history comes from constant conversation among different people all around the world to figure out how new evidence fits into the broader picture.


We engaged with the many stages of the archaeological process from the field work to museum display to spreading the information to the public. I particularly enjoyed our excavation in the North Field, where we spent much of our time, and learned about the first steps of approaching a prospective excavation site, such as the sort of technology and understanding of historical facts that go into selecting a good location to dig down, as well as formulating a hypothesis of what we could find. I also loved being able to work with so many different types of archaeological features that we encountered, such as defensive ditches and floors.

At Vindolanda, there also exists a unique opportunity to work in anaerobic material where anything we find pretty much looks exactly the same as it did 2,000 years ago. Pulling out delicate materials such as engraved hairpins, glass beads or leather shoes that belonged to people so long ago is really an unrivalled joy.

I also loved meeting so many new faces in this wonderful country. The friendships made will definitely encourage me to come back again. The excursions have also made this trip absolutely brilliant, from the beautiful mountains in the Lake District, the unique museums and Scotland, where I have never felt more at home. Besides the excavation, my absolute favourite part was hiking along Hadrian’s Wall in the breathtakingly gorgeous hilly landscape and looking at other forts, turrets and milecastles along the frontier. Being there in the flesh at these Roman forts in the British frontier is almost like peering through a window of time. It’s really something to be sitting by the remains of a Roman fort wall and picturing a horde of Roman cavalry thundering through the gates. Whether it’s strolling along the Roman roads still in use today, holding the artifacts in my hands or lifting off the wooden floorboards of a house lived in two millennia in the past, being there humanizes the names and dates in our textbooks. Running my fingers over the actual thumbprint of the maker of a piece of pottery created a direct connection to the people who lived and died here so long ago.

These unforgettable six weeks have taught me so much about the world of archaeology, and about myself.

Amanda Zafar is a third-year student studying Classical Studies and Comparative Literature and Culture, with a minor in Medieval Studies.