Friday, May 13, 2011

Throwing Stones Across a Pond

A quick touch-in to say I haven't left the blogosphere. I've just left Maine, for a week! The past week I've been rummaging through another era's flotsam. Doing archaeological excavation at Vindolanda, a Roman fort set just behind Hadrian's Wall in northern England. It's a brilliant place where, across 300+ years, a succession of forts was built one on top of the other. The result is that, today, in some places the archaeology goes down 18-20 feet!

Because of the burial of earlier forts, much "stuff" is preserved in anaerobic conditions. Without oxygen, nothing rots. (The same is true at modern landfills.) So Vindolanda has been a treasure trove of the kinds of wooden, leather, cloth, hair, bone, and uncorroded metal artifacts that just don't survive anywhere else. It's a brilliant site. (Check out the Vindolanda writing tablets and prepare to have your socks knocked off.)

But what's fascinating about Vindolanda is that it all comes back to trash. Most of what is brought up today was just Roman trash back in AD 100-400 or so. A delicate hair moss wig that had gotten threadbare and was left behind when one garrison shipped out. Half of a wooden bread-oven spatula that broke in use, and was tossed into a ditch when nobody was looking. A worn-out sandal tossed into another ditch by a lazy soldier.
Hobnailed sole of a Roman leather sandal
I dug up in summer 2005
On and on. Thousands of such items have been uncovered at Vindolanda so far. Litter is not a new thing.

Trash from the ancient world helps us tell something of the lives of forgotten societies. It's a gold mine. And it's a gold mine precisely because it is so rare. If the world was awash in Vindolandas, where most of their garbage didn't rot, didn't break down, didn't go away -- well, that wouldn't be very special. In fact, that would be today.
Plastic bag caught in a tree.
Vindolanda, May 11, 2011
By the way, the whole Tynedale region of Northumberland is bursting with history & natural beauty. Small villages, vast open rolling fields, industrial heritage, what-have-you. An amazing place to spend a week. Or as much time as you can. I'll be back again, looking for more ancient trash, some day.
Field of oilseed rape, Haydon Bridge, May 7, 2011
Caught ray of sunlight, un-Photoshopped

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