Magna Dig Diary 2024

Welcome to the 2024 season of excavations at Magna Roman Fort. Here in this Dig Diary we will post regular updates on the current excavations and post excavation taking place on site. You will hear from our archaeologists and volunteers as they share news and thoughts about what is being uncovered, the challenges and the highlights of the excavation season.

The Magna excavations started on the 1st April 2024! Find out more about visiting the site.

If you’d like to catch up on what was uncovered last season you can read our 2023 Dig Diary.

Who you’ll hear from (guest volunteers will sign off with their first name and “volunteer”):

Rachel: Senior Archaeologist for the Magna Project

Franki: Geoarchaeologist for the Magna Project

Sophie: Activity & Diversity Officer for the Magna Project

Cristina: Vindolanda Trust Pottery Specialist

Sonya: Vindolanda Trust Communications Manager

Exploring the season so far? Want to check on a specific period? Use the links below to take you to the start of each period of excavations. The latest posts are at the top of the page.

Introducing Dr Cristina Crizbasan – Pottery Specialist for the Vindolanda Trust

Stirring the Pot with Franki Gillis

2024 Pre-season set up

Period 1: 1st – 12th April 2024

Period 2: 15th – 26th April 2024

Period 3: 29th April – 10th May 2024

Period 4: 13th – 24th May 2024

Period 5: 27th May – 7th June 2024

#NationalVolunteering Week

Period 6: 10th June-21st June 2024

Period 7: 24th June – 5th July 2024

Period 8: 8th -19th July 2024

Period 9: 22nd July – 2nd August 2024

24th July

Period 9 is in full swing, and the sun is shining over our very long trench here at Magna!

It’s Marta writing you today. I’m the Deputy Director of Excavations for the Vindolanda Trust and, while digging is on pause at Roman Vindolanda I am enjoying both the views and amazing archaeology which lays between Magna fort and Milecastle 46.

The landscape between Magna’s northern fort defences and the Milecastle is riddled with one of my favourite features: ditches.

From north to south we have at least three ditches visible within our trench: the Vallum, a 6m wide anaerobic filled ditch of unknown function, and a small curvilinear ditch surrounding a raised clay and cobbles platform. The sun beating down on us means we finally stand a chance at drying the ditches out and excavating them.

The Vallum is unfortunately still flooded: early modern ceramic drains flow into it, ensuring a constant water top up. The 6m wide anaerobic ditch is relatively water free, although some pumping action is required to keep it so. The edges are cut into bright yellow clay and are relatively easy to spot. Our job here consists in carefully following them until we reach the bottom. The task is sometimes made more complex by the deposit that have filled this large east west oriented ditch. Challenges are posed by clumps of hair moss, a form of pond growth preserved in anaerobic condition. Hairmoss was used by the Romans for a variety of purposes, including making wigs such as the one on display at Vindolanda, and helmet crests such as the one on display at the Roman Army museum. It is said that hair moss has insect repellent properties: thankfully, we have not had to put this to the test.

The smallest most southern ditch is the most enigmatic: it is not much wider than 1m, and appears to be curving around a clay platform. Today, as we were removing the top fill of this feature, we encountered yet another cluster of cremated human bones, ashes, wood, and charcoal.  While dutifully piling the contents of this new spread into sample buckets, volunteer Sam and forensic anthropologist Dr. Trudi Buck uncovered a lovely sherd of Samian: do you reckon it depicts a lion, a wolf, or a hound? Marta

Cast your bets; lion, wolf, or hound?

22nd July

We are delighted to welcome our new crew of Period 9 diggers today! One of our Period 8 crew, Sandra, reflects on her time with us last week….

Fantastic progress made by the Period 8 Team!

Being a novice volunteer on this project has been such a rewarding experience. I approached my contribution to the two weeks commitment, with curiosity towards investigating and enhancing my understanding of the past. I constantly wonder at humankinds’ ingenuity to cope with life. I wonder at what, could be the driving force to develop new systems, invent new tools and adapt to circumstances.

 I am in awe of those who devote their time and energy towards the importance of exploration and discovery. The leadership of Andrew and his team of experts was amazing. They moulded together a group of people and enhanced a sense of purpose and involvement in our daily tasks. Our bond encouraged the development of skills and proficiencies, for novices, experienced and veteran ‘diggers.’ The explanation of the day’s intended activities was made clear, highlighting the need for continuous questioning on findings. These need to be validated and assessed in order to consolidate the understanding of the timelines and the landscapes we found.

The joint knowledge of the lead team was greatly appreciated. The debriefings were informative and provided constant enthusiasm and reassurance. The staff are phenomenal, always cheerfully helpful and supportive. They constantly encouraged volunteers to question and engage with all the processes involved.

The entire event has been wonderful. I have started to explore new interests and learned some things about myself in the process. What an amazing experience!

My sincere thanks go to all the folk I met and to the incredible Team. Sandra Volunteer

20th July

And just like that, 2 weeks at Magna are done. 

With 2 years under my belt at sister site Vindolanda, I looked forward to the challenge of a new location, however with this challenge came different obstacles and we found our first few days unfortunately rather damp.

We were treated to a fantastic walk-around Vindolanda and the excavations there by Andy and then spent the day learning and building on our knowledge of pottery, overseen by pottery guru Christina. 

The wet weather continued and on day 3, Rachel gave us a talk on the excavations at the Milecastle and after lunch the weather finally cleared up for half an hour for us to get into the trenches and de-turf. 

It wasn’t all rain and gloom and a real highlight for me was seeing Andy’s face (not always pleased) everytime fellow volunteer Benny exclaimed he had found another cremation. I also have huge admiration for the ditch dwellers of the group who in 2 days managed to dig a ditch and get it to the anaerobic, all the soil sifting was worth it when 2 shoes were uncovered (only 1,993 to go Rachel). 

It’s always so exciting when something is found and really creates a sense of camaraderie amongst the volunteers and we were able to celebrate together by enjoying a meal together. 

So here’s to another year and I hope Period 9 has a dryer time and finally gets into the Vallum. Jess Volunteer

Magna’s first complete shoe!

19th July

A huge well done to our stellar Period 8 team! They have helped us move even further to understand this incredible site at Magna. Sophie

Well done Period 8!

15th July

It’s only Monday but we’ve already moved a whole lot of dirt this week! We’ve expanded our trench a bit further in the hope of determining the purpose of our large anaerobic ditch. There’s two smaller north-south ditches leading into this main ditch which, at this point, we believe were used for draining water into the bigger east-west ditch. Along one of these north-south ditches, we’ve also found more cremations! These cremations are a bit different than their northern counterparts in that we’ve already found more carbonized wood which suggests we might be closer to the funeral pyre. It is interesting that these ditches are south of the Vallum, however, so we are keen on figuring out what impacted the placement of these cremations.

Besides that exciting news, last week we opened up a trench to the east in our field, just north of WallE. The goal of this trench was determining if our large anaerobic ditch (which we are currently excavating) continued eastwards in the field as it was not clear on the LiDAR data. While the team was diligent and quick in their excavation, unfortunately the ditch is not in that area. While it is sad that we didn’t get to excavate more of that lovely ditch, it does give us a better understanding of the Roman usage of landscape – especially in the peatland bog area of our field.

Overall, we somehow have more questions than answers at this point in our excavation season, but we are finding wonderful features and artifacts! I think the next few months will reveal some exciting information on Roman Magna. Franki

11th July 2024

Rainy days and post excavation 🤝

Period 8 has had a rather damp start. Monday and Wednesday allowed us a generous hour or so (if!) of excavation. Therefore, on this ‘rare’ occasion, we kept our volunteers indoors, doing a range of post-ex activities.

On Tuesday we all had a look at the excavations at Vindolanda, followed by an indoor session of finds washing, sorting and bagging. Our lovely team of volunteers got to learn more about the work ‘behind the scenes’, the way we record bulk finds and the gentle care that is required when working with the material. Once again, we reinforced the importance of the context when dealing with the finds, as at this stage, they are at the highest risk to get lost from ‘home’ and end up as unstratified.

On this occasion, the volunteers also got to learn more about the popular pottery supplied on the Wall in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Black-burnished wares, Crambeck ware and calcite-gritted ware turned out to be amongst the favourites. We moved quickly from the looming question of ‘is it pot or rock?’ to the more advanced examination of ‘mortarium or amphora?’.

Pot or rock?!

The knowledge did not stop here. On Wednesday, our volunteers learnt more about processing cremations by dry sieving and discovering the difference between coal and manganese. Find out more about the cremations at Magna here. Identifying bones did not prove to be any easier, as the classic bone or stone question kept looming. However, after a few attempts, I am proud to say that they have all become mini experts, advancing our progress in processing some of the 543L of cremation soil. Oh, have I mentioned the other 630L of non cremation soil that also needs to be wet sieved? Oops, yes, that’s still on the to do list. But our volunteers here are doing an amazing job in post-ex, having fun and learning new skills and priceless knowledge, while also making a massive contribution to our work. Cristina

Post-excavation crew dry sieving.

5th July 2024

Well done to our fabulous Period 7 volunteers! Shane, part of our period 7 crew, reflects on what the past two weeks has been like…

Period 7 Team!

I must admit I never used to be interested in archeology and very rarely watched programmes like Time Team.

That all changed in 2016, when I was doing a coast-to-coast walk along the length of Hadrian’s Wall. On the way down I visited Vindolanda as a tourist and was immediately captivated by the site.

I ended up watching some of the volunteers actively excavating in the trench. I was fascinated and got talking to one of the archaeologists about the dig and how to get involved. 

Unfortunately I had to wait a few years as I was 16 at the time and you have to be 18. Then life got in the way and I completely forgot about it.

It was only when I was 19 and happened to catch an episode of Time Team which featured Vindolanda that I remembered.

I then proceeded to sign up to the 2020 dig (which got cancelled because of COVID boo!!). I ended up doing 2021 and 2022 at Vindolanda and 2024 at Magna and honestly have had the best time of my life. I have found glass, pottery, Samian pottery, wood and this year I have been very lucky to be there when we found shoes and Lorica Squamata (scale armour).

I would certainly recommend volunteering here or at Vindolanda. Especially if you have an interest in archaeology. All the staff look after you exceptionally and are always there to help or answer any questions. As a result of their help, I now consider myself a Semi-Archaeologist, whatever that means. Who knows what the future will bring!! Shane Volunteer

3rd July 2024

When the weather gets poor the archaeologists get… indoors. The weather recently at Magna hasn’t been great. Thankfully there is a whole other side to archaeology aside from digging – Post excavation. As one of the Post-Excavation Volunteers I usually assist the team get their finds processed by washing, drying, bagging & tagging all the finds ready for specialists to examine. At Magna things look a little different. The majority of the work here right now is processing soil samples. Franki, over the last few periods has taken samples of the soil ready for processing. Processing is slow but can teach us a lot. 

We take the carefully gathered soil, dry it out and sieve them by hand to remove small fragments of charcoal & bone. Several of the excavators got a taste test this week with the indoor dry sieving when the weather was particularly poor. It’s something that not many volunteers at Vindolanda will have ever done. An exciting opportunity at Magna, to learn new skills learning about environmental sampling and why it’s important. 

Learning the dry sieving process.

After we dry sieved the soil samples earlier in the week, we start the process of wet sieving and a few of the excavators got a taste test of a different post excavation activity this week as the weather cleared up – outdoor wet sieving. 

We wet sieve the dry sieved samples to gather other environmental remains. In wet sieving the soil is washed and agitated so the environmental remains float to the surface whilst the sand and rocks sink to the bottom.

All smiles wet sieving!

It allows us to separate dirt from small fragments of things like charcoal, seeds, nuts, shells, bones and even whole insects. All of which are incredibly small. But if we find them, and after the specialists have examined them, they can potentially tell us what type of wood might have been used for construction, what foods were grown and consumed and even what insects lived alongside the Romans at Magna. 

I thoroughly enjoyed sharing my knowledge with the other volunteers at Magna. I am incredibly excited to see what might be in store for our future understanding of Magna. Daena Volunteer

28th June 2024

Many volunteer excavators develop a wish list of objects that they hope one day to find.

For years, my own list has been topped by Lorica Squamata, the scale armour worn by many Auxiliary Roman soldiers. A single scale would be enough. It could be green and corroded, or broken. I just wanted to find it. I even actually dreamt I found it once (though, being a dream, I dug it up in a friend’s lounge rather than an archaeological trench).

Thursday afternoon started normally. I was part of a team processing blocks of anaerobic material being dug out of a Roman ditch. There was plenty of dirt and many stones, but also bark and sticks from ancient silver birch trees, which came out of the blocks shining a dark coppery colour in the sunlight.

My wheelbarrow companion Tom offered to make the trip to the spoil heap with the full load, whilst I moved to a spare barrow to continue gently prising apart and inspecting the anaerobic chunks. A glint and an unusual shape caught my eye.

I touched the top of the mystery object gingerly with a finger. Metal. Copper alloy most likely then. Time to be especially careful. I broke further fragments of dirt away and the artefact came free. Now I knew what it was. Four scales of Lorica Squamata, still joined together, glistening in the afternoon sun, seeing light for the first time in hundreds of years. I felt my heart rate increase. This was it; this was the moment I found my dream object, and it was perfect!

Pre-conservation Lorica Squamata

I savoured it alone for a moment more, then called out to Rachel our supervisor to come and see. My tone betrayed me – the other excavators heard my happy shout and then looked up at my beaming face. I was soon surrounded by an enthusiastic throng of diggers, sharing my excitement and joy. Then the practicalities: Rachel logging the find, me holding the GPS staff triumphantly at the site where my block of dirt had originated to pinpoint it, and surrendering the armour scales to Rachel’s care to be cleaned and conserved by professionals. Finally, back to my barrow and a fresh bucket of anaerobic blocks to process.

So what next? Well, personally, I’d really like to find an intaglio….. Sally Volunteer

Magna making dreams come true!

26th June 2024

Some beautifully iridescent insect remains.

Part of reason that the anaerobic deposits have such good archaeological preservation conditions is due to a number of microorganisms living inside the soil. These microorganisms are very picky about the environment they live in, and thus the soil needs to have a suitable pH and geochemical makeup in order for them to survive. Luckily, we fit within these parameters here at Magna. Moreover, many of the microorganisms that eat organic material cannot live in an anaerobic environment. These microorganisms are present within higher deposits at our site, but not within our anaerobic deposits. And so, besides all the wonderful leather and wood artifacts we’ve been finding in our anaerobic ditch, we’ve also had lots of bugs, twigs, moss, and even some leaves!

The anaerobic conditions allow for this stunningly preserved leaf.

These organic materials, though perhaps less showy than their man-made counterparts, demonstrate the potential preservation levels available within Magna Fort as a whole; however, these amazing organic materials are at risk as climate change continues to alter the soil. Franki

25th June 2024

We have officially reached the half way point in our 2024 excavation season and everyone is enjoying getting stuck into the first fully anaerobic, or oxygen-free, deposit onsite. These can be found in the large southern ditch and are easy to spot due to how black they are! This contains lots of preserved organic material including timber, hair moss and flooring material made up of compacted bracken and hay known as laminate. All of this indicates that there were once timber buildings nearby, which have then been demolished and the debris thrown into the ditch at a later date.

We’ve hit anaerobic deposits!

The real stars of the show however have been the preserved leather shoes that have been discovered in the last couple of days.

The Magna Project’s first leather shoe!

We currently have the remains of 5 shoes from within the ditch, including some which would have originally belonged to children, based on their size. We’ve found a mix of both soles and uppers from different shoes and can already see features such as hobnails in the soles, eyelets for laces and stitching along the seams in some places. I can’t wait to learn more about these artefacts as they go through conservation and are assessed by our specialists! Rachel

Dave and Gary showing the results of their foray into the anaerobic.
All smiles as Sally excavates another leather shoe!

21st June 2024

Theres been some end of period excitement for our period six crew! Volunteer Andrew tells us more about his discovery…

It wasn’t until Rachel announced that I had just found the first wooden artefact at Magna Roman Fort since excavations began last year, that I really began to appreciate the significance of the small, worked object I held in my hand. Initially believed to be part of a wooden needle case, it was found in the damp, semi-anaerobic soil of the double ditch feature to the south of the Vallum. As we worked our way through the levels, digging a spade depth at a time, the trench was also beginning to yield other finds. Glass, sherds of pot and pieces of wood were emerging, all of which served to raise the spirits of the hard-working volunteers after a considerable amount of digging and wheelbarrowing with little to show in the context (finds) bags. Just when you think the Roman god of finds isn’t smiling on you, a moment like this comes along. It’s just one of the many wonderful things that drives volunteers to become veterans and return year after year. Andrew Volunteer

We have now sent this artefact to our curator so it can begin the conservation process and have now learnt that it is actually a beautifully worked piece of antler! When complete this object would have been a dice cup used by soldiers playing games to keep themselves entertained when off-duty. Rachel

19th June 2024

In this second week of Period 6, our fantastic volunteers have made some speedy progress into our stone capped drain and double ditch feature to the south of the Vallum.

Making great progress into our double ditch feature.

The drain is certainly not what we were expecting at the base of a ditch – especially the size of it! We are still interpreting how these both features relate to Hadrian’s Wall and the wider frontier landscape, but hopefully as we continue to excavate this trench, we will find out more answers.

Hopefully we will get a few answers from this drain…

We have also had some visitors to see our progress in the trenches, so we have been glad of a few drier days!

Experience the archaeology up close.

If you would like to visit the archaeology trench side, we have access to ticket holders of the Roman Army Museum on Monday – Friday at 10am – 4pm. And remember, if you would like to attend one of our Accessible Trench Talks, the next one will be Monday 1st July where you get an up-to-date summary of the current archaeology and progress so far this season! Sophie

17th June 2024

Can you spot the sheep on the spoil heap?!

The trench has extended even further! Our current area of excavation now stretches approximately 67 meters long. Our new extension is revealing some interesting archaeology as well. We’ve de-turfed both sides of our mystery double ditch and are working our way into the fresh ground. The northern counterpart of our double ditch holds a large stone drain that’s capped with quite a bit of hard clay and large rubble – luckily this is no match for our tough volunteers who are scraping away to reveal more and more of this drain. We’ve haven’t quite begun on the southern ditch, but hope to begin soon, however it’s a bit flooded at the moment… But no amount of flooding could compare to the pool that used to be the Vallum. It’s easy to see how this massive ditch would have once been quite the deterrent for those trying to sneak through the Wall. Nevertheless, hopefully we’ll have a dry spell that will allow us to dig in the Vallum once again. Until then, we’ll stick with our double ditch system and southern mound of the Vallum. Franki

Snorkels at the ready!

11th June 2024

It’s the start of a new period and we are finally getting some more dry weather, giving this new Period 6 team a chance to continue the efforts and hard work of those who came before. We’ve been able to remove the post-medieval drains in the vallum (now that they’ve stopped flowing with water!) and start excavating some of the earlier deposits that have filled in the ditch over the centuries. We’re even starting to find small pieces of preserved wood and bark in this material which is a promising sign for the preservation conditions to come!

One group of volunteers have also taken on the challenge of finding the double ditch feature to the south of the vallum; this has only become visible in recent years due to the impacts of climate change on the site and so is a complete mystery in terms of what we might find there. Already though we have had our first small find from this area, a small section of copper alloy rod, so I’m confident we will be able to unravel the history of this feature and how it fits into the wider Magna story. Rachel 

Hand holding small copper alloy rod.

7th June 2024 #NationalVolunteering Week

Thank you so much to our Period 5 digging crew! Some challenging weather was braved – we couldn’t have done it with out you!

Well Done Period 5!

6th June 2024 #NationalVolunteering Week

Volunteers’ Week celebrates the amazing contributions volunteers make to communities across the UK. It’s a chance to recognise, celebrate and thank the UK’s incredible volunteers for all they contribute to our local communities, the voluntary sector, and society as a whole.

Here at Magna, all of our incredible volunteers are the reason we are able to learn so much about this frontier landscape. Our excavators and post-excavators who turn up with so much enthusiasm and dedication (come rain or shine!) are well worth celebrating!

We are welcoming in over 460 volunteers this year alone, we couldn’t do it with out you all! In recognition of our volunteers, Michael, one of our period 5 crew, gives us an insight into a day volunteering on the dig at Magna… Sophie

From a volunteer, various versions of “What’s this?”

Rachel:  “It’s stone. (Snap) Yep, ironstone.  It’s sometimes black and curved, and can be tricky.”

Franki:  “It’s a rock, even though it’s small and square.  It’s a very nice rock, but it is a rock.”

Dr Birley: “It’s whinstone , from the quarry area over there.  It can be blue or green, looks quite nice, but it is whinstone.”

The professionals are very patient with the volunteers (including diving into the activities at hand) and it is delightful when they take a few moments to explain why what you’ve found is not a FIND.

And sometimes that explanation becomes an interesting lesson.  From the north mound…

The photo shows the changes through time of this area.  From the top there is the modern natural of green grass and black turf, followed by a mix of red and white clay with some stones, and the bottom layer is a white-black substance.  Going below the modern, from the profile we can tell the Romans built a mound (the clay, which being a mix of colors and stones indicates piling rather than natural) onto the grass present about 2000 years ago (the white-black is the grass from that time, long rotted).

So we have determined a Roman earthen rampart!

This may not be a find that will fit inside a plastic bag for review, but it is important to understanding the big picture of the site and would be a very satisfying end to the work in this area.  Photograph, document, and let’s move on to another section.  But instead, the lesson here continues….

In the right of the photo is a boxy shape in the lower layer.  

From a volunteer: Box shapes are not natural, and indicate something, yes? 

No.  Looking up the profile from the “box” it can be seen that the shape, color and size continue to the natural.

We have determined a modern (since it goes to the natural) animal burrow!

There is more to learn from this experience than one thinks.  A lot more!

Week One for Period Five has come to a close, and in addition to big-picture finds and fascinating lessons there have been wonderful small finds- Samian ware, Black ware, CBM, glass, and linch pins are just a few of the items revealed and placed into the finds bags.

There have also been a lot of turf, rocks, and clay.  Along with turf, rocks, and clay.  Things that MUST be moved so the understanding of the site improves and more finds are available to later efforts. Michael Volunteer

3rd June 2024 #NationalVolunteering Week

We’re nearing the halfway point of this excavation season and have been making some great progress with our amazing team of volunteers! Whilst we definitely do not want to wish the season away, some of you may already be dreaming of Magna 2025…

If you are thinking of volunteering with us as part of next years digging crew, more information can be found here.

And if you need any more persuading, period 4 volunteer Sara shares her experience on the excavations…

Magna did not disappoint.  What a privilege to be given the opportunity to excavate and to be part of such a wonderful team of archeologists and other volunteers.  As a new recruit and on my first excavation ever, everyone was so friendly, kind and generous in spirit, sprinkled with patience and understanding when questions with fairly obvious answers were asked.  My learning curve was steep and fuelled with excitement when something was unearthed or even a hint of what we might expect to find. Hadrians Wall, magical, mystical, bleak and rugged fuelled my imagination.  So much history and peeling back those layers of time can keep you awake at night if you let it.  

I thought I knew what to expect, probably a romantic notion of living in the past, or breaking a curse.  These notions were quickly quashed when we were asked to choose our equipment (buckets, spades, kneelers, trowels, hand shovels, sponges and brushes) on the first day and head out across the boggy field, dodging the sheep and newborn lambs.  No hanging about, straight into the mud, digging turf, shifting top soil, then onto hands and knees looking for cobbles.  We were on top of the mound heading towards the Vallum.  Very quickly layers of clay became interesting and as an artist the colours of these layers fascinating and beautiful.  Layer by layer we dug down looking at the sections of field drains appearing, hoping to find something bright and sparkly.  Sadly not for me, but finds of other kinds, new friendships, new ways of seeing and looking, a deeper love for the past, that wonderful feeling of being part of a team with a common interest and the thrill of learning new skills and gaining new knowledge. 

Thank you all for a wonderful fun two weeks, the lectures, continuous history lessons, the  walk to Thirlwall Castle, tea and cake in Greenhead, the site visit to Vindolanda,  biscuits, hot drinks, wet sieving looking for seeds and insects, but most of all the opportunity to be part of something very special. 

I would love to return next year, so fingers crossed.

Good luck period five, I’m watching the diary with interest. Sara Volunteer

31st May 2024

Despite a surprisingly soggy couple of weeks, we’ve made good progress onsite, working our way from the north end of the trench into the vallum. The first part of the monument we uncovered was the foundation for the north mound. Originally this would have been a turf rampart running along the north edge of the ditch, with an equivalent mound on the southern side. Now all that remains is a clay ridge running across the trench which we have dug into to reveal all the different individual clay chunks used in its construction.

Crucial soil changes in the north mound.

Continuing to the south, a collection of extra ditches between the north mound and the vallum have taken us by surprise! Its not often that evidence of later activity is found on the sides of the vallum, but here small drainage channels and larger enclosure ditches have been dug. We are still excavating these to see how they all related to one another and what they were used for but clearly this was a busy area in the later Roman period!

Poetry and ditches?!

Some intrepid volunteers have started venturing into the main body of the vallum as well. While its early days yet in terms of getting into the (hopefully) anaerobic Roman deposits, we have uncovered some more recent history of the site, with a stone box drain from the late 19th century running through the middle of the vallum. This has proved to be very useful as it is still flowing and has helped us in managing the water flowing into this area of site while we continue to excavate. We have our fingers crossed for a dry weekend and a lower water table onsite so we can continue heading deeper into the vallum! Rachel

29th May 2024

A soggy few days have welcomed in period 5, but that isn’t enough to dampen our spirits! Michael, one of our period 5 team, keeps us posted on these first two days…

Spades at the ready!

To get through a few common misconceptions first…

Archaeology is glamorous treasure hunting:  Ha, no, at least not always in the entertainment sense (although that does seem to happen on occasion).

Archaeology is easy: Again, ha, no.

If it is not glamorous or easy, then archaeology is boring: And again, ha, no.

Early days at Magna for Period Five have been rain, turf removal, rain, and turf removal.  Definitely not glamorous, definitely not easy, but most definitely not boring.

De-turfing south of the Vallum.

The rain has been unfortunate, in that work in already cleared parts of the site is not possible due to deep water in the trenches; the sump pumps have been going overtime to try and drain these areas for us.  The rain also cancelled a few hours’ work on an afternoon.

The turf removal is a “someone has to get it done” task, so that new areas are cleared for us, or later groups, to begin to understand more what was happening with the vallum.  After great efforts a corner revealed what I will call a “possible feature”, a jumble of stone nestled in what looks an intersection of ditches.  A road or walkway, perhaps, considering what seemed a lot of cobble-type-stones dug through to get here?

More mystery cobbles!

During our weather-cancelled afternoon we were treated to a lecture from Rachel about the 2023 Magna dig, followed by a closed session with Marcus the Medicus lecturing on Roman medical practices.  Over three hours flew by, and we wanted them to last even longer.

So to date: Classroom time.  Physical labor.  And no treasure.

Also known as: Marvellous information, entertaining and extremely well presented.  Very satisfying effort made enjoyable by a great group of volunteers.  And even a rock jumble and a cobblestone are treasure when you consider the possibility they were placed by Roman soldiers nearly 2000 years ago.

The remainder of our fortnight will be rather exciting! Michael Volunteer 

After a few days de-turfing, a visit to the Medicus is needed!

28th May 2024

As we’ve welcomed our wonderful period 5 team to the trenches, Melanie, our period 4 volunteer reflects on her two weeks at Magna…

Digging at Magna was my first time as an excavator (I sound like a JCB!).  I thought I’d be digging on the fort itself and was looking forward to finding walls and floors – didn’t fancy turf digging – only to arrive and find we would be firstly expanding the trench over the vallum mound and into and through the vallum itself, and then secondly, exploring features seen in the ground.

Exploring the Vallum and surrounding features.

I ended up exploring what looked like a ditch running through the vallum mound which then didn’t seem to have defined edges.  I did find a couple of bits of black burnished ware, so exciting – the last time someone held that before me was around 1700 years ago…  More pits and more ditches kept emerging and Rachel has the unenviable task of trying to piece them all together to work out what came first, what happened next, by whom and when, throughout the 400 plus year period we were digging through – not to mention the modern land drains that were crisscrossing the ground, although we made good use of the beautiful Victorian stone drain running through the vallum ditch when we were rained off on our eighth and ninth days!  Not many finds but, as well as the black burnished ware and some CBM, I found a small piece of fine-ware – what’s that doing with soldiers in the vallum?!

It has been the most unbelievable experience.  I am totally hooked, even if I never get to dig a wall! I will be doing my best to return next year. 😊 Melanie Volunteer

25th May 2024

Simon, one of our period 4 team, gives us an insight into what life in the trenches has been like during the past two weeks and sets up the challenge for period 5!

2024 is my fourth year excavating with the Vindolanda Trust and this year I decided to try something a little different with the excavations at Magna and it most certainly was!

Our two weeks were all about features related to the area of the Vallum. Ditches, pits, drains, and cuts, and how they all relate to each other in a sort of three-dimensional puzzle covering several centuries of human activity.

Sherd of black burnish ware.

Interpreting what these features were is no easy task, sometimes it felt as if every scrape of the trowel threw up a new puzzle that led us in another direction, but that’s archaeology, you find what you find!

I can safely say I learned a lot, thanks in no small part to the archaeological team who guided, suggested, explained, and directed us with great patience.

One of the reasons I enjoy volunteering with the Vindolanda Trust is because of the people, staff and volunteers alike. I’ve made many friends during my time volunteering and the staff really make you feel part of the team.

I hope to make it back in 2025 and look forward to reading about how the excavations progress for the rest of the year. Good luck to period 5, hopefully you can answer some of the puzzles period 4 has left for you to untangle! Simon Volunteer

24th May 2024

Thank you to our smashing Period 4 team, who, despite the wet weather were all smiles!

Well done Period 4 team!
Proof we were all smiles this period!

23rd May 2024

Sadly, the soil around Magna Fort has now been aerobic (oxygenated) for over six months. The soil went aerobic on December 12th, 2023 and has not returned to its anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment yet. Last spring, we witnessed a similar phenomenon, where the soil went aerobic for about two months before returning to an anaerobic environment at the end of April; however, we have not witnessed such a dramatic shift in soil condition since we first installed WallE. The current soil condition at Magna is incredibly worrying, and we hope it shifts back to its anaerobic environment soon for the sake of the archaeology. Franki

Worrying trends being measured by Wall-E

20th May 2024

We’ve hit an exciting milestone here at Magna: it’s pot washing time! For the past six weeks, our excavation has unearthed bags and bags of finds, and now it’s time to dive into the first steps of the post-excavation process. Let’s take you behind the scenes!

Step 1: Washing the Finds

First things first, we wash the finds. Each bag gets emptied and carefully cleaned. But what’s in these bags? While pottery is often the #maincharacter, we also unearth a fascinating variety of other artefacts. Think pieces of slag, glass fragments, coal, CBM (ceramic building material) and iron objects like nails. We occasionally find more recent items like post-Medieval pottery, modern glass, and even clay pipes! Each find gets a gentle brush—my personal favourite is the pink toothbrush.

Straight from the excavation site, we need to give the pottery a good wash!

Step 2: Organizing the Finds

After their spa treatment, the finds are placed on clean, carefully labelled trays. Why the meticulous labelling? Because it’s crucial to keep the context intact—losing these labels would be like losing the pieces of a puzzle. Each section of the tray will be dedicated to one of the following categories: iron, glass, charcoal, CBM, and pottery (rims and body sherds). This will facilitate the sorting and bagging processes later on.

We can now see the different features of the finds!

Step 3: Drying Out

Once washed, the finds are left to dry for a few days to a week. This prepares them for the next stage: finds sorting. Stay tuned for more updates as we continue our post-excavation journey over the next few days! Cristina

16th May 2024

It’s been great to welcome our first post-excavation volunteer onto the project this period, Sandy has been working hard in the excavation centre to process our finds and soil samples from the first few periods. There have already been some lovely sherds of pottery and pieces of glass discovered from across the site and its always satisfying to finally see the finds clean and mud free. These can be crucial to dating the different features on the site, particularly the single sherd of Iron Age pottery, identifiable through the different techniques used to make the vessel, was the final piece of the puzzle needed to date the enclosure ditch!

The final piece of the puzzle!

Meanwhile the rest of the team have been doing some heavy lifting up on site, cutting back the western edge of the trench and wrestling some pretty hefty reeds in the process! This is to better understand some of the features to the north of the vallum that were continuing beyond the trench limit. In typical archaeological fashion, we were also starting to suspect that the potential causeway over the vallum, which would have allowed troops to access the milecastle from Magna fort, was actually just a little to the left underneath this area. We’re now getting back into excavating along the north edge of the vallum and are starting to build up a picture of later Roman activity and industry happening in this space, so watch this space for more updates as we learn more. Rachel

Simon and Tim extending the trench!

13th May 2024

We’ve welcomed our period 4 team into the trenches, and they’ve made speedy work already! Sophie

Just look at that view from the trenches!

10th May 2024

Well done to our period 3 team – you smashed it!

Period 3 team!

10th May 2024

Period 3 volunteer Agnes shares her experience with us!

Agnes, Period 3 Volunteer

Two weeks can absolutely fly by when you’re having fun, which has happened over the last fortnight at Magna. I work as a data analyst normally so working with my hands is always a great change, particularly with the chance of finding cool stuff! 

We’ve been lucky with the weather and other than one very soggy afternoon, spring has sprung and it’s been caps and sun cream. I’ve excavated once before at Vindolanda but this was different. Fewer individual finds and more big questions about what’s going on, “why is that ditch there” and “what was that pit for”?

I think the point of this diary is not only to inform people about it progress but also to encourage people to apply to come and dig in the future. To that end, I won’t talk about the finds (although I did find a cracking flint arrowhead just a few inches below the turf). Instead, I’ll talk about the people.

There’s something about the type of people who volunteer their time to come and do manual labour, for the chance of helping to unearth the secrets of Hadrian’s Wall. I have rarely in my life come across such a lovely and supportive group of interesting people. The same had been true here, and when I dug at Vindolanda two years ago. From the first day, everyone is keen to help one another and work together. The self-organised excavators dinner in the second week (at the Milecastle Inn, of course) is always a highlight.

If you’re on the fence about volunteering, maybe not sure if it’s for you, I cannot encourage you enough. If like me you work for a large organization then you could use volunteering leave for part of the period, meaning less of a drain on annual leave. This is such a rewarding opportunity not only to try archaeology but also to meet people who will become lifelong friends. Agnes Volunteer

9th May 2024

This week we’ve carried out two types of geoarchaeological sampling which will help us learn more about the site’s history as well as its future. To learn about the past, we completed another round of pXRF sampling within our current area of excavations. pXRF (portable X-Ray Fluorescence) is a great tool that analyzes the geochemical makeup of the soil. Areas with human activity tend to have different chemical markers, and this gives us insight into different activities that might have been happening on site.

Prior to stripping the grass, we took pXRF samples of the topsoil over the milecastle and down across the Vallum. Now, we also have samples of the subsoil in these locations so that we might compare the geochemical makeup of the soil. Now, to learn about the potential future of Magna, we started to map the peatbog near the fort so that we might better understand its decay over the next couple years. While Wall-E (our weather monitoring station and probe array) does an excellent job of monitoring the soil, we wanted to explore other methods of gathering data as well. This map will provide a visual of the bog and is an easy way to check the bog’s health in the future. Franki

Aerial shot of bog, vallum and milecastle 46

7th May 2024

The ditch crew have found some sherds!

Ditches are still our focus as we enter week 6 and they’re only getting bigger as we have officially made it into the vallum! It’s still early days yet but we have already been able to identify some of the features we were hoping to find in this trench. The remnants of the north mound have already been uncovered running parallel with the line of the vallum, visible in the trench as a broad pinkish-orange band of clay.

Notice the change in soil colour from left to right.

Originally this would have been a broad rampart built out of turf but over the centuries this has been worn down to leave only its clay foundations for us to find. There are also traces of its partner, the south mound, showing up at the end of the trench but this will have to wait until we extend our trench to see it in full. Some of our intrepid volunteers are also heading into the vallum itself, working to remove the topsoil covering the upper layers of backfilling. This area is already proving to have darker, wetter material than the surrounding ramparts, so we have high hopes for organic preservation conditions once we reach the base! Rachel

3rd May 2024

This week we’ve started wet sieving some of the samples we’ve taken on site as part of our post-excavation processing. Due to the large number of pits and ditches we’ve already had in our five weeks of excavation, we’ve garnered quite a large amount of environmental samples. The wet sieving process is just like what we did during our Stirring the Pot event back in February, but now we get to do it outside in the sun! In just a few afternoons we’ve processed over a 100L of environmental samples – and the results look promising. The samples have come from some of the ditches and pits in the northern end of the site, just south of the milecastle. Soon, we’ll also add on pottery washing to our post-excavation rota, so everyone gets the chance to take part in some aspects of post-excavation processing. Franki

Making the most of the sunshine to process our soil samples!

1st May 2024

One of our Period 3 volunteers, Hanne, shares what her first three days of excavation with the Magna Project has entailed…

Day 1: Being shown around the site – it’s so much more complex and interesting than I had anticipated. For two weeks I’ll be part of a long, future project. I feel lucky to be part of it. I’ve met other great volunteers, including from Australia and France.


Day 2: Working with my dig partner we moved stones and soil, with some soil going for environmental sampling. Climate change on my mind, yesterday I stood on the grass around a smallish mound – then was amazed that we were all standing on ground that had lowered through drying out and something was on top of the raised area protecting it. It made me think of a TV program I’d seen recently, showing the tundra melting… I wonder about the people who lived here so long ago in the landscape, and made so little impact on the world – did they appreciate it more or busy surviving?

Day 3: There is a friendly team on the dig – we hear lambs and skylarks. In the afternoon we had a new experience outside in sun, stirring soil and water in large bucket with a wooden spoon and then sieved out floating particles from soil samples before going back to the field. I helped with removing thick chunks of turf and adding soft soil to the growing pile. Hanne Volunteer

Hanne wet sieving soil samples from the excavation.

29th April 2024

We have welcomed in our Period 3 volunteers at the Magna excavations this morning, and looking forward to working with them to (hopefully!) answer some of the questions that are being raised at this frontier landscape.

Magna Project 2023 Report

If you would like to dig a little deeper into the archaeology of the Magna Project, we have published the first in a series of 5 annual excavation reports. This report is available to download as a free PDF. Simply click this link to obtain your digital copy of the 90 page report. For sherd nerds, Cristina has a look at the pottery assemblage from milecastle 46, Rachel takes us through the activity at the site from the 2nd Century to Medieval period of occupation, and Franki sifts through the soil to understand what is going from an environmental perspective.

A limited number of full colour printed copies are available to purchase. These are £15 and can be found at the Roman Army Museum shop and also via the Vindolanda Trust online shop. Sophie

26th April 2024

That’s wrap for Period 2. Thank you to this fabulous group of volunteers. We really appreciate all your hard work over the last two weeks. Here they all are pictured on the “Milecastle Mound” the bund feature that we created in the landscape after backfilling the Milecastle 46 excavation area. We look forward to meeting our next group of volunteers on Monday as we continue our journey of exploration and research. Sonya

Group of adults wearing red t-shirts standing together in front of a banner.
Period 2 Team Photo

25th April 2024

Roman ditch situated outside of milecastle 46.

As Period 2 is drawing to a close, I think its safe to say that ditches have been the defining features of these two weeks! The Roman ditch next to the milecastle gave us a final surprise as we finished excavating it. As we found the end of the ditch outside the milecastle wall a posthole and signs of second ditch leading away to the west emerged. Meanwhile the second ditch to the south has proven to be not just pre-Hadrianic but pre-Roman entirely, curving round to form an enclosure that would have occupied the hilltop before the Roman army arrived. A single sherd of Iron Age pottery from within the fill was the final clue to confirm this date and we are now keeping a close eye out for any evidence of buildings inside the area. The mysterious stone structure on the east of the trench has also turned out to be part of a ditch running south down the side of the trench, though we are still figuring out exactly what it was used for and why it had flagstones capping it.

The team working on the pre-Roman ditch!

A group of intrepid volunteers have also started work in the trench the cuts across the vallum yesterday, led by Andrew, in search of yet more cobbled roads. This area got off to a surprising start however as they have already found a stone lined well. I’m excited to see what might be waiting for us at the base after the wood, rope, and leather we found in last year’s surprise well! Rachel

Excavating the stone lined well!

22nd April 2024

One of our wonderful Period 2 excavators shares the experience of week one on the dig…

As a first time excavator I wondered if two weeks would feel like an eternity…how wrong I was!  Week one flew in and was a great experience.  Everyone in the Team makes the most of it and the enthusiasm is infectious from Professionals and Volunteers alike.

Lezley, Period 2 Volunteer

Personally I was excited to find some black burnished ware and to spend the first week uncovering part of the military road….mud, cobbles and big stones is a brief summary of events!

Tips for others from my experience:
– Check your trousers for stitched seams on the knees…these will become uncomfortable very quickly
– Bring tissues each day…your nose will run from all the bending over
– If possible stay somewhere with a bath….it certainly aids recovery and eases the muscles after a good days graft.

I’m looking forward to all that unfolds in the remaining time … and thereafter from those who continue the excavations.  It’s great to be part of something that’s not about individual achievement, but more a jigsaw puzzle of lots of pieces and people, making up the whole experience and picture. Lezley Volunteer

Sherd of black burnish ware

19th April 2024

Period 1 Drone Shot

It’s finally been nice enough to fly our drone, and as you can see, the trench from the milecastle has expanded somewhat! Working to the south of the milecastle, the Period 1 and Period 2 teams have been excavating ditches, road surfaces, pits and cobbles. Check back in for more updates soon! Sophie

18th April 2024

All in a day’s work…

The external area of the milecastle is really coming to life this week as we’ve nearly finished pulling off the remaining topsoil in our current excavation area. We have two ditch features – one of which terminates just before southeastern corner of the milecastle and the other going across the length of our excavation area – which are proving to be rather interesting. It seems likely that they predate our milecastle which suggests that we might have a had a Roman marching camp in this area. We expected to get pre-Hadrianic features as we got further south towards Magna fort, but certainly not this early in our project! They’re still under excavation so we’re hoping to learn more about them and maybe get more substantial finds out of them. Either way, I’d say they’re my favorite features of the excavation season thus far. We also have an unexpected flagstone surface in the trench which is proving to be quite mysterious. It’s still early days on this feature, so hopefully we will have more answers to its purpose soon. It’s also looking like we finally have the military road! Of course, it’s on the very southern edge of our current area of excavation, but we’re glad to have finally found it. We know that Magna has a lot of quirks that aren’t elsewhere seen on Hadrian’s Wall, but it would have been extremely unusual to not have the military road running its course parallel to Hadrian’s Wall. Otherwise, we have a few additional pits, cuts, and (of course) more cobbles which we are currently investigating.

Possible emergence of the Military Road
Cristina sharing her expertise with our period 2 volunteers.

The group this period has had some wonderful sunny weather which has helped spur them along, but unfortunately this afternoon has been a bit of a wash out. Luckily Dr. Cristina popped over from Vindolanda to teach them all about different pottery types you can find in Roman Britain. We’ve already found quite a variety of pottery on site so its good that we all get a brush up on our various wares. Hopefully tomorrow and next week we’ll be back into the sunshine so we can check out all of our exciting features with renewed vigour! Franki

17th April 2024

Magna period 2 volunteers have brought the sunshine with them! The top soil is being beautifully cleaned back and there are some exciting features being uncovered. By excavating outside of the milecastle, we are getting an intriguing look at this wider frontier landscape. Bring on the next few weeks! Sophie

Almost t-shirt weather!

16th April 2024

Our new period has got off to an exciting start so far with our first official small find of the year! One of our eagle-eyed volunteers spotted this beautiful gold-in-glass bead as they were digging, much to everyone’s excitement. This brings the total number of beads found around milecastle 46 to four and adds to the picture of the types of goods that were being traded through the Wall at our site. These beads are often associated with the later Roman period in Britain and were made by applying a thin sheet of gold to a glass tube and then encasing it in a final coat of glass to seal the metal in place.

Well done to our Period 2 excavator Jessica!

The weather is also starting to feel more spring-like at last with blue skies and sunshine instead of rain. While the wind is still cold the excavation area is finally getting a chance to start drying out, so hopefully there will be a few less swimming pools onsite soon! Rachel

12th April 2024

Period 1 Team!

Congrats to our Period 1 team for a great couple of weeks! Finishing off their fortnight with some dramatic clouds, we’ve loved digging beside you all!

Each excavation is a testament to the teamwork of our excavators, our visitors, Dig Diary readers, and everyone else who has and continues to support us as we uncover more of this ancient landscape. Thank you!

11th April 2024

Our fantastic Period 1 Team have just one more day of digging until they hand over the trowel to the Period 2 Team, and they have smashed it!

For the past two weeks, the team have been focusing on digging down into some intriguing features situated outside of the southern wall of milecastle 46. At the end of 2023, we had uncovered the beginnings of an East-West ditch and a large rubble filled pit. These have continued to be excavated as we’ve started this 2024 season, which has now revealed an unusual linear stone feature running close by across the trench. We aren’t sure what the purpose of this feature is, but we hope the mystery will be solved as the season continues.

Period 2 Team – your challenge awaits!

However, Period 1 hasn’t all been a conundrum as our excavation team have been working hard on two large, intercutting pits at the South-Eastern corner of the milecastle. One of these pits contained substantial sherds of amphorae, or dolia, a Roman vessel used for the storage of and transport of goods. As we understand, this milecastle was being used as a customs post along the edge of Empire and so, it is not a mystery as to why we would find this around the milecastle. I hope whoever was transporting this wasn’t in too much trouble when it got dropped!  

We can’t wait to learn more about these sherds from Cristina.

Finally, a very surprising stone structure in the edge of the trench has appeared, with a channel leading into it that is tantalisingly black and waterlogged. Could this be Magna’s first foray into the anaerobic?! Watch this space…  Sophie

P1 Volunteer Graham with some nice fragments of Roman glass.

9th April 2024

As the current weather is better suited to ducks than archaeologists, we wanted to take a moment to highlight a brand-new activity where you can experience life in the trenches, without accessing the archaeological site. Launched on the 8th April, exclusively at the Roman Army Museum for 2024, is our Accessible Trench Talks.

Our Accessible Trench Talks provide the opportunity to experience live archaeological excavations with a multi-sensory experience. You will get an update on the ongoing live excavations of Magna Fort, Milecastle 46 and the Vallum from our brand new, accessible, activity centre. Ask questions and experience a bespoke, interactive map of the excavation site using our new sensory projector.

Reveal the archaeology with our new sensory projector.

This will increase access to even more people and we were delighted to welcome lots of visitors yesterday for our first trench talk.

The site is currently inaccessible due to the recent torrential rain, and so if you would like to know more about our excavations, please join us for the next Accessible Trench Talk on Monday 22nd April at 11:45am and 2:15pm.  Sophie

Sophie using the Omi projector to bring the site to life.

The Vindolanda Trust is delighted to be a WelcoME venue where you can use their app to book your visit and let us know your accessibility needs ahead of time. If you have any questions, or would like further information, please check out our accessibility resources, or contact sophiewestlake@vindolanda.com

5th April 2024

Look – no rain in sight!

Despite our rain day earlier this week, we’ve had a successful first week of the 2024 excavation season! In a shocking turn of events, we’ve even had a bit of sun today (though, of course, it was matched by a steady wind). Nevertheless, we’re noticing some features in the area that we’re all excited to tackle next week. It even looks like we might have a waterlogged/semi-anaerobic fill in a ditch just east of the milecastle. I’m intrigued by the possible usages for this ditch and am hoping that by the end of next week we’ll have a few answers. At the very least, I’ll definitely have a few buckets of environmental samples for later wet sieving. Beyond that, there’s a few pits and otherwise cut features – we’ve also found quite a few sherds of black burnished ware pottery. Based on the rims, it looks like we have the remains of two separate vessels. Overall, it’s a very solid start to our season and I’m hoping we can keep up this momentum in the following weeks! Franki

Alongside our crack team of excavator’s, we have another special member of the Magna Team that we would like to shout about as they’re celebrating their 2nd birthday tomorrow! Our weather station and probe system at Magna, affectionately known as Wall-E, was installed on 6th April 2022 and has been working tirelessly since then to collect crucial data which allows us to better understand what is happening to the soil beneath our feet.

The UK has just experienced our wettest recorded 18 months (which you’ll know first hand if you visited us last year!) and with this, Wall-E has been able to record the implications of this more extreme climate. Crucially, what we are starting to see is that these heavy rainfalls are increasing both the acidity and levels of oxygen in the soil at Magna Fort. These conditions are far from ideal for the preservation of buried archaeology and is putting at risk the conservation of key organic materials such as wooden writing tablets and leather shoes. This material culture gives us an unparalleled insight into the ancient communities stationed at Magna Fort, so without them, we lose a vital knowledge of our heritage.

This environmental monitoring will be ongoing throughout the Magna Project, giving us over a million data points by 2027. We hope with this information, we can make the best decisions, preserving the past for future generations.

So, we would like to wish a very Happy Birthday Wall-E! Sophie

Wall-E in the field.

3rd April 2024

It’s been great to get back into the trenches and start excavating with our volunteers, and already we’re starting to see some interesting features emerging from beneath the topsoil. The fickle British weather has caught up with us today though and we’ve had to call things off, we would need wetsuits and snorkels to work in parts of the site in these conditions! Wet weather days are just part of life working outside in Northumberland and there’s always a programme of alternative activities waiting in case we need them.

Today we have marched east along the Wall to our sister site of Vindolanda where the volunteers got a glimpse into some of the pottery analysis with Cristina, who is working on the assemblage from the 2023 Vindolanda excavation, and a site tour with Andrew discussing the history of the fort and its excavation. We’ve also made use of the lecture facilities here (though we’ll have our own very soon!) to give talks about last year’s excavations of milecastle 46 and the environmental monitoring that is a key part of the research at Magna. All of this helps to put the current excavations in context and highlight how our volunteers’ work on site is adding to the story of Magna and the Roman frontier. Rachel

Period 1 Volunteers and Cristina, the Vindolanda Trust pottery specialist

1st April 2024

It’s been an exciting day as we welcome in our Period 1 team to begin the 2024 Vindolanda Trust excavation season here at Magna Fort. The day has already gotten off to a rocky start as we move southwards from milecastle 46 into you guessed it… more cobbles! Puns aside, whilst the sun hasn’t made an appearance, the rain has stayed (mostly) at bay and the team were able to put trowel to soil as we begin to uncover this frontier landscape southwards of milecastle 46. Keep checking back here for more updates throughout the season! Sophie

Kicking off the 2024 excavation season!
A sherd of pottery from just outside of milecastle 46.

25th March 2024

There’s just a week to go before we kick off the 2024 season at Magna, and we’ve been hard at work out in the field getting everything ready for the new excavations, with two new trenches de-turfed and ready to go. The first is an extension of last year’s trench to the south, allowing us to further investigate the space between the milecastle and the vallum and the road network surrounding milecastle 46. Our second trench continues this move south, back towards the main fort, and runs across the full width of the vallum defences. I’m hoping this will let us learn more about the enigmatic vallum diversion visible at Magna. If all goes to plan this trench should also include the vallum crossing that would have linked Magna fort to the milecastle so I’m keeping my fingers crossed for that!

Getting ready to welcome our 2024 volunteers!

That’s not the only change onsite though, as we’ve had to say farewell to milecastle 46 and backfill the area to protect the archaeological remains. We couldn’t let the milecastle disappear from view completely though, so an earthwork has been built up to mark the line of the walls. This restores the eastern half of milecastle 46 to being a visible part of the landscape at Magna and is a fitting legacy for all of our volunteers’ hard work and the history they uncovered.

I’m so excited to welcome all of our volunteers old and new onto site this year, all that’s left to do is pray for some nice weather! Rachel

Senior archaeologist Rachel Frame welcomes you to the site of the 2024 excavations at Magna

Stirring the Pot with Franki Gillis

It’s hard to believe we’re almost ready to begin our second year of excavations at Magna! Over the winter we have been busy researching our archaeological findings, cataloguing pottery from the milecastle, and processing all our (many) environmental samples. Last summer we gathered over 600L of environmental samples which all needed to be processed through a method called wet sieving. This method involves gently aggravating the dirt sample so that the larger bits of sediment sink to the bottom while seeds, bone micro-fragments, charred plant remains, and/or insects float. We then use a sieve to collect these interesting bits, let them dry, and send them off to a specialist for identification. Processing all these samples over the winter has been quite the feat, but luckily, we were able to get help from volunteers during our Stirring the Pot event in February. Our samples from the milecastle are still being analyzed by a specialist; however, we already know that we have some beetles and grain seeds from inside the well.

Wet sieving over the winter

Overall, this information helps us learn about the historic environment and diet of the Romans. A great example this came out just this past winter when bed bugs were found at Vindolanda – evidently the residents of the fort faced similar issues to those we have today. Since the eastern half of the milecastle doesn’t contain any barracks it’s unlikely that we’ll also find bed bugs, but I’m hoping that we’ll find similarly significant eco-facts. Regardless, we’ll have a better idea of the living conditions inside the milecastle and what they might’ve had for lunch while on duty – it’s amazing what can be discovered inside the dirt! Franki

Introducing Dr Cristina Crizbasan

Introducing Dr Cristina Crizbasan our newest team member, who joins us as our resident pottery specialist and post excavation team leader. Cristina gained her PhD from the University of Exeter her specialism is in Batavian Pottery. Cristina’s relationship with the Vindolanda Trust began during her studies where as well as undertaking training in recording pottery assemblages, Cristina used a case study from Vindolanda Period 3 when we have at least one Batavian cohort in residence.  Over the next few years Cristina will study the fabric of the pottery to learn where it is made and supplied from; the spatial and chronological distribution across the sites, where are we finding the different types of pottery throughout the sites and how this changes over time. As well as using residue analysis to find more evidence of what was being consumed.

Dr Cristina Crizbasan Working at the Vindolanda Trust
Dr Cristina Crizbasan Working at the Vindolanda Trust

Find out about Cristina’s favourite find from last years excavations at Magna:

Hey everyone, it’s Cristina checking in, your friendly neighbourhood pottery nerd! I’m buzzing with excitement because we’re gearing up for the 2024 excavation seasons at both Vindolanda and Magna, and let me tell you, it’s going to be a wild ride! So, here’s the scoop: this will be my very first go-round with post-excavation within the Trust, and I couldn’t be more stoked. I officially joined the team back in October 2023, just in time to dive into the pottery assemblage from Magna’s 2023 dig.

Now, let me spill the tea on one of the coolest ceramic finds from last season: a black-burnished ware jar that had us all excited. What made it stand out? Well, besides its almost full completeness and the neat little repair job with a lead plug, there were some seriously intriguing details lurking beneath the surface.

See, while most people are wowed by the jar’s overall look, I’m all about those tiny nuances. Like, did you know that the obtuse angle of the lattice decoration screams “late Roman”? Yep, turns out it’s all in the angles! And don’t even get me started on the flange – super everted, which is a giveaway for the evolution of cooking pot rims over time. Mind-blowing stuff, right?

These little clues aren’t just fun facts – they’re our ticket to unlocking the mysteries of history. And trust me, I’m excited to see what other secrets Magna has up its sleeve this season. Bring it on!

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