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

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.

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

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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