2. Organic Riches

2. Organic Riches. The impact of organic resources on Frontier research
Wednesday, 24 August 2022, Yellow Room

Session Chairs: Silke Lange & Carol van Driel-Murray
Affiliation: BIAX Consult, the Netherlands
Affiliation of co-organiser: Leiden University, the Netherlands

Session Abstract: Although artefacts made of organic materials such as timber, leather and basketry have long attracted attention, they tended to be relegated to the ‘daily life’ sections of publications and have had little impact on the wider narrative of Frontier Studies. In recent years, however, some of the most exciting new insights in Frontier research have emerged from sites with good organic conservation and the application of scientific methods has further increased the informative value of organic remains.

This session is not so much about interesting finds as such, but aims to highlight the contribution of organic materials to new developments in understanding the workings of the Frontier system and the communities in and around the military garrisons. How has the information drawn from organic materials changed our perception of the Roman Frontier?

Topics that might be addressed are: dendrochronology and the impact on the timing of military construction projects, the ecological footprint, the sourcing and transformation of materials. What has research into organic materials added to our understanding of the nature and composition of the civilian communities? Can traditions in woodworking, basketry or clothing help define the origins of communities? Also of importance are the specific problems of excavation in conditions of good organic preservation and, related to this, the demands made on protection and site management.

The contribution of the organic materials has been greatly underestimated and it is time to recognise that the bias in survival has distorted our perception of all aspects of life on the Frontier

Time Presenter (s) Presentation
15.20 Carrol van Driel-Murray Introduction to the session Organic Riches: wood, leather and textiles in frontier studies.
15.40 Elizabeth Greene The potential of Anaerobic Archaeological Environments: A case study investigating cultural contact in the community at Vindolanda
16.00 Silke Lange From tree to post. Logistics and organisation around infrastructural works in the Lower Rhine limes
16.20 Rob Sands Vindolanda – Wood, Craft, Life & Connections: a view from the edge
16.40 Tamara Vernimmen As good as new? A special wood finds from Houten (NL) suggesting a sustainable use of building materials in Roman times


Introduction to the session Organic Riches: wood, leather and textiles in frontier studies
Carol van Driel-Murray, Leiden University, the Netherlands

Introducing the session on organic materials I will also touch on leatherwork and textiles in relation to broader Frontier issues. Can particular assemblages identify who was actually doing the work and where they come from? Beyond the frontier, organic materials register the actual presence of individual people, giving an unusual insight in relations between the Empire and the Frisian region.

The potential of Anaerobic Archaeological Environments: A case study investigating cultural contact in the community at Vindolanda
Elizabeth Greene, University of Western Ontario, Barbara Birley, The Vindolanda Trust

The Roman site of Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall has for decades provided unique evidence for understanding cultural change on the Roman frontiers. Because of the anaerobic environments that exist, wood, leather and bone are preserved in excellent condition, resulting in a far more robust dataset than is typical for most sites. The earliest levels of occupation at Vindolanda (85-130 CE) have all been extensively excavated and sit largely in anaerobic conditions. Therefore, the best understood period at the site is the critical phase during conquest and early settlement, a period that is critical for our understanding of cultural change and appropriation in the provinces and frontiers. This paper uses a case study from Vindolanda of two houses located in the settlement outside the Period 4 fort (ca. 105-120 CE) to show how anaerobic conditions dramatically change our understanding of the individuals who lived here. The houses themselves were constructed in two different ways, while the artefacts within also suggest that the inhabitants held different cultural habits. The material culture suggests that the inhabitants adhered to traditions, as well as adopted new habits. Because the structures were in anaerobic conditions the presence of wood, leather and other organic objects fills out the picture in a way not possible otherwise. The presence of wooden combs and leather shoes found in the round structure of native British style suggests the inhabitants utilized “Roman” goods for daily use, while the presence of writing implements and wooden tablets indicate the adoption of writing habits not present in pre-Roman contexts. The inclusion of organic artefacts in this dataset allows us to see much more clearly the nuances of cultural change on the level of individual households during this important period of conquest and settlement in the Roman provinces.

From tree to post. Logistics and organisation around infrastructural works in the Lower Rhine limes
Silke Lange, BIAX Consult, the Netherlands

New data from excavations of infrastructural works in the Netherlands provide insights into the organisation of building campaigns in the reign of Emperor Hadrian. Details about the different steps of the process emerge in particular from the research of wooden structures of sites along the Limes. Here, wood was the most important raw material for the construction of roads, bridges and riverbanks. Examples are the revetments of the Roman road (the so called ‘limes road’), bridge constructions over rivers and over marshy areas in the landscape. The data from the research provides a picture of the various logistical steps that formed the basis of the building campaigns. This starts with the exploitation of a certain area and the felling of the trees, the transport to the various distribution centres and the further transport to the building sites. Evident in this story is the quite recent discovery of four punch stamped marks on oak posts from the Roman road near Valkenburg. The homogeneity in wood species, use of tools and woodworking suggests a tight organisation behind the scenes of construction. Due to the specific characteristics of wood regarding the time of felling and transport, the duration of storage, the final processing, the logistic timing must also have been well thought out. After all, dry oak wood can hardly be worked with an axe or an adze without seriously damaging the tools. The question of how the logs are transported to the distribution centres also arises. What are the indications for rafts, what for transport by ship? The logistics of supplying wood will have had its consequences for the layout of the Limes area and the security of infrastructural works. Therefore, it is valuable to include the data of wood use and wood supply in the interpretation of the military-influenced layout of the landscape in detail.

Vindolanda – Wood, Craft, Life & Connections: a view from the edge
Rob Sands, UCD School of Archaeology

An exceptional collection of wooden objects from Vindolanda, surviving in deep, damp, dark, anaerobic, deposits, has been recovered during excavations conducted over the last forty years at Vindolanda, a Roman auxiliary fort in Northern Britain. The collection consists of several 100 well preserved wooden items, which are primarily from well dated contexts in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries AD. Selected objects from this collection will provide an opportunity to reflect on how we might begin to consider the nature, and origin, of different traditions of woodworking found within a Roman context, and through this to think through the relationship between trees, people and craft.

As good as new? A special wood find from Houten (NL) suggesting a sustainable use of building materials in Roman times
Tamara Vernimmen, Ivo Vossen, ADC ArcheoProjecten

During an excavation in the periphery of a native settlement near Houten, the Netherlands, only a few Roman (1st-2nd century AD) ditches and a well were unearthed. At the bottom of the well however, an interesting discovery was made: a layer of thin wooden planks, scattered all over the bottom and clearly dumped as waste. Due to the fragile state of the planks, the complete section of soil was dug out to be uncovered indoors under more controlled circumstances, thereby revealing 29 more or less complete planks. They measured up to 1 m in length and between 12 and 18 cm in width. Most remarkable however is their slight thickness: only 0,1 to 0,8 cm. Almost all planks have a pointed end and a small hole in the middle of the other end. The wood was identified as oak and several planks were dated between 88 and 147 AD using dendrochronology. The dimensions and the shape of the planks as well as the presence of nail holes brought us to the interpretation as roof shingles or scandulas. Roof shingles from Roman times are occasionally being found in Europe. The shingles from Houten appear to be the first ones from a native, i.e. non-urban or non-military context. An inventory of similar finds gave us insight into the production and use of roof shingles in general during Roman times as well as a clue to the long trip the shingles from Houten have made before ending up at the bottom of a well.