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Getting My Hands Dirtier Than Expected

Getting My Hands Dirtier Than Expected

By Jeanna Cook, Classics Faculty

Fig 1 {Figure 1:  Trench 1, 2014 Excavation Season at Binchester (Vinovium), Bishop Auckland, County Durham, UK}

“What will your students think when you tell them that you spent the summer in the toilet!” Quivering with hoarse laughter, Tony slapped his knee and grinned from underneath the visor of his white construction worker’s helmet. He posed, one foot planted up against the trench wall, one hand on his hip. In his other hand he gingerly twirled his “specialty tool,” the head of an archaeological pick superimposed on the longer handle of a garden tool. He and a fellow volunteer archaeologist at Binchester had designed this tool in the off-season, the perfect instrument for this dirty job.

“I think they’ll enjoy imagining this heroic expedition, my triumphant return to archaeology, ending up in the toilet,” shaking my head and laughing, I stopped to roll up my sleeves before clearing the waste material (dirt), that he had dredged out of the narrow tunnel in our trench wall. We were standing on the perceived bottom of a Roman sewage cistern, designed to hold – you guessed it – a massive amount of Roman refuse drained from the communal latrine about six feet above and to our south. To our north, built into the external wall of the fort, was the distinguishing feature of the latrine facility: a sewer drain, distinctively Roman in its arched construction. In the time that I had been working on clearing the basin from last season’s fill, while defining the edges of the sewage cistern itself, I had spent many a moment catching my breath while admiring the simple beauty of this arch.

Fig 2

{Figure 2: Latrine cistern and sewer arch. The wall of faced stone is the perimeter wall of the fort.}

I wasn’t the only one on site who found beauty in the sewer. The communal latrine happened to be one of the leading attractions on the site, something that raised “ooos” and “ahhs” in the full range of visitors. Groups of local school children, who toured near daily, came to learn about the Roman mercenaries who built permanent settlements in their county. A good tour of Trench 1 was one given by veteran volunteer excavators like Tony, my sewer trench partner, or the trench supervisor, Matt. Both of these experienced guides always saved the latrine complex for last, the piece de resistance. Matt would often let the students hypothesize about the function of the space. He would trace the drains for them, stone-lined channels that accumulated waste from the soldier’s quarters in the barrack block at the center of the site. These drains ran down to the area under observation, a flagstone floor abutting the northern edge of the fort wall. Matt would then point out the remaining identifying artifacts of the facility, a flat-surfaced stone with semi-circular seats carved out on one side and a large basin, chiseled out of the same dull stone. Citing their knowledge of the features of Roman life across the Empire, the elementary-aged observers would often plot their guesses around the common amenities these settlements offered to their inhabitants. Some would guess a stable or a taberna; others would come closer with a pool or a bath. One brave soul would then offer a proposal that many may have considered, but were unwilling to say aloud: “Is it the toilet?”

Matt would then congratulate the brave archaeologist-in-training by asking a clever follow-up question: “What was the stone basin used for, if this was a toilet?” This is a question to which, for some reason beyond my knowledge, all local school children in Durham County, England know the answer. They would squeal with excitement. In the basin, one could rest his “sponge on a stick,” the Roman equivalent of toilet paper.

Fig 3

{Figure 3: Flagstone floor of the latrine and stone basin for the sponge on a stick (Blinchester, 2013 Season)}

The opening weeks of the excavation season had been grueling for me. To this point, demolition with the mattock, hauling heavy stones off of walls, and casting bucket upon bucket of fill into the spoil heap outside of the trench were my recognized talents. On this particular day, I was taking apart a spurious wall of an earlier period off of the main barrack wall, when Matt came to inspect my progress. He was dissatisfied with thick mud-like consistency of the mortar in this wall, which he seemed to think marked this wall as the same phase as another wall that part of our team of volunteers had taken down on the very first day of the season. Rather than risk going too far and taking too much, he put my assignment on hold and asked me to clean up the area where I was working. When I was finished hauling the last of the heavy stones that I had mattocked off the wall, I was to let him know that I was ready to be reassigned to another section of the Trench.

When Matt had moved on to visit the next group of volunteers, I took the opportunity to stand up from my crouched position and assess my current undertaking. There was evidence of progress made on the wall, but I had plenty of cleaning and clearing of material out to the spoil heap before I could be reassigned. Around the many active areas of Trench 1, a cleared area of about 30×50 feet, I watched my fellow volunteers carefully trowelling soil at a depth of a fraction of an inch. On the far side of the barrack building, along the southern limit of the foundation, a crew of volunteers sat near a stone-lined channel chatting, troweling, and uncovering “special finds” at a ridiculous rate. These “special finds,” whether metal, unusual bone, coins, or decorated pottery, were toured around the trench to areas where those of us working on more aggressive projects could observe true treasures, before they were bagged and pinned for further analysis in the lab. Clearing robbers’ trenches of post-Roman backfill and taking apart spurious walls, my archaeological milieu, was not often the place in which one encountered “special finds.” My finds to date were Ziploc bags stuffed with fragmented cow bones, utilitarian terracotta, and the occasional unidentified iron object (otherwise known as a lump of rust). Gazing out across the trench at that crew of “special finds” specialists, I found myself in a weak moment. As I considered which backbreaking task Matt would assign me to next, I felt my potential for “special finds” of any value in the 2014 season beginning to slip away.

Remember when I wrote that article in the LEO last winter before making my return to archaeological fieldwork this past summer? I cite myself in the following excerpt:

“If you enjoy the thrill of the find, truth be told, it doesn’t really matter what you find. Every find is thrilling, every potsherd, animal bone, and terracotta roof tile makes you feel closer to human lives lived well before your own. Handling the physical artifacts of a former people brings their day-to-day existence to a state of reality and unlocks the mysteries of the lives of average folk, the ones who didn’t make the chapters of your AP World textbook. The rarity of their stories makes their artifacts all the more thrilling to find.”

Hmmm, right. Even animal bone is special in its own special way. I was prepared to eat my own words. I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for this volunteer fieldwork, yet here I was, leaning on a mattock next to a pile of rocks, undeniably envious of my fellow volunteers showing off their “special finds.”

Just before the mid-morning tea break, Matt came around to explain my next assignment. “You don’t mind getting a bit into the muck, do you?” he asked somewhat skeptically. “If not, I’d like for you to work with Tony and clean up the latrine.” Great. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse. “No, not all, that would be interesting,” I said, trying to sound up for the task.

I found Tony at tea break to tell him that we had been appointed to the post of lavatory archaeologists. To my surprise, he was elated. He told me that working in the area nearest the latrine, especially the drains and cistern, was a highly sought after assignment in Trench 1. Artifacts of value and interest found their way into the sewer accidentally quite often, just as they had in the street drains on the southern end of the trench, where the “special finds” specialists were reveling in their bounty. However, unlike the street drains, very few Roman soldiers would bother to retrieve what slipped out of hand or purse into the cistern of the latrine. Visions of “special finds” danced in my head.

Fig 4

{Figure 4: Tony and I hard at work in the cistern before the base had been cleared}

I was fairly confident that based on what I knew about decomposition from high school biology, there wasn’t any true waste material remaining in the sewer complex, but rather than risking it, I chose to ignore the rising temperature on site and descended into the cistern with long sleeves and leather gloves. We got to work clearing the current bottom level of the space between the wall of the fort and the floor of the latrine, removing debris that had blown into the sizeable pit over the duration of the season. Just as Matt had asked, we clarified the masonry of the northern wall, uncovering more of the stone archway and the facing of the fort’s perimeter wall. Interested volunteers stopped by frequently to check our progress before returning back to their own assignments, envious of our post, just as Tony had promised.

“Find anything yet?” said one volunteer peering over the edge of our cistern wall from the current ground level of the trench.

“No, not yet, just cleaning up,” I replied quickly, eager to continue working.

“If I were you,” he continued, “I’d punch through that tunnel on the opposite wall. It’s most certainly connected to the drain running under the latrine. That’s where you’ll find what you’re looking for.”

I stopped to look over at Tony and gauge his reaction. He was studying the stones squaring off the tunnel where the volunteer was pointing. “I’m quite certain if it connects, it’s just a rabbit hole, part of a rabbit warren. I wouldn’t want to disturb Mr. Rabbit.” Tony said to our curious passerby, clearing him off and leaving Tony and I to consider what to do.

“With this tool, we may be able to push back into the hole a little bit farther. What do you think?” he looked at me mischievously, brandishing his aforementioned specialty tool.

I agreed and we got to work, carefully removing the fill from the hole into a bucket, not wanting to mix the soil from this height, with that of the floor of the cistern that we had just cleaned. If anything were to be discovered in this fill, it would most likely be of an entirely different context (level or stratum, age, and period of occupation), than that of the floor. When we had cleared about six inches into the hole, taking turns with the tool and the bucket, we hit something that felt different than the rest of the dirt we had removed. Tony carefully scraped the dirt around this area, revealing something white in color and rough in texture. In the center of the hole was a thin shelf of “special find” status: Roman cement.


{Figure 5: The tunnel, once cleared, is actually a drain lined with Roman cement}

Okay, okay. I know what you’re thinking. I can see you rolling your eyes. I know that Roman cement may not seem as awe-inspiring as a spear head, a terracotta face, cobbler’s nails, or a cache of coins (all of which were found on site this season), but, hear me out before you completely dismiss our “special find.” This cement, most likely derived of lime, sand, rubble that looked like small snail shells, and pozzolana, or volcanic ash, was here, in Northern Britain, lining the drain that ran from the latrine to the cistern in which we were standing. Tony summoned Matt to come have a look and he agreed that we had found what we thought we had found. Matt brought over the director of the site, as we continued to carefully remove fill around the cement. The material was fragile, but still seemingly positioned at a proper angle within the drain. The site director, noticing the difference in the color of the fill above the cement and below it, asked us to take soil samples from each level. These samples would be sent to the lab where the composition would be analyzed recorded. Trace minerals in the soil that we collected will most likely inform researchers on site about certain elements of the Roman diet beyond cow products. Bones from small cattle were the leading evidence for what was cooking in the barracks to this point.

Fig 6

{Figure 6: Tony stands next to our very own “special find”}

The angle of the cement shelf seemed to suggest that, as our inspirational passerby had suggested, this tunnel was actually the main drain, or culvert, for the latrine structure above. Waste would have funneled through this space into the cistern where we stood, and then through the sewer archway to the ditch running outside of the fort wall. Water flowing from street level drains along the inter-vallum roads in the trench would clear out the latrine on this northern slope. Even more impressive, this cement appeared to engineered specifically for the purpose of aiding the clearing process, and may have even been added after the latrine and sewage system had been built, in order to compromise for some breakdown in the drainage system that later engineers had “patched” with a lining of this material.

At a certain point, Tony and I were advised to stop digging around the cement in order to preserve what remained and keep this remainder in tact. Along the way, we discovered that the floor of the cistern was actually slanted as well, allowing anything that did not flow through this drain to run down the sides and funnel through the archway. Further investigation of the arch with Tony’s “specialty tool” revealed a similar concrete lining within this feature as well, the final conduit to the ditch on the other side of the wall.

Fig 7

{Figure 7: Sewer arch with cement lining visible}

Much to the disappointment of the other volunteers on site, Tony and I did not find anything else of note in the latrines than the cement. Those frequenting passersby lost interest in the area once the certainty of treasure became nothing more than a pipe dream. The special finds “specialists” continued to highlight their finds in the southern drains and Tony and I were reassigned. The sewer was, in the end, nothing more than a sewer, not a hidden treasury waiting to be revealed. Nevertheless, I felt my longing for the discovery of a “special find” entirely satisfied by the most everyday and human variety of finds that one could happen upon. The site of a compelling soil sample had renewed the mystery of average folk for me. I came away from our assignment in the latrine energized to keep working because I wanted know more, my curiosity had been tapped. I look forward to reading the reports of this soil processed in the lab during the off-season, as finds upon finds may abound with the information evidenced by the soil samples that Tony and I packed up that day.

 As will happen, once I let go of that weak moment of “special find” envy, I did end up finding what I thought I had been looking for before Matt had assigned me to the latrine. Before the season’s end, I had made the kinds of “special finds” that I knew I would describe when asked, “Did you find anything?” A copper hoop earing, possibly a pin popped out of the ground one late afternoon as I was cleaning up for the day. The moment of discovery was one of Zen like variety, as without much effort or, to be honest, particular attention, this artifact presented itself to me. The earing, no bigger than a fingernail, was beautifully crafted with a fine copper clasp. The artifact was recorded in the site log as a “special find.” The spot where it had been discovered, in the corner of the commanding Decurion’s quarters, was marked and tagged.

It comes at no surprise, however, that the find of which I am most proud and the one about which I am most curious, will always be the drain, the cement, and, above all, the waste too valuable for the spoil heap that Tony and I uncovered in the latrine. On the very last day of the season, I chased a drain in the Decurion’s quarters, running counter-directional to the north south walls and under the western wall of the foundation. Reaching a level beyond which this area had been pursued in the current season, I was asked to stop before I could go all the way through to the ditch on the other side, but not before I had taken a soil sample of the soil at the end of the drain. I passed over large glazed potsherds to get to this soil before we broke the site down for the afternoon and the 2014 season. The last person to leave Trench 1 that day, I carried off my white bucket of soil sample with tremendous satisfaction. The thrill of the find, handling the physical remains of a former people (quite literally), and bringing their day-to-day existence to a state of reality through further study and was the most special of finds in the least special of places. What could be more thrilling than a find like that?

Fig 8

{Figure 8: Taking a soil sample from the drain in the last minutes of the 2014 season}

Jeanna Cook is a member of the Classics Department and coaches soccer and lacrosse at St. Mark’s. She lives in Maple & Elm House and is co-head of Burnett House. She earned her B.A. in Classics at Davidson College and just recently completed her M Ed. at Boston University.

References & Further Reading:

Devore, Gary and Shanks, Michael. (December 22, 2010). Edges of Empire – the new excavations at Binchester Roman town, UK. In Electrum Online Magazine. Retrieved   from http://www.vinovium.org/binchester-a-short-account/.

Roman Binchester. Retrieved from http://binchester.blogspot.com

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