Casey Stratton's Diary

Tuesday, February 28, 2006 Tuesday, May 9, 2006
Friday, June 30, 2006 Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Wednesday, July 26, 2006 Thursday, July 27, 2006
Friday, July 28, 2006 Saturday, July 29, 2006
Sunday, July 30, 2006 Monday, July 31, 2006
Tuesday, August 1, 2006 Wednesday, August 2, 2006
Thursday, August 3, 2006 Friday, August 4, 2006
Saturday, August 5, 2006 Sunday, August 6, 2006
Monday, August 7, 2006 Tuesday, August 8, 2006
Wednesday, August 9, 2006  

Tuesday, February 28, 2006 Our environmental engineer, Nikki Jacobellis, mentioned to me and a few others at the end of an environment, health, and safety meeting in November that she had participated in an extraordinary project in search of some very elusive primates in Madagascar. Needless to say, she captured our attention. As the details unfolded, the coordinated involvement between Alcoa and Earthwatch came to light.  
I was able to spend more time with her and found out that I may actually be eligible to participate in some project myself. Her genuine enthusiasm about my chances was very infectious, and we dove into the options, requirements, and application together. The weeks of waiting for an answer were hard on both of us. February 1 came, and so did my letter of acceptance!  I'm still in a state of shock and excitement.  

My role as a representative for Alcoa on an Earthwatch expedition took some time to sink in, but I am growing to relish the celebrity status. I just hope I can live up to the expectations. From what I can gather, those expectations won't be anything more than going into the Roman Fort on Tyne project with an open mind, a willingness to work very hard, and an ability to record my experience with accuracy but also add my personal take on it all.

The only other Alcoa employee who will be part of my dig is a female Romanian engineer working in a plant that makes wiring devices for automobiles. Here I am, an American male, making precision castings for fighter aircraft, transmission housings for helicopters, land-based turbine engines, and aerospace engine components in Virginia, USA. Small world!

We are emailing each other and sharing our excitement together. I can't wait for us to meet. It just occurred to me, beyond the obvious satisfaction of going to a new land and exploring a piece of world history, that there will be a sharing of cultures with all the participants that will help us all grow, both as individuals and players on this planet.
I now find myself with five months of planning and anticipation to deal with. Hurry up and wait!  I can't stand it….

Tuesday, May 9, 2006 I attended a phone briefing with Earthwatch and other Alcoa fellows, and all the uncertainty is now being resolved. The briefing was very specific in every detail, including flight booking, vaccination requirements, monetary suggestions, packing issues, and a general overview of what to expect throughout the whole trip. I am beginning to feel that this amazing expedition is a reality, and I am growing very excited!
I now realize that this is going to be real work, but it will be more rewarding than anything I have ever experienced before.  July can’t come soon enough.

Friday, June 30, 2006 Well, five months of anticipation has shrunk to as many weeks, and all the details are falling into place. The logistics of world travel have kept me rather nervous, but the cooperation of so many people on two continents has put my mind at rest.
The Alcoa folks, Earthwatch coordinators, and the South Shields staff have filled in all the gaps. My flight plans are confirmed and clear, the specifics on packing suggestions are duly received and addressed, and even the bus and train schedules are in my hands. All the rungs of the ladder are duly aligned. I even received a map of the city showing my place of residence and its relation to the project site!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006 Well, I can't believe the five-month-long wait is over! I am on my flight to Gatwick Airport in London.

The support I’ve received has been fantastic, what with all the travel packing issues to hammer through. I will catch a train to South Shields upon landing and arrive around midday.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006 I’m settled into my room and should get some rest. I'm too stoked, though, so a short walk to the Roman site is next.

What an amazing site! It covers dozens of acres and is located smack dab in the center of town. There is a rather intimidating spiked iron fence around the perimeter to protect the area.
The Tyne River runs to the east, and the North Sea is beyond a pristine park. Three-kilometer-long (two-mile-long) stone water breaks jut out and triangulate together with a short gap in between to allow ships to enter the river. The 150-year-old light houses at both ends serve as beacons of safety.
The “Herd Sands” on both sides have been a watery grave to recent shipping as well as going back to Roman supply vessels. After major storms, I'm told that many artifact hunters comb the beach with much success. Back inland, 1,800 years of vicious storms and farming have reduced the fort to only foundation lines. However, the wall, barracks, drilling field, and granary storage locations are very discernable.

This massive complex was the main supply hub for all of the sub-forts and infantry that defended the 130-kilometer-long (80-mile-long) Hadrian Wall. This six-meter-high (20-foot-high) obstruction roughly divided England and Scotland.

Got to get some rest! Big day tomorrow.

Thursday, July 27, 2006 We all gathered in the onsite museum and research center. What a diverse group we all appear to be!  Ages range from 16 to 83 and represent folks from Austria, Romania, South England, and the Americas.

Dr. Nick Hodgson gave us an overview on the long history of the fort as well as the 30 years of discoveries excavated prior to us. The military and cultural advantage of this location was appreciated long before the Roman's arrived. Iron Age and pre-historic evidence on this very same sight date back to around 6,500 BC!

The Roman occupation here at Forte Arbeia spanned more than 250 years, and many structural and utilitarian adjustments occurred. Around 200 AD, the south wall was removed, the fort was expanded, and additional storage granaries were added to increase the supplies needed for the wall's troops. The general chronology of these changes are deemed pretty close due to the layering of the evidence.

Well, enough history. It's time for dinner and bed. We start at 9 a.m.

Friday, July 28, 2006 All of the major parties within the archeological staff met us on the specific site that we will be working. For July, the weather seems very cold and windy, but then I remember from my global positioning research that our latitude isn't far off from mid-Canadian locations.

We were told to pack for “sudden and variable” changes in the weather, and that was very good advice. The arctic flow, along with shadow and bright sun, could create a temperature flux of almost 20 degrees within an hour. What further adds to this paradox is that the sun rises around 5:30 a.m. and total darkness falls at 10:45 p.m.   

Anyway, the work site chosen for our tour of duty—excavating a road—doesn't sound like the opportunity for major discovery, but the finds were very revealing. More on that later....

Terry, our main onsite project coordinator, pointed out the large stones that formed the “curb” of the road in question. His description of this major thoroughfare made it clear that it only became such after the south wall was removed and extended some 40 meters (131 feet) beyond. This was done in approximately 180 to 220 AD (new construction!).

The afternoon focused on the digging, scraping, and cleaning techniques that we will be using. We adjourned at 4:30 p.m.

As all the housing facilities are within a five-minute walk and contained in a block or so, we decided to get more acquainted at one of the many local watering holes, better known as “poobs” (pubs) to the locals. The one that seemed to be the best located for us is considered one of the newer ones, as it opened its doors prior to World War I.

Contrary to current impressions, they serve both warm and chilled beers. I can't get close to expressing just how friendly the locals are and how interested they are in us. The feeling is mutual.

Gosh, it’s still light, and we had all better crash (go to bed) in order to get back on site with enough sleep!

Saturday, July 29, 2006 Soon after our gathering, there was a request for volunteers (in two’s) to do some research work on previously found pottery shards within the lab. Being as the weather was very windy and chilly, both my and a Ms. Emily's hands shot up, and we were selected.

Just to explain how long the excavations have gone on here at Arbeia, we were opening plastic bags dating to 1976. Also contained in the bags are pieces of paper with location coordinates, types of fabric, surface characteristics, and finder's identification. We actually held many complete vessels, minus a fragment or two, that are so pristine and detailed, it boggles the imagination. Gods, common folk, rabbits, deer, and even giraffes are depicted around these containers. The shiny, red-baked glaze appears so fresh, it’s hard to believe its age. The bags we are opening don't, however, give such an impression. Black, blonde, and red fragments don't carry the same impact as the compete work, but they all tell a story.

Emily and I are shown a circular chart, not unlike a very detailed bull’s-eye. Our instructions are to take all pottery rim fragments, lay them onto the center of this chart, and slide each outwardly until the curve of the piece fits the chart. This reveals an estimation of the pot rim diameter, as well as the particular piece percentage to the total. I guess my point here is that this type of work isn’t all glamour. The logging and documentation is very critical to the building of the inevitable total picture.
Being the novice I am, I questioned the validity of such activity. There is no way that these shards will ever be fitted back together as the other pots we saw. No argument there. The objective is to identify the various types, ages, origins, and uses, not their reconstruction.

Sunday, July 30, 2006 Wow, our first day off!  Most of the others have planned extended trips to Scotland or down the northern coast. I was invited on many of these excursions, but my inclination was to explore this town of South Shields. Besides, I was slightly concerned about the safety of driving on the left side of the road when I was used to the right side in the U.S.

This community is a very bizarre mix of old churches, municipal buildings, and bridges, as well as a Burger King, McDonald's and a fried chicken place called “EFC” for English fried chicken. The latter’s slogan was “lip-smacking good,” which should sound familiar to those in the U.S. 

There are castle remnants on the other side of the Tyne River referred to as “The New Castle.” It was built in 980 AD! I figured out the ferry situation to the castle due to a great young family who walked me through the whole process. These folks are the most accommodating and friendly people I was ever given the privilege to meet.

As I hiked toward this castle, I noticed a bronze statue of Stanley Laurel that towered over a beautiful park. His birthplace and early upbringing was on that spot (North Shields). I continued to hike to the castle some 3.2 kilometers (two miles) away. It would appear that this location was a military vantage point for many millennia, as the waterfront outlook in front of the castle remains had World War I embattlements still in place. I didn't travel as far as some of my fellow volunteers, but I enjoyed getting familiar with the town and people.

Well, back to the dig tomorrow.

Monday, July 31, 2006 No great finds today. The weather was very good, and the entire group agreed to meet after dinner and head down to the amusement park. It was our first attempt to meet socially and just hang out.
The gambling laws are much more liberal here than in the U.S., as there were entire facilities dedicated to the one-armed bandits (slot machines) I have observed in very select places at home.
Our main objective was to go bowling, but the individual games came to almost US$10. We all drifted to one great ice cream establishment—no low-fat additives here! It was delicious. We then walked along one of the two one-mile-long water breaks built in 1880 and watched an incredible sunset.
I suggested we end the day with a short pint at the pub, but the realization that it was almost 11 p.m. thwarted that idea. The sun sets so late here and rises early!

Tuesday, August 1, 2006 The weather was doing its usual flip-flop between chilly and sweltering, and the project crew noticed our discomfort. It was time to spend the afternoon in the research center enjoying a lecture by Mr. Graeme Stobbs on the history of Hadrian’s Wall. The slides and description of this most amazing structure impressed us all as to the incredibly advanced society and military ambition the Romans practiced.
Fort Arbeia was the main supply depot for Hadrian’s Wall, but certainly not the only one. The Romans supported various lengths of the wall with sub-forts positioned approximately every mile, or as the terrain would allow. These “fortlets” contained a garrison (with 40 to 60 militia). Lookout towers spanned the wall in between, as well.
The wall followed the lay of the land but would elevate wherever a ridge or foothill presented itself in order to have long-range visibility on both sides as well as the obvious advantage of overhead defense.

Graeme also helped pull the concept of the wall into focus—why would the aggressive and invading Romans construct a defensive wall, particularly at this location? Apparently, the Scottish hoards (Celts) were not too keen on having their land trespassed, and they fought with such blood lust and enthusiasm that a stalemate resulted. History also indicates that the foul northern weather, rugged terrain, and strong resistance proved the risk far outweighed the reward.

Wednesday, August 2, 2006 The climate graced us with no flip-flops today. It started bad and got even worse. By 10:30 a.m., a steady, windy rain shut down our work. The upside was we were all given yet another opportunity to enjoy a lecture by one of the most senior and interesting archeologists involved in Roman history.

Professor Paul T. Bidwell was on the site today. As he stated before his talk began, his interest in such areas as Roman history began before I was born, and I'm not young! His lecture focused on his primary area of choice, which is Roman pottery. I used my digital recorder to capture his lecture, and it’s amazing to hear how much detail involving the daily life of people so long past can be envisioned in such a seemingly mundane artifact as vessels. To hear his words flow so matter-of-factly about such incredible finds and facts underscore the impact they had on me.

It would appear that the Roman soldiers, as well as the peripheral community, had a taste for wine and other spirits. This was the reason they needed so many containers. That is not to assume that the entire population was drunk all the time. They drank lightly fermented beverages to avoid the water-borne pathogens that were common and often fatal.

One particular fragment displayed a rather toothy and almost primitive figure that, as Dr. Bidwell described, could be a potential example of import activity from the Aztec or Mexican culture. The court is still out as to the origin of such a find, but how fascinating is that! I actually have a photo of said example!

The meeting broke up about 3 p.m., and most of us took refuge in the a pub. We had a great meal and downed a few. What fun enjoying others from elsewhere.

Thursday, August 3, 2006 The site was quite soaked this morning. Not to worry—the sun was at full mast. The steam and humidity turned the previous day’s cold, damp experience into the opposite. Everyone broke out the water bottles and sun screen, and we stripped off all protective clothing except our hats and shades. What amazed us all was that the principle investigators were very pleased with the lucky weather team #4 has had so far! I guess we sometimes forget just what country and at what latitude we are located.
The only upside was that the rain had softened the dig site soil. This makes the removal much easier.

Friday, August 4, 2006 Today’s discoveries were pretty much the same as previous days except for a 1.3 by 2.5 centimeter (0.5 by one inch) shard of pane glass turned up by Dan. He tossed it aside. It was perfectly clear, and it seemed to be of a much more modern origin. Not so! The Romans, even of this early period, did have glass windows. They were sparse but in use, nonetheless.

The PIs were rather pleased by the find. Their explanation was very interesting. The technology for creating such panes was obviously advanced, but the capability to melt down and refine sand to such purity was only done in the homeland. Broken remnants were sent to this site. The wherewithal to re-melt and re-pane was possible here and in many other places they settled.

Saturday, August 5, 2006 Many of the areas on the road that we have been exposing previously now needed re-orientation. This meant yet another period of site logistics involving depth and grid recording. This type of excavating is equally tedious and rewarding. It really is important to orient all of the finds so eventually a complete picture can be drawn.

As I looked well beyond the 1.2-meter-deep (four-foot-deep) exposure we were digging in, there were still acres left to uncover. The estimate is probably another 100 years at the current rate.

I can't speak for the others to follow, but my guess is that they will be equally sucked in by the finds, history and the entire experience.

Sunday, August 6, 2006 Today, we gathered to take a trip to one of the other forts, some 32 kilometers (20 miles) inland. Dr. Nick Hodgson and the entire group met up, and we all boarded a bus. The route pretty much followed the path of Hadrian’s Wall. It was surprising that most of the journey was through populated and developed areas. With the wall’s obvious age, its presence was sparse, but it would pop up here and there.

We were dropped off a good five to eight kilometers (three to four miles) from the destination fort. The walk was both beautiful and exhausting. The contour of this English landscape is hilly and chilly.
The wall was a sight to behold. It’s only a 1.2-meter-tall (four-foot-tall) shadow of its former six-meter (19.7-foot) self, but its cutting image across the terrain still reflects the impermeability and intimidation that it was intended to convey. Approximately every mile, a guard depot with living quarters for a small militia of eight or so was built. Openings on both ends offered access to the other side. One can only imagine the bargaining with those who wanted to visit the other side; perhaps sheep, cattle, or whatever!

The fort of destination was, and is, named Vindolanda. Its period was obviously in tune with our fort, Arbeia. It was smaller, but it had some distinct archeological advantages. Its existence spanned an equally lengthy period, but its inland location sheltered it from many of the harsh weather conditions. The salt spray, driving winds, and continuous habitation in South Shields were not as much a deteriorating force here. Also, as the layering of new development was covered with an almost air- and water-tight foundation of clay, Vindolanda’s many artifacts were well-preserved. Some examples are leather booties from some long-ago infant's foot, as well as written notes on thin wooden parchments. The most incredible of these was an invitation to a child’s birthday party. The writer thanked the other for the invite and asked if there was anything she could bring! I guess social etiquette goes back at least two millennia.

A well-organized and impressive museum presented these finds, along with alabaster and onyx jewelry and Roman coins. One amazing day!  We all got back too late for our prescribed 6 p.m. supper, so we winged it and went to one of the local accommodations.

Monday, August 7, 2006 Well, this was our last full day on the dig sight, and what a day it turned out to be! One of the granary interior walls that was exposed by the previous team three weeks earlier had a stone with an inscription on it, and the team didn't notice it! How sad for them and fortunate for us. It was an easy mistake, as this stone was on the interior, at the baseline of the foundation, and upside down.
The local experts hurried out, and the scrutiny began. As to its unusual position and location, there seems little doubt that it was one of the resurrected stones from the original exterior fort wall that was recycled. The initial translation was something like the modern “Kilroy was here” graffiti. It had a name, similar to Lucius Marcius, and some numerals that may have been a date or, perhaps, some meter totals referring to a segment of wall finished by Roman construction workers/soldiers. That was pretty exciting.

My trowel came upon yet another rusty spot, but it didn't shrink into a few nails. Instead, the spot continued to grow to approximately 23 centimeters by 38 centimeters (9 inches by 15 inches). It had no form to speak of. I gently dug under in order to eradicate it intact, but that wasn't to be. It broke into three large pieces. These were placed in what I took to be a kitty litter box with sand. The theories were it was maybe a small remnant of overlapping shoulder plates and/or some breastplate fragments. I was assured that I would be contacted as to what, if anything, it was.

Tuesday, August 8, 2006 This is our last (half) day on the site. There was not too much excavation activity, as we were all planning a farewell cookout that evening. My lower back urged me to enthusiastically volunteer to be one of the chosen few to shop for the meal.          
We all agreed with the seasoned site personnel that previous catering attempts were both expensive and not in tune to the mood of this emotional and festive occasion, so a barbeque was held in the reconstructed officer's quarters right next to our dig. It is a really impressive structure that’s on the original foundation and replicated as accurately as other models would indicate. The reconstructed rooms are roped off, so only a peek in the doorway was allowed. The dining vestibule is beyond description. What a treat.    

Our final time together was shared in the pub until almost midnight. A cold mist was falling outside as we all hugged and said our goodbyes. What a hard and bittersweet moment.

Wednesday, August 9, 2006 My flight out of Gatwick Airport in London was for August 10. I intentionally allowed an extra day to handle any contingencies that might occur, but I wasn't prepared for an international terrorist threat. It seems that a plot to blow up international flights leaving London bound for the U.S. was exposed four hours prior to my departure! Leaving out the details, I hit my own beautiful bed 27 unrested hours later. My luggage was two days away.

In summary, I will be absorbing, digesting, and registering this most amazing adventure for some time to come. As awesome as the dig, history, and scenery were, I feel the most relevant part to me was the relationships with so many incredible and friendly folks. My co-volunteers, the archeologists, and the genuinely friendly locals have given me a new perspective on just how diverse, similar, and inter-dependent we, as a species, all are to each other on this shrinking planet.

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Roman Fort on Tyne

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