Experimental archaeology, instruments, and Vindolanda: TRACamp 2018

A couple of weeks ago, the project’s replica instruments (accompanied by Ellen and myself) got the opportunity to be played at an authentic Roman site. We were lucky enough to attend TRACamp at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall – an event run by the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference which combined papers on research using experimental archaeology, with a day of workshops and live demonstrations for members of the public who visited the site.

The site of Vindolanda, on Hadrian’s Wall – with amazing weather! Photo: Jo Stoner

We gave our paper on the processes of reconstruction for making the replica musical instruments from the Petrie, alongside papers from other researchers. Topics were diverse and ranged from the issues of working with modern craftsmen to reproduce Roman glass bangles (Tatiana Ivleva), to the production processes used by Roman potters (Graham Taylor), to the role of technology in reproducing light levels within Roman houses (Lucia Michielin) – the full list of speakers can be found here. The day was incredibly useful and provided a great opportunity to hear about the benefits and challenges that others working with both old and new technologies have encountered during their experimentations. The second day at the site saw us set up an interactive instrument session within the reconstructed Temple of the Nymphs near the museum in Vindolanda. The location was beautiful and also provided us with a great opportunity to hear the instruments played outdoors in a different environment.

The Temple of the Nymphs, where our instrument workshop was located, next to the stream in Vindolanda Museum. Photo: TRAC.org.uk.

The Temple is situated next to a stream, and the cymbals, clappers, and panpipes could all be clearly heard above the sound of the water, and as far as the workshop tents on the other side of the outdoor area. Members of the public had the opportunity to visit and learn about the different rhythms used in the Roman period, and to try them out on the percussion replicas – the pottery rattles, wooden clappers, and brass cymbals.

Ellen Swift playing the finger cymbals inside the reconstructed Temple of the Nymphs, Vindolanda. Photo: Jo Stoner

Visitors also learned about the processes involved in scanning and 3D printing the panpipes, as well as being able to have a go at playing them! By numbering each pipe on the replica, we were able to create instructions for playing a simple tune – the end phrase of the theme Ode to Joy by Beethoven – which many people successfully had a go at! Some of the insights that visitors provided us with were great – whilst discussing bells we had a fruitful conversation about modern practices of placing bells on horses to repel evil spirits. Many people also had suggestions about how the wooden clappers were originally tied together based on the extant holes – something we are still mulling over.

Some visitors to the Temple of the Nymphs try out some Roman rhythms on the wooden clappers. Photo: TRAC.org.uk

Whilst this was happening, other stalls on the site were offering further interactive events – and we managed to sneak out to take a look ourselves. Food specialist Sally Grainger had brought a range of different garum based sauces for visitors to try.

Food specialist Sally Grainger, with some of her fish sauce (garum). Photo: TRAC.org.uk.

One was in the form of a vinaigrette, mixed with olive oil, honey, black pepper, and reduced grape juice to produce a sweet and sour dip that was served with melon. The garum itself was potent but tasty! Smelling very similar to Thai fish sauce, it was rich in umami savouriness – something we learnt was thanks to the high levels of nitrogen that ensured its protein-based flavour.

Clothing expert Faith Morgan with a very willing model. Photo: TRAC.org.uk

One of the other stalls included reconstructed late Roman clothing – various tunics, cloaks, and mantles for men, women and children – all made based on patterns and dimensions from archaeological remains by clothing specialist and Kent alumnus Faith Morgan. These were available for visitors to try on, and set up next to reenactor Michael Gasparro who was on hand to create intricate Roman hairstyles for willing participants. The weather was beautifully clear but rather cold….which ensured that some of the conference attendees took the opportunity to try on the replica clothing! This resulted in an impromptu procession across the Vindolanda site, with our replica musical instruments a key part of it. The aim was to evoke the contexts and behaviours in which many of our instruments would have been originally used – for example, in religious processions and ritual activities.

The procession participants playing the Roman instruments in the fort of Vindolanda. Photo: TRAC.org.uk

It was a real treat to be able to hear the sounds of our Roman replicas drift across the original Roman fort and towards Hadrian’s wall. To see more photos from the two-day event, along with the full list of speakers and workshops, see http://trac.org.uk/tracamp-2018/.


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