Spending two weeks diggin’ in England

Matt Patry displays a tablet he found in Vindolanda, top. Patry poses in a trench at the fort, bottom.

For most people, summer vacation usually means rest from school, maybe a trip to the beach or just enjoying the comforts of home.

But Student Life Director Matt Patry is not like most people. For two weeks of his summer, Patry spent his time digging in the dirt in northern England, searching for artifacts around a Roman fortress, built between 74 A.D. and 85 A.D., called Vindolanda.

“I grew up here in Vermont,” he said, “and we lived in an old farmhouse built in 1876. The guy who built it was a surgeon during the Civil War.”

That is where Patry’s love for archaeology began.

He grew up in a little town called Belmont, he said, and visiting friends would mean getting in a car. So, he spent most of his time digging up stuff in his backyard. And, Patry said he always had a love for history. It even took him to then Castleton State College to major in history.

“My original plan was to go off to grad school for archaeology,” he said. “But then I got very active as a student leader on campus, and got the student life bug, and so I ended up not going into archaeology, but it’s always been a love of mine.”

His love for archaeology is evident.

On one table in his office sits a few archaeology magazines. He discovered Vindolanda, however, while hiking Hadrian’s Wall, built by Roman emperor Hadrian in 122 A.D., with his wife two years ago.

“It’s about 87 miles from coast to coast,” he said. “While we were hiking the wall, of course, we took in a lot of the archaeological sites and museums. One of the sites we went to was Vindolanda.”

It was at Vindolanda that he found out, after a 45-minute chat with an archaeologist, that volunteers are accepted to come work on the site every year. Patry applied and was accepted.

Castleton professor and archaeologist Matt Moriarty says that archaeology is a very detailed-oriented task.

“The excavations themselves are destructive,” he said. “If you don’t document things correctly the first time, you can’t go back and do it again.”

He also said that archaeology in itself is a both time and labor intensive – and that’s where volunteers come in.

“Energetic and engaged volunteers can help in excavations, screening excavated soil for artifacts, or later sorting those artifacts in the lab,” he said.

Vindolanda is nine fortresses built on top of one another, Patry said. He was working in the Antonine Fort – fort number six – when, upon instruction from one of the archaeologists on the site to dig two inches deeper, he made a discovery.

“I took my spade, and I slid it in two inches deep,” he said, “and there, laying in front of me is this gorgeous bone handle.”

In his second week, he found a Roman writing tablet – a wooden tablet with the center carved out and wax poured in the center so that they could write on it. These tablets, Patry said, can be read by a special computer, and often times give information on life at the fort.

“The most famous one that they ever found there,” he said, “is actually a birthday invitation. It’s a letter from one of the commanding officer’s wives to another wife, and it’s the only piece of female handwriting from the Roman empire ever to be found.”

For biology major and SGA member Natasha Lewis, finding out Patry’s interest in archaeology was surprising.

“I didn’t know that about him until this year,” she said. “I was in SGA all last year. I was surprised that he was that interested in history. That surprised me.”

Patry wants to go back to Vindolanda, but there are other sites on his radar.

“There’s some sites definitely in Ireland that I’ve always thought were really interesting,” he said. “I’m a history buff. I love history, and I love to be around it. The opportunity to do things like this, it just makes me very happy to get involved with this sort of things.”

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