The Bowl Hole: Part Three

Scientific Research at the Bowl Hole Cemetery.

Once the skeletons have been recorded, removed and cleaned they are then ready for the post-excavation process. This work has been carried out by Dr. Sarah Groves and her colleagues at the University of Durham.

Dr. Groves first came to work at Bamburgh as a student and now her on-going research is shedding light on the individuals buried just outside the castle walls. For an in-depth discussion of Dr. Groves’ work please follow the link

To begin with, each skeleton undergoes rigorous examination to determine sex, age, height etc. plus any evidence of disease and trauma.

A skeleton laid out in its anatomical position.
Skeleton’s laid out for examination.

The skeletal analysis has suggested that most of the adults are tall, robust individuals with little sign of malnourishment or disease. This has lead Dr. Groves to suggest that these individuals were of a high status background and therefore, likely to be some of the elite residents of Bamburgh Castle.

Some individuals have more to say than others. For example, one male has evidence of extensive trauma to the side of his body caused by a slashing implement, such as a sword. The trauma inflicted on the body would likely have ended this individual’s life.

Further scientific analysis has been undertaken by Dr. Sarah Groves to determine the movements and diets of the inhabitants of the cemetery. Isotopic analysis of traces of strontium and oxygen taken from tooth enamel (tooth enamel is used because it does not degrade in the ground or reproduce during life) has a specific signature which can be compared with known levels across the world.

Skull with surviving teeth, which can be used for isotopic analysis 

The results of isotopic analysis can, therefore, tell us where people lived during their childhood. For example, skeletons excavated during the 1999 season were subject to isotopic analysis. The results indicated that none of the individuals came from the Bamburgh area, instead their results suggest that they were from the wider Bernician community.

Dr. Sarah Groves taking samples for isotopic and DNA analysis.

Isotopic analysis has also been undertaken to determine diet, using carbon and nitrogen isotopes. Furthermore, a DNA feasibility test has also been undertaken, as DNA can help us sex skeletons and recognise family groups. The findings of this project are currently been turned into a monograph publication, plus there are also a number of published and forthcoming articles.


Groves, S.E. (2010) Feasting or Fasting? Diet and Health in Early Medieval Northumbria. 5000 Years of Death and Disease. Festival of British Archaeology Day School, Durham.

Groves, S.E. (2010) The Bowl Hole Cemetery, Bamburgh: Life and Death in Early Medieval Northumberland. Teesside Archaeological Society, Stockton.

Roberts, C.A. (2009) Where did people buried in the Bowl-Hole, Bamburgh originate? Some answers and a general overview of developments in recognizing migrations in bioarchaeologyNewcastle Antiquaries, Newcastle

Groves, S.E. 2007-8 Bodies in the Bowl Hole – Life and Death in Anglo-Saxon Bamburgh. Paper presented at the Tees Archaeology Day School “Angles on the Saxons, Stockton, November 2007, and for the Newcastle Historical Studies Society, February 2008

Groves, S.E. (2007) Human remains from the Bowl Hole Anglo-Saxon cemetery, Bamburgh. Public lecture given to the Northumberland Archaeological Group


Groves, S.E., Wod, P. and Young, G. (2009) The Bowl Hole Early Medieval Cemetery at Bamburgh, Excavations 1998 to 1999. Archaeologica Aeliana 38: 105–22

Groves, S.E. (2010) The Bowl Hole Burial Ground; A Late Anglian cemetery in Northumberland. In J. Buckberry and A. Cherryson (eds): Burial in Later Anglo-Saxon England, c.650 to 1100AD. 114 – 125. Oxbow Books

Groves, S.E. (in Press) Social and Biological Status in the Bowl Hole Early Medieval burial ground, Bamburgh, Northumberland. In Petts, D and Williams, H. (eds) Early Medieval Northumbria. Brepols

Further links

As part of the project, geophysical survey of the area was also undertaken, suggesting the presence of several anomalies which could be graves and associated features. To read the report follow the link.

2 thoughts on “The Bowl Hole: Part Three

  1. It seems every year when i am teaching in our Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Memphis, at some point the question will be raised if other countries have legislation governing the use and access to indigenous human remains such as NAGPRA here in the States. I have yet to find any. Is there any such consideration in Britain?

  2. We do have legislation regarding the excavation of human remains in the UK (England and Scotland have differing legal systems though) but the situation has traditionally been quite permissive of such research. There are recent problems regarding to changes in England that have demanded a rather tight time-scale between excavation and reburial. Hopefully this will be revisited given the advances in scientific analysis and the time such analysis takes.

    There has also been a campaign by druid groups to have prehistoric burials held in museums re-buried. This led English Heritage to undertake a consultation with the public, the results of which led to the rejection of the request. Generally the UK public seem to be in favour of such research provided it is undertaken respectfully.

    The IfA ( will have papers on their site regarding legislation and good practice if its is of interest.


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