Project Director, Graeme Young, shares some of his thoughts about the progress of the archaeology at Bamburgh Castle during the 2011 season.
Thoughts from the Project Director
Some weeks have now passed since we completed the summer excavation at Bamburgh. Time enough to reflect on a season that was not just successful but also a lot of fun. I would guess for most people the most obvious product of the excavation process are the finds that are produced. These certainly can be fascinating and exciting in their own right, as we know from our recent find of decorated gold but I have to say, on a personal level, the element that most attracts me to archaeology is the ‘detective story’, the opportunity to piece together the story of past events from their archaeological remains. So what was the story that we were hoping to continue and how well did we do?
A few years ago we extended Trench 1 all the way to St Oswald’s Gate cleft in order to expose more of the early medieval buildings we had revealed and also to try and understand how they related to the entrance to the fortress. Up to last year we were still carefully excavating our way down towards these structures and one of our goals for this season was to find our first trace of at least one of these buildings showing through. Looking at the evidence from this summer I am now more than happy that evidence of not one but both buildings is emerging in the extension. Both are seen extending parallel to the gate cleft in the form of cut away sections of the bedrock and in the case of the robber cut for the stone building (Building B) we can now see its west side cut through both soil layers and the bedrock. This means that we can trance three sides of the building clearly and just possibly we can now add an eastern return in the form of two worked stone blocks that we know are on the correct alignment now we have digitised some of our recent plans onto computer. The timber building too has a possible east side, again based on alignments seen from digitised plans. In this case an area of broadly rectangular rubble, the end of which seems to respect the line expected for the east end of the building.
These results have exceeded our hopes but still leave plenty of questions for next year. The most obvious of which is to see if our provisional identification of the east sides to our buildings stand up to detailed investigation. If so then we will have uncovered the full extent of the buildings and can concentrate on identifying features within them that may tell us about how they were used. We assume that they are associated with the gate, probably gate-wards halls, but is this correct? We will also, we hope, be able to reveal a direct stratigraphic relationship between them too, which should be present in the area beneath the hearth.
Trench 3 is by far the larger of the two trenches currently under investigation and as such it is perhaps not surprising that it is also the most complex and difficult to understand. Last year we managed to identify a timber building and path-like feature in the southern part of the trench. This was associated with a lot of metal finds and with a styca coin hoard too, leading to the theory that this was an area of metalworking in the 9th century. This year we had the ambitious aim of extending our understanding of such structural evidence across a much wider area of the trench. We have concentrated on the baulk area (an area of unexcavated stratigraphy left in between Hope-Taylor’s excavation trenches) and on the northern part of the trench, where it runs up to the bedrock.
One of the most intriguing features that has perplexed us since last year was a rectangular group of worked stone slabs that we thought was a threshold to a substantial building.
The obvious question was, where was this building? We know that a timber building, even if very large, can be very hard to trace if its construction techniques does not include the excavation of foundation trenches. Such buildings can though be identified by subtle remains such as floor surfaces that run up to wall lines and material that collects against formerly standing walls. This is why we have to look very carefully to try and pick out patterns, and one of the principle reasons why a larger open area excavation is far superior to small-scale trenching.
This year we believe that we have identified such patterns. The first was defined by a series of stones that seem to respect a north to south line, with areas of paving-like slabs to their east but not it would appear to their west. The second was within the pattern of the burnt ash layers themselves. Hope-Taylor, in his notebooks, had spoken of a catastrophic burning event and it was suggested by Paul, one of the Project Directors, that the burnt layers lay as a series of relatively linear spreads, also on a north to south alignment, and most importantly either side of the threshold feature.
So what could this mean? Well it is exciting to speculate that we could be seeing traces of a large probably originally ground standing timber building with a stone entrance through its timber wall that later burnt down. The stone alignment could in this case mark the line of an ailed wall with the eastern half of this large building lying to the east of our trench. This would mean that much of trench three lay within a building at one time. An exciting prospect as we could find internal structures that could reveal the use to which the building was put. Of course first we will have to prove if this interpretation is correct. If it is then this season we will have gone a long way towards gaining a general understanding of the features within the majority of the trench area. Not a bad result for a few weeks in the summer.