Bamburgh Castle in its Landscape Context

Project Director, Graeme Young, will be giving us an update on some of the earlier trenches that the BRP opened in past seasons to explore the relationship between the castle, the Bowl Hole Cemetery and the surrounding landscape.

Trench Updates

Regular followers of the blog will no doubt be familiar with Trench 1, adjacent to St Oswald’s Gate, and Trench 3, where we are excavating in parallel with Dr Hope-Taylor’s 1970s excavation. Trench 2 which originally lay next to Trench 1 was bottomed to bedrock and then back-filled some while ago. Trenches  6 and 7, that were associated with the investigation of the chapel in the Inner Ward, have recently been covered. In order to fill out the picture over the closed season we are reviewing and updating some of our previous work in and around the castle. The fact that we had reached trench number 11 during the Time Team week, when we excavated in the lawn area of the Inner Ward, should give some indication of the wide-ranging work so far undertaken. The updated reports will be added to the website for download in due course and we will do short introductions to them on the blog. In the mean time here is a little update on Trench 4 and 5 will be covered in the next blog entry.

Landscape Location

The castle rock site has been occupied for thousands of years. The fact that it is a natural fortress is perhaps the principal reason for this, but there are other reasons too, such as its coastal location. A site like Bamburgh that provides access to both good agricultural land and the sea combined with a defensive location has a great deal going for it. In order to understand the setting of the fortress as  well as the site itself we have been studying its landscape. We know that an early medieval burial ground lies to the south of the castle and we have been attempting to understand the relationship between the fortress, the burial ground and the sea. Even the most basic investigation of the Ordnance Survey maps, going back to c.1860, shows us that the high tide line lay much closer to the northern side of the castle rock less than 150 years ago. The coastline to the south of the castle has also extended out to sea in that time, with dune field forming in considerable volume. At present when we look at the height above sea level of the low-lying ground of the Bowl Hole itself, a deep hollow in the dunes next to the burial ground to which it gives its name, it seems quite plausible that in earlier periods before dunes accumulated that the tidal beach could have extended right up to the edge of the cemetery. It seems then that the castle rock in earlier times, far from being separated from the sea by a wide expanse of Marram grass and dune in the way we see today, lay intimately close to the sea, with the tides reaching up to the base of the rock.

The castle by the beach
View of the dunes and the Bowl Hole from the castle walls, facing south

A port at Bamburgh?

We know that in the later medieval period the area of the present village was the site of a borough, a semi-urban trading site with a  particular tax status. The Normans encouraged the founding of such sites adjacent to castes, but in the case of Bamburgh we have reason to think that a settlement in the area of the village has been present since at least Anglo-Saxon times. Surviving medieval records speak of the burgesses, the free men of the borough, and their buildings and land. They also mention the founding of a trading port in Budle Bay, a coastal inlet 2km to the north-west of the village in the middle of the 13th century. There is though evidence of the presence of ships at Bamburgh from an earlier time, as Robert de Mowbray Earl of Northumberland was summoned to court to answer the charge of plundering four ships at Bamburgh in 1095. This begs the question of where were these ships? Could there have been something of a port at Bamburgh itself?

We know from research at a number of sites around the country that beach trading site were reasonably common in the early medieval period. At such sites the shallow draft, clinker-built, ships of the period could be drawn up on a beach and a simple market would form around them once the tide had gone out. Such sites tend to be identified by metal detecting as the coins and small metal artefacts dropped onto silt or sand were hard to recover at such places. The wide stretches of beach at Bamburgh, much closer to the castle at earlier times, would be ideal for such a temporary market site.

In addition, study of the first edition Ordnance Survey map shows an intriguing little inlet immediately beyond the defensive outworks of St Oswald’s Gate, close to one of the streets of the medieval borough, the Wynding, and with a spur of higher ground offering a degree of shelter to its north. It occurred to us that this area could have been a small somewhat sheltered anchorage accessed by the earliest gate known to be present at the fortress. We could not resist the urge to investigate.

In 2001 we sited Trench 4 extending down from the base of the steep slope depicted from the earliest maps, eastwards across the base of a low-lying area of ground, now cut off from the sea by the modern dunes, but formerly open to free flood at high tide.

Map of trench location in relation to castle and topography

The hill-like feature, above our possible harbour, had from map evidence, been much altered but was always present, suggesting a natural feature. Our trench revealed that the base of the slope had been reinforced by a layer of stones and that the ‘hill’ beneath was composed of sand. Excavation at the base of the slope cut through silty sand layers with domestic waste, indicating that the low-lying area had been in-filled with rubbish from the village in the post medieval period. Excavation had to stop before any earlier layers could be reached as the trench quickly began to flood.

The excavated trench. The water table can already be seen at the base and the rubble layer overlying the sand mound at the far end.

With this avenue of investigation frustrated we changed tactics and took a series of soil cores to map the natural slope. This indicated that beneath the silt, rubbish and sand layers a much more solid natural surface formed from glacial boulder clay extended as a gentle slope out towards the sea. Relating this slope to the tidal levels indicates that the base of the inlet could well have formed a gently sloping tidal beach suitable for drawing up the clinker-built ships of an earlier age.

We cannot prove it but, it is more than likely that right next to St Oswald’s Gate a small tidal inlet formed a moderately sheltered harbour leading out to a wider beach where markets could have been held in the early medieval period. This arrangement may have lasted as late as the mid 13th century, when the introduction of deeper draft trading vessels led to the founding of a new deeper water port on the south side of Budle Bay. A site today marked as the Newtown on the Ordnance Survey maps.

In the next blog entry we will take a look at Trench 5, which was situated outside St Oswald’s Gate.

3 thoughts on “Bamburgh Castle in its Landscape Context

  1. Pingback: Contagions Round-up 16: Pestilence and Burials « Contagions

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