Fresh from the Wash and a Quest for a Hero?

Yesterday we officially opened Trenches 5a and 5b!

Trench Supervisor Constance briefs a small group on how they will use a mattock to clear the topsoil of Trench 5a marked with pink string.

Much of what was cleared from the ground surface before we properly broke ground includes modern rubbish, and since the trench technically didn’t exist until yesterday afternoon, we’ve changed today’s weekly “Fresh from the Trench” to a “Fresh from the Wash” since we have TWO small finds!

Fresh from the Wash

We have more news on the small find we mentioned yesterday, as we’ve crowdsourced some theories from trusted colleagues.

The bone object, though looking delicate, is robust. We initially considered it might be used on, or associated with, textiles, and most of the suggestions also align with that. General consensus thus far seems to be it might be a tool used in weaving, such as to hold tension for fibres! We will continue looking for parallels to the object and update when we can.

We have also checked our context sheets from the 2020 season for more information about where both objects were found. Context sheets are one of our most common bits of paperwork and provide information about a particular archaeological layer or event, such as a cut for a post-hole or the material that accumulates in a ditch. Each ‘event’ is given a context number and we generate, through excavation and recording, information for this event. The context sheet draws all this information together on one piece of paper alongside the interpretation of the ‘event.

This information includes information about the soil (color, soil texture (comparing size of the particles), soil compaction (on a spectrum of loose to firm), how it dries, and what sort of artefacts are found within it). It also records things like area and depth, how you excavated (trowels, mattocks, or other tools), what the site conditions were (usually particularly extreme weather gets noted), and its relationship to other contexts already described. We include a quick sketch to show those relationships, but the context is also recorded more precisely with to-scale plans (from above) and section drawings (from the side). The form includes space for noting the associated plans and photographs. Lastly, a preliminary interpretation is offered, which can be updated as the context is excavated more fully.

The sketch on the back of the context sheet form for 3672.

The flat object with two pierced holes was found just above a beloved (not sure if I’m being sarcastic or sincere, honestly) and long-time feature of the trench: a layer of cobbles that has cropped up across different areas of the trench, and which many students have painstakingly cleaned and drawn over the seasons. We have a pretty solid set of dates for that cobble surface of late 7th/early 8th centuries, putting the object in the early medieval period.

You can see this cobble layer above, numbered 3589. The first digit being 3 tells us this in Trench 3, the trench in the West Ward where we found the recent roundhouse, plenty of evidence for metal-working and several phases of structures during the early medieval period, later medieval rubbish dump, and, of course, the WWI latrine pits that have been with us since we opened the trench.

The worked end of the bone object.

The second small find of the season is another piece of worked bone, this time with a sawn, slightly-rounded end. It also came from Trench 3, but its context number is 4008. Why? Because after two decades of excavation, we described over 1000 contexts in the trench. Simply put, we didn’t expect that at all when we decided to use a four-digit context numbering system. The piece was discovered in the layer underneath the mortar mixer area in Trench 3. Its size and shape may suggest it was a tool handle, perhaps holding a metal point.

The Quest

We’ve been doing some research on Bamburgh’s witchy history in preparation for the investigation of the Witch’s Cottage that is now part of Trench 5b. The cottage was built into Elmund’s Tower in the early modern period, coming at the end of the absolute height of the witchcraft persecutions (more on that in a future blogpost), and we are hoping to get a better grasp on the timing. But we’ve found a story quite a bit older…in an upcoming blogpost, we will share that bit of folklore and some thoughts on it. For now, we wanted to share that the story involves an witch being turned into a toad as punishment for her cruel spell and her penchant for schemes. So we put this to the students: Who will find the witch?

In 2013, while giving a public tour, a lovely old toad landed on me, and she allowed me to walk around the West Ward carrying her on my hand while talking to a dozen visitors. I didn’t know the tale at the time, but I’m very glad I helped her on her way and hopefully did not offend. I would love to meet her again…and this sounds like a missed connections advert on the internet, but in any case, I think it is crucial to find the toad and get her side of the story.


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