This Director’s 2021 Round-up Report will split into two posts. This blog post is a round-up of previous work undertaken in the excavation area and sets out what our aims were for the 2021 season. The second post will look at how the actual excavation results matched up to what we expected and will look forward to next season and its new goals.
The 2021 Excavation Area: what we know
The focus for the 2021 dig season was St Oswald’s Gate and the area of outworks below it. Regular readers of the blog will be quite aware that St Oswald’s Gate is known to have been the original entrance to the castle – with the current gate taking over the role of principal entrance at some point in the 12th century. We do not have an actual description of the construction of the Great Gate in the records that survive but there is fabric of this date in the vault of the Constables Tower that forms part of the complex entrance behind the Great Gate. So we can date the new entry arrangement within a few decades at least.
We do have at least one, much earlier, record describing St Oswald’s Gate as the entrance, dating from from AD 774 that states – Bamburgh as ‘having one hollowed entrance ascending in a wonderful manner by steps’ – a clear reference to St Oswald’s Gate as we see it today. As we have radiocarbon evidence for the fortress being occupied since the 9th century BC, its reasonable to think this was the entrance to the site for 2000 years! So I am sure you can understand why investigating this area of the site is important to our understanding of the fortress and its long history.
One of the reasons that the gate remained in this area for so long, apart from being at a lower lying part of the bedrock and so more practical for access to the castle rock, is that it was able to service a small port that lay to the immediate north of the castle. It is logical then that this entrance and its access routes, and how they were used, goes back a very long time and is much older than the outworks that stand in partial ruins to this day. Nevertheless study of the various phases of the structures that do survive, and how they were likely used, will help us understand how the topography may have dictated long standing routes much older than the standing structures themselves.
The current phase of investigation is the second undertaken by us beyond St Oswald’s Gate (see images below). The first was way back in 2002 but was not continued as resources were needed elsewhere. It did though show us that the area was important and needed further work, so its good to be able to concentrate on this area now. The original work identified the phases of the St Oswald’s Gate main structure that we can match to the historical records. This included two phases of medieval build to the gate as well as identifying traces of timber elements of the structure known from records. The two phases should be 12th century and a 13th century widening and update to the structure. We also know of timber elements that were sent to Bamburgh from a castle at Nafferton that was for form a breteche – a defensive structure that juts out over agate to allow nasty things to be dropped on anyone attempting to force their way in.
There are a number of standing ruined walls outside of the gate forming outworks beyond the gate, sited we are sure, to control access to the gate itself and also how people would be able to move in the area. The structures that we see represent many phases of build, the earliest thought to be 11th to 12th century in date, extends south-west from the castle rock and is narrow in width and has a narrow tall archway passing through it that led towards the port area. Underlining the importance of the port if it was needed. This multiphase wall was then cut through by a newer medieval wall with a Postern gate that clearly led to the village. It is tempting to see this construction phase as responding to the creation of a new port in Budle Bay around the middle of the 13th century and we must assume that this means the little port goes out of use at this time. Perhaps a reason for rebuilding and realigning the outworks.
The Tower of St Elmund’s Well
One structure we were not able to identify in 2002 was the Tower at Elmund’s Well, known from documentary records to have been in the outworks and, rather obviously from the description, to have contained or guarded a well. We have records of the tower being repaired in AD 1250 so we know it was in place by then and if needing repair had likely been built some time before. This record mentions both the repair of the tower and the repair of the ‘barbican before St Oswald’s Gate’, which explains at least some of the phasing in the outworks that we see and perhaps records the remodelling that we see with the new wall and Postern construction.
To guide us in finding and investigating the tower and well we have two plans that show the outworks in some detail. The earliest of these is from 1803 and is the only plan we have that shows the location of the well. The building, including what remained of the tower, is shown as L-shaped and entered by steps from the south-west and these steps led down to the well room at the west end. The second plan was compiled by Cadwallader Bates (an Antiquarian) for the 1st Lord Armstrong in 1895 and shows some alterations to the entrance but seems to confirm the general shape and arrangements.
The 2021 excavation was intended to help us interpret the build sequence and understand these alterations and also tell us if the plans are accurate. We were also very keen to be able to define the medieval elements from the post-medieval cottage and perhaps identify how early the tower was constructed.
We will go over how many of these questions we have answered this season and what remains to be done next year in our next blog post. For sneak peak, you can always look at our earlier blog posts…..