Bamburgh and the Last Kingdom what’s the real story? Part 1- a real Uhtred??

Bernard Cornwell’s ‘Last Kingdom’ books, and the related TV series, has generated a huge amount of interest and a considerable fan-base. As Bamburgh features so prominently in the story, as the original home of the protagonist – Uhtred – and its recovery by him was one of the main long term plot drivers, its fair to say that Bamburgh is now more widely known than it was before. We experienced this during our excavation seasons, as every year we seemed to chat to more and more fans, many of whose visit to Bamburgh had been inspired by the books and the TV series.

Bamburh Castle today. The principal palace fortress of the Earls of Northumbria and a place so important to Uhtred. It would have looked very different in his day but was even by then almost certainly a stone fortress.

We are of course delighted that so many people have been inspired to learn more about the early medieval period as a result, but its not always easy to give simple answer to some of the more common question – such as: how much of the story is real? That is not an easy question to answer as the books are very well researched and draw a great deal from historical reality, but of course in the end they are a work of fiction telling a good yarn! In the next few blogs we will aim to cover the areas where the story touches on historical reality and what Bamburgh would have been like at that time. We very much hope that the answers will be interesting and if it leads to a few more people learning about an extraordinary place then we see that as a very good thing.

Was there a historical Uhtred?

This is one of the most frequently asked question we hear. And the answer is annoyingly both yes and no! There is, as it happens, more than one Uhtred in this period associated with Bamburgh and one of them stands out as having inspired the character of the books. He lived at a later time and so was not present for the real historical events described in the books but much of his story and character will seem familiar. In fact in the historical note at the end of the first book Bernard Cornwell informs us that although his Uhtred is a fictional character he represents a real family who did indeed have a member called Uhtred. He also tells us that he has an ancestral link to this family. With these few clues its easy to identify the historical Uhtred that lies behind the character of the books and who has gone down in history as Uhtred the Bold.

‘Uhtrede eorle’ as his name appears in Version C of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (wiki commons)

He was born some time in the later 10th century and became the Alderman or Earl of Northumberland in the early 11th century. These two terms represent a noble of great rank, alderman being the Old English (OE) title and earl the Old Norse (ON), we will use earl in this blog as it very much became the norm in this later period. He is clearly the inspiring character as there are many elements of his story that will seem familiar. He was of course first and foremost a renowned warrior and was also connected to the kings of the house of Wessex, even marrying a daughter of that royal house. His king was Aethelred the Unready, a king descended from Alfred the Great but of very different character indeed! This Uhtred, like the Uhtred of the books, was married a number of times and had enemies and allies within the Viking descended community of the Danelaw and the north.

Part of an illustrious family

So far so very like the Uhtred of the books, but what else do we know of him? He was the son of the Earl of Northumberland called Waltheof and had a brother called Eadulf. Uhtred’s Father’s name – Waltheof – was an OE name derived from and ON name and the name Uhtred itself was from OE. This mix of Viking and Anglo-Saxon naming within the family was very typical of a hybrid culture that developed over many generations within the Danelaw and the North of England. Our historical knowledge of the period is very dependent of course on those who were literate and what they thought important enough to write down. As literacy was very much a church thing, the records are often a little biased towards what was important to a monastic community. The idea of keeping a year by year historical record of events had started in the 8th century as an attempt to compile follow on records continuing on from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. This tradition of record keeping was given a great boost when Alfred the Great encouraged the keeping of such annals in order to promote literacy and to ensure that the deeds of his dynasty would be remembered. The results of this initiative survives to us today as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (in fact a series of parallel chronicles compiled in different monasteries) but these only became properly detailed in the 11th century. We will see that gaps in our knowledge are a real problem for earlier times and we will often be left to speculate.

The immediate family tree of Uhtred

We know from such records that our historical Uhtred had connections with Aldhun the Bishopric of Durham as he married Ecgthryth the bishop’s daughter. This is a reminder that the world of the 10th and 11th centuries was rather different to how we often imagine the medieval period. Perhaps this is because we are generally more familiar with the better documented later Middle Ages, where a celibate clergy was the norm. At this earlier time the church, particularly in the north (where so much had been disrupted during the Viking Age) could be something of a family business with clerics a little like landed aristocrats. This seems to have been the background to Uhtred’s marriage as it was associated with a number of estates going to Uhtred as a dowry. Through this connection Uhtred was involved in the creation of the new site of the church of St Cuthbert at Durham, and was noted to have helped to clear the area for the new monastery in AD 995. This may be a clue as to the period in which that marriage occurred and suggests to us that Uhtred was of a grown up at this time. Before the creation of this new monastery in the loop of the River Wear at Durham the relics of St Cuthbert and his monastic community had been centred on a church at Chester-le-Street where they had settled in AD 883. This religious community of course had begun its monastic existence on Lindisfarne, a site closely associated with Bamburgh geographically and historically. During the later 9th century they travelled for many years across Northumbria seeking a new home, before settling in County Durham. We are told that the community undertook this long journey fleeing the Vikings whilst looking for a new and safer place of residence. That they ended up closer to the Viking Kingdom of York than when they started may tell us that the location of the new monastery and its lands may have had more to do with the creation of a religious buffer zone between York and Bamburgh than the story that comes down to us and why the some of the most powerful dynasty in the region had such a close connection with the Bishop’s family.

Second marriage

We are not sure how long Uhtred was married to Ecgthryth but we hear of a second marriage that took place before 1005. This was to a woman called Sige, daughter of Styr son of Ulf. Marriages of aristocrats at this time were mostly very political affairs or even just something of a business transaction. This second marriage seems to have been very much political, connecting Uhtred with a powerful and wealthy Danish family. Perhaps this was intended to generate leverage and influence to the south of their own heartland that lay north of the River Tees. We will see that this political relationship between those who controlled the two former parts of the Kingdom of Northumbria, north and south of the Tees River, will be a theme that we see again and again. We will also see that this second marriage of Uhtred will have huge ramifications for his fate and that of his decedents for several generations.

Invasion and battle

The story of Uhtred’s third marriage begins with a conflict from further north. Malcolm II who had just become King of Scotland, raided into Northumbria in 1005 AD. Perhaps this was an attempt to show off his military ability and add to his prestige, as he had come to the crown having killed his predecessor in battle and may not have felt entirely secure on the throne. Whatever the reason behind the conflict it did not go to plan. Uhtred’s father seems to have been old and infirm and chose to seek refuge in Bamburgh rather than seek battle. The same could not be said of his son Uhtred who raised a force and met Malcolm in battle relieving a siege of Durham and inflicting a defeat on Malcolm. It was reported that Uhtred then decorated the walls of Durham with the heads of his defeated enemy.

As a result of this victory Aethelred king of England, who had had few military successes against a new generation of Viking enemies, clearly desired a connection with this successful warrior and therefore arranged a marriage of Uhtred to one of his daughters. This would have involved Uhtred setting aside his current wife Sige, an action that surely damaged or broke the connections with her family. It is very likely that this weakened Uhtred’s position in the north, loosing him important allies that seem to have played a part in his recent victory, and all for an alliance with a weak king whose reign would end with his own heir in rebellion against him.

At the time a connection by marriage to Aethelred was likely to have seemed a good route for him to have political influence at the royal court. At first it seems to have have worked well for both Uhtred and Aethelred. It did not though, stand in the way of Uhtred making a ruthless decision when needed. Such as when in 1013 he switched allegiance to Swein of Denmark when Aethelred’s position became so weak Uhtred must have felt it threatened his remaining in power as Earl. He changed sides again when Swein died, but this time he appears to have been more closely associated with Edmund (later called Ironside) Aethelred’s oldest surviving son who was in a position of near open rebellion to his sick and ailing father. Ruthless politics as this may have been it did not work out well in the longer run.

A Kite Pin brooch dating from the decades around AD1000 excavated from the West Ward of Bamburgh Castle. The kind of clothes fastening that someone like Uhtred would have been familiar with or even used.

Betrayal and murder

Cnut, Swein’s son who had taken control of his father’s army at his death was now the rival that Uhtred and Edmund must resist, but things did not go well. Cnut outflanked Uhtred and invaded Northumbria when Uhtred was in the midlands with Edmund. Uhtred being one of the most important and powerful figures in the north was always going to be key to how Cnut dealt with the north, he needed him as at least something of an ally or he needed him out of the picture. Finding his enemy in a position to cut him off from his land and earldom Uhtred opened negotiations. Hostages were exchanged between them to assure good conduct and a meeting arranged. At a place called Wiheal – that might be modern Wighill in Yorkshire. We are told that Uhtred arrived with 40 of his followers only to be attacked and killed in ambush by the forces of one of his enemies who had been lying in wait for them concealed behind the hangings in the hall! A suitably dramatic end to a life of adventure. This act was likely a consequence of both one of Uhtred’s earlier marriages and the complex power politics of the North. More of this later.

The historical Uhtred was clearly a warrior like his namesake in the book and had indeed some points that the fictional version may have drawn on, but he was a man of a very different era. This brings us back to his family, its connection to Bamburgh and the question – can this be traced back to the same time of the books, when the kingdom of Northumbria fragmented under attack from a Viking army in the middle of the 9th century and the later reign of Alfred the Great? We will look at this next time.

If anyone is intrigued to learn more, get some hands on experience of archaeology and a tour of the site there are still places available on the Taster Week and all are welcome.

Investigations beyond St Oswald’s Gate: the end of season overview

St Oswald’s Gate is written about as the entrance to the fortress of Bamburgh in the 8th century AD and very likely the route that you made your way up onto the rock plateau since the earliest settlements were constructed in the late Bronze Age. Our current work is investigating this entrance, the access routes up to the entrance and the structures and outworks built to control this access over many generations. If you want to catch up on some of the reposts on the earlier season of work, in September 2021, you can find it here.

In our second season of work on the area of the cottage and tower we continued to remove rubble from within the cottage structure as well as to further investigate the wider outworks.

The outworks beyond St Oswald’s Gate showing the main areas of investigation

We knew from both map and plan evidence, and our initial work in removing rubble from the ruins of the cottage, that they extended below the present ground level. We were less certain if this was a case of the ground level being raised considerably by the accumulation of wind blown sand or whether a basement level had been dug into the ground at the time of construction. It may well turn out to be the case that both are somewhat true. The full depth that it may reach, below the current ground level, started to become apparent when we found the top of a stone archway, having already excavated a considerable depth of fill from within the structure. This arch would have led into the small room that we believe contained the well (it is depicted there on a plan of c. 1803).

Our only depiction of the well on an early plan dates from AD 1803

In a previous report we discussed the entranceway to the cottage and how it was realigned so this time we concentrated on the room that we think contained the well and was almost certainly part of the tower mentioned in the medieval records. This small room almost certainly started out as the medieval tower of Elmund’s Well and was later incorporated into the cottage. At the end of the last season of work we had revealed the top of the third flight of steps down into the building. The first two had been comprised of two short flights of stairs each at right angles to the one before. The third flight turned again through a right-angle to align with the first and extended down from a small landing.

Investigation of the tower and well room

One of the first exciting discoveries of the new season of work was the presence of two splayed lights (open window-like features) in two of the walls. Only the base of the features survived, but their form, rather like arrow loops, strongly suggested that they were medieval features and were our best indication yet that this part of the structure was indeed the part of the building that originated as a medieval tower.

The drone photo shows the unusual shape of the tower as it emerges from the rubble. The two narrow loop windows discovered this season are marked by the black lines

Removal of the rubble was a slow process but eventually this was greatly advanced by two of the castle staff and a small machine excavator being on site for a day. As more and more of the structure emerged it became increasingly obvious that multiple phases were present, showing many different building and alteration events in the history of the structure. The archway had been very well constructed and was a very solid structure standing to a considerable height. The steps that led down to it were built from cruder stone and some had clearly been reused. They were also rather worn suggesting they were of some age as well.

The well room, as perhaps we can now call it, continues to be an odd feature. When originally uncovered it seemed broadly rectangular, with internal dimensions close to 4m north to south and nearly 2m wide east to west. There was, right at the start, the impression that there were few if any right angles at the corners where walls joined and this has been confirmed as we have excavated deeper and exposed more of the walls. The east wall, that was the continuation of the east wall of the outworks was seen to curve inwards at the north end of the room. On the other side, where the arch has now been found, the stone wall that contains the arch also curved in to narrow the room at this north end. This odd shape then appears to be a deliberate feature of the build. Fanciful thoughts that the structure might turn into a D-shaped tower were ended when more of the north wall was exposed, showing it to be without any curve. Variations in the build of the room suggest a structure much altered over the centuries and with many phases to unpick. The lower courses of the east wall (uncovered so far) are butt jointed to the south wall and so not the same building event. A missing stone in the south wall that marks a gap that seems to penetrate right through the wall also suggests this is a deliberate feature. Clearly a lot of work remains next season to properly interpret the history of the building

The outworks are also producing unexpected results

The outworks were also further explored. Last season we looked at a small section of narrow wall, but this proved to be frustratingly difficult to understand so this year we have expanded the areas we excavated to gather a better and wider picture. The new area of excavation was next to the path that extends through the postern towards the village, a narrow gap between what was thought to be the oldest stretch of standing wall and the broad wall containing the postern. This narrow wall contained an archway that is tall and quite narrow that has long intrigued us as possibly quite early in date. Some of the stonework low in this wall certainly seems to be a good match for 11th to 12th century work. This little triangle had been looked at many years before, but this time was dug and explored to as great a depth as we were able. This revealed the foundations of the early, thinner stone wall and showed that the thinner wall ended abruptly, likely cut to allow for the later broad wall to pass across it. This seemed to confirm that the broad wall was, as expected, the later of the two.

The outworks immediatly outside St Oswald’s Gate. The diference in thickness between the thin wall with it arch and the broad, later wall with the postern gate is very obvious from this drone photo. In the bottom right hand coner of the photo still covered in ivy you might just be able to make out where the two builds of the broad wall overlap.

This broad wall was also investigated at its east end where it approached the bedrock on which the castle stands. It was expected that it would simply extend to where the rock rises up, but like so much at Bamburgh turned out not to be so simple. It stopped well short of the bedrock and in what appears to be a deliberate gap, that was later in-filled with rubble and earth in a crude wall-like blocking. The wall was well above ground level at this point so it seems an unlikely spot for a second entrance so this feature remains a bit of an enigma to be further investigated.

This same broad wall was further investigated to the west of the cross-wall with the archway and found to be constructed of at least two walls that joined in an unusual overlap. Again confirming the complexity of the outworks and their numerous build phases. The foundations showed it to be a very substantial structure and a discontinuity in its exposed internal face associated with a rubble spread within hinted at the presence of a feature now lost.

Can we fit some of our new discoveries into the historical records?

As the medieval tower that formed the core of the structure had been named after a well it is possible that it had been constructed deliberately to control access to this important resource as well as to dominate the small harbour present beyond the outworks to the west. The tower was already old enough to be in need of repair in 1249-50, which suggests it had stood for some time. We think it is not unreasonable to put its construction back to the 12th century. This entry in the records (The History of the Kings Works, 1976) also describes works and repairs to the adjoining barbican before St Oswald’s Gate. It is possible that the broad wall with its postern gate leading out towards the village could be the result of this building work. Its form and style are at least consistent with work of this age.

If the stone tower did originate in the 12th century then we really would have expected it to be square or rectangular and not the odd non-parallel sided structure that is currently emerging as we empty the rubble from within it. At least its relatively small size is consistent with such an early date and is close to that of the two 12th century towers on the north wall of the Inner Ward and single, probably 12th century, tower on the south wall of the Inner Ward. All around 5m externally on their longest sides and with narrow loops for windows within the wall. There is also the issue of the name of the Well. Elmund may be a variation of Ealhmund an Old English name, which suggests that the well predates the conquest. It may be asking a lot of the investigation to find evidence of structures predating even the 12th century but we can hope.

There is a good deal of work still to be done it seems as the outworks have proved to be a complex subject whose building sequence is only just beginning to be understood. We are also excited to find what traces remain of the well itself and that is before we consider what might be found within it.

Join us this September!

If you are intrigued by any of these discoveries and would like to learn more in a hands on experience, we are running a post-excavation taster week open to all who want to learn a bit more about how archaeology uncovers evidence of the past. Info can be found here.

Post-Excavation Taster Week: Bookings Open Now!!!

Dates: 26th – 30th September 2022

Bookings are OPEN for a 1 week post-excavation taster.

Two people sorting finds from the environmental flotation system
Participant recording artefacts

What is post-excavation?

Archaeology is not all about digging. In order to turn the data gathered through excavations or surveys (for example) into information that can be used to interpret a site and/or plan further investigations, archaeologists must process this data during the ‘post-ex’ phase.

This includes recording the artefacts recovered, processing the environmental samples taken, digitising the drawings and survey information, for example. This work generates a physical and digital archive, which connects all the pieces of information together. It takes far longer (in most cases) than the actual field work and often takes place in the lab or at the desk.

Post-Ex at the Bamburgh Research Project

Here at the BRP we have generated a lot of post-excavation work in the last 20 years. We undertake much of the initial post-ex on site, where we wash and process the small and bulk finds, we process our environmental samples and we catalogue much of the records and photographs we take. However, there is still much work that is undertaken during the off-season by our staff and more that is sent away for specialist analysis. We thought this year we might bring some of this ‘behind the scenes’ work back to the Castle and share it with a small cohort of interested individuals.

What is the Post-Excavation Taster Week?

We offer quality training in archaeology with an emphasis on practical hands-on experience. The post-excavation taster week will use the BRP’s extensive archive, which consists of material from the prehistoric to the medieval periods, as the basis for an introduction to the different post-excavation techniques and research methodologies employed by the project.

We are still planning the daily schedule but the week will include:

Please Note: we are also in the process of organising a visits by a conservator but these are yet to be confirmed.

Who is it for?

Our training is open to people of all skill-levels and abilities, with particular interests accommodated where possible. We particularly wish to offer a fun and educational experience to beginners and non professionals.

Please get in touch with us if you have any questions about access, facilities, etc.

BRP is open to anyone aged 18 and over. 

Who will be teaching me?

Professional field archaeologists and post-excavation specialists.

How much does it cost?

The post-excavation taster week costs £300 pp and covers 5 days of training in a small group of between 6-8 people. This covers the cost of the tuition, tours and the trip to Lindisfarne.

How do I book a place?

Please visit the BRP’s website and take a look at the Post-Ex Taster Week page. At the end of the page is the details on how to book and pay for your place.

PLEASE NOTE: the week will only run if the BRP receive enough bookings to make the week viable (more info on website).

Any questions? Email:

Week 4 Round-up

This week included a lot of recording and sorting, some massive earth-moving, and preparing to leave site!

We digitised a bunch of plans and context sheets, and we also continued monitoring the finds in the archive annex and updating the database with location information.

We were so grateful to have friends of the project get those incredible drone photos for us on Tuesday. You can see some sneak peeks here.

A very excited trench team looking at the drone photographs.

Some interesting finds came out in all the processing, such as the yellow glass bead and bone pin below. The bead came from an environmental sample taken in 2013 of 9th/10th-century context; multiple 2013 samples run this season also produced several other beads, but all but one of those were ceramic (the other a crinoid fossil, “Saint Cuthbert’s bead”). The bone pin is from a context tray from Trench 5c that we looked at today before organising storage. It was from an area of the long stretch of medieval wall where we had previously only been finding modern material, until we extended the trench (see below).

In the trenches, we moved so much earth!

First, we extended the old 2002 trench along the longest stretch of standing wall which we are calling Trench 5c. The extension was to learn more about the rubble that is scattered perpendicular to the face. Some of the stone positions suggest that another wall came out of the length we still have.

Then, we fully exposed a large stone surface abutting the dolerite up at the postern gate trench we called Trench 5d. It’s not clear exactly what was happening, and we thought bringing down the inner face would answer our questions. It only gave us more questions! Two large stones with tool marks appear to have fallen down into the northern end of the trench. On the southern side of the trench, a large spread of mortar appeared.

Thursday was the big day of rubble-removal with the help of Stuart and Steve from the Castle team. We would bet at least a [literal] tonne of rock was removed. On Friday, the well-room was cleared of the big stones, so we mattocked and shoveled as much soil as we could. We also cleaned off the steps! Finally, we photographed the steps and well-room even though both are not yet completely excavated.

It’s our last day on-site this season, so we wanted to let you know about what to expect in the off-season:

At least two blog posts will be headed your way in the next few weeks. First, Alice will be providing an update on the environmental assemblage and what it tells us about cereals at Bamburgh during the early medieval period. Then Graeme will do his usual end-of-season post with a round-up and tentative interpretations, plus some thoughts on our next steps.

Please also keep an eye out for news regarding our publication of the Bowl Hole research!

As always, follow us on social media for the latest information on our research and upcoming field school opportunities. That’s all for now, but you will definitely see us next year, back in the outworks!

Rabble-rousing and Rubble Removal

Today we had a little bit (okay, a lot) of extra muscle in the form of an excavator and two of the Castle’s grounds team. Stuart and Steve took down part of our seaward fence and brought over a digger to remove the largest dolerite blocks from the suspected well room.

Sneaking up on us.
Stuart is in the zone!
Our first glimpse of the other side of the arch.
Looking down the steps, and there is light on the other side.
Making some headway.
Graeme has clambered through the arch and stops to ponder.
We have multiple exposed courses of masonry showing us at least three distinct phases in the likely well room.
A slot possibly for a timber that roughly pairs with one on the seaward wall, or maybe even the timber for the pulley for the well?
Our arch on this side is clearly part of the wall, as the voussoirs (wedge blocks) and springer (block where the arch meets the vertical supports) are embedded in what looks like the same phase of wall.
Graeme is bouncing off the walls in delight.

The last video there broke some news today: we will be here in these trenches again next summer to find that well. Bet on it!

Way Back Wednesday: Marine Life

A few members of our team went into the archive annex this morning to do some housekeeping: checking on and changing silica gel packets in the boxes of small finds. We have indicator strips that show when a box is no longer dry due to ambient humidity. Lauren grabbed a random box of environmental archaeology small finds to have a nose around, and, much to her surprise, it was mostly material she herself had found and recorded while managing environmental processing in 2013: stycas, glass and ceramic beads, and some flint flakes. In an amongst those bits from nearly a decade ago, two examples of local marine life appeared.

First, another St. Cuthbert bead! This one was found in 2010 in a burnt context from Trench 3. It seems to be associated with the stables phase of the trench, around 10th century. We hope to do a deep-dive post (pun intended) on crinoids in the future, as they have been on our mind after the large one we found earlier this season.

The second was something that struck Lauren and the finds team as odd years ago: it looked like a tiny cowrie shell. True cowrie shells (family Cypraeidae) were often found historically in Indian Ocean trade networks, so this miniature version was separated out as a small find because it seemed non-native to the area. The sample was taken in Trench 1, associated with an early medieval linear feature. Further research shortly after the dig in 2013, however, revealed more information about this tiny mollusc.

This shell is from the family Triviidae which has a two species local to the North Atlantic and North Sea, but the species are often called the “European cowrie” and “northern cowrie.”

The European or spotted cowrie is used to refer to trivia monacha (da Costa 1778), a carnivorous snail that lives at the low tide of the shore. They usually have dark spots on the pinkish upper shell, which our specimen does not have.

The “northern cowrie” is trivia arctica (Pulteney, 1799) which has an unspotted shell. These species were actually thought to be one and the same until 1925. Both species prey on sea squirts, and they are in turn food for fish like Atlantic cod, who also occasionally turn up in our animal bone. Our shell is also a bit chalky to the touch, but it’s not immediately clear if ours is a proper fossil and thus old at the time it was deposited in the sample or if it was alive contemporary to the occupation of the context from which the sample came.

Living t. arctica specimen, image by Frans Slieker (NHMR).

Why do we care so much about tiny molluscs? Why does it matter that this was found here? Molluscs are extremely useful when studying the environment in the past. Some snails have very specific habitable ranges that can help us infer climate information, and today is especially valuable in understanding periods of climate stability and instability in the past. Others are fantastic to chemically profile to understand the water and plant life signatures for a particular region, which was a methodology we used in our interpretation of the Bowl Hole burial ground skeletal material.

This particular shell was saved because it looked different from the mollusc shells we had been finding previously. It turns out it was local, but it was probably not being collected for food unlike the winkles we find en masse, so we don’t have examples of it in the record.

For more information and more images:

Gallery of the Family Triviidae via National History Museum Rotterdam

Differentiating the species

T. monacha, European cowrie: entry for Encyclopedia of Life, entry in World Register of Marine Species

T. arctica, Northern cowrie: entry for Encyclopedia of Life, entry in World Register of Marine Species

Fresh ABOVE the Trench

Our trenches in the outworks include a lot of extant masonry, and it has been one of the goals of this season to get a better handle on the different phases of construction by looking at architectural choices, stone type, mortar, and the like. In our effort to do that, we really needed an eye in the sky to help us see the alignments, and more noticeably the lack thereof, of the visible masonry.

The cutest lil drone.

Today we had a special treat, as friends of the project David and Annie brought their drone to the site. We had special permission from the Castle team to fly the drone over the outworks, but in general drones are not allowed over the Castle or the Site of Special Scientific Interest (due to biodiversity) that abuts the Castle. Do NOT bring your drone to the Castle, please and thank you.

A drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) whose use can be recreational, commercial, or military. Over the last few decades, we’ve seen an increase in the use of aerial photography via drone in archaeology. Forward-thinking archaeological teams have been using imagery taken at height to search for, record, and monitor archaeological sites for nearly a century. Aerial archaeology in the UK can be traced back to RAF intelligence-gathering and the enduring legacy of O.G.S. Crawford, who pioneered aerial archaeology methodologies starting with the Stonehenge landscape and founded the journal Antiquity. We last had aerial photography taken all the way back in 2013, and here’s an image of us (Constance, Lauren, and Graeme are somewhere in there) caught by the camera nearly a decade ago:

Drone technology has certainly streamlined since then. Getting the photo above was a very involved process, requiring specialised computer equipment to translate the signal onto a teeny, tiny monitor that the supervisors crowded around. This time around? A small four-rotor box (a “quadcopter”), a controller that looked like it came from a video game console, and an iPad. It was a mind-blowingly simple set-up, but years of aviation, video, and wireless technological innovation were needed to bring us to this moment.

Here is a sneak peek of some of the images we captured today:

Trench 5b from above.
Trench 5d with the postern gate in the bottom left corner.

Museum Monday

This Monday, we’d thought we take a bit to talk about the re-installation of some of our most interesting artefacts in the Castle’s state rooms. For years, many of the conserved finds from the BRP and Brian Hope-Taylor’s excavations were tucked away in a little room at the far end of the gift shop in their own little exhibit. The only problem was that folks would reach the gift shop and often go no further. We were stumped as to how to draw attention to the artefacts and information placards when there was delicious fudge and souvenirs in the previous room. A few years ago, some of the artefacts were integrated into the existing state rooms displays, Our one-of-a-kind (okay, one of, like, three in all of northwestern Europe) 6-billet pattern-welded sword was logically in the armoury on the first floor of the keep; it’s uniqueness was sometimes not recognised when displayed amongst the shiny and sharp medieval and post-medieval bladed weaponry. While this melding of artefacts into existing spaces increased the quantity of eyeballs on the artefacts, it still felt like something was missing. How could we best use these artefacts to tell the stories of Bamburgh Castle?

The past year has allowed the curators to combine cutting-edge technology and some tried-and-true, good old-fashioned museum display protocol to give us a more holistic glimpse into the three millennia of occupation of the site.

The first room, what was the medieval kitchen, has been streamlined to focus on five particular assemblages in detail. The large wooden model of the castle is still there, but it is now joined by video screens and a projected animation on the upper story wall. The video screens stand behind the glass display cases or freestanding artefacts. This room features the Bamburgh Beast and filigreed thumbnail (both of gold) each in a minimalist mount, while the carved-interlaced stone chair-arm is positioned as it would have been during its period of use to really help you understand the wear patterns on the leading edge where great kings would have rested their fingers. Each video panel shows magnified views of the objects as castle owner Frankie Armstrong pleasantly and engagingly shares further information about the objects in his family’s care. From these short videos, you really get a sense that a deep responsibility to the stewardship of this shared heritage is the underlying driver for this revamped exhibit.

As you wind your way through the adjacent rooms, you eventually reach the salon where the curators have taken great care to give voice back to half of the population that is often written out of history elsewhere: the women. Here at Bamburgh, however, formidable women stand out to us through the material culture individuals whose names are now lost to us and the documented works for the public good by named post-medieval owners. The salon, a heavily gendered space in the early modern period, is the perfect matrix for these snippets of women’s history through objects. We hope in the future to see this exhibit expand to include more historically gendered objects (such as latch-lifters and girdle tools) and really engage with this idea of performed gender and femininity. As the named women hold elite status as well, so we hope to be a part of developing the artefacts on display to include objects associated with lower status women in our long history here.

The ground floor of the keep is our next stop, where there is now an interactive dig touch-panel. It allows you to excavate computer-animated grid squares of our former Trench 1 and Trench 3 to find artefacts that our team discovered over the years.

The traditional museum display case are also used in the base of the keep, with cases full of interesting artefacts and small placards describing them. The cases are now mostly organised by theme, allowing you to see every-day items like stycas, knives, and dice, and the more high-status and ornate material grouped together as well. Also, the fantastic sword we discussed earlier has found a home in the lower level of the keep.

You can still come visit us to the end of this week to chat about the archaeology with our team up at the windmill in the West Ward, and then take a walk through the state rooms to see some of our best finds in their new displays!


Sunday was rolling along rather pleasantly, from an overcast morning to a glorious afternoon…but with the warmth and the burning off of the mist, we were invaded!

It wasn’t Vikings (who never took the castle, by the way, and we have almost no archaeological evidence of them in the castle environs)…

It wasn’t tourists…

It was the dreaded THUNDERBUG!

Based on Ernst Heeger’s illustrations from Beiträge zur Naturgeschichte der Insecten. Als Beiträge zur Fauna Oesterreichs, a text in German held in the Smithsonian collections. This is from a section on thrips, but using the old synonymous name “physopod.”

In recent memory, most of us can only recall a single nightmarish day in 2019 when they swarmed the castle. But today, oh, today was much worse than that day. We all know that insects, spiders, and earthworms are a standard part of the job of excavation. We’ve made our peace with that, and usually those little bugs get relocated or brushed away gently, no harm, no foul. But not today.

Today, these little pests covered our arms and necks, so small that you’d be surprised how you could feel every footfall of each miniscule foot. But their little feet were so irritating, tap-dancing across our sun-cream-sticky flesh! No, they didn’t bite us, but they crawled over every inch of exposed skin. They landed on our lips and were smushed as we aggressively tried to wipe our faces clean. They flew into our eyelashes and poked us in the eyes. They squirmed into our ears and nostrils. It was revolting.

So in preparation for all-out war tomorrow, we have done a little reconnaissance on our enemy:

Common blossom thrips with measurements.
Vivek Kumar, University of Florida’s Entomology and Nematology Dept.

SCIENTIFIC NAMES: Thysanoptera (order with over 6,000 species), Thrips (genus with about 280 species)

The genus and generic name for the creature comes from the Ancient Greek for “woodworm,” which is weird because they are definitely not worms (annelids). The University of Chicago’s Classical language app Logeion cites the Lewis & Short Latin dictionary: thrips, thripis (m.), transliterated from the Greek θρίψ. The Greek is found in the Liddell & Scott Greek-English lexicon, but the citations are a bit harder to find. Pliny the Elder refers to the woodworm literally in several passages of his Natural History, for example while describing the resistance of tree species to infestation. Martianus Capella (Late Antiquity/early 5th century, but studied and used throughout Carolingian education discourse) also uses the word, but as a synonym for worthless things, in Book II, Section 164 of his De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii (“On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury”). You can also access the Perseus database on which the app is based here.

OTHER ALIASES:  thunder flies, thunderblights, storm bugs, storm flies, corn flies, corn fleas, corn lice, harvest flies, harvest bugs, freckle bugs

DESCRIPTION: 0.5mm-15mm long, slender body, two pairs of fringed or feathery wings folded over its back, only the left mandible (lower jaw), usually black or brown in adult stage except for a few species that stay yellowish like juveniles

As there are over 170 species found in Britain, it would be folly to detail them all, but they all share the same basic characteristics. They have a slurpy tube (that’s not the scientific name) through which they secrete saliva into their food that starts the digestion process and then suck it all back up. Remember those gross little feetsies we mentioned above? They have a grippy pad on each of its six feet called an “arolium” that inflates with the bodily fluids of the insect and helps it climb in any direction, defying both gravity and common decency. There are an astonishing number of thrips-centred websites.

KNOWN HANGOUTS: often among cereal crops and flowers, and, apparently, Bamburgh Castle for the weekend

ACTIVE TIMES: hot and humid weather, and particularly weather systems that can form thunderstorms (correlation, not causation, by the way), in the UK flourish between April-September

They’ve been around since about 300 million years ago, long before the dinosaurs (but probably annoyed them too when they showed up) and around the time of the dolerite magma injection that intruded into the sandstone at Bamburgh. Their entire life-cycle takes about a month, but they can lay 100 eggs in that time. Some can complete their life-cycle in two weeks if the temperature is high enough!


Some thrips are pollinators, which is almost always a good thing and why we should be nicer to insects like bees. Some species prey on other thrips, the eggs of wasps and moths, and mites (which are not insects because they only have two body parts). Others eat fungi. Thrips also have a cool means of flight that is worth reading about.


Thrips can destroy crops by eating their tissues from aesthetic damage like stippling/mottling or silvery patches (and little poo stains), to the formation of galls, to full defoliation of plants. They can also spread about 20 different plant viruses, such as the Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus. In addition, they are extremely invasive and have been found on every continent. Thrips can also reproduce asexually, where the female lays eggs without a mate. Numerous gardening websites also warn that they become pesticide-resistant quickly, and that biological control (like increasing natural predators) is preferable to chemical control.


  1. Wear long-sleeves to cover up.
  2. Cry deeply.
  3. Borrow some of the repellent the Australian students brought all the way from the only continent that is actively trying to harm you.
  4. Get back to work.

Week 3: Round-up

This week was particularly full of environmental processing, finds sorting, and trench recording! Not as much rubble has been removed from the main trench as the blocks left are much too big to be moved by hand, but we will have an update on the steps below.

The flotation tank has been up and running almost non-stop to get through backlogged samples. Nat runs a tight ship, and that ship is the HMS Floaty McFloatface. Multiple crude ceramic beads have been found this week in sorting the floated material.

Ceramic bead.

In finds, we’ve spent a lot of time sorting the huge volume of washed material from last week. Among this, we found an unusual number of very large teeth from cattle and horse which we discussed further here. And we found a possible buzz-bone!

Worked bone that may have been a toy or musical instrument.

We also spent some time illustrating finds to scale under the guidance of Finds Supervisor Margot.

LJ drawing a small copper alloy buckle.

A “new” bit of wall that has peeked out where it is interrupted by the Victorian stairs that go down to our old Trench 5a. It has been de-greened and a small trench has been opened up between St. Oswald’s Gate and the arch that looks towards Lindisfarne. So far we’ve revealed a lovely spread of mortar on the medieval masonry and lots of modern rubbish at its base.

The main wall along which the 2002 trench used to run has been further revealed and photographed. Multiple teams have each taken a few metres of wall to draw. These are just like the section drawings we do of vertical stratigraphy (the layers of occupation, or lack thereof, we can see in the soil), but instead we’ve got the masonry blocks of a standing wall to draw to scale.

More steps in Trench 5b have been partially uncovered, but not fully excavated due to particularly stubborn (and massive) rubble. These give off medieval vibes akin to what was found elsewhere in the early survey of the outworks stairs undertaken by our director long before we opened these trenches.

Steps down toward the arch.

What more will we discover in our final week? Stay tuned!