Fresh from the Trench: Week 5

Today one of our students was working in the very weird northwest corner of the trench. He was taking down the last quadrant left to excavate when he discovered a small, chunky bit of glass. It was his first day in the trench, and found this:

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The glass is bluish, with pale yellow striping on one side. The thickness and curve suggest it was probably a bangle or bracelet. How can we date it since we find artefacts from multiple time periods in that weird part of the trench? The composition (as evidenced by its color) and form all suggest we are looking at a Roman object. Whether it belonged to a Roman citizen or a Celtic-speaking Iron Age inhabitant of the settlement site presently encircled by the Castle is unknown. What we do know however is that it’s likely from after the 1st century AD, when Roman glass production become more efficient both technologically and economically and its presence became more widespread.

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Roman glass was made from sand and natron (to help the silica of the sand melt at a lower temperature). The lime found naturally in the sand actually prevented the finished glass from dissolving in water. The natron, known as soda ash or sodium carbonate, is the very same natron the Egyptians used in mummification, maybe even from the very same source they used that the Romans later appropriated for their glass industry, Wadi El Natrun in Egypt. The Romans began making clearer glasses as their technology improved, but many fragments show us that their glass would retain a bluish-green hue if untreated with other elements and minerals.

We are quite lucky that this small fragment was never recycled as “cullet,” or the broken glass melted down to be reused in glass furnaces. Had the Anglo-Saxons found it, it might have been melted and worked into a bead. Maybe that’s what happened to the missing pieces? Instead, it survived as a little piece of personal adornment of a person who lived over 1,500 years ago. What a life it must have led!

 

The Youths…They are taking over!

As a run-up to our Festival of Archaeology event this coming weekend, and in solidarity with the Day in Archaeology (22 July), we’d like to to share the voices of some of the younger archaeology students we’ve encountered this summer. They will tell their stories in their own words, about why they study archaeology and what they hope for the future of archaeology.

First up is Jillian (20, right) who spent two weeks with us at the beginning of the season.

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“But you never dig in the garden?”: From California to Bamburgh

I was lucky enough to spend two amazing weeks with the Bamburgh Research Project this June. The BRP was one of the few field schools that my university, St Andrews in Scotland, recommended on its archaeology department’s webpage. More, it was the only program of that select group to focus primarily on medieval archaeology. Therefore, it is was not a difficult decision to sign up and resulted in me pestering one of the Project Directors, Graeme Young, over email with questions about the dates that the 2019 season would be running.

I was seventeen years old when I chose to study medieval history and archaeology at the University of St Andrews. I had never before taken a class that looked at medieval history in depth, nor had I ever done anything remotely related to archaeology before I submitted my degree intention. I simply knew that I was interested in studying history, and it sounded really cool. I mean, who wouldn’t like to be their own version of Indiana Jones? At St Andrews, archaeology is not its own degree route and could only be studied in conjunction with either ancient or medieval history. Further, students are not properly able to take modules solely on archaeology until our third year. So, when I, a seventeen-year-old from California, confirmed on my application to a university in Scotland that I wanted to study medieval history and archaeology I was going with a gut feeling.

For me, living in the UK was always a dream. So naturally, as I progressed through school and began looking at places to do my undergraduate degree, studying history in a place where the history felt so much more vast than in my own home country was something I was immediately attracted to. I am also fortunate enough that pursuing my undergraduate degree abroad was a feasible option because I do not believe I would have been as happy studying anything else in any other place. I am still so enamored with the idea and the experience of studying history in the place it was made, and it is something I would recommend to anyone who is thinking about studying subjects like history and archaeology.

As I mentioned earlier, the archaeology program at St Andrews is structured so that students only really encounter archaeology-based module in their third year. That being said, there were always plenty of opportunities to get involved with archaeology. I was really able to capitalize on these opportunities in my second-year when I became more involved with the Student Archaeological Society. I was able to volunteer with the archaeologists in St Andrews Department of Environmental History and SCAPE (Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion) and to clean, sort, and catalogue the finds from their excavation at Higgins Neuk in Falkirk, carried out in an effort to find archaeological evidence of the lost royal dockyard of James IV. An article on the excavation was published in Current Archaeology 347 and I was able to have my first taste of what an archaeologist does. Through the Society, I was also able to go on my first ever archaeological dig at Dunfermline Abbey, helping to locate and record gravestones under the graveyard turf. At the end of this year, to cap it off, I was also elected the new President of the Society, giving me the opportunity to help myself and others to get greater involved in archaeology. My experiences doing archaeology in my second year never gave me cause to regret the choice that I made when I was seventeen, but instead gave me a new enthusiasm to pursue this passion further.

I was able to explore this newly invigorated passion for archaeology at Bamburgh this summer. Despite never having camped for more than a single night before, and definitely never by myself, I was willing to submit to a life in a tent and learned to love it for its own lack of insulation and noise barriers. So, when my mother asked why I wanted to live in a tent for two weeks and to dig in a muddy trench, saying “But you never dig in the garden?”, she did not understand that archaeology is more than just shoveling dirt until we find a piece of stone from a Northumbrian chair. In my two weeks, I did squat on a foam knee-pad and too-carefully troweled away at a pebble path, I nearly froze my hands in a flotation tank to try to retrieve charcoal from an environmental sample, and I painstakingly tried to stipple my already poor illustration of a bone pin. That experience that I gained at the BRP was invaluable to me. The staff at the BRP were my first real teachers of archaeology and they demonstrated how amazing the field that we both chose was.

The two weeks that spent with the BRP were undoubtedly some of the best of my life and will not be easily forgotten. As I write this from my 80°F/27°C backyard in California, I am fondly remembering when the passing rain storm woke me up throughout the night and I do not regret any missed sleep. My time with the BRP allowed me to learn more about a degree-turned-passion that I pursued because my teenage-self thought it sounded cool. It confirmed to me that I made the right choice.

Calendar of Upcoming Events

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We’ve got so many cool events in conjunction with the Council for British Archaeology’s Festival of Archaeology coming up and wanted to drop you all a breakdown of the next week!

17 July – Ask an Archaeologist Day

Send us all your burning archaeology questions on here, on Facebook, or on Twitter using the hashtag #AskAnArchaeologist. If you’re using Twitter, please make sure your account is unlocked so we can see your questions! Tweet your questions to @BRParchaeology to reach us, but don’t be surprised if you get some answers from other archaeologists…we’re very talkative. This initiative is to get people from all walks of life into the conversation about archaeology! We hope to help connect interested non-experts with archaeology, museum, and heritage professionals in a more accessible way. We love sharing our work (which is our passion), and this is a great way to give people some insight into what we do.

 

20-21 July – Festival of Archaeology FREE Environmental Archaeology Experience at Bamburgh Castle

Our very own archaeobotanist Alice Wolff will be running half-day tutorials both Saturday and Sunday on how we process environmental samples! Come spend a morning or afternoon with us and get a behind the scenes look at some of the great work our team is doing to better tell the story of Bamburgh. These two days of programming are supported by the Mick Aston Archaeology Fund.

Sign up here! It is completely FREE. Sunday still has some slots open, but Saturday is booking quickly, so what are you waiting for?

 

22 July – A Day in Archaeology

Have you spent some time with us on the dig as a student? Volunteered on any dig recently? Share your story in the week leading up to A Day in Archaeology by uploading a blog post or video telling us what your typical day looked like. Check out the posts so far this year, or dive into the archives. We’ll be posting about the most mysterious member of our team…me…the Outreach Officer! So stay tuned to the website above for what a typical day looks like in a public-facing role at a field school!

 

YAC Dig It! Winners Come to Bamburgh Castle/Round-up: Week 4

Three incredible future archaeologists from the Young Archaeologists’ Club joined us today at Bamburgh Castle! Bethany, Margot, and Myles won a day of archaeological instruction (through YAC’s Dig It! competition) with our knowledgeable team, as well as a set of new tools to help them in their future archaeology adventures.

The rain in the morning kept us out of the trench for a bit, but we washed a big tray of animal bone, while Finds Supervisor Tom Fox gave us an introduction to zooarchaeology. We learned some basic facts about bones, like the different types and what parts of the skeleton they are found in, then we practiced identifying the different bones, and, for a real tough test, trying to determine what animal they came from!

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After a quick lunch, we went on a tour of the castle led by Tom and Lauren and had quite a few laughs along the way.

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Finally, the trench was a bit drier (and therefore safe) for us to do some excavation. Our YAC winners were in the southwest area of the trench where we joined up with the old Brian Hope-Taylor trench and our re-excavation of his work (from over a decade ago) with our current open area excavation. A toolkit was generously provided by Past Horizons, so everyone had a brand new dig bag filled with the necessary bits and bobs and shiny, pristine trowel. Within minutes, everything was covered in mud, as it should be for all archaeologists.

 

 


Round-up: Week 5

Early in the week we had quite a bit of excitement!

First, we had a member of the Castle staff join us in the trench, and she was a natural! We’d love to have more of our colleagues drop in and see up close what we do all day. Maybe a topsy-turvy day where they all end up covered in mud, and we all get to wander amongst the Armstrong collection dropping decorative and fine art knowledge on visitors, and then we meet up at the end of the day to sit and eat fudge???

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Next, we got to say our final goodbyes to Trench 1. Most of us had great memories in that trench, but it was rather exciting to see it filled in. The final tasks now are to get that report published and results ready for public interpretation in concert with the Castle’s development plan for the area by St. Oswald’s Gate.

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The weather unfortunately eventually brought things to a crawl in the trench as it was so wet the second half of the week, but some afternoons were bright and warm enough to give us some trench-time after lunch! We caught up on lots of bulk processing (via finds washing) and completed a fair bit of trench paperwork (plans, sections, etc). Over the week, the students were treated to multiple lectures: an introduction to environmental archaeology from our archaeobotanist Alice, archaeological theory from trench assistant supervisor Tom Howe, an overview of strontium isotope analysis from Tom Fox, and Anglo-Saxon kennings and riddles from outreach officer Lauren Nofi.

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St. Aidan’s Miracles at Bamburgh

We have written before about bishop-turned-saint Aidan’s famous interaction with king-turned-saint Oswald previously, but we’d like to share a little bit more about Aidan because he features so prominently in the history of Northumbria, and especially our little corner of it.

Aidan was an Irish monk educated on Iona in the traditions of Celtic Christianity that had taken root in Ireland. He was actually the second missionary sent to Northumbria at King Oswald’s request, as the first was deemed too strict toward his congregation. Oswald tasked him with returning the Northumbrians to Christianity, after a period where many had turned back to paganism. He founded the monastery on Lindisfarne, but frequently walked the kingdom preaching to regular folk and engaging in acts of charity. We have a nice account of his life as bishop from the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History, who lavishes him with praise and yet can’t seem to let go that Aidan calculated Easter the Celtic—and therefore “wrong”—way. Truly Bede brings it up multiple times as this embarrassing con of an otherwise perfectly Christian life. Many miracles are associated with him, but there are two especially dramatic ones that took place right here in Bamburgh.

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The first miracle involved the pagan Mercian king, Penda, who marched on Bamburgh in the mid-7th century. On the road to the city, he dismantled villages and appropriated their timber as kindling. His troops piled the wood around the walls of the city and castle, lighting them and stoking them until the smoke rose high into the sky. From one of the Farne Islands where he lived as a hermit late in life, Aidan saw the unfurling smoke and feverishly prayed. The winds suddenly changed, blowing the embers back onto Penda’s army. They fled, fearing what seemed to be the power of the Christian god that stopped their attempt to subdue Northumbria.

The second miracle involves the small church now known as St. Aidan’s down in the village. The structure now is Norman, but it stands where the Anglo-Saxon church would have stood. Aidan was staying in a tent beside an outside wall beam of the church, and when he fell ill and died, his body was found leaning against it. The church since that time in 651AD has been razed by multiple fires, but each time the flames do not affect the beam. The church that stands today has what might be the miraculous beam, as well as a small, unobtrusive shrine dedicated to the Irish monk.

These miracles both involve fire, a fairly common fear in any society with many timber-built structures, but makes for an interesting coincidence for a man whose name means “little fire” in Irish.

The Final Elegy of Trench 1

Before you read this blogpost, it is imperative you open this song in another browser tab to truly experience this post of bittersweet mourning and absolute elation that the trench is truly done.

About twenty years ago, the Bamburgh Research Project opened a trench in the northern end of the West Ward. It was one of the first trenches (along with trench 2) we opened in the Castle. The spot was chosen to focus on the early entrance to the Castle and hopefully trace the sequence of fortification in the outer ward, as some of the Norman wall was still extant. Saint Oswald’s Gate would have been the entryway during the Anglo-Saxon period, but became more of a back door during the Norman period. The archaeology in the trench was a bit shallower than trench 3 (our last remaining open trench), due to the bedrock and associated boulder clay exposed by erosion and centuries of use.

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Even though the bedrock was a starring character in the story of the trench, there was evidence of slots cut into it along with numerous pits and postholes cut into each other, as well as at least one robber trench where masonry was, shall we say, “appropriated.” What likely stood where we excavated was a timber (7th century), and later stone (pre-11th century), guardhouse or warden’s residence.

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The surviving post-Conquest wall would have been about a metre higher than it stands today, but even in its ruined form one can imagine how the view we now take for granted was obscured except for those patrolling parapets. The Norman remnants, skirted by the Armstrong-era low wall, seem to stand in the footprints of at least the timber defences, if not also where late Saxon masonry would have stood. During the early Anglo-Saxon period, the site was likely palisaded and patrolled along a box rampart, a log structure filled with rubble and clay.

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We reached out to some former staff members for pictures of the trench in progress that weren’t featured in the closing of the trench post, so join us for a last quick trip through the trench.

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2000.

2005

2005.

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2010 when Time Team were here.

2013 2

2013.

2016

2016.

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This week.

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One last look.

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As a bonus, here is a nearly-twenty-year-old low-quality picture of our director Graeme in trench 1 that was only preserved via phone camera of a computer screen and that we had to get by diving into the darkest recesses of former staff members’ hard-drives.

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Way Back Wednesday: Week 4

Today’s Way Back artefact was certainly a bit of a head-scratcher for a while! It’s a worked bone object that was discovered in 2006 in a late medieval midden (rubbish heap). Bone and antler are very common for hand-tools going back over (at the very least) 1.5 million years of human evolutionary history, because they are quite hardy and may be sourced as a byproduct of subsistence (eat the animals, use the bones!). There is also evidence, however, that some species were not used in early tool-making communities, perhaps due to a societal taboo rather than availability. We would have to do more invasive tests to get what species this tool was made from, as there are no diagnostic shapes or blemishes that could hint at what animal it once was.

Small rectangular bone tool with two stubby, triangular prongs. Carved with a sharp knotwork pattern.

We previously looked at our blundered or practice knife handle, but this object is of a different quality of craftsmanship entirely. The object below has carving on both flat sides as well as along the edges.

Small rectangular bone tool with two stubby triangular prongs.

The other side.

Side view of bone tool with incised dots.

Incised dots running down the sides.

Its size and shape suggest it is also a craftworking tool, fitting neatly in one’s hand, but from what industry? Our best theory is that it’s for leather-working, as small metal tools of the rough dimensions has been used for pricking leathers and skins. Bone awls are known from sites around the world, used to work hide and even wood, so perhaps this is in a similar vein. Other uses could be associated with basket-working or thread-twisting (lucets/chain forks for knotting long cords etc), as double-pronged bone has been used in those crafts, but the scale of the prongs on our piece seems to rule out these uses. Microscopic examination could reveal more about the wear-patterns on the surface of the tines, but even from cursory examination the curve in the piece probably came from use in a stabbing or thrusting motion. There is no visible sign of twisting or torqueing, or even the constant flipping in one’s hand of a lucet. The stubby prongs also support the poking or pricking theory.

This illustration by Finds Assistant Kennedy really brings out the detail of the carving in a way that a simple photo couldn’t!

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Anyway, we also cannot rule out 100% that it’s not a chip fork from an Anglo-Saxon chippy…okay we can rule that out or the Finds Team will be cross with us.

Fresh from the Trench: Week 4

Light brown latch with a loop at one end and a very shallow hook resting in someone's cupped palms.

Right at the end of the day yesterday, one of our new students was working in the extended sondage near the trench entrance ramp. She found this iron object in the southwest corner of the mini-trench, abutting the edge of the cobbled yard in the southeast part of the trench. We think it looks like a latch, with a suspension loop at one end and a tapered, very shallow hook at the other end that might catch an “eye,” or loop/U-shape hammered into a surface. Even though it is corroded, it still retains the probable shape of the object rather well.

This isn’t always the case! Iron is particularly difficult to work with when it corrodes. Much of the iron we excavate are small objects completely covered in corrosion, sometimes identifiable as nails or tacks but other times just oblong lumps. On other sites, we have all seen iron concretions that reveal nothing of the original object until they are x-rayed! On another site, for example, something vaguely like a scotch egg appeared, and when x-rayed was shown to be multiple links of a chain that had rusted together. Iron corrosion is also very cheeky in that it often consumes or cements the iron object to nearby objects in the findspot, making them corrode as well. Think back to the image in our riddle solution post to see what iron and copper rivets look like corroded together: pretty unidentifiable at first glance. We have all seen iron corrosion pick up soil and sand, and sometimes even bits of bone and pottery!

How do we know it is iron? Many of the common metals we find archaeologically are fairly readily identifiable by their corrosion! Other clues like weight could be used but examining the corrosion allows you to simply observe particularly vulnerable metal objects without handling them. Iron commonly forms oxides, in an attempt to stabilize itself, and that’s how we end up with rust. Ferric oxide and ferrous oxide, brown and red/orange respectively, are what we find most often. Another metal that we have found on site frequently are copper alloys, which in our particular archaeological environment tend to turn green and pale green depending on the electrochemical changes; these colors represent the presence of chlorides rather than oxides. Lead, in addition to being much heavier than it looks, usually corrodes into carnbonates, giving it a white or grey appearance. Silver is most often affected by sulfur, leaving a black tarnish. And what about the shiniest-of-shinies? Gold doesn’t corrode hideously at all, it just becomes a purer form of itself!

Meet the Team: Environmental

This season we are really refocusing on environmental archaeology to better tell the loooooong story of the site. Archaeobotanist Alice is analysing all the data from our soil samples, so here’s a bit about her background in her own words.

Alice Wolff, Environmental Archaeologist

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Like a lot of the team here, I decided to be an archaeologist when I was six and haven’t changed my mind since! I’ve been digging in England since 2013 and doing environmental archaeology since 2014, but only joined the BRP in 2018. Prior to joining the BRP I received my BA in Medieval Studies from Smith College and my MPhil in Archaeology from the University of Cambridge. When I’m not in the field I am a rising second-year PhD student in Medieval Studies at Cornell University where I study human responses to climate change in the first millennium AD. At the BRP I spend most of my time running the flotation tank and looking at charred plants under a microscope.

YAC Attack Day 2 and The Riddle

Today was part 2 of our weekend of YAC-tivities. For part one, click here.

We had some participants from the York chapter of the Council for British Archaeology’s Young Archaeologists’ Club. Like yesterday, everyone got a chance to work with Alice on environmental processing and analysis. We’ll hear more from Alice about her work here with the BRP and why it’s so important next week. Once again, we’d like to thank the Mick Aston Archaeology Fund for helping us deliver this weekend of programming.

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We also wanted to reveal the answer to The Riddle. Did you miss it? Click that link and have a read and a think. We’ll wait.

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Okay. Are you ready for the solution?

The solution to all three versions of the riddle is a “coat of mail.” What’s so fascinating about these poetic little riddles is that they provide us with so many words associated with the craft of weaving. Linking the tiny loops of metal involves weaving them in and out of each other, rather than weaving weft and warp stretched across a loom. Just like a garment, your mail could be mended, extending its lifetime maybe even from parent to child. The elevation of handicrafts to poem-worthy status is a common feature of Anglo-Saxon riddles, giving us such a lovely but brief glimpse into everyday life.

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This is actually part of a corroded coat of mail from the 7th-century burial at Sutton Hoo.