Soiled! (Part 1)

We are hoping to start up our environmental processing next week when environmental archaeologist Alice joins us again, but until then we wanted to give a refresher on that beautiful, beautiful matrix: the soil. While soil may just be dirt to most people, to archaeologists and soil scientist it’s a massive book to be read right beneath your feet!

There are a number of qualities we can use our senses to experience and describe, but we’ll just discuss some of the most common characteristics we look for and record on data sheets.

The first thing most people notice about soil is the colour! Colour can help be an indicator of the type of soil you’ve got if you’re familiar with the local geology, as it’s mostly based on the mineralogy (for example, yellow may signify clay in one area, but red might signify clay elsewhere because of what minerals are present). Organic matter leads to dark brown and black soils, while iron-rich soils are reds, oranges, and yellows. Soils that have been leached out tend to be light greys and beiges. Soil colour can also be affected temporarily by water retention; think of the difference between dry sand and wet sand. Archaeologists have two main ways of describing and recording soil color: the “three-word method” and the Munsell method.

The former is what we use on site at BRP, and it is pretty easy to use once you know the order of descriptors. The first word is always “light,” “medium,” or “dark.” The third word is always the main colour. The second is a colour word sandwiched in the middle with the suffix “-ish” that describes the main colour. For example, the soil could be described as medium yellowish brown.

Medium yellowish brown soil.
A bit of earth.

Unfortunately, once in a while when looking for a way to describe the soil we had in the old Trench 3, your brain would immediately go to “medium brownish brown” which is completely useless but always hilarious.

The Munsell system is a bit more complicated but meant to be an international standard. Teams purchase (very expensive) little binders with pages that look like paint swatches depicting the spectrum of Earth’s soil colours. Every shade is given an identification code with letters and numbers. They are based on three characteristics: hue (redness), value (light or darkness), chroma (brightness). Hue is organised as a ratio of yellowness to redness.

Munsell page. You can see how the numbers increase down the axis and from left to right.
The code in the top right means 10 parts yellow to 1 part read.

The drawbacks of a Munsell ID however are that it’s harder to picture the soil color in your mind unless you’ve memorised the whole chart. Sure, you can figure out the colour family but looking at the hue portion of the ID, but it’s not as easy to imagine the exact value and chroma from the associated digits. You can make relative comparisons by knowing the higher numbers, but it’s unlikely you could guess the exact light/dark or bright/dull numbers.

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week!

Whoosh! Wednesday

Cleaning the run of the north and western wall remains led to a little poking around in the rubble that previously filled that half of our structure in Trench 5b. As soon as the soil and loose stones were cleared back to prepare for excavating the large stones over the next few days, our team noticed two worked blocks that was not rectangular, but cut diagonally on one side.

Two blocks of grey masonry worked and positioned to create an inverted V.
The inner face of the wall looking seaward.

This in the inside of the north-facing wall showing signs of previously having an aperture, with this opening splayed out on the inner face. The outline of the original stones is very suspiciously like an arrow slit, sometimes described as an embrasure in a fortification. This would make sense considering what the line of sight through it would have made the viewshed…But why have one arrow slit? That hardly seems enough?

Oh, right. Here’s another then.

Medieval masonry with grey stones and the embrasure of an arrow slit. Rubble and dirt in the foreground.
The inner face of the wall that runs north-south, facing west.

Arrow slits are also known as arrow loops or loopholes. With the advent of artillery, embrasures (recesses that incorporated the slit itself and were angled to produce a firing arc) could also be designed to allow cannon defense. Slits designs started as vertical but were expanded to include cross shapes and even some anomalous ones exist; some associate the advent of horizontal slits to increased use of the crossbow.  We can even get an idea of who was defending based on the height of the arrow slits: slits intended for crossbowmen are closer to the ground to allow firing while kneeling.

Egyptian forts during the Middle Kingdom, such as those like Buhen near the Second Cataract of the Nile in Nubia (now modern southern Egypt and Sudan), show arrow slits as early as the 12th Dynasty or about 1860BCE under Senwosret III. We bring up this little connection because your Outreach Officer keeps running into this dude! In undergrad, Lauren did a major project on Buhen, which unfortunately is now submerged in Lake Nasser. Presently, she works at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History which has one of Senwosret III’s funerary boats from Dahshur, and she uses it for the very lesson as the case study in her upcoming essay. Seriously, how does this guy keep popping into relevance? I guess when you rule Egypt, you are truly an influencer in the time before social media.

Back to the arrow slit history! The Greeks get credit for it: our favourite bather and polymath Archimedes makes the first big splash with them at the Siege of Syracuse in 214-212BCE, as cited in Polybius’ Histories. The Romans also incorporate them into their fortifications but fall out of use during the early medieval period. General consensus is the Normans bring the feature back into European architecture design around the 12th century.

Experimental archaeologists and experts in archery teamed up to better under how the arrow slit could be used by defenders most effectively. One fascinating thing they discovered is that the defender couldn’t stand close to the slit on one hand if the embrasure was too small but also because they couldn’t fire an arrow that would make it out of the wall 100% of the time. This is because arrows actually wobble or oscillate, flexing side to side, and the wobble is strong enough to disrupt traversing the slit if the slit is extremely narrow. A defending archer needs to be back far enough from the slit in the embrasure AND have a good read on the flexing of the spines of the arrows they’re using. Here’s a cool blog post that has some really helpful diagrams explaining the behavior.

Their design was meant to allow this offense while preserving a measure of protection, hoping to limit the volume of arrows entering the structure and injuring the defending bowmen/crossbowmen defenders. The best archers and crossbowmen, however, could still prove deadly from the ground, and numerous experimental archaeologists and medieval weapons experts/reenactors have proven it.

Fresh from the Wash and Trench: Bird is the Word

We’ve just started the season, so the team up in Finds has been working on numerous backlogged contexts of finds to wash. One thing that turned up rather unexpectedly was a bone that wasn’t immediately identifiable.

The circular cylindrical openings all in a row were likely foramina (singular: foramen) which are openings in bone that blood vessels and nerves can pass through. The row was reminiscent of a sacrum, which in humans is the bottom of the spine and the bit between the top of the pelvic bones. The sacrum of any animal is actually fused vertebrae! But this didn’t seem to be from any mammals, or animals in general, that we’ve been encountering regularly on site. The fully circular hole is called the acetabulum where the pelvis and femur meet.

What we are likely looking at is a bird bone called a synsacrum, with the prefix “syn” from Greek meaning “together,” so “together with the sacrum.” The synsacrum is a fused set of different vertebrae: some of the thoracic (chest), lumbar (lower back), sacral (pelvic), and some of the caudal (tail) bones to create a single bone. It acts like a shock absorber when birds land hard.

But wait…

Almost simultaneously, down by the masonry of the arch in the outworks, another bit of uncommon bone for our site appeared.

Here we had something instantly recognisable, because SOMEBODY had just been looking at the same thing just last week, but in a T. Rex. This is the furcula, meaning “little fork” in Latin…think of Caligula meaning “little boots.” You may know it better as a wishbone. This bone supports the chest flight muscles, and it is basically two clavicles like humans would have but fused together. It can expand and contract outward and spring back to support the flight muscles.

So what birds have we found on site that these could be from? We have evidence for crane hunted by hawks, but also the more common chicken, duck, and goose. We will need to consult some zooarch resources to better narrow down and identification.

Meet the Team (Again): Returning Staff Update

We’ve got several returning staff this season, and it seemed fit to reintroduce you all to our awesome team. Everyone has been up to exciting things over the past year!

Trench Crew

Three young women stand together for a selfie in front out the ivy-covered outworks of the castle with huge smiles.
L to R: Constance, Jillian, and Lauren

Lead archaeologist and site administrator Constance is back for her TENTH season with the project! We are all so very grateful for her steady guidance and friendship. She remains at University of York teaching environmental archaeology processing as well as their field school, in addition to some commercial contract work.

Trench Assistant Supervisor Jillian started her journey at Bamburgh in 2019 as a student of the field school, but this will be her second year assisting Constance in the trench. She currently attends Oxford, studying for a masters in Archaeology. Jillian’s current dissertation is focusing on object biographies of finds excavated by the Bamburgh Research Project in the past ten years. Specifically, she has been studying a late seventh-century bone comb, an eighth-century bird mount, as well as a twelfth-century “standing animal” buckle. Through examining these finds, Jillian’s goal illuminate the stories of the people who interacted with these objects and explore the elite identity of the castle site. When not digging, she has lately enjoyed hiking about and exploring new places, eating lots of good food, and reading historical fiction!

Finds Crew

Two women smiling at the camera, one seated in a beige patio chair while the other is perched on the back of her chair.
Pauline and Margot.

Pauline is very glad to return to Bamburgh as one of our Finds Supervisors. Since last at BRP in 2021, she has co-edited a volume about frontier archaeology and written a thought-provoking article about the relationship between metal detectorists and archaeologists (surely a hot topic always), to be published imminently. She has also taught about the Black Death while spending another year on her PhD about early medieval English material culture. She finally got to visit and heartily recommends the wonderful early medieval attraction at West Stow.

Margot, our other Finds Supervisor, is presently writing her dissertation at York on Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age standing stones in Yorkshire. She will be using the Devil’s Arrows and monument at Rudston as case studies. Her methodology will hopefully include geophysical survey. She is very excited to see this new season unfold.


Lauren returns as well to manage outreach activities such as on-site tours and talks, the daily blog, and our social media accounts. She has completed her third year of teaching at a middle school outside of Pittsburgh, and she also still teaches Egyptology and paleontology courses part-time at the city’s natural history museum. Lauren and her museum coworkers have authored a paper for an edited volume about using museum collections and object-based learning pedagogy to teach Egyptology; it is expected to be published early next year.


Alice will be joining us later in the season to restart her systematic processing of samples for the project and her PhD. She will provide us with a more in-depth focus of her doctoral thesis (that’s a doctoral dissertation for you in the states; not sure why we swap the nouns!) in a future blog post.

Back in Action for 2022!

Welcome back for the 2022 season!

Seven people sitting around a table with wash basins outside the windmill overlooking the West Ward of Bamburgh Caslte with the grey masonry and pink sandstone of the castle apartment tower in the background.

We are all so excited to be back on-site today with a fresh bunch of new students, and some familiar faces among the staff (more on us tomorrow) as well as former students who’ve signed back on as staff (more on them next Monday). We’ve got FOUR action-packed weeks planned for you all, so follow along on here and your preferred social media site:




Our first and hopefully most straightforward goal for the season is to bottom out the tower and find Elmund’s well (discussed in this blog post about the wells from last season)…or at least find traces of it. None of us are truly expecting an empty shaft with potable water, but everyone is at the very least expecting that yours truly, against the basic premise of self-preservation and scientific safety, will offer to taste-test whatever mud or sludge lays at the bottom.

Foreground : dune grase, centrer: masonry sunken into the ground in a reversed squared C-shape; background: ivy-covered wooden fence with the dunes and North Sea in the very distance.
Trench 5b footprint of the tower just a little worse for wear.

We also would like to do a full outworks extant masonry survey to get a better grasp on the complicated and numerous phases of construction. There are bits of wall that show signs of at least half a dozen separate rebuild or refacing events! We would also like to generate a to-scale model using Electronic Distance Measurement (a method of survey called EDM for short) of the masonry.

Green plant -covered masonry with stone steps and a stone arch looking up towards a sail-less windmill, with a partly cloudy sky behind.
Looking up towards the castle from Trench 5B; note the multi-coloured masonry around the arch.

Our post-excavation goals, in addition to keeping up with processing of finds, will include a bit of housekeeping; we’ve recently moved our archives and want to make sure everything is where it should be and easily-accessible via our cataloguing system. We’ve got plenty of finds from last season to finish washing and sorting, and there will hopefully be a similar abundance of material from our excavations of the next few weeks.

We are happy to once again have the specialist staff (previously unavailable due to travel restrictions) and workspace to begin processing environmental samples again. Our main means of processing will be through flotation, and a primer on our methods can be found here. In short, flotation allows tiny artefacts and ecofacts from coins and beads to bones, snail shells, and seeds to be separated from the soil matrix. The characteristics and chemistry soil itself can also tell us about what was likely going on in a certain area of the trench during a certain time. This season we will be covering seed identification and a bit of soil science here on the blog.

Finally, we hope to enhance our database of finds with a new system of key words. We also would like to eventually integrate the Brian Hope-Taylor material we have in our care into our existing system.

Bamburgh Bones are hosting a conference over the weekend of Friday 20th and Saturday 21st May.

Bookings are now open for the conference that celebrates the sucessful Bamburgh Bones Project, that has created such an amazing public display and teaching resources around the Bowl Hole skeletons. The conference is open to all and will be a fun learning experience for all of the family.

Details and booking information can be found at:

Bamburgh Excavation Season 2022: bookings open!

It has been a tough time for fieldwork in the last couple of years but we are aiming to be a little ambitious in 2022. Having learned a few lessons on how to cope, as safely as we can, with COVID restrictions and our short season late last year, we are aiming to run a full season of four weeks this summer.

There is a well down there we just know it! And just as shown on the early 19th century plan.

The field school will run from Sunday 26th June (arrival date Sat 25th) to Friday 22nd July as the last day on site. You can book single or multiple week slots:

Week 1: 26th June to 2nd July

Week 2: 3rd July to 9th July

Week 3: 10th July to 16th July

Week 4: 17th July to 22nd of July

This year we will be returning to the castle’s outworks to explore the newly discovered medieval Elmund’s Tower and the allusive well. You can read more about the excavation here: 2021 Excavation Round-up

To find out more or book place please head to our website: BRP Website

We look forward to seeing you all in in June and July and finally finding that well!

End of Season Director’s Round-up: Part 2

At the end of our 2021 dig season, we outlined the background and focus for the dig season here. In this blog post we look at the results of the dig.

A number of the older surviving plans of Bamburgh Castle depict the Tower of Elmund’s Well amongst the outworks beyond St Oswald’s Gate, so its location has long been known. In addition some some older aerial photographs (probably from around the 1950s to 1960s) seem to show that the cottage that was built into its ruins stood well above ground, and was even partly roofed at that time. There was some nagging doubt just what might survive today, as the area was covered with ivy and was not very accessible. So it was a matter of some relief that after even a few hours of ivy removal it became clear that stone structures did survive beneath the ivy above ground level. It would have been a much less interesting excavation season had we been trying to find a robber trench from which the stone structure had been entirely removed.

The outworks and the tower foundation lie at a much lower level than the main castle, you descend some 10m through St Oswald’s Gate and down to the areas where the tower stood. The route today is via a series of steps of varying date from quite modern to worn steps that may well be of early post-medieval date. There are two route ways (they split outside St Oswald’s Gate) one towards the village green and the other towards the tower and the port beyond to the west. How old these routes were was one of the questions we have posed as part of our investigations. It seemed likely that they both dated back to at least the later medieval period, even if the steps themselves were more modern, but some form of these routes are likely to date back even earlier as we know St Oswald’s Gate was in use from at least the early medieval period and perhaps the late Bronze Age.

The area of investigation for 2021 (contours are labeled in metres to show the slope)

One of our first tasks once we were on site was to clear the steps down to the area we were to work in. The lower part of which were covered in soil and ivy and required quite a bit of work. This would ensure we had a reasonably good access way to the site. I am sure the climb each tea-break was good for us, even if it did not feel that way.

Before and after the steps cleaning

It was natural to start clearing and investigating from the base of the steps northwards into the area where the cottage and tower stood. This means the first discovery was the end of a wall, that appears to extend back to the slope of the bedrock, and is likely to represent part of the wall that closed off the seaward side of the outworks on the north side. This stub wall had facing stones on the outside and some rubble and core work behind it but the other facing stones, that would have been expected on the opposite side, were missing. It would have been quite a wide section of wall had the other side been present and just possibly may have been a remnant of medieval date, given its form.

The fact that the wall we had just uncovered ended in a deliberately constructed face, on the west side, strongly suggested that we had a small gate present between the wall and the cottage. In fact the plan of the ancient parts of Bamburgh Castle compiled by the Antiquarian Cadwallader Bates for the 1st Lord Armstrong in 1895 shows a path in just this area, passing by the cottage east wall and then along the north wall veering off at its end towards the beach. There is no depiction of the wall end that we had found but in all other aspects it seems to confirm the presence of the route-way, and by inference the gate. The plan of 1803 showed the wall from the tower back to the bedrock as complete without a gate, but then this plan also shows the steps and path in a different area and neither map seems to be definitive, though may reflect changes in access arrangements between their compilation.

As we had a good idea of where the cottage and earlier tower lay, from the older plans of the site, we were able to start to reveal the top of the wall lines fairly quickly. Starting from the area of the gate, through to the beach, we were able to trace the top of the wall, westwards to the corner where it returned to the south. Tracing the wall top in the other direction (southwards) we discovered an area where the wall appeared to become more like rubble than an in place structure. This under excavation turned out to be an entrance, unsurprisingly right in front of the current steps down from St Oswald’s Gate.

To the immediate south of the entrance we also identified a wall along the south side that we at first considered might mark the southern wall of the tower. This proved not to be the case when we realised that this wall had one face forming the side of the entrance but that there was no outside face just core-work and sand. The wall had been built up against the sand subsoil (or what at the moment we think is subsoil) as what we call a revetment. It was not all that substantial and did not extend very far to the west making us see it as a late addition to the structures and only part of the cottage. Further investigation within the entrance, removing rubble and soil fill, revealed a set of steps down into the cottage, which we now realised survived more substantially below ground than we expected. More of this below.

The revetting wall that is just a stone wall face that holds back the slope

Interlude – the enigma of Area A

Whilst the investigation of the cottage/tower area was our main focus for the season we also had questions concerning a short length of stone wall that lay to the south of the, still standing, main closing wall of the outworks. Whilst only a few courses high it survived over some 7m in length and was broadly parallel to the southern wall of the outworks. As it was relatively narrow it would be easy to dismiss it as of late post-medieval in date. We excavated a trench at its base back in 2002, which revealed three or more courses of very substantial stone foundations below ground level. This put the idea in our heads that it just might be earlier and of medieval date. Helping with this interpretation we have the earlier phase of the medieval outworks (the multiphase wall with the arched entrance through it) that still stands to a good height that is also relatively narrow in width. It remained possible that this short length of wall could be associated with this multiphase wall. If it represented an earlier version of the Postern wall it would likely extend across in front of it and all the way to the bedrock. We sited a trench to see if its line continued there below ground. Whilst this trench did produce some medieval pottery it has failed, so far, to reveal a wall or the trench from which a wall had been robbed, despite the trench being substantially extended. It is fair to say that this wall remains enigmatic and we will have to try harder next year to find some answers.

The trench in Area A showing a distinct lack of a wall foundation – at least so far

And back to cottages and towers

Whilst the wall investigation beyond the outworks was only adding to our confusion the investigations at the cottage / tower had identified four stone steps that led down into the cottage through an entrance from the base of the stairs that lead back to St Oswald’s Gate. A landing at the base of these stairs turned you round ninety degrees to the door of the cottage. Traces of the door survived as a stone door jamb on the east side, with some rather rotted timber that had formed the door frame, and a threshold stone.

The steps down into the structure from the botom of the current path

Inside the threshold three further stone steps led down deeper into the cottage, that we were now realising survived to quite a depth below the current ground level. Here a further ninety degree turn pointed you towards the interior of the cottage proper, where evidence of a further door was seen in form of much more rotted timber and rusted iron nails, that marked a second door-frame.

The presence of two doorways so close together was unexpected and may be explainable if we imagine one being in use later than the other. The two plans that we have that depict the structure in some detail may show that this is the case. The later plan, Bates’ plan of 1895, appears to depict the outer of the two entrances in use and also shows the short flight of steps into the structure from the base of the steps down from St Oswald’s Gate. If we want to push the interpretation of the plan as far as we dare it also suggests that the wall at the south side of this entrance that has only the one face was just there to revet (and hold back) the mound of sand that the structure was dug into.

The earlier plan, from 1803 shows the entrance as rather different. The revetting wall was absent and a set of steps entered the structure from the south. The east wall of the entrance is hardly depicted and we might infer that the second entrance was in use then, even though it is not clearly depicted. There is no gate out to the beach on the north side and the steps and path down from St Oswald’s are shown in a different area heading down in a straight line towards the closing wall on the west side of the outwork. It is possible that this means the plan has been simplified but other evidence may support it as accurate and suggest that the route was realigned in the later 19th century (see below).

The 1803 plan also shows a set of additional steps down from within the second, and probably earlier door, leading down to the well-room. It seems safe to call it that as this plan also depicts the well-head itself within the room. This does suggest that the room here is perhaps at a basement level and excavation of the rubble fill already shows it to be more than 1m below ground level. If we are to see any part of the cottage structure as the most likely candidate to be old and part of the Tower of Elmund’s Well, this surely is it.

The 1803 plan showing the structure and well (north not to the top of the photo)

The final area of investigation was along the closing wall of the outworks, between the tall standing south wall and the cottage / tower. It is shown as a solid structure on the plan of 1803 and not depicted on the Bates plan of 1895, though it is on the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey of c.1860 so may have been collapsed and partly covered by the end of the 19th century. We have revealed that this wall survives in this area, close to and below ground level. Within the trenches excavated it certainly shows different phases of stone structure and in some places rubble and mortar foundations, stepping downwards to the north, towards the beach. As depicted on the earliest plans this wall does not seem to have been anything like as wide at its base as the southern closing wall, and as both were built on sand this may explain why only the southern wall remains standing to substantial height to this day. There appears to be a possible blocked opening through this wall a little to the south of the cottage / tower and this is interesting given the different line of the steps down the slope from St Oswald’s Gate shown on the plan of 1803. Perhaps this will prove to be a gate out towards the port area when we get to investigate it more next season.

A few dolerite blocks smeared with mortar may show an blocked entrance through the wall

Looking forward to next year the most exciting discovery that remains is to get to the floor level of the ‘well-room’ and find what remains of the well itself. How was it built and how was it lined? It must surely have been lined to have stood open for any time as it clearly was in places excavated through sand and down into the boulder clay. By uncovering much more of the surviving masonry, and some investigation of the foundations, we will hope to identify more evidence of the different phases and hopefully gain an insight into the date of some of these components. Perhaps we will even solve the puzzle of the enigmatic wall in Area A!

The well-room excavation at the end of the season – quite a bit deeper to go we think
The entrance to the cottage at the end of the season

Early Modern Witchcraft

You thought we forgot about you, didn’t you? Oh no, we were waiting for spooky season to kick into high gear before we dropped our last post on the history of witchcraft in our part of the world. You can read Part I on magic and witches in some of the ancient empires of Mediterranean here, or check out our post on medieval magic in Part II here. The following, a holiday long-read that may require a cuppa, is our final installment that brings us up to the time period of our Witch’s Cottage.

Print by John Boydell depicting Act IV, Scene 1 from Macbeth, published 1803. British Library.

By the 16th century, western Europe’s relationship with religion and magic was already changing again. The witchcraft persecutions stand out in this period for several reasons, and the idea of a witchcraft “scare” or “craze” on a large scale is a solidly early modern phenomenon in the regions discussed. This period includes multiple competing assertions of orthodoxy and heresy, heralding the two simultaneous Reformations, that of the Protestants (various sects finding their footing) and that of the Catholics (consisting of both introspection and insistent counter-narratives). Perhaps unexpectedly, the Protestant and Catholic ideas about the diabolic were nearly identical. Religious affiliation did not determine the ferocity of trials, as the denominations could be equally feverish or lenient from one locale to the next. Further, communication was undergoing its own revolution with the spread of printing technologies and the associated rise in literacy. So much material was written and published in pamphlet form, originally as part of the larger religious discourse, but then later as scandalous, embellished reports of witchcraft in use. There was a disconnect between our two types of primary sources: the furious treatises in response to the sensational stories, which argued against what was most hated and feared, and the actual court records that show the more frequent, and usually more mundane, accusations.

Our main secondary resources for the following two sections are from a fascinating edited volume, the Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West, which spans over 2000 years of magic in Europe. Three chapters by contributors paint a complex but discernible picture of the evolution of the late medieval period into what we call the “Early Modern” through the lens of magic and witchcraft. For our purposes, we are talking about the 16th through 18th centuries. (Please don’t ask about the Renaissance as a chronological period, because our team has strong but conflicting feelings on That, and this is decidedly not the blog post to unpack it.)

The accusations we find during this period overlap with some of the root anxieties found during the Greek and Roman periods with respect to power, socioeconomics, and gender and sexuality. People are living in close quarters, with long-term relationships that may span generations; animosity may burn slowly in these communities, and accusations may be a release for those tensions. Malcolm Gaskill, in “Witchcraft and Evidence in Early Modern England” (2008), refers to these relationships as “micropolitics.” Hunting episodes are often highly localized, reflecting this web of intersecting angst. The very first trials seem to arise along contact zones in the Alps in Switzerland, France, and Italy, where societies, languages, and political systems abut one another.

A common theme that allowed the witch trials to become a phenomenon is how certain types of women fit (or don’t fit) into their communities. We can see this in the essays of Catherine Rider, David J. Collins, and Michael Bailey featured in the anthology named above.

Woodcut from the pamphlet “A rehearsall both straung and true, of hainous and horrible actes committed by Elizabeth Stile, alias Rockingham, Mother Dutten, Mother Deuell, Mother Margaret, fower notorious witches,” 1579. British Library.

Common vs Learned

Rider’s contribution to the anthology focuses on common magic, here referring to what the peasantry, tradespeople, and merchant classes would employ to protect their families and livelihoods. Charms and amulet use for healing were not being phased out as quickly as medical and church authorities may have hoped. But at first, defensive magic was considered less disruptive to the social order. The main preoccupation of those in power was with evidence of harm done by witchcraft. Across multiple primary sources and secondary scholarly sources, we can see a recurring theme in neighbourly relationships turning hostile. Rising poverty across Europe creates a massive increase in households and individuals that cannot support themselves in the evolving economies: they get left behind. They can turn only to their church and their neighbours for so long. When neighbourly hospitality runs out, those receiving charity may feel abandoned and angry; should something unfortunate befall the formerly generous, those providing aid may believe that their kindness has been repaid with witchcraft. Many of the individuals that sought support were women without affiliation to a man or household: the unmarried, the widowed, and sex workers; foreign women also bore an Otherness that made them dangerous to the local social order. Women are especially associated with harmful love magic, which makes men fear for their own influence in families and communities or that their own bad behaviour may be revealed. During the early modern period, women are disproportionately put on trial for harm done supposedly via witchcraft all over Europe; notable exceptions include Iceland, Normandy, Finland, Estonia, and Russia. There absolutely were men accused of witchcraft, such as priests whose association with ritual and religion made them targets.

Rider also addresses the difficulty jobs like ours here at the BRP! She stresses the importance of using material culture to better understand common magic, and how difficult it is to prove a connection between the artefact and its desired function. Apotropaic marks (which are meant to ward off evil) known as “witch marks” range from symbols to abbreviations, and they are found in the architectural features of homes of those who feared magical attack. Every once in a while you may come upon a news story about shoes found in early modern walls or bottles dug up under floorboards. These too were thought to have protective properties. Witch bottles were buried in the home with bits and bobs, and even hair and urine. So far 147 have been found in England, including this one just confirmed by further tests recently. These objects are signs of defensive magic; objects of active, offensive magic are even more nebulous in the archaeological record. We can only hope to add to the growing corpus of witchcraft material culture as we excavate our own Witch’s Cottage!

Alchemist at work from “THE ORDINALL of Alchymy” by Thomas Northon, 1477. British Library.

Collins’ examination of “learned magic” defines practices that required access to books and equipment to master, as well as previous education in words, maths, and technology. One required a link to a monastery, university, or royal courts to have the texts and accoutrements, and these positions to privilege were open almost entirely to men. The learned agents try to legitimise some practices by grounding them in natural philosophy. Instead of witchcraft, these men’s expertise was considered natural magic, a field of study we see developing during the high medieval period which believed the natural world had hidden forces one could discern and manipulate. Subjects covered ranged from alchemy to astrology to divination by various means, which become the basis of what we would call the natural sciences today. Alchemy experimentation gives us chemistry, astrology gives us astronomy, divination practices straddle biology and physics. The early modern period sees these fields once relegated to magic being adapted and folded into university curricula.


Bailey’s chapter brings us into the realm of diabolism—the assertion of association with the Devil and his demons. Demonology as a field begins in the 14th century, and we see a massive shift from individual acts to a fear of organised cults. Witchcraft is believed to truly be communal. Initially, those in power targeted “learned magic” such as male necromancers, because it was the more pressing threat to existing order and power dynamics, but eventually they extended their persecutions to include the common traditions. Fifteenth-century authors like Johannes Nider and Heinrich Kramer were preoccupied with gender, but they were originally the outliers. From the 15th through 18th centuries, there are hundreds of thousands of accusations, tens of thousands of trials, and about 50,000 executions, not including vigilante killings or death via torture or jail. Three of every four trial targets were women, again related to the fear of the harm women could theoretically inflict with respect to their traits and roles in the household (fertility, sexuality, food preparation). The idea of the diabolical woman takes a page from the ideas in Greco-Roman antiquity, this time with stronger explicit misogyny. Women were considered weak in all aspects, from the physical to the intellectual, and thus easily susceptible. Yet even with all of this, England is painted as being …how shall I put this…relatively chill compared to the Continent, but there was little consistency on the Continent itself!

Trials in Britain

While the scale of executions was substantially smaller in the British Isles as compared to parts of the Continent, every life was an entire universe snuffed out by the confluence of numerous socioeconomic and spiritual anxieties. Our location near the Border might suggest that the region too suffered from extreme measures, because these fluid borderland spaces on the Continent saw early persecutions. We actually find a difference in the intensity and timing of witch trials on either side of the Border, even with Scottish witch-hunters having been active in Northumberland.


Legislation of witchcraft as a criminal undertaking under common law rather than purely church law begins as early as 1533 (under Henry VIII), but there is some pushback as the early acts are repealed and reworked, until 1563. The Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments, and Witchcrafts (under Elizabeth I) allows for imprisonment except in the most harmful of cases, which earned the death penalty. James I (James VI of Scotland) passed his own Act Against Conjuration, Witchcraft and Dealing with Evil and Wicked Spirits in 1604. Two remarkable trends emerge with these acts: first, the earliest applications of the original laws did not produce convictions about 75% of the time (Gaskill, 2008); second, executions actually went down with the passage of the second major act.

Witchcraft Act of 1604. Parliament Archives.

Scepticism regarding diabolism was healthy during the rise of witch trials in Europe, beginning as early as the 14th century. In England, the scepticism was less about the existence of witchcraft and more about the legal processes. Legal minds such as Reginald Scot, William Perkins, and Richard Bernard became the main drivers of jurisprudence discourse that argued for more tempered approaches; the former who questioned the reality of diabolic magic got his book banned for his troubles, while the latter two believed witchcraft was indeed an actual threat (and thus should be investigated thoroughly and punished if the evidence is strong). They and their philosophical adjacents believed that some claims of witchcraft could actually be debunked by reviewing the symptoms of witchcraft as physical, mental, or emotional distress. Some other common concerns shared by these legal philosophers were in respect to the competence of those involved in the trial: instead of highly educated and experienced judicial reps (like those found in Continental courts following inquisition practices rooted in Roman law), English common law necessitated regular folks were witnesses, convincing regular folks who served as jurors. The regular folks involved in accusations didn’t have the diabolical as their “primary concern” but rather all the other anxiety and baggage of their home communities. It is mid-level courts (with educated but locally-sourced officers) that were usually harshest on applying diabolical frameworks and associations, while the highly-experienced judicial officers were concerned with evidence and proof. Eventually, more stable bureaucratic structures and the evolving opinions of those regular jurors did aid in the decline of trials over time.

Reginald Scot’s The discoverie of witchcraft, Wherein the lewde dealing of witches and witchmongers is notablie detected,1584. British Library.

Some of the most well-known trials in England include that of the Pendle and Salmesbury Witches (Lancashire, 1612), Leicester Witches (Leicestershire, 1616), and the Belvoir Witches (Lincolnshire, 1621). The trials in Leicester in 1616 resulted in nine hanged based on the testimony of a 12-year-old boy; what makes them particularly notable is that King James himself investigated further and scolded the officials for their rush to convict. A few botched and frenzied trials actually led to a culture of more circumspect trials, as well as a noticeable decline in executions for witchcraft until the Civil War (1642-1651).

It was during the Civil War that the most famed of trials took place in Essex, East Anglia, from 1645-1647. In 1645, self-proclaimed “witch-finders” like Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne were summed to Tendring Hundred to handle accusations. Of 34 accused, 29 had cases pursued, and 28 were executed (Gaskill, 2008). Further cases throughout East Anglia resulted in 1 in 3 of those questioned were hanged; interrogation often included what we and 17th century folks would have considered torture which was banned but clearly Hopkins and Stearne were unbothered. All this evidence cost a pretty penny for the localities that relied on such “experts” to acquire. Both men tried to stick to regions friendly to their business model, but mercifully faced a decline in authority and paycheques.

Matthew Hopkin’s “The discovery of witches: in answer to several Queries lately delivered to the Judges of the Assize for the county of Norfolk. And now published by Matthew Hopkins Witch-finder for the benefit of the whole Kingdome,” 1647. British Library.

Newcastle Witch Trials

In our neck of the woods, the most well-documented trials are that of the 15 accused witches of Newcastle, thanks to writings by Ralph Gardiner. Gardiner’s published tract wasn’t about witchcraft or magic at all, as he was active to protest and disrupt the coal monopoly in the Puritan-held area of Newcastle; his text can be read via transcription here. In 1649 and 1650, Newcastle officials sent for a Scottish witch-finder (who before his own execution admitted to putting over 220 women to death). Aside from just looking at a women and “knowing” she was a witch, witch-finders like this unnamed fraud would literally prick people at various places on their skin with a needle to see if they could feel pain or produce blood in those spots. These pricking tests were based in the belief that witches’ marks (not to be confused with the witch marks discussed above) were an automatic indicator of a pact with the Devil. Any unusual skin blemishes were supposedly teats upon which animal familiars could suckle. Thirty individuals were subject to these tests, and at least 15 of them were put to death. They were buried at Saint Andrew’s in town, unusually in consecrated ground. Here are their names (according to Gardiner): Matthew Bulmer, Elizabeth Anderson, Jane Hunter, Mary Pots, Alice Hume, Elianor Rogerson, Margaret Muffet, Margaret Maddison, Elizabeth Brown, Margaret Brown, Jane Copeland, Ann Watson, Elianor Henderson, Elizabeth Dobson, and Katherine Coultor.

Illustration from Ralph Gardiner’s book Englands grievance discovered, in relation to the coal-trade, 1655.


Scotland passed their own Witchcraft Act in the same year as England, 1563, which was harsher than that of their southern neighbour. This brief act was authored and argued in the context of Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic, trying to preside over a mostly Protestant convention of governmental officers who themselves were trying to create a bureaucratic system to accompany their religious beliefs, and that tension cannot be minimised. Witchcraft was punishable by death on the first offence, along with just meeting with a witch for the purpose of plotting a magical act. It was reaffirmed, along with some new capital crimes in 1649.The most common recorded execution methods involved strangling and then incineration of the body, but that only accounts for a fraction of the estimated number of executions which conservatively hovers around 2500, 85% of whom were women.

Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database, University of Edinburgh.

Numerous trials took place throughout Scotland, with the largest proportion in the Lothians. We do have evidence of trials as far south as the Borders and as far north as Orkney. The memorial in Kirkwall on Mainland Orkney to those executed simply says “They wur cheust folk,” meaning they were just regular people. There’s an interesting database through the University of Edinburgh of the witch trials in Scotland accessible here.

North Berwick witch trials

The 1590-1592 trials in North Berwick are Scotland’s earliest big witch frenzy, although several other major periods of hunting are attested in the country. It all began with a Danish ship having to seek shelter from unseasonably rough storms en route to Scotland with King James VI’s new bride who he finally met taking shelter in Norway; the Danish monarchy pursued charges on several women known at court claiming they stirred up the storms with witchcraft. James was intrigued by the success of those persecutions and allowed paranoia regarding attempts real and imagined on his life to spin the people of East Lothian into absolute fury in the process. At least 70 people were accused, and nearly all were likely subjected to torture to extract confessions and implicate others. Many were burned.

James Carmichael’s “Newes from Scotland – declaring the damnable life and death of Dr. Fian, a notable sorcerer,” 1591. Co-curate database from the University of Newcastle.

The repeal of the various previous Witchcraft Acts came under the united crown in 1735, when witchcraft accusations themselves became punishable by a year in prison. The last witch in England was hanged in 1716. The last witch in Scotland was burned alive in 1727.

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of spooky season, as witches have long played a large role in popular culture this time of year. Please don’t forget that every life extinguished in the hunt for witches was a whole universe stolen from society due to insecurity from the household to the national level. We share these stories on behalf of all of those wronged by the various witchcraft persecutions. Happy Halloween, friends!

Further Reading:

Collins, S. J., D. (Ed.). (2015). The Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West: From Antiquity to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gaskill, M. (2008). Witchcraft and Evidence in Early Modern England. Past & Present, 198, 33–70.