Paul and Edoardo have a new book out

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Long time readers of the blog may recall that Paul Gething, one of  our four directors of the Bamburgh Research Project, and Edouardo Albert published a book ‘Northumbria the lost Kingdom’ a little while ago.  I am sure you will be excited to hear that a new book by the pair is now out. This time it is based on some of the evidence from our burial ground at the Bowl Hole and is called: ‘Warrior a life of war in Anglo-Saxon Britain’.

You can hear an interview with the authors by Dan Snow here:

Listen to the interview here

And if you want to check out more books by Eduardo this is the link to his website

 

We are back digging at the castle

When we did our round-up of the 2019 Summer dig a few weeks ago we did say we that we had some news of work that would be happening over the next few months, so I think its high time we told you what it is! There have been a number of changes at the castle this year, and more are planned. Amongst these are additions to the experience of visiting the West Ward, where the old Trench 1 has been backfilled and landscaped, and now there is the intention to add more public activities from next summer. As our major excavation (Trench 3) rather sprawls over a substantial area of the ward it is rather in the way of this so following discussion with the castle, we are doing a staff dig to complete the excavation by next spring. We are able to do this due to a generous grant from the estate that will pay many weeks of wages and because we had pretty much reached he same level as Dr Hope-Taylor had managed in the 1970s, so all that remains is to excavate a sufficient sample down to the earliest occupation beneath the Hope-Taylor levels.

new hearth

Just started and we already have a new stone-lined  hearth uncovered

By adding this deeper sample we will have a full sequence from the prehistoric to the modern era. We will of course have to sample the earliest deposits over a much smaller area. This is necessary because of the time available but also unavoidable due to the need to step the area in for safety reasons due to the depth we need to reach. This could be as deep as 4m below ground level in places.

We will have a smaller team than usual so will not be able to do as many social media posts as we would like as we need to concentrate on the excavation, but we do intend to keep you informed as well as we can.

It will be the end of an era for the BRP but not the end of our work at Bamburgh as future projects are already being developed.

A computer reconstruction of the stone building in Trench 1

We have been fortunate to have Jet Jansen, of York University, undertaking a project for us on a computer model for one of the buildings in Trench 1. Here is a little right up of the work from her:

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The basic model

For my placement with the Bamburgh Research Project, I made a 3D reconstruction of a stone building based on the robber trench found in Trench 1. When making a reconstruction I normally look for 4 kinds of information:

  • A site plan for the outlines of the structure I am trying to reconstruct. On this I would look for any remaining walls or posts, or negative features such as a robber trench.
  • Section plans of any remaining features of the building, such as walls.
  • Other finds associated with the structure, such as building materials that are no longer in situ or any artefacts that can give an indication who occupied the building, or how it was used.
  • Any archaeological or historical evidence of buildings of the same time/function from other places.

If there is a lot of this information available, it can be relatively easy to make a reconstruction. For the building in Trench 1, however, there was not much evidence. Only half a robber trench was found, so the full outline of the building is unknown. There are also no walls left and the associated finds were a few stones and a lead fragment. Additionally, there is not much evidence on early medieval buildings of stone, and most of these buildings are churches. Since the building lies close to St Oswald’s gate, we think it is more likely to be a defensive structure than one of a religious nature, which means that the surviving churches are not exactly perfect material to base the reconstruction of the building in Trench 1 on, but that is the evidence there is, so that is also what I worked with.

When making a 3D reconstruction it is necessary to create the basic shape of the building you are reconstructing first. This includes the position and height of the walls, the shape of the roof and the location and size of the door and windows. The position of the walls can be based on the robber trench. Since we don’t have the robber trench for the east wall, it is not possible to say with certainty how far the building extended to the east. Logically, the maximum size it could have been is to the edge of the plateau/the wall of the ward. The stones in the east indicate that it is likely that the building extended till at least that point. For this reconstruction, I chose to place the east wall on these stones, so this reconstruction shows the minimum size of the building. There is no evidence for this building to be a multi-story building, so the reconstruction of the building only has a ground floor.

The position of the door was based on the function of the door and the position of the building. Since the wall on the south side is quite close to the gate cleft of St Oswald’s gate, it is unlikely that there would be a door in this wall. After all, it is not sensible to put a door where there is a high risk of people falling down quite a steep drop after a few steps. However, since this building is thought to be a defensive structure, it would be likely that the door would be in such as position that the people in the building could reach the gate in as short a time as possible. Therefore, the door in this reconstruction is located on the east wall, near the corner with the south side, so that the gate could be reached without having to run around the building first.

The defensive nature of the building was also taken into account when making the windows. If the building was a gate house of sorts, the people would want to be able to see as much of the gate as possible, but also would not want to have too big windows. The style of windows was based on a small and simple window from Escomb Church.

The surviving churches of that time and the stone buildings from a slightly later period have gable roofs, so that is the type of roof used for this reconstruction as well. The lead fragment that was found could have been part of the roof, so the reconstruction of the building was given a roof of lead.

After the shape of the building is done, it needs to be given textures. The stones for the walls were chosen to resemble the walls of the churches, wood was used for the door and the roof was given a lead plating texture. After the texturing, the reconstruction is more or less finished. For the end product it is possible to make animations with the model or to edit it into a photo of the trench, or it can be left just as it is.

stone building placed

The model placed into one of our site photographs

End of Season Thoughts

It has been a busy but productive excavation season and, as always, seemed to come to a close all too soon. Thankfully it seems very likely that one of our principal objectives for the summer, which was to identify a building, or buildings, associated with our large and impressive-looking cobble surface, was fulfilled. We had been looking for post-holes or beam slots of a series of modest to small buildings that would front onto the cobbles. This was based on the metalworking building/forge that we had seen in a later (9th century) layer, that was build alongside a pebble pathway. It was quit a modest-sized building and, as we were looking for other industrial style workshops, it made sense that they would also be quite modest in size.  As is often the case in archaeology, what actually was found turned out to be a little different. Instead of a series of smaller structures, we have now identified a large building at least 9.6m north-east to south-west. It extends beyond the trench towards the sea and as we have only seen clear evidence of two of the walls, we are far from certain about its width.

Rather than seeing evidence of the building itself, what we found was that the edges of two cobble and pebble surfaces align at 90 degrees (a right angle, like the corner of a rectangle) and therefore appear to outline the space where two sides of a structure once stood. As we only have its outline in general so far, we are still uncertain if, like the later 9th century one, it was associated with metalworking or some other industrial style activity. It does include in its floor space a hearth and stone-lined water channel that was uncovered by Hope-Taylor, but it seems likely that this is an earlier phase of activity so not evidence of what our newly discovered building was for.

This year we were also fortunate to have a donation to fund some radiocarbon dates, and we used them to confirm the date of the cobble surface and some potential associated features in the main section that passes through the Hope-Taylor area. As this is an important–and very likely deliberately-planned–surface, being able to more closely date this will help to interpret it better, and, just as importantly, interpret the features and structures associated with it. This new dating has confirmed that the cobble and pebble surfaces that outline two sides of the large timber structure discussed above are of the right date to be contemporary and are mid-7th to mid-8th century.

In addition to investigating the cobble surface and the features around it, we have also been looking at the west trench edge and Hope-Taylor’s ‘lower pavement’. We have long thought this was likely to be the foundation for a substantial timber building or structure rather than a pavement and further work seems to have confirmed this. Last year we thought that we found a southern limit to it, and this year we have further investigated what appeared to be gaps spaced along its length. We thought these might be indications of post-holes for raking supporting timbers (think of them as buttressing the main structure on a diagonal), but as no post-holes were found, we are now thinking that we were looking at this the wrong way! Perhaps we have a series of extensions from the line of the stone foundation and not pits cut into it. If this is so, then we still have raking supporting timbers, but they are based on extensions to the surface and would be more consistent with the main wall which must be a beam or series of posts set onto the slab stone foundation.

lower pavement explanation

It is a little annoying when a blog tells you to keep checking as we have some important announcements to come, so I feel I should apologise for doing this now! The truth is we do have some really exciting projects for the next few months, but are just not quite in a place to announce them yet. It does mean though that the blog will be a good bit more active this autumn and winter than it normally is, which I hope is good news.

Graeme Young, Director

 

 

Round-up: Week 6

Yesterday was our last day on site for the field school, but there will be some bits and bobs to take care of over the next few weeks for each of the departments as we approach the off-season. The off-season is the time we get some of our work published, send out artefacts for conservation, ship the environmental sample flots to the lab, apply for funding, and plan out next season!

We floated, sorted, and bagged numerous samples from this season and cleared up some of the backlog of older samples.

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The finds team led digitisation of our finds catalogues and the eventual physical removal of boxes from our old office in the Windmill, our temporary office in the castle apartments, and the long-term archive room under the staterooms. We’ll be storing most of our material securely off-site in the future!

In the trench, we excavated a pit abutting the Lower Pavement at the centre of the western side of the trench as well as the ash deposits to the northeast of the western latrine pit and to the north of the eastern latrine pit. We also invited a team of specialists to take some samples of the hearth to the south of the western latrine pit.

We also planned the entire trench the past two days to get a final picture of Trench 3 in all its messy glory.

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For all of us here at the BRP, we thank you for keeping up with us this summer! We hope to keep the blog posting occasionally in the off-season with interesting bits about next season. Please check back in the next few weeks for a closing word from Director Graeme Young, as well as a few thoughts for the next phase of the project.

 

1 Project, 6 Weeks, a Lifetime of Memories: Cassidy’s Takeaways

Today was our last day with the students, but before we post our round-up for tomorrow we wanted to share the story of one student who joined us for the ENTIRE season. Below is a great read from Cassidy Sept about her experience with us. Mucho thanks to Cassidy for taking the time to share this with us and for in general being A Very Good Egg.


It was 2016 and I was reading my new Archaeology magazine cover to cover (as 22-year-old archaeology nerds often do) when I came across an article titled “Stronghold of the Kings of the North.” This article described 20 years’ worth of archaeological excavation and research at Bamburgh Castle, a fortification located on “the windswept northeastern coast of England.” What I remember most of this article was the introduction of the late archaeologist Brian Hope-Taylor’s work at Bamburgh in the 1960-70s and the rediscovery of his field offices which had remained unopened for decades. It was through this article that I first learned about Bamburgh Castle and the Bamburgh Research Project (BRP). Little did I know how much BRP would come to mean to me in just 3 years’ time.

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I graduated this past year with my master’s in archaeology from the University of Edinburgh and I have participated in several diverse field schools, both in the UK and the US. I say this to provide context for what I write below regarding my views on the BRP field school experience. I was the only student “crazy” enough (the staffs’ words, not mine… though I don’t entirely disagree!) to sign up for the full six weeks of this year’s field school. I was eager to sign up for BRP’s field school ever since I read that article; however, the timing hadn’t worked in my favor until this summer and I wanted to make the most of the opportunity. I’m so glad I did as it has turned out to be one of the best times of my life thus far and my best archaeological experience to date.

Lauren, our public outreach officer, asked me in week two if I would write a summary blog of my time here at the end of week six. I readily agreed, thinking I would have plenty of time to gather my thoughts, organize them in a somewhat coherent manner, and write up something illuminating or at least informative. Well, those weeks flew by and my good intentions were otherwise directed to learning everything I could during the field school and to developing new friendships. So, I have instead decided to condense these rambling thoughts on the BRP 2019 student experience into 4 main points.

 

  1. Field schools are also about forming friendships. This field season saw 45 students pass through the trench. Each student brought something new and interesting to the group dynamic: ages ranged from 16 to 75; careers or degrees ranged from archaeology (no surprise) to nursing to engineering; archaeology experience ranged from none to some to returning BRP graduates; nationalities and socioeconomic levels also varied amongst the student pool… but two things brought us all together: archaeology and BRP 2019. As sappy or cliché as it sounds, life-long friendships were forged here, and memories were made to last us all a lifetime. Or at least until next year’s field season when we can make more friends and memories. In all honesty, archaeology field schools routinely bring together people of all walks of life, united by a common interest (or downright passion), and these friendships are just as rewarding as the practical skills gained by the training side of the field school.
Four adults crouch to lift small grey and blue cobbles and place them in yellow buckets.

Lifting some of the cobbled surface. (top left)

  1. It’s not just about the digging. As any archaeology student or hobbyist knows, this work goes beyond the excavations. Our discipline is inherently destructive and it’s the recording processes that ensure some relative permanence to what we uncover. Learning and reinforcing skills in photographing, planning, leveling, documenting, and digitizing all form the fundamental process to what we label “excavation.” BRP does a phenomenal job of introducing students to the entire process from start to finish. Not a day goes by that we don’t hear staff say “record, record, record”… and to paraphrase Tom Howe: digging slowly and recording is what separates us from the animals. Out of all the field schools I’ve been to, BRP teaches this the best.

 

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Cassidy (centre) working at the flotation tank.

  1. Post-excavation and “enviro” are EVERYTHING. This goes along with point 2, but it’s surprising how many affordable fields schools do not teach students the post-excavation and environmental sampling processes. Again, kudos to BRP for ensuring we all get a taste of these fundamental archaeological procedures. Being at the trench edge may be more exciting, but I’d argue that learning to catalogue, digitize, illustrate, organize, and preserve our artifacts is just as stimulating as it helps to establish their survival after the excavation process. Not to mention the ability to work with BRP’s archaeobotantist and learn to float soil samples, identify botanical residues like charcoal and seeds, and see their composition under the microscope. Not many field schools offer this in-depth post-excavation tuition and I would recommend BRP to anyone particularly interested in what comes after the excavation process. The adage goes that every day of excavation generates at least two or three days of post-excavation work.
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Cassidy (R) and Nathalie digging…all smiles!

  1. Friends, laughter, whisky, and sugar. In that order. To me, those are the ingredients to surviving six weeks in a tent… with a communal living arrangement… with at least 15-20 other people at any given time. It doesn’t hurt to have killer music playlists and endless rounds of Sh*thead – the BRP 2019 students’ card game of choice. Find what makes you happy, surround yourself with good friends, throw in some quality archaeological excavation work, and you’re guaranteed to have a great time at your field school of choice. It’s always what you make of it.

 

Many thanks to the BRP 2019 staff and students for making this such a memorable summer for everyone involved – whether for one week or five… or six. It’s going to be a grand reunion at BRP 2020.

Link to Archaeology article mentioned above.

Environmental Archaeology Crash Course: Flotation

Environmental Supervisor and archaeobotanist Alice Wolff gives us some insight into her work on site:

Today’s blog is going to be a more in-depth look at the environmental archaeology activities here at Bamburgh. Last weekend, we had three open-day sessions where members of the public helped us process some samples through flotation. In this blog, I’m going to break down what exactly we did and what it helps us learn about the site!

A wooden tank labeled “HMS Floaty McFloatface."

What is flotation?

Flotation is a method of processing bulk soil samples using water. Essentially, the different materials in the sample (such as the soil, the rocks/bones/artefacts, and the charred material) have different densities. When you put the whole sample in water, the soil and the artefacts sink while the charred material floats. This allows us to extract fragile and hard-to-see objects such as charred seeds or fish bones that are essential to our understanding of diet and environment at the site but are nearly impossible to excavate in the trench.

Flotation at Bamburgh

After recording pertinent information about the sample – i.e. where it came from in the trench, its volume and weight, what the soil looks like – we dump it into a 500µm mesh that lines the flotation tank.

Two students with their hands in the flot tank.

Next, we raise the water level until it covers the sample completely. We then shut off the water and gently massage the dirt with our hands.

Two pairs of hands submerged in muddy water in a flot tank.

Once most of the soil has fallen through the mesh to the bottom of the tank, we turn on the water again and let it flow through the spout, catching any floating material in a 250µm mesh bag.

A stream of muddy water flowing into a white bag held in place with clips.

In order to conserve water, we use two settling tanks and a pump. This allows us to recycle water and avoid flooding the castle at the same time!

Two students at the flot tank in front of two black bins filled with muddy water.

Once flotation is finished, the heavy fraction of the sample (the bones/rocks/artefacts) is dried in trays while the light fraction bag is hung up on a line indoors out of direct sunlight to dry slowly. After drying, both fractions are sieved, sorted, recorded, and stored in our archive for future researchers to look at! The heavy fraction can be picked over by students, but the light fraction requires the use of a microscope to separate out and identify the charred seeds.

The members of the public only spent a few hours in enviro, but our students spend at least one full day per week doing flotation and/or sorting. On particularly sunny days, enviro is a welcome break from the trench! After spending so much time carefully studying the various materials we find in samples, students return to the trench with a better understanding of what they are digging up and why environmental samples are so important for filling in the picture.

 

Way Back Wednesday: Week 6

Today’s artefact from the archives was set aside for one of the project’s very dear friends to take a look at, and his conclusion was a possible bombshell. Zooarchaeology is one of the strengths of our staff this season, but there’s always more to learn, so we invited David Constantine, zooarchaeologist and specialist in bone-working, to look over some of our more curious cases. There was a small unassuming bit of cow rib with linear incisions on it, but it didn’t quite look like butchering or de-fleshing, and it came out of a high medieval (11th-13th centuries…ish) layer. We played around with the lighting, as changing the angle of the light source can help both etching and carvings in relief stand out a bit better. And suddenly, these lines started to look a little bit more purposeful. Are they tally marks? Or something else?

After much back and forth, we may…just maybe…have some runes on this little bit of bone! Runes used in Germanic languages tend to be very linear, making them more easily carved on stone, bone, and wood. The question then becomes, whose runes? The likely answer is the runic system used for Anglo-Saxon writing known as the “futhorc” or “fuþorc.” (Click here and scroll down to the fifth paragraph for a reminder on how to pronounce that weird-looking letter!) This rune system is intrinsically tied the runic system of the Viking Age as both are descended from an earlier corpus known as the Elder Futhark (roughly beginning in the 2nd century). The futhorc is used in Frisia, one of the Anglo-Saxon homelands, and makes its way to Britain during the 5th-7th centuries; its displacement begins due to the rise of the Roman alphabet employed by the arriving Christian missionaries. Anglo-Saxon runic inscriptions, however, are still used into the 12th century! There are only about 200 surviving futhorc inscriptions, so if these are proper runes we’ve got something pretty cool in our archive.

Did you notice how “futhorc” and “futhark” sound similar? Both words are literally just an elision of the first few sounds of the rune alphabet. By the way, the word “alphabet” is just the smushing of “alpha” and “beta” from the first two letters of the Greek writing system (itself descended from the Phoenicians) that heavily influenced the Roman alphabet allowing you to read this very blog post.

Carved bits and bobs have been found in northern European contexts of both the futhorc and Viking Age Younger Futhark (9th-12th centuries) on small portable items like bits of wood and bone known as runesticks, but also on large carved runestones. The well-known (and beloved here at the project) Franks Casket contains numerous runic inscriptions carved into whale bone panels and likely originated here in Northumbria in the 8th century.

Whale ivory box with low-relief carvings of various well-known tales and Anglo-Saxon runes.

The 8th-century Franks Casket depicts a variety of scenes from the biblical to the folkloric. Photo courtesy of the British Museum.

Runes were clearly a major part of early Germanic writing culture, and they feature prominently in several of the Exeter Book riddles, as well as a poem known as the “Old English Rune Poem” whose original has since been lost but describes 29 Anglo-Saxon runes. The runic alphabets employed from the 2nd century get revamped over the years and become associated with magic and mystery. Authors like Tolkein and the creators of other intricate fantasy universes have seized on this popular image of runes, and it doesn’t seem they are disappearing any time soon from our collective consciousness.

Chart of Anglo-Saxon runes, transliteration, and phonetic value.

Rune chart from user aldomann on Deviantart.

The chart above shows the rune, transliteration (meaning the letter image for the sound we would write it as in modern English), and International Phonetic Alphabet phonetic sound. The IPA uses symbols to represent the different sounds humans have the ability to articulate, so you can match the symbol in the right columns to this interactive chart here so you can hear the sounds they each represent.

Fresh from the Trench: Week 6 – Two for the price of one!

Within minutes of each other, we found two very curious artefacts, and admittedly we are a little confused by both.

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The first was a bit of glazed pottery from the very bottom of a late medieval pit in the north of the trench. It is quite unlike most of the pottery we find anywhere in the trench, and initially the chocolate-y brown on beige caused some unwanted ceramic flashbacks for some of us to a particularly hideous slipware (pottery decorated with creamy clay that turns a different colour when fired, often with browns on yellows and vice versa) we see in the 17th-18th centuries (so we guess you could call them flashforwards?). We of course don’t think the pottery is that recent, but it is certainly giving off some major post-green-glaze vibes that suggest the very end of the medieval period. A tinge of green-glaze is still there, but the dark smears on the light background give the whole fragment the appearance of a sundae stirred as it melts. This sherd is curved but rather thick, but if it is part of a rim, we can place it on a chart of ruled concentric circles (or get out a good old-fashioned mathematical compass to measure the arcs and use a little maths) to determine how wide the mouth of the vessel it came from was. We are thinking it more likely might be a piece of a handle. Rims, bases, and sometimes handles can help us deduce vessel type or even a possible date range! We are still scratching our heads on this for now.

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The second artefact is even more mysterious, and we are absolutely stumped. It’s worked stone, but for what purpose? The two prongs are reminiscent of our leather hole-spacer, but the short circular tab is not really ergonomic enough for getting the same kind of leverage to actually punch a hole as the bone tool as it can only be grasped and pinched between the thumb and forefinger.. This is something we need to experiment with and brainstorm further. The object was excavated from the very weird northwest corner of the trench that never dries and sometimes produces Roman material. This little stone thingamabob was inside a pit abutting the bedrock. Any ideas or guesses are welcome!

A Day in Archaeology

Today is the Day in Archaeology! In celebration, we have submitted a post to the Council for British Archaeology blog to give you an idea of the outreach routine on our site. As mentioned before, this is probably the most mysterious job on a field school, and we wanted to pull back the curtain for all of our friends and supporters. Click here to read it!

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Today is also the day we celebrate youth engagement in archaeology! We’ve hosted three student blogs, here, here, and here. One thing we’d like to draw your attention to are the recurring themes in our admittedly-small sample: a recognition of one’s own opportunity, a push for diversity and accessibility in the field, and a hopefulness that archaeology can one day fulfill these aspirations. Three incredible young women shared with us their perspective on archaeology today as well as a dream for the next generation of archaeologists. It’s so inspiring to see young people with such passion for archaeology that they strive to make real positive change in the field. The future is in good hands.