Background to our September 2021 Field School Excavation: the outworks of St Oswald’s Gate

This year the focus of our field school excavation will be the outworks beyond St Oswald’s Gate and the ‘Witches Cottage’ situated on top of the medieval masonry.
Here we provide an introduction to this area of the castle and an overview of preliminary work undertaken in this area in the early 2000’s.

The outworks beyond St Oswald’s Gate

St Oswald’s Gate formed an entrance to the fortress from at least the later 8th century when it is mentioned in an annal written by an unknown monk. At that time it is quite likely to have been the only entrance to the fortress. Its position would have granted access out to the early medieval ‘vill’ settlement that lay beyond to the west, very likely sited around St Aidan’s church which has been present in the village from the middle 7th century. It is now thought very likely that it also provided access to the sea via the beach and possibly a small harbour.

In 2000 we lifted a couple of the paving slabs in the natural cleft, just inside the gate. We believe the paving slabs to be late post medieval in date and beneath them we found traces of what we think to be their medieval predecessors. Earlier surfaces lay beneath these in the form of a rubble surface set in a yellow mortar. Perhaps most interesting of all the bedrock beneath this surface was worn smooth, not an easy thing to do with a rock as hard as dolerite, suggesting in our minds that it had been worn by footsteps over hundreds, even thousands, of years.


Excavation within St Oswald’s Gate with the stone and mortar surface exposed.

In the later medieval period the main entrance to the castle was moved to its present location at the south end of the castle, from which the high status Inner Ward could be reached without having to pass through the East or West Wards. This relegated St Oswald’s Gate to the status of a postern gate, a secondary entrance, though in the case of Bamburgh a very well protected one. The outworks here are not just substantial but are also some of the least altered parts of the medieval castle. Given our interest in St Oswald’s Gate, which was one of the reasons for the siting of Trench 1, we were quick to  do some  investigation of the outworks, excavating various little trenches in 2001 and 2002. These were given context numbers in the 500s and collectively represent Trench 5 in our recording system.

Looking over the castle wall at the main part of the outworks beyond St Oswald’s Gate. Very little remains of the other sides but the landward wall still stands to a great height. The cross wall with the arched passage is visible at the left side.

The medieval outworks are broadly rectangular and extend out from the gate on an east to west alignment with a cross-wall extending out perpendicularly from the castle wall, dividing off a small triangular area, directly in front of St Oswald’s Gate, from the main outwork enclosure to the west.

The cross wall and archway with the later build upper right. Patching and some of the upper courses may well be of 18th century and later date. Careful study of the masonry will likely confirm more phases than this though

A gate in the main rectangular wall allowed access out across the area of the village playing fields towards the village and a further arched passage led from the triangular area through the cross wall in to the walled off area that medieval records show contained a corner tower called ‘The Tower of Elmund’s Well’. We have reference in the records (History of the Kings Works) to the tower of St Elmund’s Well that C J Bates places in the outworks beyond St Oswald’s Gate. We also have a reference to a wall at the base of the castle collapsing during a brief siege in 1138, which gives us an idea of how long this area has been fortified and also why we see so many phases. Who Elmund was we do not know but in later centuries the tower base formed the shell of a small building called, in the later post medieval period, the Witches Cottage.

The main rectangular wall that closed off the outworks area appeared to be a single massive build, four metres wide at its base, rising with a gentle inward sloping batter to a narrower top some metres above. The original height of the wall is not certain, but from what survives it was an imposing structure. The huge width of its base became obvious when we realized that it had been constructed on sand. It certainly needed the stability. It appeared to be a single phase, that is built in one phase of construction.

Looking back up at the west ward of the castle from the area enclosed by the outworks. St Oswald’s Gate is hidden behind the cross wall

The cross-wall was more complex, much thinner, only 1.3m wide, and with at least three build phases. The central and western part with the arched passage appears to be quite early in build, probably no later than the 12th century and perhaps a little earlier. The connecting element between the early mid section and the castle rock and wall is of later medieval date and the upper part, and some repairs are likely to have been constructed by Dr Sharpe in the later 18th century.

So why was the outwork built?

Well part of its function would be to add layers of defence to St Oswald’s Gate, but this clearly does not explain the size of the main part of the enclosure. It is possible that it was built to enclose and defend the well that presumably lay in or near to the Tower of Elmund’s Well. It’s also quite possible that the tall wall, and the tower, was constructed to overlook and defend our possible port.

Research questions for 2021

We have two primary research objectives for this year’s excavation:

  • To better understand the gates presence and something of the phases after this season’s work.
  • We will seek to identify what survives of the cottage and investigate if we can still trace something of the tower beneath it.

Online Lecture Recording – Bamburgh Bowl Hole Cemetery: life and death in an early medieval palace

One of our project Directors, Graeme Young, recently had the opportunity to share some of the work of the BRP with Chester Archaeological Society.

Graeme’s talk focussed on the excavation and subsequent post-ex research based on the skeletal assemblage lifted from the early medieval burial cemetery situated outside Bamburgh Castle.

Blurb: The Bowl Hole cemetery site at Bamburgh in Northumberland is a rare example of a burial ground associated with an early medieval royal residence, giving us an insight into the palace population during what is often referred to as Northumbria’s Golden Age. Some 91 discrete burials were recovered at the site between 2001 and 2007 and subjected to detailed analysis at Durham University. As well as the sex, age, stature and pathology of the individuals a detailed isotope analysis of all individuals with teeth present was undertaken giving an extraordinary insight into the diverse regional and national backgrounds of the palace population. Results which were both unexpected and exciting!

Please Note: this video does contain images of human remains

If you’re interested in finding out more about the Bowl Hole cemetery and individuals buried there the Bamburgh Bones Digital Ossuary contains all the information and a searchable database. You can access this here: Digital Ossuary

2021 Dig Season Update: research focus, booking info and staff applications.

Overview

As you may know we intend to run our field school this year from 4th September – 24th September (we may add a further week if demand exceeds expectation).

We do think this is far enough in the future to take bookings without feeling too much pressure to react to every variation in the current government roadmap. That said, we very much recognise that any plans will of course be subject to alteration if the situation demands it, so we will be offering full refunds in the case of the need to cancel. This should allow you to book with some confidence that any deposit or payment in full is safe.

If you would like to find out more about the field school and/or book a place please visit our website here: BRP Field School

Upstanding medieval masonry outside St Oswald’s Gate

Staff Applications

The BRP is currently advertising for staff to join us during the 3 week excavation. You can find out more information here: Staff Positions for the 2021 Field School

What is the current focus of the field school?

This season we are excavating and surveying at St Oswald’s Gate and in the area of the medieval outworks that still stand beyond it. This is the only area of the castle that remains significantly a medieval ruin!

Area of focus for the 2021 excavation season

The outworks beyond St Oswald’s Gate are a complex multi-phase set of substantial structures dating from the medieval to post-medieval date. Sited to contain a well and to dominate a small harbour serving the castle that is known to have been in use up to the middle 13th century. The surviving outworks represent a rare case of unreconstructed early masonry that is is available to study without the issues of dealing with extensive later alteration and refacing.

This area of the castle provides and ideal opportunity to undertake survey and phasing of the build in conjunction with
excavation to identify further traces below ground. The earliest elements are likely to be 12th century in date with a number of phases of later medieval alterations and additions. The medieval outworks were later incorporated into 18th century structures that included a cottage built into a medieval tower that is known to have survived into the 20th century but is now lost under ivy.

What type of work will we be undertaking?

Excavation will aim to recover currently buried foundations or traces of the robbing of walls, as well as early ground surfaces and dating evidence for the phases of build and use. In addition to excavation, we intend to undertake a detailed 3D survey and structural recording exercise and process this as part of our post excavation work. We will use GIS and some CAD programmes for this as a teaching opportunity. The aim will be to create a stone by stone series of elevations from rectified photography. There is a possibility, if time and resources allow, that some degree of consolidation work may be undertaken to preserve any revealed masonry in consultation with the castle staff.

UPDATED: Staff positions available for our September excavation

Due to the ongoing uncertainty around C-19 our planned excavation season in September will be small to help maintain a covid-secure site. We are, however, looking for a small number of additional staff.

2021 Excavation Dates: 4th September – 24th September (with a possible week long extension).

This year we will need a new Post Excavation Supervisor who can undertake all the day-to-day post-ex needs for the project. This will largely be focussed on the recovery, storage and processing of small and bulk finds. Experience of processing environmental samples would also be welcome. The Post-Ex Supervisor will also need to provide an introduction to the finds process and on-going support for students throughout the excavation. This position comes with accommodation and a stipend.

We are also looking for assistant supervisors to support our core staff. These roles are perfect for those who have a good grasp of fieldwork and/or post excavation skills and who are now ready to gain some experience of supporting others. Our onsite team will be on hand to guide you through this process as you learn and teach. These positions come with accommodation and a stipend.

Please Note: due to the ongoing uncertainty around international travel during the global pandemic, we are currently unable to take applications from outside the UK. We do not feel that it would be appropriate to encourage travel to the UK at this time or prudent to rely on staff being able to travel. As the situation develops we may be able to update this approach.

If you would like further information or would like to send your applications please email a CV to: graemeyoung@bamburghresearchproject.co.uk

Applications for the 2021 excavation now open on the website

It has been quite the year but we are now hopeful of our excavation running this year. We have decided it was safer to go later than usual to allow for further vaccination and reduce the risk of a new surge forcing a cancellation.

We have set up three weeks as available to be booked from the 4th September to the 24th September and are happy to consider adding a fourth week if the earlier weeks fill up. We remain aware that circumstances can still get in the way so we have decided that full refunds will be available right up to the excavation start date to allow booking with confidence.

Follow this link to the fieldschool for more details and to get to the booking form

Bamburgh 2021 Dig Season to be Announced Soon!

Here at the BRP we have been giving our 2021 dig season a lot of thought. As you can imagine there are a lot of factors to considers. Given the new UK Government roadmap to re-opening the country during the spring and summer, and the expected demand on campsite and other accommodation options from late June to August, we felt that we needed to run a season either earlier than usual or later. As things stand, if we go for an early season it would be very risky as there is a very real prospect that delays in the government roadmap will occur at some point in response to any rise in infection rates as different sectors are re-opened across the UK.

As a result, we have decided to plan a late season after the peak of the holidays has passed. We are aiming for three weeks in September with the option of a fourth if the first weeks fill up quickly. We do think this is far enough in the future to set up the website and take bookings without feeling too much pressure to react to every variation in the government roadmap. That said, we very much recognise that any plans will of course be subject to alteration if the situation demands it, so we will be offering full refunds in the case of the need to cancel. This should allow you to book with some confidence that any deposit or payment is safe.

This will be the first of a series of posts aimed at keeping you all informed as our plans start to firm up over the next few days. We will also make a special announcement when the booking form on the BRP website goes live.

It has been a long and difficult process for us all, coping with the pandemic, but we do hope that there is real cause for optimism about running a dig season late in the summer and very much look forward to seeing some of you there!

A little reminder that the Bamburgh Bones Project has been nominated for research project of the year by Current Archaeology!

As the closing date for votes is coming up on Monday 8th February it seems a good moment to remind anyone planning to vote that time is running out. It is definitely special that the award is decided by public vote so we are really urging everybody to go on line and vote for the project at www.archaeology.co.uk/vote. The winners will be announced during the virtual Current Archaeology Live! conference on 26th-27th February.

Summer season 2021 update

Anyone not currently living on the moon can’t but be aware that we are living through very difficult and rather frightening times! As a result it has been hard to make plans for the summer, and waiting for things to become a good deal clearer has up till now seemed the sensible option. Now we have a second Covid 19 wave very much here, as well as new variants, leading to a new lock-down in place in the UK. On the other side, more positively, vaccination is very much under way. As a result, it really is very difficult if not impossible to predict what the situation will be during the summer.

Just waiting for things to resolve themselves is not a very practical option now as it will leave us too little time to react, so we think it best to make some cautious plans now. It seems fair to assume that a number of restrictions will still be in place in the summer and should plan accordingly. It is also sensible to have a contingency for travel bans and sudden changes of regulation.

We will continue to work closely with Budle Bay campsite and Bamburgh Castle to ensure that the accommodation and the work environment are safe for all taking part. We have robust Covid-19 secure risk assessments in place to enable us to make decisions about the safety of the site and accommodation at regular intervals and as new guidance emerges.

We will be updating the website soon with more information, so please check back soon or follow our social media platforms for more updates.

Bamburgh Bones Project Nominated for Research Project of the Year!

Some exciting news! The Bamburgh Bones Project that presents the results of the BRP Bowl Hole cemetery excavation has been nominated for a Current Archaeology award. The project’s press release, below, has all the information and a link to enable voting. The winners are chosen by the public, so we would be very grateful for your support.

The Bamburgh Bones partnership are thrilled to announce that the Bamburgh Bones project has been nominated in the Research Project of the Year category of the 2021 Current Archaeology Awards. Each year the nominations are based on projects featured within Current Archaeology over the last 12 months, and the Bamburgh Bones project featured in the magazine at the beginning of the year to coincide with the opening of the crypt and associated digital ossuary to the public.

The award is decided by public vote and we are really urging everybody to go on line and vote for the project at www.archaeology.co.uk/vote. Voting is open until 8th February, and the winners will be announced during the virtual Current Archaeology Live! conference on 26th-27th February.

The nomination is a fabulous recognition of many peoples hard work over the last twenty years from all the excavators and supporters to Prof Charlotte Roberts of Durham University and Graeme Young, Dr Jo Kirton and all the Bamburgh Research Project staff and volunteers. The many years of excavation, analysis and research culminated last year in the creation of the Bamburgh Ossuary in the beautiful 12th century crypt of St Aidan’s church.

The 2nd crypt, viewed from a new platform, houses 110 individual zinc charnel boxes each containing an Anglo-Saxon ancestor excavated from the Bowl Hole. Interpretive displays and animation together with a unique interactive digital ossuary at St Aidan’s Church and online – bamburghbones.org, tells the story of 110 skeletons dating back to the 7th and 8th centuries unearthed from what is believed to be the burial ground for the royal court of Northumbria.

Now, with the help of technology, the secrets these people took to their graves 1,400 years ago have been unlocked and brought to life for a 21st century audience thanks to a £355,600 grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and support from Northumberland County Council, and the beautiful 12th century crypt of St Aidan’s church is open to the public once again.

The Accessing Aidan project is a collaboration between the Northumberland Coast AONB Partnership, St Aidan’s Parochial Church Council, Durham University, Bamburgh Research Project and Bamburgh Heritage Trust.

Join the BRP for a free webinar as part of the Festival of Archaeology this October.

Bamburgh Castle: digs, dirt and discoveries!

Join the BRP, for a live, interactive, online webinar on October 25th at 2.00pm, as part of the Council for British Archaeology‘s Festival of Archaeology Part II.

The free webinar will explore the discoveries made at the Castle and its environs over the last 20 years. This will include:

  • The early medieval (7th-8th century) Bowl Hole Cemetery unearthed in the sand dunes below the castle and our work to bring the remarkable discoveries into the public realm through the award winning Bamburgh Bones Digital Ossuary.
  • Learn about the discoveries made within the Inner and West Wards of the castle, spanning some 3000 years, including a Viking period metal-working site, defensive structures, a possible early-medieval stone chapel and Roman walls. We also have a very new and exciting discovery to share with you, made in the final days of this years dig season (you may know all about this if you are a regular blog reader of course!).
  • We will also share our top ten finds from the excavations (we have over 12,000 small finds and rooms full of bulk finds)!

Send us your questions

You will also have the opportunity to ask the project archaeologists your questions on the day or send your pre-prepared questions to joannekirton@archaeologyuk.org.

How to sign-up

If you would like to join us for this event please register here: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_oc5ZKtluTiS5imR3VZh2eg

Support the work of the BRP

If you would like to help the BRP in these odd times, our fundraiser is currently open in the hope that some of our supporters will be happy to contribute a little to our post-excavation costs, which in many ways we hope will be just as informative (and is just as important!) as the excavation itself.