BBC North East and Cumbria visited for some interviews with the project a few months ago and the programme is out this evening on BBC 1 North East. Hopefully we made it into the final edit but either way its made by a local team with a really good track record in documentary broadcasting so should be very much worth a watch.
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:
And if you want to check out more books by Eduardo this is the link to his website
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.
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.
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.
We have written before about bishop-turned-saint Aidan’s famous interaction with king-turned-saint Oswald previously, but we’d like to share a little bit more about Aidan because he features so prominently in the history of Northumbria, and especially our little corner of it.
Aidan was an Irish monk educated on Iona in the traditions of Celtic Christianity that had taken root in Ireland. He was actually the second missionary sent to Northumbria at King Oswald’s request, as the first was deemed too strict toward his congregation. Oswald tasked him with returning the Northumbrians to Christianity, after a period where many had turned back to paganism. He founded the monastery on Lindisfarne, but frequently walked the kingdom preaching to regular folk and engaging in acts of charity. We have a nice account of his life as bishop from the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History, who lavishes him with praise and yet can’t seem to let go that Aidan calculated Easter the Celtic—and therefore “wrong”—way. Truly Bede brings it up multiple times as this embarrassing con of an otherwise perfectly Christian life. Many miracles are associated with him, but there are two especially dramatic ones that took place right here in Bamburgh.
The first miracle involved the pagan Mercian king, Penda, who marched on Bamburgh in the mid-7th century. On the road to the city, he dismantled villages and appropriated their timber as kindling. His troops piled the wood around the walls of the city and castle, lighting them and stoking them until the smoke rose high into the sky. From one of the Farne Islands where he lived as a hermit late in life, Aidan saw the unfurling smoke and feverishly prayed. The winds suddenly changed, blowing the embers back onto Penda’s army. They fled, fearing what seemed to be the power of the Christian god that stopped their attempt to subdue Northumbria.
The second miracle involves the small church now known as St. Aidan’s down in the village. The structure now is Norman, but it stands where the Anglo-Saxon church would have stood. Aidan was staying in a tent beside an outside wall beam of the church, and when he fell ill and died, his body was found leaning against it. The church since that time in 651AD has been razed by multiple fires, but each time the flames do not affect the beam. The church that stands today has what might be the miraculous beam, as well as a small, unobtrusive shrine dedicated to the Irish monk.
These miracles both involve fire, a fairly common fear in any society with many timber-built structures, but makes for an interesting coincidence for a man whose name means “little fire” in Irish.
Another off-day, and that means another foray into Old English. We have written before about how much Anglo-Saxon writers and speakers loved to employ riddles, but we only focused on the kennings, or mini-riddles you need to quickly solve to understand much of their prose and poetry. Today, we have our favorite riddle for you to solve. Better yet, this riddle has a very close tie to Northumbria, where we are based. We’ll post the scholarly-accepted answer at the end of our Sunday post, but don’t be afraid to think outside the box! Give us your best guesses in the comments below, or on our Facebook or Twitter link to this post.
The following riddle has an interesting history, as it appears to be an Old English translation of an Old English translation of one of Aldhelm’s “enigmata.” The “enigmata” are Latin riddles the Wessex-born scholar, abbot, bishop, and poet produced in the late 7th-early 8th centuries. This riddle is known simply as the Lorica in its Latin form, which is also the solution. (Resist the urge to google translate, or, if you translated that in your head, whoops, we spoiled it.) The initial translation into Old English is known as the Leiden Riddle; it is paired with its Latin version in a manuscript presently held in Leiden, Netherlands. The Leiden manuscript uses the older Northumbrian dialect of Old English, as opposed to the later-period West Saxon that is often taught as the standard of Old English. The riddle appears again in the Exeter Book, a late 10th-century compendium of Anglo-Saxon poetry written by one scribe, this time in something close to the West Saxon you’d learn in your regular Old English survey course. In the Exeter compilation, the riddle is number 35 of just under 100 riddles; some of the riddles are about daily life, some about precious objects, and some are just QUITE cheeky.
The Latin and Northumbrian verses are mostly preserved in the West Saxon-ish version, save for the very last hint to the riddle’s answer: both Aldhelm and the Northumbrian translator conclude with a declaration that the object in question fears no arrows sent from their quivers.
Let’s take a look at the Northumbrian version, the Leiden Riddle. Rule number 1, DON’T PANIC. It looks weird if you’ve only seen West Saxon, that is okay; it looks extra bad if you’ve never seen any Old English, and that is also okay. Just scroll away and scream into the void for a minute, and hopefully it will pass.
1 Mec se uēta uong, uundrum frēorig,
ob his innaðae aerest cændæ.
Ni uaat ic mec biuorthæ uullan fliusum,
hērum ðerh hēhcraeft, hygiðonc….
5 Uundnae mē ni bīað ueflæ, ni ic uarp hafæ,
ni ðerih ðreatun giðraec ðrēt mē hlimmith,
ne mē hrūtendu hrīsil scelfath,
ni mec ōuana aam sceal cnyssa.
Uyrmas mec ni āuēfun uyrdi craeftum,
10 ðā ði geolu gōdueb geatum fraetuath.
Uil mec huethrae suae ðēh uīdæ ofaer eorðu
hātan mith hæliðum hyhtlic giuǣde;
ni anoegun ic mē aerigfaerae egsan brōgum,
ðēh ði n… …n sīæ nīudlicae ob cocrum.
MS Leiden, Vossius Lat. 4° 106, 25v, Bibliotheek der Rijksuniversiteit
Transcription from M. B. Parkes, ‘The Manuscript of the Leiden Riddle’, Anglo-Saxon England, 1 (1972), p. 208.
Now here’s the West Saxon version:
1 Mec se wǣta wong, wundrum frēorig,
of his innaþe ǣrist cende.
Ne wāt ic mec beworhtne wulle flȳsum,
hǣrum þurh hēahcræft, hygeþoncum mīn.
5 Wundene mē ne bēoð wefle, ne ic wearp hafu,
ne þurh þreata geþræcu þrǣd mē ne hlimmeð,
ne æt mē hrūtende hrīsil scrīþeð,
ne mec ōhwonan sceal ām cnyssan.
Wyrmas mec ne āwǣfan wyrda cræftum,
10 þā þe geolo gōdwebb geatwum frætwað.
Wile mec mon hwæþre seþēah wīde ofer eorþan
hātan for hæleþum hyhtlic gewǣde.
Saga sōðcwidum, searoþoncum glēaw,
wordum wīsfæst, hwæt þis gewǣde sȳ
MS 3501 (“Exeter Dean and Chapter Manuscript 3501”), Exeter Cathedral Library
Transcription from C. Williamson (ed.), The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill, 1977), pp. 88-89.
Many differences are immediately obvious in the texts. For example, “u” in Leiden is “w” in the Exeter Book, “ð” (a voiced version of “th” like in the word “then”) is “þ” (the voiceless th-sound in the word “thorn”) respectively, and many of the vowels are shifted; these represent temporal and dialectal changes from the Northumbrian used in the Leiden manuscript versus the West Saxon Exeter Book version. But you don’t even need to know what the words mean to notice things like repetition and alliteration.
Repetition is exactly was it sounds like: a word or phrase is repeated for emphasis or clarification, and in this case it’s anaphora, where a word is repeated at the beginning of a clause: “ni” in the Leiden manuscript, “ne” in the Exeter Book.
Alliteration is the repetition of a sound at the beginning of words throughout a clause. See line 6 in both versions. Both lines repeat the “thr” consonant cluster, but Leiden uses the voiced version, ð, while Exeter uses the voiceless version, þ. Voicing has to do with how you articulate a sound, so say “then” and “thorn” again aloud, with your fingers on your voice-box. You can do this with other related sounds like “b” and “p.” Alliteration is a type of consonance, which itself is when a consonant sound is repeated throughout a clause.
Finally let’s look at the riddle in modern English:
1 The dank earth, wondrously cold,
first delivered me from her womb.
I know in my mind I wasn’t made
from wool, skillfully fashioned with skeins.
5 Neither warp nor weft wing about me,
no thread thrums for me in the thrashing loom,
nor does a shuttle rattle for me,
nor does the weaver’s rod bang and beat me.
Silkworms didn’t spin with their strange craft for me,
10 those creatures that embroider cloth of gold.
Yet men will affirm all over this earth
that I’m an excellent garment.
O wise man, weigh your words
well, and say what this object is.
K. Crossley-Holland (trans.), The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology. (Oxford, 1999), pp.242-243
This riddle in translation has so many lovely poetic touches, so we do want to acknowledge the incredible skill of the translator of here, Crossley-Holland. The first thing we encounter is how some of the lines run into the next line, which is enjambment. There is repetition of the negatives, giving us this heartbeat of a rhythm of the common thing the solution is definitely not (a textile), just like the two Old English versions. The alliteration in lines 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, and 13 leaps off your lips when you read aloud, and oops we just did it right there. Line 6 contains onomatopoeia: the word “thrums” exists because it is a sound the author is trying to describe. The consonance turns line 7 into its own bit of onomatopoeia as well, like rickety taps of the loom’s movable parts criss-crossing an unfinished cloth.
If it wasn’t already clear, we adore this riddle in every form! One hint we have for you is that this garment would have been worn at Bamburgh. Do you think you’ve solved it? Comment below or on our Facebook or Twitter link to this post.
Today’s Way Back Wednesday is an oldie but a goodie, as the youths say. In 2008, we found an iron object pointed at both ends but moderately corroded. It looked like it may have been a long knife, but what we discovered is even more exciting.
It wasn’t just any knife, but a “seax,” the very type of long dagger or short sword the Anglo-Saxons themselves, both men and women, used in their daily life. “Seax” is actually the Old English word for “knife.” Larger seaxes would be used as weapons.
Here is our seax after conservation:
We turn to seasoned students Cassidy Sept and Olivia Russell for a rundown of just what makes this seax so special:
Size: The fragment is approximately 23cm/10in in length, 3cm/1in in width.
Period: Late Anglo-Saxon, c. mid 9th to late 11th century CE. We can refine this to the mid-to-late Anglo-Saxon period due to the presence of pattern-welding (so the 8th to 10th century CE perhaps), as pattern-welded blades decreased in the late Anglo-Saxon period.
Style: The pattern welding type is indicative of a compressed banded ladder design, which is a common Damascus steel design. Pattern-welding was common in Northern Europe for much of the early medieval period. According to Thomas Birch, University of Aberdeen, pattern-welded swords/seaxes/etc. reached their pinnacle during the 6th and 7th centuries CE and decreased in practice by the end of the Viking Age. This was largely due to procurement of better materials to make stronger weaponry and tools, thus rendering obsolete the necessity of welding metals in various patterns to provide reinforced strength. Despite this abatement in pattern-welding to strengthen blades, the practice likely continued for aesthetic or ceremonial purposes as the designs are beautiful, intricate, and highly skillful.
Typology: Using the Wheeler seax typology, it is likely to be a broken-back straight edge type III/IV with a straight, slightly concave tip and a single-edged blade.
Birch, T. 2013. “Does pattern-welding make Anglo-Saxon swords stronger?” in D Dungworth and RCP Doonan (eds) Accidental and Experimental Archaeometallurgy (London), 127-134.
This week was very busy, and even with some uncooperative weather, we made a lot of headway in the trench and with some of our post-excavation work. Our flotation tank is up and running, so we have started processing samples from the first week of the season with students. The finds department has been digitizing records, as well as guiding some of the students into more advanced technical drawing of small finds. In addition, they worked on some 3D models of Brian Hope-Taylor’s old trench to better understand what he was seeing. We hope to show you those as well as models of our excavation when they are finished.
Along the western edge of the trench, we started working at the base of a section wall we re-cut that stands adjacent to Brian Hope-Taylor’s trench containing the mortar mixer (SW corner of trench). The upper pavement he had originally encountered seems to continue in our excavation.
We lifted some of those paving stones, which revealed a large deposit of snail shells and, as we cleaned, some really beautiful but compact stratigraphy.
Near the trench entrance ramp, we dug a sondage to examine a possible pit. Nearly-whole oyster shells were stacked in a small pile in the sondage. We extended our mini-trench along a stone alignment and discovered a beautifully incised spindle whorl (seen here in both drawing and photo).
The northwestern corner of the trench was cleaned and reexamined, and it remains one of the weirdest areas of the trench going back nearly a decade. This time, what stood out was that the corner was retaining moisture differently from the adjacent areas; we call this differential drying. This tells us that there is something preventing the soil from draining and drying at the same rate, be it the composition of the soil (for example, a lot of clay) or the presence of something, natural or human-made, underneath it.
Lastly, in the southeast corner of the trench, we planned all the cobbles of our 7th/8th-century yard surface and began removing them! This layer of cobbles had been exposed for a while, so lifting many of the loosest stones was extremely satisfying. And underneath? So far…more cobbles. Stay tuned!
Finds Assistant Kennedy Dold has been leading tutorials on archaeological illustration, which is all about accurately portraying the artefacts as they are.
First, she shows the students the tools needed: graph paper, tracing paper, pencils, rulers, and pens for inking final drawings. Next, she helps them set up the layout of the graph paper drawing sheet, by recording all the critical information about the artefact including its finds number and context. Every illustrator needs to become acquainted with their artefact, by observing it and, if safe, handling it. The front is the most important view one will be drawing, but the back, sides, and a cross-section must also be presented to scale on the same sheet. Instead of shading areas with pencil graphite to create a gradient, we use stippling (small dots). After the drawing on the graph paper is complete, the illustrator has two options for creating an inked version: they can trace by hand with a fine-tipped ink pen on tracing paper or scan the drawing and digitally trace the lines. The entire purpose of drawing these artefacts is to show the qualities that aren’t visible or clear in artefact photos!
Below are two examples of our students’ work this week:
Cassidy drew a comb made of antler found in 2017 in a 7th/8th context. Notice the stippling that shows the surface depth. On the left you can see the final inked version, and under the tracing paper you can see the pencil drawing on the graph paper.
Rebecca produced this drawing of the spindle whorl (used for making yarn) from Tuesday afternoon. It was in a sondage (mini-trench within a trench) that initially was dug to examine a possible pit feature, but eventually was extended after finding a deposit of intact shells. The inked lines nicely accentuate the circles carved around the whorl.
The stunning situation of Bamburgh Castle as a defensible complex is no accident, and the entire history of occupants have enjoyed centuries atop a geological formation created hundreds of millions of years before humans.
About 337 million years ago, marine and delta environments formed the limestone (which are in essence fossilized marine creatures) and sandstones/siltstones/mudstones (progressively tinier grains of minerals that have formed sedimentary rocks) of the Alston Formation. The red sandstones of Bamburgh were formed at this time. These are the stones you see at the base of the castle outcrop from the village, as well as used in some of the earlier masonry around the castle. Around 290 million years ago, however, volcanic activity injected molten rock into the sandstone’s layers. These igneous or volcanic rocks became the dolerite that we know now as the Great Whin Sill, perhaps most obvious as the ridge of rock upon which the central part of Hadrian’s Wall is constructed. This stone is extremely hard, but good building material, while the sandstones can often be easily carved. For us, the dolerite is basically the bedrock into which occasionally we see slots for buildings but under which there is no human occupation. The highest point of the entire outcrop is 45m, measured just outside the keep.
At the lowest level of the castle keep, there is a well that was cut through the dolerite and sandstone during the Saxon period. Unfortunately, as of the last tasting in the late 19th century, the water was brackish at best. But we know from an entry for 774 by Symeon of Durham in his Historia Regum: “There is on the west and highest point of the citadel, a well, excavated with extraordinary labour, sweet to drink (dulcis ad potandum) and very pure to the sight (purissimus ad videndum).”
The beach at the base of the castle has been gradually been deposited particularly over the last few centuries, while sites further down the east coast (such as the Lincolnshire waterfront) have seen massive erosion: the beaches are shrinking there, devouring abandoned medieval coastal settlement sites, and growing via sand deposition here along the north east. Some of the dunes at Bamburgh are therefore only 300-400 years old, but other areas of the beach and dune network were first laid in later prehistory (about 2000-3000 years ago).
There was an inlet during the Anglo-Saxon period that allowed ships to come much closer to the castle’s entrance at the northeastern tip of the West Ward. It is also highly likely that during this time the tide actually reached the seaward base of the rock upon which the entire complex was built.
We are not on-site today, but many of our students and staff are taking this opportunity to take a break from archaeology…just kidding, just about everyone is touring the region looking at archaeological and historical sites in their free time for fun.
In that spirit, we’d like to share with you a fun and sometimes head-scratching Anglo-Saxon figure of speech. One thread that runs through the entire corpus of Old English (and Old Norse and Icelandic) literature is the “kenning.” A kenning is like a tiny riddle that you have to solve to really comprehend what the Anglo-Saxon authors were trying to tell you. Many are metaphors, and they are usually presented as a compound word: a base word preceded by what we call a “determinant.” The very word “kenning” comes from an Old Norse word meaning “to know.” As a consumer of prose and poetry, a contemporary audience was therefore expected to know what these euphemisms meant, either by rote or by solving the riddle.
There are numerous kennings for the sea in Old English, many of them found in the epic poem Beowulf: whale-road (“hron-rād”), swan-road (“swan-rād”), and sail-road (“seġl-rād”). In Norse sources, sometimes they put multiple kennings together nested inside a clause: “of the land of the high-strider of planks” where “high-strider” means horse, but a “horse of planks” is a ship, and “the land of the ship” is the sea.
We’d love to hear your favorite kennings. Whether it’s an existing kenning or an original you created, comment below or on any of our social media accounts with your kenning and its meaning!