Ashington Academy Challenge Week at Bamburgh Castle

Recently Brian Cosgrove and Catrina Clements of Ashington Academy brought three of their pupils, Liam Clark, Ethan Elliot and Ben Hardy up to Bamburgh Castle for Challenge Week. Although we had officially finished the dig the weekend before we were happy to host them and in fact left a little corner of the site open for them to work in.

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Ben Hardy, left and Ethan Elliot, right excvating our troublesome layer

We had a plan to investigate a small block of deposit that might provide clues to help us resolve a problem with Trench 8, our re-evaluation of Brian Hope-Taylor’s Trench 1 from 1960. The deposit was a small triangle of isolated stratigraphy between Trench 8 and Trench 3. it was the continuation into Trench 3 of a confusing layer that we identified when we re-evaluated the Hope-Taylor trench. This layer that produced a limited amount of glazed pottery, now seems to reach down well into the early medieval period (see the section below). It confused us at the time of the re-evaluation in 2006 and now we have excavated much deeper in Trench 3 we have more information and it appears to extend from the 12th to the 9th centuries. As such it spans far too large a period of time for a single phase of activity and must surely represent a series of layers that we are failing to differentiate between. Elswhere in Trench 3 we have clearly different events and structures from this 300 year period. That fact that it is up to 0.4m thick is a further clue that we are missing changes that are simply very hard to see.

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The digitised east facing section of Trench 8 as re-recorded in 2006. Layers 806 and 820 are part of a known series of deep midden deposits that date from the 13th centuy to the 15th century. Directly beneath is the probalematic layer, 825, that extends in section all the way to a series of layers and features that we can now date. Thin layers 828 and 863, along with the large post-hole 835 are all provisionally dated to the 9th century. The cobble feature 827 is likely to be even earlier and 8th century.

Excavation within Trench 3 has also revealed that the stratigraphic layers get deeper to the south and west and that near Trench 8 the accumulation of deposits over time was slower and shallower. As we are currently writing up Trench 8 for publication it would be very useful to be able to demonstrate if this deep deposit really did comprise more than one stratigraphic layer. So we decided that we would excavate a sample of the surviving deposit in three successive units, in a verticla sequence, separating the finds and taking a sub-samples for flotation from each. We hoped that we just might be able to see changes in the finds or identify material we could date from each unit, as a test of our idea.

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Liam Clark helping out with recording

Brian and Catrina and their small team helped to excavate the layer in its units, take the samples and for good measure we processed one on site with them as well. As normal we identified and collected the finds as we dug, sieved all the deposit through a 6mm grid and 3D located the one small find, a piece of lead. We were not able to differentiate layers in plan as we dug them any better than we were in the section. Animal bone was common throughout the three units, but the only pottery sherds came from the upper one. Interesting, but far too limited evidence to form any conclusions yet. We will further analyse the finds and samples over the next few weeks, but may need to date each unit through radiocarbon assay to stand a chance of coming up with solid proof.

The Trench 3 ‘doughnut’ has been lifted

An unusual worked stone that we have been referring to as the ‘doughnut’ has been a familiar feature in the southern part of Trench 3 for the last few seasons at Bamburgh Castle. It was first revealed in 2011, but it took two further seasons to lower the ground surface around it sufficiently for its unusual form to become apparent.

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The metalworking building roughly outlined by the stones used for its foundations with the top of the ‘doughnut’ just visible 1m outside the west wall, in the lower- left of the photo.

It lay immediately west of the metalworking building and is broadly contemporary with that structure, which would make it middle 9th century AD in date. The wear pattern on the side suggests that the top third of the stone was uncovered above the surface for sufficient time for it to wear and erode more than the base which appears to have been set into the ground. We believe therefore that it was inserted into a cut which we have struggled to see.  The presence of a small number of what are likely packing stones reinforces this interpretation.

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As removed sitting right side up. The unusual form and perforation is visible (scale 0.5m demarked with 10cm units).

The stone is difficult to interpret and has been suggested as a socket for a timber pivot, a socket for a standing cross, which would be exciting but sadly is rather unlikely give its circular shape. It could also to have been set as a soakaway, given that it is perforated all the way through. Now we have lifted it and examined it seems likely that it started life as a mortar as the upper part of the perforation is smooth and the lower crudely cut through. Our best guess is that it was a large mortar re-used as a pivot stone.

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In the side view the more eroded upper third of the stone is seen to the right (scale 0.5m)

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The base of the stone. It is just possible to see tha the last part of the perforations is quite crudely chiselled unlike the upper part which is finished or worn to be relatively smooth. Also just visible are a series of shallow dimples unevenly arranged around the hole (scale 0.5m).

Visit to the Heugh Excavation on Lindisfarne

We recently visited the ongoing excavation on Lindisfarne that is being undertaken by the Archaeological Practice as part of the Peregrini Lindisfarne Landscape Project. It’s a fascinating site and should be familiar to some, as it has been the subject of a number of news reports. The team have opened up a series of trenches on the Heugh, which is the long, narrow, dolerite rock promontory above and to the south of the medieval priory site in Lindisfarne Village. The Heugh has long been speculated to have been part of the early medieval monastery founded around 634 during the reign of King Oswald, as a daughter house of Iona. It quickly rose to be a site of great importance and remains famous for its association with Saint Aidan and Saint Cuthbert as well as being the place where the wonderful Lindisfarne Gospels were made.

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The foundations of the potential new church on the Heugh

Here the excavation team have found the almost complete foundation of a stone building, that all current evidence suggests is early medieval in date. Direct dating evidence is scant, but the near complete absence of later medieval and modern pottery from the structure, despite a considerable volume of material being excavated, suggests a time of construction when pottery was not in use. This, together with the absence of mortar bonding and the rather crude-tooled finish to the stones, adds up to a quite compelling argument that they have discovered a building from the early monastery. In addition, the ground plan, with what appear to be a chancel and nave, is very suggestive of a church which greatly adds to the excitement.

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The finish of the stones is mostly quite crude and no mortar bonds them together. It was a substantial structure though with wide foundations made of large blocks.

We know from textual evidence, particularly the writings of Bede, that Aidan’s successor Finan built a timber church that was later covered in lead. We also know from a later text that this church was removed to Norham as a relic when the monastery was partly abandoned in the 9th century. We can be certain then that this structure is not that church, but the site would have likely held several churches during its lifetime. The crude working of the stones, particularly of some sculpted stones that appear to form a trough or bowl, and part of a possible window, are very interesting as they may suggest builders that are beginning to come to terms with a new construction medium- stone instead of wood. As a consequence it is tempting to imagine this building as particularly early, but it is perhaps also possible that it could be later. In the Viking age many monasteries were abandoned, but the continued use of stone in the construction of monuments at Lindisfarne suggests that the site remained important, though the sculpted fragments of the 10th century and later often appear to be cruder and derivative. It is therefore possible that this structure could date from this later time, when the working of stone was not done with the same confidence or competence as the 8th and 9th centuries.

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Bamburgh Castle, Lindisfarne’s near neighbour, just 8.5km over the water!

It is tempting also to see the location on the height of the Heugh as meaning that the building was meant to be seen from a distance. It has a clear sight line to Bamburgh, the great secular palace site, and this may be no coincidence. We have evidence of pre-conquest stone architecture at Bamburgh and it is likely that the use of this medium was intended in both instances to reference Rome. In the case of a monastery, this would be the Catholic Church as the successor of Rome, and at the palace as legitimising rule through being the heirs of the Romans. This is a good lesson in why it’s important to study how a site fits into its wider world in order to properly understand it.

Back up and working in Trench 3

Once we get the tarpaulins off and the site clean again there is always the same feeling of never having been away, despite the months that have past. This year we are back to contemplating the connections between our excavation and the surface that Brian Hope-Taylor reached in his last season in 1974, just as we were last July. Over the last couple of seasons we have been slowly inching our way towards this great ‘joining up’, and although it might sound like a straightforward task accomplished by simply digging down to the same level, this is not the case; the trench slopes down to the west and the south. This means that surfaces that were the same date are not at the same physical level in different parts of the trench. The whole trench, after all, is in a natural cleft in the rock, in-filled over perhaps two thousand years. A good illustration of this is what Hope-Taylor called his ‘Lower Pavement’, a stone surface that stretches along the west side of his excavation.

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The pavement at the base of the rather green section. It seems that there is a gap that may be a little more than just a thin layer of soil covering part of it.

At the moment we are working on the baulk (an unexcavated bank of ground) that Hope-Taylor left in beneath a sewer pipe that physically joins our two excavations together. This is a key to linking our recorded archaeology to his. To its north the layers within his trench are only around 10cm below ours, but to the south he excavated deeper and into earlier deposits, which has left a tall standing section. We cleaned and re-recorded this last year and continued it into our main excavation to the east. It was during this process that the decorated bird mount was found. One more incentive to get down to this lower level this season.

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The deeper part of Hope-Taylor’s excavation is still under cover (foreground) but we have uncovered the section to aid our comparison to our own levels (being planned on the right).

Of course life in Trench 3 is never simple, so at the west side of the baulk, in the spot where the ‘Lower Pavement’ joins the baulk, there is a gap before it is seen again in the section of Hope-Taylor’s deeper excavation. We are currently investigating if this absence is due to the presence of a pit that cut through the stone feature.

Excited to get back to Trench 3

It was quite late in the season last year when the new decorated copper alloy mount was discovered in Trench 3. We had been investigating once of the sections of the Hope-Taylor excavation from the 1970s, trying to make sense of the stratigraphy alongside our own and working out if the surfaces did indeed slop down from north to south. During this process we extended into our trench from the section, excavating a narrow slot down to a lower horizon. This revealed a new well laid cobble surface and it was from this level that the copper mount was recovered.

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Trench 3 from the west showing the section extended across the far side of the trench to reveal the new cobble surface.

Looking at it still encrusted with soil we thought that we might have the head of a dragon, but x-ray and conservation quickly revealed that this was a mistake. we were looking at it the wrong way around and it was a different kind of beast entirely.

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The bird as first conserved

On Monday morning we will start excavating again and expanding the slot trench and investigating the new cobble surface will be a high priority. Are we in a building or was the find dropped on a yard or road surface? Time will tell but I feel it could be an interesting summer.

Lottery grant for the Bamburgh Heritage Trust

The plans for a new heritage centre at St Aidan’s Church, Bamburgh, that will bring the story of the early medieval Bowl Hole burials to life has taken a big step closer with the awarding of a development grant to the Bamburgh Heritage Trust by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The Bowl Hole Excavation Project was undertaken by Bamburgh Research Project (BRP) and Durham University and has produced a wealth of academic information about some of the earliest Christian inhabitants of Bamburgh. The burials are contemporary with the early medieval palace site currently under investigation within the castle by the BRP (places still available for this season’s excavation) and together give an extraordinary insight into what is often called the Golden Age of Northumbria.

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Some of the early medieval skeletons on their way from the castle to St Aidan’s Church during the reburial ceremony in 2016

The new funding represents an important step forward in bringing these results to the wider public. If you have not already seen it then do read Tony Henderson’s terrific article in the Chronicle, which details the work undertaken at the Bowl Hole and the planned project outputs.

If you would like to take part in this years excavations at Bamburgh Castle and/or our prehistoric wetlands site at the Bradford Kaims, please contact field-school coordinator  colekelly@bamburghresearchproject.co.uk or visit www.bamburghresearchproject.co.uk.

 

New carbon dates for the Bowl Hole

We would like to thank the Northumberland AONB for further generous grant support for our ongoing project with The Bamburgh Heritage Trust (BHT), aimed at telling the story of the Bowl Hole early medieval burial ground.

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Skeleton 440 during our 2007 excavation. An unusual grave surrounded by stake-holes

The site, thought to be under threat of erosion, was investigated by the BRP between 1997 and 2007 and involved the excavation and recording of 91 individual graves. Thankfully although there is evidence of erosion in the past, at the moment the site appears to be relatively stable. Nevertheless the investigation of the site has really advanced our understanding of Bamburgh in the this early period. Particularly informative has been the analysis of the skeletons undertaken by Durham University by Dr Sarah Groves under the supervision of Professor Charlotte Roberts. The work has resulted in numerous presentations and academic publications but the next task will be to publish the final results in a book and present them to the public. In order to enable this we have teamed up with the BHT with the aim of creating a visitor centre at St Aidan’s Church, Bamburgh. Its a long term project and the latest carbon dates are just one small step along the way, but no less valuable to us.

We already had a number of dates from the site, but as it is a complicated site, in use as a burial ground over many generations, probably from the seventh century to the ninth, we need as many dates as possible to identify if the focus of burials moved over time or if the origins of the people changed over the generations.

The AONB generously funded five new dates costing close to £2000. The graves dated were carefully selected to add to our understanding of how different parts of the burial ground may have been in use at different times and also singled out some of the more interesting individuals based on their isotope data (that tells us what part of the UK or Europe they grew up in) and burial style. We are currently feeding the new information into the site interpretation, but the results are promising. One new revelation is that one of the animal bone fragments dated, from a grave in the central-eastern part of the cemetery, came back with a Romano-British date! We do not think that the grave is from this period, but it does suggest that animal bone, probably food waste, was present in the ground to be disturbed when the grave was cut in the early medieval period. We have good evidence for occupation of the castle at that time but that activity now extends well beyond the castle to the south is interesting and poses quite a few new questions for the future. Its unlikely they were living there, but could they have been working close to the sea, fishing or making salt?

 

Bamburgh Castle bone pendant cross published

We are having a small scale publication feast at the moment as David Constantine’s article on a bone pendant cross from the West Ward at Bamburgh Castle has also just been published. It appears to be a rare example of a plain cross pendant in bone or antler, which makes it rather special.

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Pendant, front and back views

Here is the reference to the full article and I have quoted the abstract below as a teaser.

An Osseous pendant cross from Bamburgh, Northumberland. Constantine, D. in I. Riddler, J. Soulat and L. Keys (eds): The evidence of material culture: Studies in honour of Professor Vera Evison. 219 – 230. Éditions Mergoil (2016)

Abstract:

‘The majority of known cross pendants from the Anglo-Saxon to Medieval periods are manufactured in metal, with a few known in jet. During excavations at Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland, a cross pendant of antler/bone came to light. As the excavation data did not provide firm dating evidence, further research was required to correctly place the pendant chronologically. This paper presents the results of that research, as well as a brief discussion of the pendants material and manufacture, and of the possible connections it suggests with the Insular church in Northumbria. Comparisons are made with typologically similar examples in metal, stone, jet, ivory carvings and manuscript artwork in order to try and offer a suitable timeframe for the pendant’s use. The results show that similar crosses in various media appear from the seventh century onwards, but this simple example is better placed in the late Saxon period.’

Great news about our Inner Ward publication

The blogs describing our excavations at Bamburgh Castle naturally tend to be concerned with the excavations in the West Ward, where the majority of our work, like Brian Hope-Taylor’s before us, has been concentrated, but now and again we have had the opportunity to do some investigations at the heart of the fortress, the Inner Ward. This is the summit of the hill where the Keep now stands alongside the re-constructed medieval buildings and where we know from the pages of Bede that the church that held the relics of St Oswald had had formerly been built. We can also imagine the great hall of the kings of Northumbria here, once the focus of the palace complex.

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The chapel under excavation in 2004. Two trial trenches were located to investigate features identified by geophysical survey.

The main body of work was undertaken in 2004 and 2008, but we also conducted geophysical survey in advance of that as well as a modest excavation in the centre of the ward with Time Team in 2010. We have blogged about some of this work in the past: https://bamburghresearchproject.wordpress.com/2011/10/03/the-chapel-excavations-2008/ Now we are delighted to have a substantial paper published detailing all of this work in the Archaeological Journal, which is the journal of the Royal Archaeological Society. It’s terrific to have had this opportunity, aided by a grant from the RAI as well as the HLF and the Mick Aston Fund. It has taken a lot of work, not just by the BRP authors Jo Kirton and Graeme Young, but also by the editor Howard Williams and our anonymous referees.

It is the largest publication on Bamburgh so far (you can check out the others here) and intended to be the first of many as we increasingly concentrate on publishing our work. It will be in libraries free to access next year but until then you will need to be a member or have institutional access (Archaeological Journal). Long before then we aim to publish more popular articles on the results, and we will keep you posted on progress.

 

 

 

Looking back at this year’s work in Trench 3

Trench 3 has set us some real puzzles in recent years and made it hard to be certain we were excavating in a single phase. In simple terms this means that we wanted to be confident that the surface of the site we had exposed represented a single period in time. We made excellent progress with this once we had uncovered a 9th century AD metalworking area complete with a smithy and linked it to a contemporary timber building to its immediate north. Last year and this year to we have been excavating down to the surface beneath the two buildings and back in time to the beginning of the 9th century, even into the 8th century.

At the end of last year we uncovered a pebble surface in the central and eastern part of the trench and we continued to reveal this during this year. Finding an intrusive later medieval pit in the process. This summer we removed an enigmatic wall, thought to be some kind of revetting structure, probably associated with the smithy. Stripping this away has really brought home to us just how close we are to reaching the base of Brian Hope-Taylor’s 1970’s excavation north of the old sewer pipe, long since removed, that divided his dig into two halves. We are now only centimetres from being level with him and have high hopes of joining the two digs together next year. It will take a while longer to reach the same levels he reached to the south of the sewer pipe as he dug deeper there reaching the 7th century or earlier.

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Removing the crude stone wall

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The (small) pebble surface fully exposed on the western side of Trench 3

One of the more fascinating investigations this season was the cleaning and straightening of the section that formed the north side of this deeper Hope-Taylor excavation. We did this to better understand the way the layers were behaving. We strongly suspected that they sloped gently down to the south and west – and indeed the section revealed they did. Important for us to know if we were not to get confused as we dig deeper.

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The straightened Hope-Taylor section ready for recording. His deeper excavation on the left side of the photograph still mostly covered in tarps and soil.

The west end of this section revealed stone structures and colourful stratigraphy, almost certainly industrial waste associated with earlier metalworking. This was beneath a stone linear that Hope-Taylor called his lower pavement that extends along the western limit of his excavation. We are unsure what this represents. It may be a foundation for a timber building, if so a large one, or a path inside the western defensive wall line to the ward. Something to investigate next year.

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The ‘lower pavement’ beneath the right end of the ranging rod with the industrial layers beneath.

We decided to dig a narrow sondage (a sounding trench) continuing this section into our excavation area in order to investigate what the next horizon down looks like. This revealed a well constructed surface composed of quite substantial pebbles. It looks like a yard surface or a floor surface within a structure and may be related to the pebble surface to the north, though clearly they are not the same feature as the northern surface is constructed of much smaller pebbles. Whatever it turns out to be we can’t wait to explore it further.

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The trench close to the end of the season. The sondage has been extended to the east section and the (large) pebble surface is visible even from this distance.