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

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

Details and booking information can be found at:

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 The winners will be announced during the virtual Current Archaeology Live! conference on 26th-27th February.

The Accessing Aidan Project and the BRP

As some of you may know, the Bamburgh Research Project (BRP), has been working closely with the Accessing Aidan project, lead by the Northumberland Coast AONB and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The project is in the process of exploring previously hidden secrets and insights into the lives of Bamburgh’s early medieval past (c. 450-1100). These stories have been unveiled through new cutting-edge interpretation, helping the public to re-imagine Northumbria’s Golden Age. Much of the information used is based on the data generated by the BRP during the excavation of the Bowl Hole from 1998-2007. You can read more about the excavations here: Bowl Hole Cemetery

Excavation BH


The ossuary entrance in the crypt

In 2016 the excavated remains were interred within the crypt of St Aidan’s and the crypt and church have now become the focus for an interpretive display and unique interactive digital ossuary. It 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.

The Digital Ossuary

The Digital Ossuary is now available online, as part of the Bamburgh Bones website and contains details of all the individuals excavated from the burial ground. You can find out information about how they were buried, any grave goods recovered, evidence of trauma and pathologies and much more. In time, the project will be adding details about their diet and origin based on isotopic analysis. You can filter the ossuary entries by what we have discovered about them.

Bmaburgh Bones


Each entry includes what we know about the individual along with a photo, drawing and map. The photo shows how they were discovered in the Bowl Hole graveyard.

The funding from the project will also allow the BRP and our research partners to bring together all the data and interpretation from the excavation into a final publication planned for next year, a seminal moment for the BRP!

If you would like to learn more about the project please visit the Bamburgh Bones website, you can also follow them on Twitter @BamburghBones and Instagram @bamburgh_bones.


BRP on TV tonight

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.

BBC iplayer link

Paul and Edoardo have a new book out


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


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.

St. Aidan’s Miracles at Bamburgh

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.

st aidans

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.

Riddled with Riddles

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.

exeter book

The Exeter Book, 10th C home to over 90 riddles in Old English, MS 3501, Exeter Cathedral Library.

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.

Way Back Wednesday: Week 3

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.

Before conservation:


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.

banded ladder

The banded ladder pattern that is similar to what our seax has. There are, however, many other patterns (external site) available to the experienced steelworker.

seax modern

A modern pattern-welded seax similar typology to ours. Here (external site), in progress.

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.

seax typology

Seax typology, modified from Wheeler (1927) by Kirk Lee Spencer.

Further reading:

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.

Round-up: Week 2

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.

Brown-haired girl kneels in front of wall of earth, large paving stones to her left.

The upper pavement of which Hope-Taylor spoke, in an area adjacent to his original excavations.

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.

Layers of soil alternating bark brown, orange, grey and ashen, above large paving stones.

The stratigraphy under the upper pavement on the western edge of the trench north of the mortar mixer.

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).

Small brown rectangle of lower soil with narrow stones aligned along the bottom of the image.

Sondage looking south; shell deposit to left and spindle whorl found centre-right.

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.

Yellow tripod in right background, triangle of grey-brown soil bordered on two sides by angular grey stones.

NW corner of the trench; tripod for our total station, which is a surveying tool that measures distance electronically by bouncing light off a prism.

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!

Four adults crouch to lift small grey and blue cobbles and place them in yellow buckets.

Everyone wanted to get in on lifting the cobbles!