Geology Rocks, Or So We’ve Heard

bamburgh pano

The dark grey between the war memorial and the castle walls is volcanic dolerite, while the pinkish stones are sandstone.

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).”

Stone well and identification plaque.

The Saxon well at the base of the keep.

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).

Grassy sand dunes stretching out to a thin stretch of beach.

View from the northern end of the West Ward, looking northeast.

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.

A panorama of partly cloudy blue skies, the North Sea, and grass-covered sand-dunes.

The dunes and sea from the West Ward of Bamburgh Castle.

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!

Way Back Wednesday: Week 1

Manuscript page featured portrait of ginger man with long, curled beard.

Woden: Allfather of the Anglo-Saxon Kings, from Symeon of Durham’s Libellus de Primo Saxonum vel Normannorum adventu (The Book About the First Arrival of the Saxons or Normans). Cotton Caligula A.viii f. 29r at the British Library.

First of all, why on earth is Wednesday spelled that way? Why do we pronounce it that way too?

For that you can thank the Anglo-Saxons and some little linguistic phenomena. The pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons worshipped the god Woden, among others. If you think “Woden” sounds a bit like Odin (Norse: Oðinn), you’d be right, as there is a bit of cultural continuity for the peoples descended from north Germanic communities, and in addition to archaeology, we can find that correlation in folklore and linguistics. We don’t have very thorough accounts of Woden’s adventures in the Anglo-Saxon corpus, but Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English people names the mythical founders of the Anglo-Saxons, Hengist and Horsa, as the great-great-grandsons of Woden. Later Christian Anglo-Saxon kings refute Woden’s divinity but consider him an early chieftain whose line of descent bestows legitimacy on their rule.

If you’ve studied a language in school, you may have called encountered different cases that have different spellings often at the end of the word to tell you whether a word is the subject, direct object, indirect object, etc. One common case is the possessive, which in English is denoted with an apostrophe and the letter s. In Old English, however, the word Woden has to morph a little when changing to the possessive case, and thus becomes “Wodnes.” Here the –es signifying the genitive (possessive) case so that we can talk about Woden’s day…Wōdnesdæg. So that solves question 1.

There are two linguistic phenomena that are most important to this weirdly spelled word. The first is that vowel pronunciation has gone through a shift called i-mutation. It’s when a vowel is articulated (formed and expressed by any combination of one’s throat, mouth, tongue, palate, and teeth) differently because of its place in the word.

The o-for-e switch seems less dramatic than two unrelated consonants doing a little do-si-do. The d and n are a consonantal shift called metathesis. A common example in some English dialects is when people pronounce “ask” as “aks,” though in Old English “acsian” has been attested as well as “ascian” with both meaning “to ask.”


Now that we’ve covered the Wednesday part, let’s take a trip into the archive and look at one of our older finds:


An environmental sample from 2013 produced this worked bone from roughly the 10th century. It fits comfortably in an adult’s hand, and its size suggests it was a single tine from a red deer. We believe it was either a practice piece for an apprentice or an unfinished decorative knife handle. The carving is not particularly skilled, as some of the lines to encircle the antler don’t actually meet up, and the circles were made with a pump drill.


Fresh from the Trench: Week 1

Our first few finds have turned up, via some diligent and patient excavation to work through the tamped-down surface our trench. Even though we cover the site, the surface of the soil still forms a crust that we remove with our trowels, and we call this “cleaning.” We only take the thinnest of layers off the surface just to help us find those subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, color, texture, and moisture-retention differences that allow us to see different areas we call “contexts.” Each context has a number and has been recorded carefully, but after some time away, archaeologists like to look at a fresh cleaned surfaced to re-calibrate their mental picture of the site.

Sitting pretty next to some flagstones in the southern area of the trench was this lovely little styca:

Small, pale green (copper alloy) coin on drying light brown soil.

A 9th-century copper alloy coin called a styca.

A “styca” is a copper alloy coin from the 9th century, and its name comes from the Old English “stycce” for “piece.” These coins were minted at York for Northumbrian kings and archbishops. They were roughly the same size as the earlier Anglo-Saxon silver pennies found further south, and initially did contain silver like the pennies known as “sceattas.” The coinage became debased, eventually having little to no silver at all. The copper alloys were particularly common beginning around 830AD, and the low value of the coin actually made it more regularly employed for daily exchanges. These coins fell out of use, however, before 880AD, partly due to the presence of Vikings in York, but there seems to have been a gradual decline in the coins and the rise of anonymous and badly struck ones. We have found many stycas onsite but that doesn’t make their discovery any less fun!

Welcome to the 2019 season of the BRP!


Almost everyone has arrived for our first week on site, trowels in tow, waterproof trousers just in case, and enthusiasm out their ears. This summer the BRP wants to really help you all feel like you are right there with us, so expect a deluge of tweets, pictures, and blog posts over the next 6 weeks. And where can you find all this juicy, archaeological content? Glad you asked:

Our Twitter account is @brparchaeology, where you will get real-time updates of our day and any breaking discoveries.

For Facebook users, we can be found at Bamburgh Research Project.

And for all of you who want a nice mix of technical and artsy pictures, head over to our Instagram @bamburghresearchproject.

If you truly don’t want to miss a single thing, I would recommend following all three social media accounts. Chances are, one of those accounts may have led you to this blog right here, so why not just lean into it, and follow us EVERYWHERE?

This blog will be the home of all our longer-form site, artefact, and team updates, and we’ve got lots in store for the summer already. In addition to covering our trench-side discoveries, we will introduce you to the team, pull out some bits and bobs from our archives, and look at some interdisciplinary topics that overlap with the work we are doing.

Our goals for this season are many:

In a general sense, as mentioned above, we want to be as accessible and transparent as possible for our friends and supporters all around the world. We want you all to join us as we scratch our heads over weird and unknown artefacts and rejoice in the thrill of discovery in real-time. We are also expanding our outreach programming in both community archaeology and paleoenvironmental sample collection and analysis thanks to an incredible grant in memory of a beloved archaeologist; the Mick Aston Archaeology Fund’s support will allow us to gather more data about the ecological history of our site. (More info in our previous blog posts here and here.)

Graeme Young, our daily on-site director, has some high hopes for Trench 3 this season. In the southwestern corner of the trench, we have some soil that spent several seasons covered by tarp as an unexcavated baulk, so we hope to join up the layers on either side, and maybe get some new information about the occupation of that part of the trench. There is an old feature long ago recorded between our two WWI test latrine pits in the center of the trench that has been slowly brought down, but there’s a few stones still in situ, including one very clearly placed upright and we’d like to know why. Lastly, we’d like to more closely understand the cobbled surface in the southeastern corner of the trench, which at this point seems to suggest a yard for craftworking some time in the 8th centuries.

Trench supervisor Constance Durgeat led the cleaning of the trench for the first part of the day, later followed by archaeological assistant Kelly Tapager and assistant supervisor Tom Howes providing an introduction to trench photography. The finds team of Tom Fox and assistant Kennedy Dold gave an introduction to photogrammetry and a tutorial in artefact technical drawing respectively. You’ll get to know more about the team as the season goes on!

Bamburgh Castle Early Medieval Metalwork Conservation: Iron Objects

As part of the Bamburgh Research Project’s (BRP) funding from the Society of Antiquaries of London (SOA) (learn more about the project here: SOA Funding Success), the BRP have been working with a conservator to identify metal objects that may require additional research and conservation to help preserve them and, in some instances, reveal new details about their form or decoration. The latter is particularly pertinent for iron objects, as corrosion often masks the finer detail of many objects.

SOA Logo

Funding from the SOA and Bamburgh Castle has enabled us to have all the early medieval metalwork from the castle conserved. We recently received the conservation report for all the iron objects. Below you can see some of the before and after images of key items from the assemblage.

Angled back Seax with fuller and whittle tang. Swirls indicative of pattern welding, seen in x-ray and during conservation.


Object BC08 6531 sf 3234 has been identified as a small C-shaped fire-striker of probably eighth to tenth-century date, but further research would be required to confirm this.

Each conserved item is returned to the BRP with before and after photographs and an individual conservation report, noting what work has been undertaken, any suggested further work required and how to best store the object(s) in long term storage. You can see an example of such a report here: Iron Fire-striker Conservation Record

Eventually, we aim to create a new museum display within the Castle, so visitors can see the conserved metalwork and learn how this material has added to our understanding of the sites development, particularly in the West Ward of the castle where we have discovered a 9th-10th century metalworking area.

Join the Bamburgh Research Project as part of the Festival of Archaeology

The Bamburgh Research Project (BRP) will hosting a weekend of free activities as part of the Council for British Archaeology’s annual Festival of Archaeology.


Join the BRP on the 20th or 21st of July to explore 2000 years of activity at Bamburgh Castle on their annual excavation within the West Ward of Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland.

The BRP have been excavating through 2,000 years of occupation at Bamburgh Castle. As we excavate, we undertake environmental sampling of the different archaeological layers. These are processed on the trench-side where bones, seeds, charred remains and small artefacts (including coins, gold-filigree decoration and beads) are recovered.

Festival 5

As part of the Festival of Archaeology the BRP are hosting four half-day sessions where members of the public can work with our Environmental Supervisor to process our samples and record the material we recover. This will include specialist training with a flotation tank, tuition in recording the processed material and identification of archaeobotanic material in our on-site lab funded by the Mick Aston Archaeology Fund.

To book your place simply visit the Festival website and follow the instructions: sign-up to the BRP Festival event


Update on our Metalwork Project

As part of our Society of Antiquaries grant for our West Ward metalwork project, we have funding to cover the conservation of all the early medieval metalwork that was x-rayed and assessed  at the end of 2018 (you can learn more about this project here: SOA Grant). This funding has been generously added to by the Bamburgh Castle team, as they had a little under-spend in their own conservation budget. The objects we are conserving will eventually go on long-term display within the Castle and be available to future researchers.

As a result the conservation work will be ongoing for a while we thought you would enjoy seeing a couple of examples of the work undertaken so far below:

BC11 SF8278 group

Small find 8278 from Trench 3, West Ward, Bamburgh Castle found in 2011. The corrosion has been cleaned away to reveal a strap end with a zoomorphic design and even some traces of leather to which it was likely attached.

BC17 SF10708 Before (1) cropped

Small find 10708 from Trench 3, West Ward, Bamburgh Castle found in 2017. The corrosion has been removed to reveal a complete silver pin.

If your excited by the thought of finding something similar yourself then do join us on the dig this summer – details about out annual field school can be found here.

Update on the Discovering Aidan Project

The Discovering Aidan Project has passed another landmark with the full funding for the project being approved by the Heritage Lottery Fund. A new article has been published by Tony Henderson in the Chronicle as well. The project will focus on the excavated Anglo-Saxon cemetery located just outside Bamburgh Castle.

St Aidans

St Aidan’s Church, Bamburgh

The Bamburgh Research Project, who undertook the initial excavation and worked with Professor Charlotte Roberts of Durham University on the analysis of the skeletons, will be working with the AONB to provide support and information on the research so the full story can be told. In parallel, we are again working with Professor Roberts to see that the full academic report is published as a book. It is an exciting time and we are very much looking forward to what will be a landmark publication for BRP.


Skeleton excavated in the Bole Hole excavation in 2004

We may not be excavating at the Bowl Hole any more but work at Bamburgh Castle continues and we would be delighted for you to join us excavating a 7th century AD horizon this summer.

HLF Logo

Launch of our 2019 Archaeology Field School


We are delighted to announce that booking details are now available for our 2019 field school season, which runs from June 16th – July 27th. The field school will operate out of Bamburgh Castle and we are offering two programmes:

Excavation and Post-Excavation or Post-Excavation only

You can book anywhere from one to six weeks. However, we recommend booking two weeks minimum for a well rounded experience. Our dates are listed below:

  • Week 1: June 16th- June 22nd
  • Week 2: June 23rd- June 29th
  • Week 3: June 30th- July 6th
  • Week 4: July 7th- July 13th
  • Week 5: July 14th- July 21st
  • Week 6: July 22nd- July 27th

Student spaces are limited, so we encourage you to book your place as soon as possible.

Tuition is £280 per week, which will cover all on-site excavation and post-excavation activities. You can learn more about what this covers by visiting our website.


Excavation of Trench 3 at 8th century levels

Accommodation must be booked separately. The staff are staying at Budle Bay Campsite and we very much encourage you to join us there for a more communal experience. Most who join the dig find making new friends and the social side of the excavation just as much fun as the dig itself.  Budle bay offers a variety of options from basic camping to booking your own Eco Hut. Options for space in the Bunkhouse that we are booking for staff are also available but do contact us to ensure that places are still available in it before booking with the campsite.

Note: There were a number of changes to the field school last year, such as our training schedule and when you are expected to arrive. Even if you have booked in years past we encourage you to read-through the updated website pages.

If you have any questions please do not hesitate to get in touch.