End of Season Director’s Round-up: Part 2

At the end of our 2021 dig season, we outlined the background and focus for the dig season here. In this blog post we look at the results of the dig.

A number of the older surviving plans of Bamburgh Castle depict the Tower of Elmund’s Well amongst the outworks beyond St Oswald’s Gate, so its location has long been known. In addition some some older aerial photographs (probably from around the 1950s to 1960s) seem to show that the cottage that was built into its ruins stood well above ground, and was even partly roofed at that time. There was some nagging doubt just what might survive today, as the area was covered with ivy and was not very accessible. So it was a matter of some relief that after even a few hours of ivy removal it became clear that stone structures did survive beneath the ivy above ground level. It would have been a much less interesting excavation season had we been trying to find a robber trench from which the stone structure had been entirely removed.

The outworks and the tower foundation lie at a much lower level than the main castle, you descend some 10m through St Oswald’s Gate and down to the areas where the tower stood. The route today is via a series of steps of varying date from quite modern to worn steps that may well be of early post-medieval date. There are two route ways (they split outside St Oswald’s Gate) one towards the village green and the other towards the tower and the port beyond to the west. How old these routes were was one of the questions we have posed as part of our investigations. It seemed likely that they both dated back to at least the later medieval period, even if the steps themselves were more modern, but some form of these routes are likely to date back even earlier as we know St Oswald’s Gate was in use from at least the early medieval period and perhaps the late Bronze Age.

The area of investigation for 2021 (contours are labeled in metres to show the slope)

One of our first tasks once we were on site was to clear the steps down to the area we were to work in. The lower part of which were covered in soil and ivy and required quite a bit of work. This would ensure we had a reasonably good access way to the site. I am sure the climb each tea-break was good for us, even if it did not feel that way.

Before and after the steps cleaning

It was natural to start clearing and investigating from the base of the steps northwards into the area where the cottage and tower stood. This means the first discovery was the end of a wall, that appears to extend back to the slope of the bedrock, and is likely to represent part of the wall that closed off the seaward side of the outworks on the north side. This stub wall had facing stones on the outside and some rubble and core work behind it but the other facing stones, that would have been expected on the opposite side, were missing. It would have been quite a wide section of wall had the other side been present and just possibly may have been a remnant of medieval date, given its form.

The fact that the wall we had just uncovered ended in a deliberately constructed face, on the west side, strongly suggested that we had a small gate present between the wall and the cottage. In fact the plan of the ancient parts of Bamburgh Castle compiled by the Antiquarian Cadwallader Bates for the 1st Lord Armstrong in 1895 shows a path in just this area, passing by the cottage east wall and then along the north wall veering off at its end towards the beach. There is no depiction of the wall end that we had found but in all other aspects it seems to confirm the presence of the route-way, and by inference the gate. The plan of 1803 showed the wall from the tower back to the bedrock as complete without a gate, but then this plan also shows the steps and path in a different area and neither map seems to be definitive, though may reflect changes in access arrangements between their compilation.

As we had a good idea of where the cottage and earlier tower lay, from the older plans of the site, we were able to start to reveal the top of the wall lines fairly quickly. Starting from the area of the gate, through to the beach, we were able to trace the top of the wall, westwards to the corner where it returned to the south. Tracing the wall top in the other direction (southwards) we discovered an area where the wall appeared to become more like rubble than an in place structure. This under excavation turned out to be an entrance, unsurprisingly right in front of the current steps down from St Oswald’s Gate.

To the immediate south of the entrance we also identified a wall along the south side that we at first considered might mark the southern wall of the tower. This proved not to be the case when we realised that this wall had one face forming the side of the entrance but that there was no outside face just core-work and sand. The wall had been built up against the sand subsoil (or what at the moment we think is subsoil) as what we call a revetment. It was not all that substantial and did not extend very far to the west making us see it as a late addition to the structures and only part of the cottage. Further investigation within the entrance, removing rubble and soil fill, revealed a set of steps down into the cottage, which we now realised survived more substantially below ground than we expected. More of this below.

The revetting wall that is just a stone wall face that holds back the slope

Interlude – the enigma of Area A

Whilst the investigation of the cottage/tower area was our main focus for the season we also had questions concerning a short length of stone wall that lay to the south of the, still standing, main closing wall of the outworks. Whilst only a few courses high it survived over some 7m in length and was broadly parallel to the southern wall of the outworks. As it was relatively narrow it would be easy to dismiss it as of late post-medieval in date. We excavated a trench at its base back in 2002, which revealed three or more courses of very substantial stone foundations below ground level. This put the idea in our heads that it just might be earlier and of medieval date. Helping with this interpretation we have the earlier phase of the medieval outworks (the multiphase wall with the arched entrance through it) that still stands to a good height that is also relatively narrow in width. It remained possible that this short length of wall could be associated with this multiphase wall. If it represented an earlier version of the Postern wall it would likely extend across in front of it and all the way to the bedrock. We sited a trench to see if its line continued there below ground. Whilst this trench did produce some medieval pottery it has failed, so far, to reveal a wall or the trench from which a wall had been robbed, despite the trench being substantially extended. It is fair to say that this wall remains enigmatic and we will have to try harder next year to find some answers.

The trench in Area A showing a distinct lack of a wall foundation – at least so far

And back to cottages and towers

Whilst the wall investigation beyond the outworks was only adding to our confusion the investigations at the cottage / tower had identified four stone steps that led down into the cottage through an entrance from the base of the stairs that lead back to St Oswald’s Gate. A landing at the base of these stairs turned you round ninety degrees to the door of the cottage. Traces of the door survived as a stone door jamb on the east side, with some rather rotted timber that had formed the door frame, and a threshold stone.

The steps down into the structure from the botom of the current path

Inside the threshold three further stone steps led down deeper into the cottage, that we were now realising survived to quite a depth below the current ground level. Here a further ninety degree turn pointed you towards the interior of the cottage proper, where evidence of a further door was seen in form of much more rotted timber and rusted iron nails, that marked a second door-frame.

The presence of two doorways so close together was unexpected and may be explainable if we imagine one being in use later than the other. The two plans that we have that depict the structure in some detail may show that this is the case. The later plan, Bates’ plan of 1895, appears to depict the outer of the two entrances in use and also shows the short flight of steps into the structure from the base of the steps down from St Oswald’s Gate. If we want to push the interpretation of the plan as far as we dare it also suggests that the wall at the south side of this entrance that has only the one face was just there to revet (and hold back) the mound of sand that the structure was dug into.

The earlier plan, from 1803 shows the entrance as rather different. The revetting wall was absent and a set of steps entered the structure from the south. The east wall of the entrance is hardly depicted and we might infer that the second entrance was in use then, even though it is not clearly depicted. There is no gate out to the beach on the north side and the steps and path down from St Oswald’s are shown in a different area heading down in a straight line towards the closing wall on the west side of the outwork. It is possible that this means the plan has been simplified but other evidence may support it as accurate and suggest that the route was realigned in the later 19th century (see below).

The 1803 plan also shows a set of additional steps down from within the second, and probably earlier door, leading down to the well-room. It seems safe to call it that as this plan also depicts the well-head itself within the room. This does suggest that the room here is perhaps at a basement level and excavation of the rubble fill already shows it to be more than 1m below ground level. If we are to see any part of the cottage structure as the most likely candidate to be old and part of the Tower of Elmund’s Well, this surely is it.

The 1803 plan showing the structure and well (north not to the top of the photo)

The final area of investigation was along the closing wall of the outworks, between the tall standing south wall and the cottage / tower. It is shown as a solid structure on the plan of 1803 and not depicted on the Bates plan of 1895, though it is on the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey of c.1860 so may have been collapsed and partly covered by the end of the 19th century. We have revealed that this wall survives in this area, close to and below ground level. Within the trenches excavated it certainly shows different phases of stone structure and in some places rubble and mortar foundations, stepping downwards to the north, towards the beach. As depicted on the earliest plans this wall does not seem to have been anything like as wide at its base as the southern closing wall, and as both were built on sand this may explain why only the southern wall remains standing to substantial height to this day. There appears to be a possible blocked opening through this wall a little to the south of the cottage / tower and this is interesting given the different line of the steps down the slope from St Oswald’s Gate shown on the plan of 1803. Perhaps this will prove to be a gate out towards the port area when we get to investigate it more next season.

A few dolerite blocks smeared with mortar may show an blocked entrance through the wall

Looking forward to next year the most exciting discovery that remains is to get to the floor level of the ‘well-room’ and find what remains of the well itself. How was it built and how was it lined? It must surely have been lined to have stood open for any time as it clearly was in places excavated through sand and down into the boulder clay. By uncovering much more of the surviving masonry, and some investigation of the foundations, we will hope to identify more evidence of the different phases and hopefully gain an insight into the date of some of these components. Perhaps we will even solve the puzzle of the enigmatic wall in Area A!

The well-room excavation at the end of the season – quite a bit deeper to go we think
The entrance to the cottage at the end of the season

Elmund’s Tower and the cottage seems to survive!

We have just undertaken some preliminary work on site on the outworks beyond St Oswald’s Gate, removing a little of the ivy that has grown over the area in recent decades. Even this small amount of work has revealed three wall lines each constructed of large masonry blocks that could well be of medieval date – that or reused earlier masonry.

It is difficult to be sure just looking at early photos of the area, but there appears to be a gate out towards the beach between a wall fragment extending down towards the tower on whose foundations a cottage had been constructed in the later 18th century. We may be seeing this in the wall lines we just uncovered as we appear to have a narrow entrance seen as a gap here.

Further out a substantial block of masonry standing many courses high was uncovered and this is very likely part of the cottage/tower. Called the Tower of Elmund’s Well in the early records. I am sure that there is lots more to be uncovered and interpreted during the dig and we hope there will be some interesting finds as well. Perhaps even artefacts we can interpret as in use by the apothecary who was said to inhabit the cottage.

The standing outworks and the area of the tower we will be investigating in the next few weeks.

In addition to uncovering the remains of the cottage and tower we will be investigating the area of the high medieval postern gate (a postern is like a back door to a castle) and a further wall in front that may be earlier defences.

We hear from a chronicle that the Scottish Army having invaded the north of England passed Bamburgh on its way south. A campaign that led to the Battle of the Standard that was fought near to Northallerton in Yorkshire. The chronicler tells us that ‘certain young men of the Bamburgh garrison began to jeer the passing Scots from behind a wall that they have built in front of the castle’. Their confidence in the defence was misplaced as the Scots were able to break in and it is said that 100 were killed.

At such an early date it is very likely that the Great Gate through which the castle is entered to this day had yet to be built and that St Oswald’s Gate was still the main way in. Can we uncover any evidence for this structure in the next three weeks?

The postern gate with modern steps passing through it

UPDATED: Staff positions available for our September excavation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Applications for the 2021 excavation now open on the website

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

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

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

Bamburgh 2021 Dig Season to be Announced Soon!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer season 2021 update

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

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

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

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

Bamburgh Bones Project Nominated for Research Project of the Year!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roundhouse Update

Thanks to our successful (and ongoing) fundraiser we were able to undertake an extra week of excavation to explore the newly discovered roundhouse. Our additional dig time was a busy few days but did prove very productive. We were able to use a machine (thanks to the castle for funding this as well as a good part of the additional wages and to Rob for his skilled driving) to open up a substantial part of the Hope-Taylor 1970 excavation that had up until now, remained backfilled.

In this new area we had the space to trace a little more of the roundhouse wall foundation as it extended beneath the later early medieval mortar mixer, which we half removed. As is so often the case, frustratingly, the wall foundation terminated after a few more foundation stones were uncovered. At first a little disappointing but when we realised that the floor surfaces and the traces of daub also stopped we suddenly realised that this may be an entrance and therefore a lot more interesting than a little more of the wall. To add to this there was a small line of stones similar to the wall foundation extending from where the wall stopped that just might be a trace of a porch.

The roundhouse showing the gap under the sectioned mortar mixer that we think is the entrance

The little trench we were able to dig on the other side of the mortar mixer was restricted by the need to keep it clear of the standing sections but we were able to identify angular stones just like elsewhere in the roundhouse foundation and a patch of daub against the section. This makes it very likely we were seeing at least further traces of the roundhouse wall beginning to appear. Though we were perhaps forced just too far to the south to be right on top of the wall continuation.

So it seems we now have good reason to assume we have an entrance facing, broadly, south-west, which would make sense, as it would maximise the light that reached the inside of the building on winter days and is very common for roundhouses because of that. It also makes particular sense on our site as this is down slope so would also prevent rain-water running in.

A plan extracted from out partially digitised records

Next Steps

The next phase of work will be off-site when we process the plans and digitise the records. We also have samples to be processed that include radiocarbon dates that will allow us to develop a much clearer picture of when the roundhouse was in use. In addition to the normal palaeoenvironmental samples, we have a block from the floor surfaces that a colleague may be able to utilise to undertake detailed micro analysis.

Fundraiser

After some thought we have decided to keep our fundraiser open in the hope that some of our supporters will be happy to contribute a little to the post-excavation, which in many ways we hope will be just as informative (and is just as important!) as the excavation itself.

Back to work and making progress

We are back on site for an additional week with the intension of further investigating the roundhouse. The one area we can realistically hope to further expose more of this structure is to the south of Trench 3, where it extends into an area that Hope-Taylor excavated in the 1970s. We had left this area alone before, for access reasons, but as we come to the end of the work in the trench this area now enables us to get close to the level of the roundhouse by simply removing Hope-Taylor’s backfill.

Machining down though the Hope-Taylor backfill to uncover the mortar mixer

We knew from his surviving archive that he had excavated deep into the site stratigraphy to reach as early as the sixth to seventh centuries AD. he revealed an early medieval mortar mixer that we have only seen part of so far so this extension will allow us to fully record this before digging beneath it where the roundhouse wall runs. Two amazing features for only a few days additional work seems quite the bargain.

If you are able to support the continuing work then you can find our fundraiser here.