End of Season Blog – Trench 6 at the Bradford Kaims

Whilst part of the season was slowed down by heavy rain, we still managed to get a lot of exciting work done in Trench 6 at the Bradford Kaims this year. We started the season by extending the trench 3m on the south-east-side and 5m on the north-west side with the help of a JCB and its lovely driver, Martin. The main reasons behind this were to find the extent of our large early Bronze Age burnt mound, and to identify any associated archaeology lying on the periphery of the mound itself. Almost as soon as we stopped excavating with the machine we found a large rim sherd of mid-Bronze Age cord-impressed pottery in the northern extension of the trench. When this area was cleaned further, more sherds of the same pot were found and we were able to fit the pieces together, giving us an idea of its original shape and size (see earlier blog post for more details here). Also identified upon the opening of the northern extension were the articulated remains of a sheep sitting within a sub-circular but poorly defined pit. The skeleton was investigated by the BRP’s resident bone expert Tom Fox and was then excavated by staff and students together. Due to its position cutting through a system of alluvial silts covering the burnt mound, it is relatively modern, but still provided our students with the opportunity to excavate articulated remains, which is a bit of a rarity at the Bradford Kaims.

 

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Bone expert Tom Fox cleaning up the post-Medieval sheep in Trench 6.

In the centre of Trench 6, our investigation was focussed on a complex sequence of post holes and pits just north-east of our wooden trough, which make up a variety of structures and associated burnt features which interface directly with several burnt mound deposits. A large oblong ‘fire pit’ which was discovered last year was half-sectioned by students, and turned out to be much more confusing than originally thought! What we thought would take a few days to bottom and sample turned into weeks of work and recording, due to the many cuts and recuts found in the feature, alongside heavy rain in the middle of our season. On completing our half-section however, we have been able to work out the sequence as being the repeated cutting and filling of a long rectilinear pit cut into the natural clays at the base of Trench 6. The fills were a sequence of charcoal rich deposits thought to represent in situ firing events, sealed by lenses of natural clay that was partially fired. These deposits were later cut by two small pits and a post hole to further complicate the sequence. Our working hypothesis is that this feature represents a ‘fire pit’ or ‘earth oven’, where a fire was laid, stones heated, and then was filled with food and sealed with clay and vegetation in order to trap heat and allow an oven-like cooking system to form. At the end of the season we took four micromorphological samples to test this hypothesis, so will report on these in the off season once they have been analysed by a specialist.

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The half-section of the ‘fire pit’ in Trench 6 being excavated by students Tom and Lianne, with Fionnuala, and Courtney excavating the beam-slot beyond this.

The line of post holes running south-east to north-west in centre of the trench was cut short by the edge of the trench, so another positive that came out of the northern extension was the ability to investigate this possible structure further. This has also proven to be a complicated sequence, with recuts of various features suggesting that there are at least two structures on site. While we have yet to finalise the nature of these structures, it appears that we have an earlier A-frame structure built onto a levelling dump over the ‘fire pit’, and then a later reuse of one side of this structure with the addition of a beam slot, which may have covered the trough in the centre of the trench.

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Students Oda and Erin recording the half-section of the ‘fire pit’ in Trench 6, with Fiona and Sofi excavating post-holes beyond them, and even further, Project Manager Rachel Brewer and Assistant Supervisor Katie Walker lifting our Bronze Age pot.

Even though our plan had been to permanently close Trench 6 and completely backfill it this season, we have left the central area near the wooden trough open to allow us to return next year and investigate this particular feature, and its relationship with the structures in the wider trench, further. It has been a fantastic and exciting season in Trench 6 this year, and we would like to thank all of the students and community volunteers who have been extraordinarily helpful to us. Thank you, and we hope to see you next year!

Rachel Moss – Trench 6 Supervisor and University of Edinburgh, and Katie Walker – Trench 6 Assistant Supervisor and University of Edinburgh.

End of the Season at the Bradford Kaims Trench 42

The focus of our excavations on the south-side the Bradford Kaims in the 2017 season have been our investigations of Trench 42, located on the promontory of glacial sediments which juts out into the fenland. Trench 42 was first opened in 2012 and again 2016, during last year’s very wet season. It is sited on higher ground and provided us with an opportunity to continue excavating when the rest of the site was flooded.

Previous excavations uncovered an extensive but relatively thin burnt mound deposit (4203), which has been provisionally dated to the Early Bronze Age. The surface beneath the burnt mound (4217) was cut by numerous negative features, notably a large roughly rectangular cut, filled with burnt material. This cut feature [4214] is headed at one end by a rectangular limestone slab that has had a hole drilled through the middle and is associated with four post-holes, located at each corner of the feature. The working hypothesis is that this cut feature was a firing pit, although its exact function remains unknown. Our excavations on the south-side for this season centred around this possible fire pit.

The first week of excavation was spent re-opening Trench 42 to reveal the fire pit, and to help with this the trench was subsequently extended five meters to the north-west, with the intention of revealing any features associated with the pit. After the turf was removed we immediately came down onto the remainder of the large burnt mound deposit (4203) that overlies [4214], which extended across the entirety of the extension.

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Students and volunteers extending T42 and exposing the blackened Bronze Age burnt mound deposits (4203).

The extension was cleaned, photographed, and planned to record the extent of the burnt mound. We then removed and sampled the burnt mound deposit for radiocarbon dating and plant macrofossil identification, which will hopefully provide secure dating evidence for the activity in this area of the Bradford Kaims site, and shed light upon fuel-use strategies associated with the burnt mound.

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Students removing the burnt mound material in a sampling grid, exposing the subsoils beneath it. The fire-pit can be seen as the upright stone to the extreme right of the image.

At the end of week three we extended the trench by another 3m towards the south-east where no burnt mound underlay the topsoil. Upon doing this, we came straight down to a sand based prehistoric land surface (4217), into which the burning pit had been cut and, and extended across the entirety of Trench 42. On top of this context we found various pieces of worked and unworked flint. Notably, this included a beautiful triangularly shaped weapon head (which has been described in a previous blog).

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EnterStudents and staff extending T42 to the south-east in poor weather, showing the consolidated fire pit in the centre of the image, cut into the (wet!) sand-based prehistoric land surface. a caption

In the following cleaning of the trench we identified multiple negative features that may be connected to the fire pit and the wider use of the area. Among them are at least three possible post holes which seem to form a right angle near the northern corner of the fire pit and could be part of a built structure. Further investigations were interrupted by the end of the season so we have not yet been able to finalise our full interpretations. For now, the site is interpreted as a complex series of burnt mound deposits focussed around a large fire pit, with a previous structure present in the area, all sitting upon a post-glacial land surface which has been a site for multiple episodes of flint working and use. We hope to come back in future and get another chance to discover the wider function of the area, and to provide a more holistic picture of the prehistoric activity that once occurred on the promontory at the Bradford Kaims.

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Volunteers Barbara and Trina excavating a slot (in better weather) through the basal burnt mound deposits onto the prehistoric land surface, encountering numerous cut features.

In addition to this excavation, a geophysical survey and an archaeomagnetic dating study were conducted in the area of the promontory. The results of the geophysical survey seemed to point out some areas of interest. Time permitting, only one of these was test-pitted during the final weeks of the season and turned out sadly to be the cut of a Victorian drain pipe. However, this survey also showed the extent of the burnt mound exposed in Trench 42 as a spread reaching 20m in diameter, as well as identifying numerous smaller anomalies believed to be more burnt mound deposits and other features in the area. When we return to Trench 42, we will also be investigating some of these features, and will keep you posted on our blog!

Charlie Kerwin, Trench Supervisor and University of Nottingham, and Franzi Leja, Assistant Supervisor and University of Bamberg.

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).

End of an era as Trench 1 at Bamburgh Castle closes (1999 to 2017)

Long long ago (in a different century) we first opened Trench 1 at Bamburgh Castle. It was the Bamburgh Research Project’s first ever trench within the castle as our previous work had been centred on the Bowl Hole burial ground and desk based research. Its end has been predicted for a couple of seasons now, but each year more post-holes and features seemed to weather out and become visible, frustrating our plans to close the trench. This year though we dealt with the last few of those and even further investigated the glacial deposits at the base just to be certain that nothing lay hidden. We have officially closed the trench and it is under semipermeable membranes waiting for backfilling.

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Some Trench 1 staff from present and past were there for the last day. Left to right- Constance Durgeat, Alex Stevens, Marsaili Heatley, Graham Dixon and Graeme Young. Former supervisors not pictured: Graeme Attwood, Neal Lythe, Phil Wood, Matthew Claydon.

Some of the earliest features have been the most difficult to identify and interpret, cut into boulder clay and often having a fill very close to the surrounding natural in both colour and composition. At this lower level the site resembles a moonscape with craters cutting craters. A definite challenge for our continued interpretation during post-excavation.

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We made a list of the senior staff from the trench for a time capsule

There will be many more blogs on the trench in the future as we work to write it up and publish it but today I thought I would post a few early photos as contrast to the trench today. Many thanks to all of the supervisors, assistant supervisors, and hundreds of students who worked in trench one over the years.

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A junior Trench 1 from 2001, a small version of what it became!

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Part way through the high medieval sequence with the consuction cut for the early 20th century wall on the right

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A thanks to the many students who worked hard and recorded diligently over many years

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The last days of the trench with sondages across the boulder clay – just in case!

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.

The Bamburgh Bird: Unique 8th century Anglo-Saxon decorative metal work discovered at Bamburgh Castle

Near the end of last summer’s excavation season we made a marvellous new find of national significance; a beautifully decorated copper alloy bird mount. The decorated fragment is small, 23mm by 12mm, but decorated with an intricate zoomorphic representation of a bird, characteristic of early medieval North European art. The star find has since been undergoing careful conservation to reveal an intricately decorated artefact that is a window into the art of a lost era of early medieval royal society.

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Our first view of the conseved find (Karen Barker, Conservator)

Initial comments from a number of experts has suggested that the bird mount is unique, with no direct parallels and likely to be 8th century in date. It is fascinating that the new image appears to hark back in time to the bird of prey motifs of the 6th and 7th centuries AD and could represent a descendant of these earlier styles just as ‘the later 8th century York helmet, is an update of the form known from the earlier Sutton Hoo, Staffordshire and Wollaston helmets’.

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The bird is a realtively thin copper allow piece undecorated on the back anmd likely to have been mounted onto a larger artefact.

The find, excavated by Harry Francis, was recovered from a cobbled surface revealed at the base of a narrow trench that was excavated to identify the next occupation surface at the southern part of Trench 3.  This was revealed as a well constructed surface just centimetres below the well dated 9th century metal working building. At this time there were a number of smaller kingdoms and Northumbria was one of these. The palace fortress of Bamburgh was one of the most important places in Northumbria at that time and we have evidence of metal working, probably associated with the production of arms and armour for the warriors of the royal court in our excavation. In summer 2017 we will continue our investigations of the find spot and we hope to discover if it represents an earlier period of metal working or some other activity. At the moment our investigation of this horizon is at such an early stage we are unsure if the find came from within a building or from a yard surface or path where it may have been dropped. We are very much looking forward to getting back on site and continuing our excavations.

Francis Armstrong and his son Will, owners of Bamburgh Castle have commented that ‘the Bird is a spectacular discovery. It is a beautiful artefact and we are proud that it has been found here at Bamburgh. Finds like this help us to connect with the Castle’s history and it is wonderful when we get the opportunity to display these ancient wonders so our visitors can enjoy them close up. We are grateful for the work the BRP do here at the Castle and we have a great time working with them unearthing the stories that Bamburgh Castle has to tell’.

Research into the new find is ongoing and we aim to have a short publication ready later this year. The bird will be on display at the castle, open 10.00am to 5pm until 29th October, with many other fascinating finds including pattern welded swords and intricately decorated gold work. You can also come and chat to the archaeologists on site when visiting the castle between June 11th and July 15th.

Spaces filling up for our 2017 Archaeology Field School

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Student places for our field school this summer are filling up. Given that we have reduced our season to 5 weeks we expect that the numbers of students attending per week to be higher.

The BRP is dedicated to ensuring our excellent teaching standards remain unchanged. To continue to offer our high staff to student ratio we will therefore be placing limits on the number of student who can attend each week. Some weeks are already getting close to full capacity.

We encourage those who are interested in booking a place at the field school to submit their application as soon as possible.

Find the Application Form Here

It’s going to be an amazing summer! We are already counting down the days!

Student bookings now being taken for our 2017 Field School Excavation

Our 2017 student booking form is now available.

Our season will last 5 weeks from June 11- July 15th and will cost £300 per week.

This will include camping accommodation and access to modest cooking facilities. Unlike previous years, a tent will be provided for you upon your arrival. Be aware you will not be permitted to use your own tent.

You can find more information on our website. If you have any further questions please don’t hesitate to get in touch: colekelly@bamburghresearchproject.co.uk

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If there is anyone interested in a staff position who has not yet applied, please do so ASAP.