We are all so excited to be back on-site today with a fresh bunch of new students, and some familiar faces among the staff (more on us tomorrow) as well as former students who’ve signed back on as staff (more on them next Monday). We’ve got FOUR action-packed weeks planned for you all, so follow along on here and your preferred social media site:
Our first and hopefully most straightforward goal for the season is to bottom out the tower and find Elmund’s well (discussed in this blog post about the wells from last season)…or at least find traces of it. None of us are truly expecting an empty shaft with potable water, but everyone is at the very least expecting that yours truly, against the basic premise of self-preservation and scientific safety, will offer to taste-test whatever mud or sludge lays at the bottom.
We also would like to do a full outworks extant masonry survey to get a better grasp on the complicated and numerous phases of construction. There are bits of wall that show signs of at least half a dozen separate rebuild or refacing events! We would also like to generate a to-scale model using Electronic Distance Measurement (a method of survey called EDM for short) of the masonry.
Our post-excavation goals, in addition to keeping up with processing of finds, will include a bit of housekeeping; we’ve recently moved our archives and want to make sure everything is where it should be and easily-accessible via our cataloguing system. We’ve got plenty of finds from last season to finish washing and sorting, and there will hopefully be a similar abundance of material from our excavations of the next few weeks.
We are happy to once again have the specialist staff (previously unavailable due to travel restrictions) and workspace to begin processing environmental samples again. Our main means of processing will be through flotation, and a primer on our methods can be found here. In short, flotation allows tiny artefacts and ecofacts from coins and beads to bones, snail shells, and seeds to be separated from the soil matrix. The characteristics and chemistry soil itself can also tell us about what was likely going on in a certain area of the trench during a certain time. This season we will be covering seed identification and a bit of soil science here on the blog.
Finally, we hope to enhance our database of finds with a new system of key words. We also would like to eventually integrate the Brian Hope-Taylor material we have in our care into our existing system.
It has been a tough time for fieldwork in the last couple of years but we are aiming to be a little ambitious in 2022. Having learned a few lessons on how to cope, as safely as we can, with COVID restrictions and our short season late last year, we are aiming to run a full season of four weeks this summer.
The field school will run from Sunday 26th June (arrival date Sat 25th) to Friday 22nd July as the last day on site. You can book single or multiple week slots:
Week 1: 26th June to 2nd July
Week 2: 3rd July to 9th July
Week 3: 10th July to 16th July
Week 4: 17th July to 22nd of July
This year we will be returning to the castle’s outworks to explore the newly discovered medieval Elmund’s Tower and the allusive well. You can read more about the excavation here: 2021 Excavation Round-up
To find out more or book place please head to our website: BRP Website
We look forward to seeing you all in in June and July and finally finding that well!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
Have you ever wondered what archaeologists really do? Do they just dig or are there other aspects to their work?A Day in Archaeology showcases “a day in the life” of archaeologists from all over the UK. It also explores pathways into the profession and, this year, the impact of the C-19 pandemic on individuals and organisations. The day is part of the Council for British Archaeology’s ‘Festival of Archaeology‘ and one of our Director’s, Jo, happens to work for them, so she has put together a blog post focusing on her time with the BRP and the impact C-19 has had on the project.
As with most organisations Bamburgh Research Project has been been monitoring the developing situation with Covid 19 and trying to come up with a clear plan on how to respond. I am sure it will be no surprise to hear that as the situation is changing so rapidly it is really rather difficult to make plans with certainty at the moment, and probably won’t be for some time so with reluctance we have closed bookings for the summer field school as we feel certain that it would not be repsonsible to try to run in June and July as planned.
It seems sensible at the moment to postpone until at least the late Summer or Autumn. As things become more certain we will update you here and on the website.
If anyone wishes to be added to an email list to be notified when the bookings are open again then we can be contacted through the website.