Labels, Labels, Labels

We always tell students and visitors that archaeology has way more paperwork involved in it than you see in popular culture portrayals. In addition to myriad paper forms and their increasingly digital counterparts, we also rely heavily on labels and labelling conventions that are used in every department on site.

Tools of the trade.

Our trusty Sharpie is always on hand for label emergencies. (Sharpies are also like currency on a dig, you protect them and hand them over only occasionally and with great suspicion of those you loan it to.) What may seem like normal paper beside it, however, is a little bit of high-tech stationary: it’s known colloquially as Tyvek, which is technically a trademark in the United States, but has become a generic name for the type of material our labels are made from. This phenomenon is known as “generification,” where a brand becomes a generic term, thus putting the brand’s legal right to their name in jeopardy. For example, plasters in the UK are called “band-aids” in the US, named for the brand “Band-Aid.” It happens sometimes with the word Sharpie in place of other permanent markers too! Even words like elevator and zipper were once trademarked, but they became the word everybody used for those inventions.

Tyvek is a synthetic material made of high-density polyethylene fibres spun together and trademarked by Dupont. HDPE used in things like plastic bottles, and they can be recycled: they are labelled as number 2 with the little recycling logo to ensure they are processed in the proper recycling stream. Tyvek is commonly seen as house wrap on construction or renovation projects, but it can be used for things like PPE (personal protective equipment) and packaging as well. The way the fibres are smushed together and not woven makes the material water-repellent, and thus weatherproof. It also means you can’t rip the material with your bare hands; you need sharp scissors or a utility knife. They can be written or printed on, but, as you can imagine, with the amount of labels we are writing every day, it makes more sense to just use a Sharpie.

We use these labels in finds trays at the trenchside and as-yet-unwashed at the washing station, in the blue plastic drying trays for washed bulk material and wet environmental samples, on the sorting trays of bulk material, and in the environmental samples themselves.

Environmental samples that have been floated drying in blue trays.

The finds trays at the trenchside have two bits of information on them: the site code and the context number. The site code includes the letters BC for Bamburgh Castle and the last two digits of the year the material was excavated; everything we find this year is labelled BC22. Our context number is written in a circle or in parentheses to represent an area of activity or occupation within the trench. This same information is copied onto new labels when the material is being washed to denote where the drying material has come from and when it was found. When the material is dry and ready to be sorted, the label is kept on the sorting table or tray and copied onto bulk finds bags (more on that in a mo).

Bits of animal bone excavated in 2019 in the middle of sorting.

Environmental samples also have that same information, but with an added number written in a diamond denoting what sample it is. When we take a sample of a context, we assigned the sample a number. We put multiple labels in each bucket or bag of sample, as well as labelling the bucket or bag directly. When we separate the heavy material from the flot (which is collected in a little mesh bag), each of those are labelled too! The sheer quantity of labels is unending! In the picture below, you can see an old sample that was in storage was also marked with how many total buckets of sample were taken, here “2 of 3.”

An environmental sample that has not been floated yet.

When we are dealing with bulk finds that have dried and are being sorted, we write the site code, context number, brief identification, number of pieces, and weight in grams. It goes on a little label AND on the plastic bag.

Sorted animal bone.

For small finds, which are the more unique or unusual artefacts we find, we do the same process for labelling a bulk find with one more added number: a small finds number. These numbers are taken out consecutively from a register during the season and written in a triangle. Here’s the bone toggle with all the information required to track and analyse it.

A small find and its bag.

Is that too many numbers and letters for you on a Sunday evening? I understand. To settle down, have a bowl of soup.

Week 2 Round-Up

This week we have had the students rotating through even more jobs than last week! In addition to finds washing and sorting and digging crews, we designated teams to work on environmental processing and the massive finds database we are building.

Environmental processing is explained further here, but it is a method of recovering extremely small organic material like charred seeds by agitating soil gently while water flows through it.

The most talked-about find in the environmental sample was a large crinoid! Crinoids are sea lilies (related to starfish and urchins), which first appeared on earth 300 million years BEFORE the dinosaurs. There are still extant species today! During the medieval period, the bits of their stem column worked as natural beads, because often they are found with a round or star-shaped hole in the centre. Locally, they are known as “Saint Cuthbert’s beads.” If we find any more, we will for sure do an in-depth post on them!

Crinoid fossil.

In the castle’s labyrinthine lower levels, we worked on updating and reconciling data in our finds archives and confirming shelf-marks. Boxes of interesting finds were opened, reassessed, passed around, and discussed while doing this archival work. We even found material that was discovered, recorded, and bagged by Constance and Lauren back when they were new staff in 2013!

During finds washing and sorting of early medieval contexts, several pieces of worked bone were discovered, including what looks like a toggle. We also had an strange tooth that was possibly worked which at first looked like bear, but it may actually have belonged to a seal. Wild bear (as opposed to imported bear) extinction is hard to date, as no one agrees what part of the medieval period they disappear, but seals are still present around the Farne Islands visible from the castle.

In the trenches, digging slowed down aside from the removal of the rubble in the two chambers split by the masonry-and-brick stacked walls. The arch has been further revealed!

Revealing the arch.

We have also begun to shore up walls and ground surfaces to prepare for the removal of the massive bits of rubble. Hard hats are now required in the rubble areas.

The trench team started recording the masonry via photograph and then via plan. Photographs are taken on a digital DSLR camera in colour, and each is recorded in a catalogue. We use large poles as scales to represent up to two metres!

Photographing each wall face.

Planning involves drawing the features and contexts in the trench to scale. What’s great about planning is that you don’t need to be a great artist to do it; when you use a planning frame like pictured below, you simply have to copy each square of the frame into a set of boxes on the grid paper. It’s like in colouring books, where you have to move a picture from the left-hand page into empty boxes on the right-hand page.

All smiles when planning.

We hope to clear more rubble out next week once everything is recorded thus far!

Way Back Wednesday: Glass Beads

The weather this morning was a bit ugly, so some of the students went into the archive annex in the castle to organise small finds from years past. We were reconciling information in our database and the physical storage containers and shelf-marks. As we nosed around the different boxes, we came across two blue glass beads excavated in 2012 from Trench 3. (It was a weird blast from the past for Constance and Lauren, who were both students at the time.)

9th-century blue beads.

Both beads came from the eastern half of the trench at a level pretty securely dated to the 9th century. The bead on the left, a globular bead, was from the northeast corner where a very compact, stony context was located. The bead on the right, a barrel bead, was from the southeast corner, where we found a large area of burning and evidence that suggested it was possibly the site of a stable.

Most of our knowledge of early medieval beads actually comes from surveys of grave goods. Between the 5th and 7th centuries, much of the glass was recycled from Roman material; when new beads were made, their chemical content suggested they came from raw glass from the Near East. The period of the beads we’ve found are not associated with graves, as furnished burials were less common in Christianised communities. This unpublished thesis from James Robert Nicholas Peake talks a little bit more about early medieval bead production via a case study from RAF Lakenheath assemblages. It’s only in the 8th and 9th centuries that we have on the ground evidence for production in Britain becomes available. Things like beads would have likely been produced by travelling artisans, rather than as a household industry. The 9th century is also a time when the fluxes (material that lowers the melting point of silicates) used to stabilise the batch of ingredients were purposefully richer in potash (potassium oxide) instead of natron (soda ash), which protected the glass from water damage. The blue colour of our beads was probably due to the addition of cobalt, but could have been exacerbated by Roman cullet (leftover broken bits added to fresh glass) during the 9th century.

There’s a really great open access book that talks all about early medieval beads in English contexts you can read here.

To Scrub-a-dub, or Not to Scrub-a-dub?

A major part of finds processing is cleaning the material that has come from the trench, because you can’t identify something if it’s covered in mud! Many artefacts are washed with clean, detergent-free water, while others that can’t get wet are brushed off dry.

Brushing a bit of long bone.

We place a tray of dirty finds next to a basin of water and place the cleaned finds in a blue tray with newspaper to aid with drying. Both trays must be labelled with year and context number to keep track of where things were found

The most common tool we use is a toothbrush with synthetic bristles, and instead of scrubbing the artefact while submerged, we bring the water on the brush up to the artefact. This prevents the artefact from soaking up too much of the water and becoming unstable and falling apart.

The toothbrush is a pretty gentle tool, even with vigorous brushing for example on very muddy animal bone. Sometimes, however, you’ll find areas you can’t quite reach due to the toothbrush head’s size. In those instances, we use more pokey tools, but start with the softest (wooden skewers) before using something more heavy duty (metal dental tools). This is similar to the process professional archaeological conservators will use in a lab: you always start with the gentlest tool and work your way up to something harder. Conservators also use more unusual tools before they reach for the dentist’s kit, for example, using rose thorns or porcupine quills to scrape off stubborn bits!

But before you even get to sit down in front of your basin set-up, you’ll need to know what can get washed and what needs to be kept dry.


Animal bone (including horn cores and antler) is almost always perfectly suited to washing unless you find something super unexpected like preserved flesh (but this is not really an option in our soil environment). This category also includes worked bone, but if there are incised lines, you’d want to be particularly careful not to damage any decoration.

Human bone can be washed, but only extremely carefully, and it should be handled outside of view of the public. It is important to note any areas of discolouration due to contact with metal objects and not wet those areas. For example, if a green stain appears on an arm bone, the individual may have been wearing something made of copper alloy that eventually rested directly on the bone in the burial. Similarly, an orange stain could suggest an iron implement was nearby. We hope to do a future blog post on corrosion, but these two are the most common examples that leave a trace on human bones.

Animal bone.


Prehistoric pottery can be extremely delicate and friable, crumbling even as you excavate it in moist soil, and thus may need to be left alone for a few days to dry naturally. Then it can be gently dry brushed to determine if it should be wet again at all. You may also use a sponge to clean these early earthenwares. Most historical pottery, in general, is a robust material in that it survives in the archaeological record, regardless of being in pieces. Glazed pottery can be washed, but not scrubbed vigorously on the glazed surfaces. Painted pottery surfaces should not be washed, as the pigments could easily be lost. When we find Samian ware, a Roman ceramic type from Gaul (modern France) (hyperlink), we do usually wash it, but without the scrubbing tools. We do this to preserve the surface, but still be able try to identify the pattern and any maker’s mark. If pottery seems to have food residue on its surface, we do not wash it, and, if possible, can send it away for further analysis to learn about the diet of the community that used it.

Green glaze (13thC)

Clay pipes

Pipe-stems and pipe-bowls, can be washed fairly easily, but you must take care when clearing out the borehole so as not to send a crack down the whole stem. Pipe-stems were often broken during use, and anywhere you find British influence after the commodification of tobacco you find broken bits of clay pipe.

19thC clay pipe stem with edge of bowl and spur.


Ceramic building material like fired bricks or tiles can be washed, while unfired clay, mud bricks, and daub is brushed while dry.

Ceramic building material.


We don’t wash charcoal, as it will crumble easily. Instead, we dry-brush it gently and bag this separately. In special cases of large charcoal deposits, they will be taken as a sample rather than collected with bulk finds. Environmental archaeologists can then examine the sample to try to ascertain wood species and possible dendrochronological (tree-ring) data.

Charcoal fragment.


Glass can be washed if it is not iridescent—that is, if it doesn’t have gold flakes on the surface or rainbow-coloured patches. These are ways glass corrodes, where the layers of glass pull apart from each other allowing air in between. The bouncing around of light in these tiny air gaps leads to the beautiful colours visible.


On our site, we used to wash all shell that we found, all molluscs but from gastropods (like snails) to bivalves (like oysters). We no longer wash oyster shells because they often simply fall apart when brushed.

Snail and oyster.

Stone and mortar

While we don’t find a vast quantity of stone artefacts on our site, we have in the past found tools and debitage (waste flakes) of flint. Flint, along with other worked stone, can be washed, unless painted or covered with mortar. Mortar clumps and mortar spreads on stone are brushed while dry.

Stone with mortar.

Metal and slag


8thC iron knife blade.

It’s not the end of the world if you do start washing something and suddenly realise it’s heavier than it looks or reveals a metal surface. Just stop brushing immediately and allow it to dry. If it is dry, you may dry-brush it gently. We just want the soil off the surface because it’s within the skillset of the professional conservator to best decide how to handle the corrosion. We also do not wash slag (metal byproduct comprised of impurities).

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

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

Details and booking information can be found at:

Bamburgh Excavation Season 2022: bookings open!

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.

There is a well down there we just know it! And just as shown on the early 19th century plan.

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!

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

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 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 –, 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.