Update on the Discovering Aidan Project

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

St Aidans

St Aidan’s Church, Bamburgh

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


Skeleton excavated in the Bole Hole excavation in 2004

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

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Community Outreach Activities: join us this summer at BRP

The Bamburgh Research Project has created a programme of free archaeology activities to run alongside the excavation this year. You can learn a little more about the background to this in an earlier blog post: Bamburgh Outreach 2018

Below is a list of forthcoming events that you can get involved with:

Bamburgh Village Archaeology Activities

Join us at the Cricket Pavilion in Bamburgh Village 2-4 p.m. on Monday 26th of June, Monday 2nd and 9th of July and Tuesday 17th of July.

We will be undertaking hands-on artefact work, including finds washing, sorting and illustration. We will also be displaying some of our more interesting and significant finds from the excavation. Everyone is welcome!

Bamburgh Village Lecture Series

Join us at the Cricket Pavilion in Bamburgh Village 7-8 p.m. We will be delivering the following free lectures:

Tuesday 26th June: Life and death at the early medieval palace of Bamburgh: the results of the excavation of the Bowl Hole cemetery site by Graeme Young

Tuesday 3rd July: Forging Castle Space: Anglo-Saxon Metalworking at Bamburgh Castle by Julie Polcrack

Tuesday 10th July: Searching for humour in dark places: an investigation of humoral theory in the Early Medieval by Tom Fox

Tom’s lecture will explore scientific means of investigating human remains to better understand their diet, culture and society.

Tuesday 17th of July: The Excavation of Bamburgh Castle: an end of season overview by Graeme Young


Grave cuts been photographed by one of the past directors, Phil Wood, in the Bowl Hole cemetery

Bamburgh Castle Trench-Side Activities

The BRP will also be running daily trench side activities Saturday-Thursday every week until July 18th. These will take place 11 – 1 p.m. and again from 2 – 4 p.m.

If you are visiting Bamburgh Castle please visit us in the West Ward where you can see the excavation underway and undertake hands-on artefact activities. These will run on the trench side and in our bell tent. Activities include finds washing, sorting and illustration, handling and working with pottery or bone and displays of significant finds from the site.

Note: not all activities will run everyday and as these are undertaken outside it maybe necessary to cancel due to bad weather.

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If you have any questions please contact: graemeyoung@bamburghresearchproject.co.uk


Lottery grant for the Bamburgh Heritage Trust

The plans for a new heritage centre at St Aidan’s Church, Bamburgh, that will bring the story of the early medieval Bowl Hole burials to life has taken a big step closer with the awarding of a development grant to the Bamburgh Heritage Trust by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The Bowl Hole Excavation Project was undertaken by Bamburgh Research Project (BRP) and Durham University and has produced a wealth of academic information about some of the earliest Christian inhabitants of Bamburgh. The burials are contemporary with the early medieval palace site currently under investigation within the castle by the BRP (places still available for this season’s excavation) and together give an extraordinary insight into what is often called the Golden Age of Northumbria.


Some of the early medieval skeletons on their way from the castle to St Aidan’s Church during the reburial ceremony in 2016

The new funding represents an important step forward in bringing these results to the wider public. If you have not already seen it then do read Tony Henderson’s terrific article in the Chronicle, which details the work undertaken at the Bowl Hole and the planned project outputs.

If you would like to take part in this years excavations at Bamburgh Castle and/or our prehistoric wetlands site at the Bradford Kaims, please contact field-school coordinator  colekelly@bamburghresearchproject.co.uk or visit www.bamburghresearchproject.co.uk.


Laying the Bowl Hole Skeletons to Rest

Skeleton been recorded

It seems both a long time ago and strangely almost like yesterday that we uncovered a cyst burial (a grave cut outlined with slabs of stone) and realised that we had identified the location of the lost burial ground at the Bowl Hole. Memory is a funny thing! Over the 15+ years since that weekend we have undertaken an extensive excavation, followed by a successful collaboration with Durham University, aimed at analysing the skeletons and understanding as far as we are able the story that they have to tell us.

The results have been fascinating and we very much look forward to sharing them with you in the future, through further academic papers, a long awaited monograph and, we hope, a popular publication and visitor centre. Much of this work lies in the months ahead but tomorrow a long awaited and important landmark in the story of the site will happen when we undertake the reburial of the skeletons at St Aidan’s church in Bamburgh. We always intended to rebury them following their study and ST Aidan’s, a church whose foundation is as old as the cemetery site, is the perfect place to be their final resting place.

You can read a little more about the service in the article below. If you have the chance to attend then please do.


New article on our excavations at Bamburgh Castle

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The windmill office in the West Ward, between our two excavation trenches

Archaeology, the magazine of the Archaeological Institute of American has published an article on our excavation work at Bamburgh Castle. It is available online here:

Stronghold of the Kings of the North


Exciting news about the Bowl Hole early medieval burial ground

We are very happy to announce that we have received £1890.00 grant for additional carbon dates for the Bowl Hole skeletons from the Sustainable Development Fund of the Northumberland AONB.

excavation in 2005.JPG

The Bowl Hole early medieval cemetery site, excavated by the BRP between 1998 and 2007 has since been the subject of intensive scientific analysis by a team at Durham University led by Professor Charlotte Roberts. The results are very exciting and those of you with an interest in the academic papers produced so far should have a look on the website hosted at the university (https://www.dur.ac.uk/research/directory/view/?mode=project&id=278).

BRP are currently working with the Bamburgh Heritage Trust to see the skeletons respectfully re-interred in the crypt at St Aidan’s Church, Bamburgh, and to produce a new display bringing the research results to the attention of the public. The new dates will aid us in narrowing down phasing and greatly add to our ability to interpret this amazing site.

The Legacy of Dr. Brian Hope-Taylor Part 1.

Today we take a look at the work of Dr. Brian Hope-Taylor who excavated at Bamburgh during the 1960’s and 1970’s. You have probably heard his name mentioned in numerous blog entries over the past few months, this primarily stems from the fact that the Bamburgh Research Project has actively sought to re-investigate the work of Hope-Taylor with many of our trenches sited to explore his work (T8 and T10 for example).

Hope-Taylor’s trenches, as located and re-excavated by the Bamburgh Research Project.

The first systematic excavation prior to the foundation of the Bamburgh Research Project (BRP) in 1996 was conducted, by the late Dr Brian Hope-Taylor, of Cambridge University. Hope-Taylor’s interest in Bamburgh seems to have stemmed from his previous work at the Anglian royal site at Yeavering, some 25km to the west of Bamburgh. It appears that Hope-Taylor believed Bamburgh, being in the first tier of royal centres, would make an interesting parallel to Yeavering and aid in its interpretation. Hope-Taylor began excavations at Bamburgh in the early 60’s and returned between 1970-1974 for more systematic excavation (Young, 2009).

A photograph of BHT's excavation in the West Ward
A photograph of BHT’s excavation in the West Ward

Hope-Taylor never published his findings at Bamburgh, so when the BRP began their first season of investigation in 1996 they were not sure what to expect.

Project Director, Graeme Young, tells us in his article in Antiquity (2009) that “Dr Hope-Taylor loomed substantially in the minds of the small group of archaeologists who formed the BRP, not just because the thought of following in the footsteps of such a famous name seemed a little daunting, but also because without knowing the extent of his work within the castle, how would we integrate our own studies to his. It was perhaps this, as much as the interest of the site itself, that prompted the initial excavation undertaken by the BRP, to concentrate on the identification and investigation of an early medieval burial site close to, but beyond the castle gate” (2009). It was here that the BRP would unearth and excavate approx. 100 bodies from the final phase cemetery known as the Bowl Hole. Follow the link to see the first of three blog entries discussing this site. Bowl Hole: Part 1

The BRP also wished to explore the interior of the castle and decided to situate their trenches in the same area in which Hope-Taylor excavated.

Graeme tells us “ Documentary survey, resistivity and ground penetrating radar surveys were undertaken prior to excavation and, together with anecdotal evidence from those who remembered Hope-Taylor at Bamburgh, helped identify the general area of the 1970s excavations. Sufficiently to at least allow a trial trench to be sited with some confidence within the west ward in 2000”.

Geophysical survey being undertaken in the West Ward of the castle

This 30m by 2m trench, oriented broadly north to south, was by sheer good fortune, perfectly placed to identify the east side of Hope-Taylor’s main excavation trench.

Excavation begins in the West Ward

And once this had been identified, it was a relatively simple task to follow the edge during the following season to reveal the vast majority of a substantial, trapezoidal, open area excavation, divided by a central baulk. The north side of the trench was 10m wide, the south 7m wide, extending 19.4m north to south.

The extended trench in the West Ward

The full trench was emptied to the base of the original excavation, with the exception of the southern 3m, where a service pipe had been inserted in the intervening time between the BRP and Hope-Taylor excavations. This was a relatively easy task, as the trench had been covered with a mixture of polythene fertilizer sacks and tarpaulins weighed down by stones and timber by Hope-Taylor and his dig team at the end of the 1974 season.

The Hope-Taylor level covered by fertilizers sacks and tarpaulin

The Hope-Taylor level covered by fertilizers sacks and tarpaulin

The day of the great unveiling, when the tarpaulins and sacks were peeled back was a memorable occasion, given the quality of the archaeology that was revealed. This was made all the more interesting by the presence of section strings, nails and occasional marker tags left in situ. Clearly, Hope-Taylor had left with every intention of returning in a later season. Once cleaned, the Hope-Taylor trench was extensively recorded by photography, as well as by plan and section. In addition to this record, our strategy was to excavate a parallel trench on the east side of Hope-Taylor’s. This it was hoped, would provide sufficient insight to allow at least a basic interpretation of what had been excavated during the 1970s. Primarily however, it would provide an independent sample of the west ward stratigraphy (Young, 2009).

Trench 3. The extent most people would recognise today. Note the baulk in the bottom right corner

This trench is what many people now know to be Trench 3 and is still under excavation today. The 2011 season was particularly interesting as we began the excavation of the baulk which BHT left in-situ. This has enabled us to begin to marry-up the excavated stratigraphy in the BHT trenches with the stratigraphic sequence we recorded this summer.

In the following blog post we will discuss one of the BRP’s most exciting discoveries to date, which concerns our main protagonist, Dr. Hope-Taylor.

Young. G. Excavating an Archaeologist: Brian Hope-Taylor at Bamburgh. Antiquity 82(318)

Bamburgh Castle in its Landscape Context

Project Director, Graeme Young, will be giving us an update on some of the earlier trenches that the BRP opened in past seasons to explore the relationship between the castle, the Bowl Hole Cemetery and the surrounding landscape.

Trench Updates

Regular followers of the blog will no doubt be familiar with Trench 1, adjacent to St Oswald’s Gate, and Trench 3, where we are excavating in parallel with Dr Hope-Taylor’s 1970s excavation. Trench 2 which originally lay next to Trench 1 was bottomed to bedrock and then back-filled some while ago. Trenches  6 and 7, that were associated with the investigation of the chapel in the Inner Ward, have recently been covered. In order to fill out the picture over the closed season we are reviewing and updating some of our previous work in and around the castle. The fact that we had reached trench number 11 during the Time Team week, when we excavated in the lawn area of the Inner Ward, should give some indication of the wide-ranging work so far undertaken. The updated reports will be added to the website for download in due course and we will do short introductions to them on the blog. In the mean time here is a little update on Trench 4 and 5 will be covered in the next blog entry.

Landscape Location

The castle rock site has been occupied for thousands of years. The fact that it is a natural fortress is perhaps the principal reason for this, but there are other reasons too, such as its coastal location. A site like Bamburgh that provides access to both good agricultural land and the sea combined with a defensive location has a great deal going for it. In order to understand the setting of the fortress as  well as the site itself we have been studying its landscape. We know that an early medieval burial ground lies to the south of the castle and we have been attempting to understand the relationship between the fortress, the burial ground and the sea. Even the most basic investigation of the Ordnance Survey maps, going back to c.1860, shows us that the high tide line lay much closer to the northern side of the castle rock less than 150 years ago. The coastline to the south of the castle has also extended out to sea in that time, with dune field forming in considerable volume. At present when we look at the height above sea level of the low-lying ground of the Bowl Hole itself, a deep hollow in the dunes next to the burial ground to which it gives its name, it seems quite plausible that in earlier periods before dunes accumulated that the tidal beach could have extended right up to the edge of the cemetery. It seems then that the castle rock in earlier times, far from being separated from the sea by a wide expanse of Marram grass and dune in the way we see today, lay intimately close to the sea, with the tides reaching up to the base of the rock.

The castle by the beach
View of the dunes and the Bowl Hole from the castle walls, facing south

A port at Bamburgh?

We know that in the later medieval period the area of the present village was the site of a borough, a semi-urban trading site with a  particular tax status. The Normans encouraged the founding of such sites adjacent to castes, but in the case of Bamburgh we have reason to think that a settlement in the area of the village has been present since at least Anglo-Saxon times. Surviving medieval records speak of the burgesses, the free men of the borough, and their buildings and land. They also mention the founding of a trading port in Budle Bay, a coastal inlet 2km to the north-west of the village in the middle of the 13th century. There is though evidence of the presence of ships at Bamburgh from an earlier time, as Robert de Mowbray Earl of Northumberland was summoned to court to answer the charge of plundering four ships at Bamburgh in 1095. This begs the question of where were these ships? Could there have been something of a port at Bamburgh itself?

We know from research at a number of sites around the country that beach trading site were reasonably common in the early medieval period. At such sites the shallow draft, clinker-built, ships of the period could be drawn up on a beach and a simple market would form around them once the tide had gone out. Such sites tend to be identified by metal detecting as the coins and small metal artefacts dropped onto silt or sand were hard to recover at such places. The wide stretches of beach at Bamburgh, much closer to the castle at earlier times, would be ideal for such a temporary market site.

In addition, study of the first edition Ordnance Survey map shows an intriguing little inlet immediately beyond the defensive outworks of St Oswald’s Gate, close to one of the streets of the medieval borough, the Wynding, and with a spur of higher ground offering a degree of shelter to its north. It occurred to us that this area could have been a small somewhat sheltered anchorage accessed by the earliest gate known to be present at the fortress. We could not resist the urge to investigate.

In 2001 we sited Trench 4 extending down from the base of the steep slope depicted from the earliest maps, eastwards across the base of a low-lying area of ground, now cut off from the sea by the modern dunes, but formerly open to free flood at high tide.

Map of trench location in relation to castle and topography

The hill-like feature, above our possible harbour, had from map evidence, been much altered but was always present, suggesting a natural feature. Our trench revealed that the base of the slope had been reinforced by a layer of stones and that the ‘hill’ beneath was composed of sand. Excavation at the base of the slope cut through silty sand layers with domestic waste, indicating that the low-lying area had been in-filled with rubbish from the village in the post medieval period. Excavation had to stop before any earlier layers could be reached as the trench quickly began to flood.

The excavated trench. The water table can already be seen at the base and the rubble layer overlying the sand mound at the far end.

With this avenue of investigation frustrated we changed tactics and took a series of soil cores to map the natural slope. This indicated that beneath the silt, rubbish and sand layers a much more solid natural surface formed from glacial boulder clay extended as a gentle slope out towards the sea. Relating this slope to the tidal levels indicates that the base of the inlet could well have formed a gently sloping tidal beach suitable for drawing up the clinker-built ships of an earlier age.

We cannot prove it but, it is more than likely that right next to St Oswald’s Gate a small tidal inlet formed a moderately sheltered harbour leading out to a wider beach where markets could have been held in the early medieval period. This arrangement may have lasted as late as the mid 13th century, when the introduction of deeper draft trading vessels led to the founding of a new deeper water port on the south side of Budle Bay. A site today marked as the Newtown on the Ordnance Survey maps.

In the next blog entry we will take a look at Trench 5, which was situated outside St Oswald’s Gate.