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!

Visit to the Heugh Excavation on Lindisfarne

We recently visited the ongoing excavation on Lindisfarne that is being undertaken by the Archaeological Practice as part of the Peregrini Lindisfarne Landscape Project. It’s a fascinating site and should be familiar to some, as it has been the subject of a number of news reports. The team have opened up a series of trenches on the Heugh, which is the long, narrow, dolerite rock promontory above and to the south of the medieval priory site in Lindisfarne Village. The Heugh has long been speculated to have been part of the early medieval monastery founded around 634 during the reign of King Oswald, as a daughter house of Iona. It quickly rose to be a site of great importance and remains famous for its association with Saint Aidan and Saint Cuthbert as well as being the place where the wonderful Lindisfarne Gospels were made.

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The foundations of the potential new church on the Heugh

Here the excavation team have found the almost complete foundation of a stone building, that all current evidence suggests is early medieval in date. Direct dating evidence is scant, but the near complete absence of later medieval and modern pottery from the structure, despite a considerable volume of material being excavated, suggests a time of construction when pottery was not in use. This, together with the absence of mortar bonding and the rather crude-tooled finish to the stones, adds up to a quite compelling argument that they have discovered a building from the early monastery. In addition, the ground plan, with what appear to be a chancel and nave, is very suggestive of a church which greatly adds to the excitement.

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The finish of the stones is mostly quite crude and no mortar bonds them together. It was a substantial structure though with wide foundations made of large blocks.

We know from textual evidence, particularly the writings of Bede, that Aidan’s successor Finan built a timber church that was later covered in lead. We also know from a later text that this church was removed to Norham as a relic when the monastery was partly abandoned in the 9th century. We can be certain then that this structure is not that church, but the site would have likely held several churches during its lifetime. The crude working of the stones, particularly of some sculpted stones that appear to form a trough or bowl, and part of a possible window, are very interesting as they may suggest builders that are beginning to come to terms with a new construction medium- stone instead of wood. As a consequence it is tempting to imagine this building as particularly early, but it is perhaps also possible that it could be later. In the Viking age many monasteries were abandoned, but the continued use of stone in the construction of monuments at Lindisfarne suggests that the site remained important, though the sculpted fragments of the 10th century and later often appear to be cruder and derivative. It is therefore possible that this structure could date from this later time, when the working of stone was not done with the same confidence or competence as the 8th and 9th centuries.

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Bamburgh Castle, Lindisfarne’s near neighbour, just 8.5km over the water!

It is tempting also to see the location on the height of the Heugh as meaning that the building was meant to be seen from a distance. It has a clear sight line to Bamburgh, the great secular palace site, and this may be no coincidence. We have evidence of pre-conquest stone architecture at Bamburgh and it is likely that the use of this medium was intended in both instances to reference Rome. In the case of a monastery, this would be the Catholic Church as the successor of Rome, and at the palace as legitimising rule through being the heirs of the Romans. This is a good lesson in why it’s important to study how a site fits into its wider world in order to properly understand it.

Interpreting the Lower pavement in Trench 3

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A Trench 3 phase plan for the middle 9th century AD with some earlier features depicted in the northern Hope-Taylor area, including the ‘lower pavement’. The pit and socket were yet to be identified when this was drawn but it lies in the west part of the baulk, close to where the baulk joins our main excavation.

During the last week we have been excavating two pits in the area of the baulk through the Hope-Taylor excavation. One of these has proved to be quite substantial and associated with a broken stone socket used as a pivot, which we have now lifted. Working out what the socket was used for is difficult as we have few other features that we can associate with it at the moment. It likely held a door post that rotated in the socket so we should be looking for traces of a building in the vicinity. Hope-Taylor excavated to both north and south of the feature and there is what appears to be a construction cut for a timber structure in his records to the north of the stone. If we can prove that these two features were broadly contemporary we might be closer to solving the problem and identifying a new building.

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The socket lies on its side and with a visible crack at the centre of this photo. It lies within a pit that cuts a mortar surface to the right and stones to the left.

West of the pits we are currently working on one of the more interesting features in the Hope-Taylor excavation. It’s a linear stone structure that lies along the west extent of his trench. Hope-Taylor called it his ‘lower pavement’ and it has been a recognisable part of of his excavation since we first uncovered it. We touched on it in the last blog on Trench 3, as we were looking to see if we could join this ‘pavement’ through the baulk to a series of stones visible in section. The ‘pavement’ is important because it is a long linear feature that extends for many metres along the west side of the trench.  Importantly it represents a stratigraphic signpost linking Hope-Taylor’s excavated material back into our sequence via the section we drew of the baulk.

 

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‘Lower pavement’ extending along the west extent of Hope-Taylor’s excavation level

We have been looking at the ‘pavement’ feature itself and some characteristics seem to be apparent. Is this stone structure really a pavement/road or a structural foundation for a timber building. The fortress wall must lie within 6 to 8m of our trench edge, judging by the position of the current wall and the edge of the dolerite plateau, which certainly leaves space for a building or a road.

The lower pavement extends for 11m (assuming it is seen emerging from the baulk) but does not extend all the way to the north end of the trench or further to the south into the southern Hope-Taylor trench. This alone would seem to make the road interpretation problematic. Looking at the surviving Hope-Taylor records, and the feature in the ground, it seems that it is a discreet structure that does not quite extend to the western trench limit. This makes us think that it must surely be a structural foundation, not a road. It also contains a variety of stone from dolerite boulders to occasional dressed blocks of masonry and these must have been re-used from an earlier building. If our further investigation can define it turning right angles at each end then we will have proved it is a building. Frustratingly as the majority of the structure lies beyond our trench and under the standing castle wall we will have only a limited chance to go further and define is role.

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Aerial view of Trench 3 with a rather speculative guess at to how a building might lie between the trench and the fortress wall

 

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.

Our Lecture Series for the 2017 Season

Anyone in or visiting the Bamburgh/Belford area during the next five weeks are welcome to attend our  Wednesday evening public archaeology lectures at the Bell View Centre in Belford, Northumberland.

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No booking is required and entry is free, though any donations to the project to cover the cost of renting the venue is gratefully received.

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.

3-Dimensional artefact location mapping in Trench 3, Bamburgh Castle

Ryan Leckel, undergraduate student of the Applied Social Science Department at University of Wisconsin-Stout, has received a grant of more than $2,000.00 to help with his pilot study in 3-dimensional visualisation of small find locations in Trench 3 at Bamburgh Castle. The study will gather and input data from the site records in order to produce a 3-D model of the site in which the distribution of the finds can be visualised alongside the trench plans. It is hoped this will prove an invaluable tool for identifying patterns of finds on the site and greatly aid interpretation. One of the trickier aspects of such analysis will be asking the right questions of the model.

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Trench 3 Excavation

It is great to see staff and students wanting to work on project data so we are delighted that this is just one such ongoing project. We are really looking forward to this collaboration in the weeks ahead and we will update you as the work progresses- hopefully with some really nice images.

Bookings to join us on the excavation are still open, though some weeks are getting close to being full, so we would encourage anyone still thinking of joining us this summer to get in touch soon.

Click here to go to the booking page.

 

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.