Bamburgh and the Last Kingdom what’s the real story? Part 1- a real Uhtred??

Bernard Cornwell’s ‘Last Kingdom’ books, and the related TV series, has generated a huge amount of interest and a considerable fan-base. As Bamburgh features so prominently in the story, as the original home of the protagonist – Uhtred – and its recovery by him was one of the main long term plot drivers, its fair to say that Bamburgh is now more widely known than it was before. We experienced this during our excavation seasons, as every year we seemed to chat to more and more fans, many of whose visit to Bamburgh had been inspired by the books and the TV series.

Bamburh Castle today. The principal palace fortress of the Earls of Northumbria and a place so important to Uhtred. It would have looked very different in his day but was even by then almost certainly a stone fortress.

We are of course delighted that so many people have been inspired to learn more about the early medieval period as a result, but its not always easy to give simple answer to some of the more common question – such as: how much of the story is real? That is not an easy question to answer as the books are very well researched and draw a great deal from historical reality, but of course in the end they are a work of fiction telling a good yarn! In the next few blogs we will aim to cover the areas where the story touches on historical reality and what Bamburgh would have been like at that time. We very much hope that the answers will be interesting and if it leads to a few more people learning about an extraordinary place then we see that as a very good thing.

Was there a historical Uhtred?

This is one of the most frequently asked question we hear. And the answer is annoyingly both yes and no! There is, as it happens, more than one Uhtred in this period associated with Bamburgh and one of them stands out as having inspired the character of the books. He lived at a later time and so was not present for the real historical events described in the books but much of his story and character will seem familiar. In fact in the historical note at the end of the first book Bernard Cornwell informs us that although his Uhtred is a fictional character he represents a real family who did indeed have a member called Uhtred. He also tells us that he has an ancestral link to this family. With these few clues its easy to identify the historical Uhtred that lies behind the character of the books and who has gone down in history as Uhtred the Bold.

‘Uhtrede eorle’ as his name appears in Version C of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (wiki commons)

He was born some time in the later 10th century and became the Alderman or Earl of Northumberland in the early 11th century. These two terms represent a noble of great rank, alderman being the Old English (OE) title and earl the Old Norse (ON), we will use earl in this blog as it very much became the norm in this later period. He is clearly the inspiring character as there are many elements of his story that will seem familiar. He was of course first and foremost a renowned warrior and was also connected to the kings of the house of Wessex, even marrying a daughter of that royal house. His king was Aethelred the Unready, a king descended from Alfred the Great but of very different character indeed! This Uhtred, like the Uhtred of the books, was married a number of times and had enemies and allies within the Viking descended community of the Danelaw and the north.

Part of an illustrious family

So far so very like the Uhtred of the books, but what else do we know of him? He was the son of the Earl of Northumberland called Waltheof and had a brother called Eadulf. Uhtred’s Father’s name – Waltheof – was an OE name derived from and ON name and the name Uhtred itself was from OE. This mix of Viking and Anglo-Saxon naming within the family was very typical of a hybrid culture that developed over many generations within the Danelaw and the North of England. Our historical knowledge of the period is very dependent of course on those who were literate and what they thought important enough to write down. As literacy was very much a church thing, the records are often a little biased towards what was important to a monastic community. The idea of keeping a year by year historical record of events had started in the 8th century as an attempt to compile follow on records continuing on from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. This tradition of record keeping was given a great boost when Alfred the Great encouraged the keeping of such annals in order to promote literacy and to ensure that the deeds of his dynasty would be remembered. The results of this initiative survives to us today as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (in fact a series of parallel chronicles compiled in different monasteries) but these only became properly detailed in the 11th century. We will see that gaps in our knowledge are a real problem for earlier times and we will often be left to speculate.

The immediate family tree of Uhtred

We know from such records that our historical Uhtred had connections with Aldhun the Bishopric of Durham as he married Ecgthryth the bishop’s daughter. This is a reminder that the world of the 10th and 11th centuries was rather different to how we often imagine the medieval period. Perhaps this is because we are generally more familiar with the better documented later Middle Ages, where a celibate clergy was the norm. At this earlier time the church, particularly in the north (where so much had been disrupted during the Viking Age) could be something of a family business with clerics a little like landed aristocrats. This seems to have been the background to Uhtred’s marriage as it was associated with a number of estates going to Uhtred as a dowry. Through this connection Uhtred was involved in the creation of the new site of the church of St Cuthbert at Durham, and was noted to have helped to clear the area for the new monastery in AD 995. This may be a clue as to the period in which that marriage occurred and suggests to us that Uhtred was of a grown up at this time. Before the creation of this new monastery in the loop of the River Wear at Durham the relics of St Cuthbert and his monastic community had been centred on a church at Chester-le-Street where they had settled in AD 883. This religious community of course had begun its monastic existence on Lindisfarne, a site closely associated with Bamburgh geographically and historically. During the later 9th century they travelled for many years across Northumbria seeking a new home, before settling in County Durham. We are told that the community undertook this long journey fleeing the Vikings whilst looking for a new and safer place of residence. That they ended up closer to the Viking Kingdom of York than when they started may tell us that the location of the new monastery and its lands may have had more to do with the creation of a religious buffer zone between York and Bamburgh than the story that comes down to us and why the some of the most powerful dynasty in the region had such a close connection with the Bishop’s family.

Second marriage

We are not sure how long Uhtred was married to Ecgthryth but we hear of a second marriage that took place before 1005. This was to a woman called Sige, daughter of Styr son of Ulf. Marriages of aristocrats at this time were mostly very political affairs or even just something of a business transaction. This second marriage seems to have been very much political, connecting Uhtred with a powerful and wealthy Danish family. Perhaps this was intended to generate leverage and influence to the south of their own heartland that lay north of the River Tees. We will see that this political relationship between those who controlled the two former parts of the Kingdom of Northumbria, north and south of the Tees River, will be a theme that we see again and again. We will also see that this second marriage of Uhtred will have huge ramifications for his fate and that of his decedents for several generations.

Invasion and battle

The story of Uhtred’s third marriage begins with a conflict from further north. Malcolm II who had just become King of Scotland, raided into Northumbria in 1005 AD. Perhaps this was an attempt to show off his military ability and add to his prestige, as he had come to the crown having killed his predecessor in battle and may not have felt entirely secure on the throne. Whatever the reason behind the conflict it did not go to plan. Uhtred’s father seems to have been old and infirm and chose to seek refuge in Bamburgh rather than seek battle. The same could not be said of his son Uhtred who raised a force and met Malcolm in battle relieving a siege of Durham and inflicting a defeat on Malcolm. It was reported that Uhtred then decorated the walls of Durham with the heads of his defeated enemy.

As a result of this victory Aethelred king of England, who had had few military successes against a new generation of Viking enemies, clearly desired a connection with this successful warrior and therefore arranged a marriage of Uhtred to one of his daughters. This would have involved Uhtred setting aside his current wife Sige, an action that surely damaged or broke the connections with her family. It is very likely that this weakened Uhtred’s position in the north, loosing him important allies that seem to have played a part in his recent victory, and all for an alliance with a weak king whose reign would end with his own heir in rebellion against him.

At the time a connection by marriage to Aethelred was likely to have seemed a good route for him to have political influence at the royal court. At first it seems to have have worked well for both Uhtred and Aethelred. It did not though, stand in the way of Uhtred making a ruthless decision when needed. Such as when in 1013 he switched allegiance to Swein of Denmark when Aethelred’s position became so weak Uhtred must have felt it threatened his remaining in power as Earl. He changed sides again when Swein died, but this time he appears to have been more closely associated with Edmund (later called Ironside) Aethelred’s oldest surviving son who was in a position of near open rebellion to his sick and ailing father. Ruthless politics as this may have been it did not work out well in the longer run.

A Kite Pin brooch dating from the decades around AD1000 excavated from the West Ward of Bamburgh Castle. The kind of clothes fastening that someone like Uhtred would have been familiar with or even used.

Betrayal and murder

Cnut, Swein’s son who had taken control of his father’s army at his death was now the rival that Uhtred and Edmund must resist, but things did not go well. Cnut outflanked Uhtred and invaded Northumbria when Uhtred was in the midlands with Edmund. Uhtred being one of the most important and powerful figures in the north was always going to be key to how Cnut dealt with the north, he needed him as at least something of an ally or he needed him out of the picture. Finding his enemy in a position to cut him off from his land and earldom Uhtred opened negotiations. Hostages were exchanged between them to assure good conduct and a meeting arranged. At a place called Wiheal – that might be modern Wighill in Yorkshire. We are told that Uhtred arrived with 40 of his followers only to be attacked and killed in ambush by the forces of one of his enemies who had been lying in wait for them concealed behind the hangings in the hall! A suitably dramatic end to a life of adventure. This act was likely a consequence of both one of Uhtred’s earlier marriages and the complex power politics of the North. More of this later.

The historical Uhtred was clearly a warrior like his namesake in the book and had indeed some points that the fictional version may have drawn on, but he was a man of a very different era. This brings us back to his family, its connection to Bamburgh and the question – can this be traced back to the same time of the books, when the kingdom of Northumbria fragmented under attack from a Viking army in the middle of the 9th century and the later reign of Alfred the Great? We will look at this next time.

If anyone is intrigued to learn more, get some hands on experience of archaeology and a tour of the site there are still places available on the Taster Week and all are welcome.

Investigations beyond St Oswald’s Gate: the end of season overview

St Oswald’s Gate is written about as the entrance to the fortress of Bamburgh in the 8th century AD and very likely the route that you made your way up onto the rock plateau since the earliest settlements were constructed in the late Bronze Age. Our current work is investigating this entrance, the access routes up to the entrance and the structures and outworks built to control this access over many generations. If you want to catch up on some of the reposts on the earlier season of work, in September 2021, you can find it here.

In our second season of work on the area of the cottage and tower we continued to remove rubble from within the cottage structure as well as to further investigate the wider outworks.

The outworks beyond St Oswald’s Gate showing the main areas of investigation

We knew from both map and plan evidence, and our initial work in removing rubble from the ruins of the cottage, that they extended below the present ground level. We were less certain if this was a case of the ground level being raised considerably by the accumulation of wind blown sand or whether a basement level had been dug into the ground at the time of construction. It may well turn out to be the case that both are somewhat true. The full depth that it may reach, below the current ground level, started to become apparent when we found the top of a stone archway, having already excavated a considerable depth of fill from within the structure. This arch would have led into the small room that we believe contained the well (it is depicted there on a plan of c. 1803).

Our only depiction of the well on an early plan dates from AD 1803

In a previous report we discussed the entranceway to the cottage and how it was realigned so this time we concentrated on the room that we think contained the well and was almost certainly part of the tower mentioned in the medieval records. This small room almost certainly started out as the medieval tower of Elmund’s Well and was later incorporated into the cottage. At the end of the last season of work we had revealed the top of the third flight of steps down into the building. The first two had been comprised of two short flights of stairs each at right angles to the one before. The third flight turned again through a right-angle to align with the first and extended down from a small landing.

Investigation of the tower and well room

One of the first exciting discoveries of the new season of work was the presence of two splayed lights (open window-like features) in two of the walls. Only the base of the features survived, but their form, rather like arrow loops, strongly suggested that they were medieval features and were our best indication yet that this part of the structure was indeed the part of the building that originated as a medieval tower.

The drone photo shows the unusual shape of the tower as it emerges from the rubble. The two narrow loop windows discovered this season are marked by the black lines

Removal of the rubble was a slow process but eventually this was greatly advanced by two of the castle staff and a small machine excavator being on site for a day. As more and more of the structure emerged it became increasingly obvious that multiple phases were present, showing many different building and alteration events in the history of the structure. The archway had been very well constructed and was a very solid structure standing to a considerable height. The steps that led down to it were built from cruder stone and some had clearly been reused. They were also rather worn suggesting they were of some age as well.

The well room, as perhaps we can now call it, continues to be an odd feature. When originally uncovered it seemed broadly rectangular, with internal dimensions close to 4m north to south and nearly 2m wide east to west. There was, right at the start, the impression that there were few if any right angles at the corners where walls joined and this has been confirmed as we have excavated deeper and exposed more of the walls. The east wall, that was the continuation of the east wall of the outworks was seen to curve inwards at the north end of the room. On the other side, where the arch has now been found, the stone wall that contains the arch also curved in to narrow the room at this north end. This odd shape then appears to be a deliberate feature of the build. Fanciful thoughts that the structure might turn into a D-shaped tower were ended when more of the north wall was exposed, showing it to be without any curve. Variations in the build of the room suggest a structure much altered over the centuries and with many phases to unpick. The lower courses of the east wall (uncovered so far) are butt jointed to the south wall and so not the same building event. A missing stone in the south wall that marks a gap that seems to penetrate right through the wall also suggests this is a deliberate feature. Clearly a lot of work remains next season to properly interpret the history of the building

The outworks are also producing unexpected results

The outworks were also further explored. Last season we looked at a small section of narrow wall, but this proved to be frustratingly difficult to understand so this year we have expanded the areas we excavated to gather a better and wider picture. The new area of excavation was next to the path that extends through the postern towards the village, a narrow gap between what was thought to be the oldest stretch of standing wall and the broad wall containing the postern. This narrow wall contained an archway that is tall and quite narrow that has long intrigued us as possibly quite early in date. Some of the stonework low in this wall certainly seems to be a good match for 11th to 12th century work. This little triangle had been looked at many years before, but this time was dug and explored to as great a depth as we were able. This revealed the foundations of the early, thinner stone wall and showed that the thinner wall ended abruptly, likely cut to allow for the later broad wall to pass across it. This seemed to confirm that the broad wall was, as expected, the later of the two.

The outworks immediatly outside St Oswald’s Gate. The diference in thickness between the thin wall with it arch and the broad, later wall with the postern gate is very obvious from this drone photo. In the bottom right hand coner of the photo still covered in ivy you might just be able to make out where the two builds of the broad wall overlap.

This broad wall was also investigated at its east end where it approached the bedrock on which the castle stands. It was expected that it would simply extend to where the rock rises up, but like so much at Bamburgh turned out not to be so simple. It stopped well short of the bedrock and in what appears to be a deliberate gap, that was later in-filled with rubble and earth in a crude wall-like blocking. The wall was well above ground level at this point so it seems an unlikely spot for a second entrance so this feature remains a bit of an enigma to be further investigated.

This same broad wall was further investigated to the west of the cross-wall with the archway and found to be constructed of at least two walls that joined in an unusual overlap. Again confirming the complexity of the outworks and their numerous build phases. The foundations showed it to be a very substantial structure and a discontinuity in its exposed internal face associated with a rubble spread within hinted at the presence of a feature now lost.

Can we fit some of our new discoveries into the historical records?

As the medieval tower that formed the core of the structure had been named after a well it is possible that it had been constructed deliberately to control access to this important resource as well as to dominate the small harbour present beyond the outworks to the west. The tower was already old enough to be in need of repair in 1249-50, which suggests it had stood for some time. We think it is not unreasonable to put its construction back to the 12th century. This entry in the records (The History of the Kings Works, 1976) also describes works and repairs to the adjoining barbican before St Oswald’s Gate. It is possible that the broad wall with its postern gate leading out towards the village could be the result of this building work. Its form and style are at least consistent with work of this age.

If the stone tower did originate in the 12th century then we really would have expected it to be square or rectangular and not the odd non-parallel sided structure that is currently emerging as we empty the rubble from within it. At least its relatively small size is consistent with such an early date and is close to that of the two 12th century towers on the north wall of the Inner Ward and single, probably 12th century, tower on the south wall of the Inner Ward. All around 5m externally on their longest sides and with narrow loops for windows within the wall. There is also the issue of the name of the Well. Elmund may be a variation of Ealhmund an Old English name, which suggests that the well predates the conquest. It may be asking a lot of the investigation to find evidence of structures predating even the 12th century but we can hope.

There is a good deal of work still to be done it seems as the outworks have proved to be a complex subject whose building sequence is only just beginning to be understood. We are also excited to find what traces remain of the well itself and that is before we consider what might be found within it.

Join us this September!

If you are intrigued by any of these discoveries and would like to learn more in a hands on experience, we are running a post-excavation taster week open to all who want to learn a bit more about how archaeology uncovers evidence of the past. Info can be found here.

Back in Action for 2022!

Welcome back for the 2022 season!

Seven people sitting around a table with wash basins outside the windmill overlooking the West Ward of Bamburgh Caslte with the grey masonry and pink sandstone of the castle apartment tower in the background.

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:

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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.

Foreground : dune grase, centrer: masonry sunken into the ground in a reversed squared C-shape; background: ivy-covered wooden fence with the dunes and North Sea in the very distance.
Trench 5b footprint of the tower just a little worse for wear.

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.

Green plant -covered masonry with stone steps and a stone arch looking up towards a sail-less windmill, with a partly cloudy sky behind.
Looking up towards the castle from Trench 5B; note the multi-coloured masonry around the arch.

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.

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: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/bamburgh-bones-conference-tickets-327968772427?aff=estw&utm-campaign=social&utm-content=attendeeshare&utm-medium=discovery&utm-source=tw&utm-term=checkoutwidget%20@Eventbrite

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!

End of Season Director’s Round-up: Part 2

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.

The area of investigation for 2021 (contours are labeled in metres to show the slope)

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.

Before and after the steps cleaning

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.

The revetting wall that is just a stone wall face that holds back the slope

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.

The trench in Area A showing a distinct lack of a wall foundation – at least so far

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.

The steps down into the structure from the botom of the current path

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 1803 plan showing the structure and well (north not to the top of the photo)

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.

A few dolerite blocks smeared with mortar may show an blocked entrance through the wall

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!

The well-room excavation at the end of the season – quite a bit deeper to go we think
The entrance to the cottage at the end of the season

Elmund’s Tower and the cottage seems to survive!

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.

The standing outworks and the area of the tower we will be investigating in the next few weeks.

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?

The postern gate with modern steps passing through it

UPDATED: Staff positions available for our September excavation

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.

If you would like further information or would like to send your applications please email a CV to: graemeyoung@bamburghresearchproject.co.uk

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!