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 BRP on the One Show

Last night members of the BRP appeared on the BBC’s One Show. The segment explored the early medieval diet of Bamburghs inhabitants. It looked at the skeletal remains from the Bowl Hole Cemetery, the animal bone, shell and seed evidence from the West Ward and finally, a medieval feast using some of the food stuffs evidenced in the castles archaeological record.

If you would like to watch the segment UK viewers can catch it on the BBC I player.

On a different note, the BRP is having their annual winter lecture on Friday at the pavillion in the village. Please feel free to attend.

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.

The Bowl Hole: Part Three

Scientific Research at the Bowl Hole Cemetery.

Once the skeletons have been recorded, removed and cleaned they are then ready for the post-excavation process. This work has been carried out by Dr. Sarah Groves and her colleagues at the University of Durham.

Dr. Groves first came to work at Bamburgh as a student and now her on-going research is shedding light on the individuals buried just outside the castle walls. For an in-depth discussion of Dr. Groves’ work please follow the link http://www.dur.ac.uk/archaeology/research/projects/?mode=project&id=278

To begin with, each skeleton undergoes rigorous examination to determine sex, age, height etc. plus any evidence of disease and trauma.

A skeleton laid out in its anatomical position.
Skeleton’s laid out for examination.

The skeletal analysis has suggested that most of the adults are tall, robust individuals with little sign of malnourishment or disease. This has lead Dr. Groves to suggest that these individuals were of a high status background and therefore, likely to be some of the elite residents of Bamburgh Castle.

Some individuals have more to say than others. For example, one male has evidence of extensive trauma to the side of his body caused by a slashing implement, such as a sword. The trauma inflicted on the body would likely have ended this individual’s life.

Further scientific analysis has been undertaken by Dr. Sarah Groves to determine the movements and diets of the inhabitants of the cemetery. Isotopic analysis of traces of strontium and oxygen taken from tooth enamel (tooth enamel is used because it does not degrade in the ground or reproduce during life) has a specific signature which can be compared with known levels across the world.

Skull with surviving teeth, which can be used for isotopic analysis 

The results of isotopic analysis can, therefore, tell us where people lived during their childhood. For example, skeletons excavated during the 1999 season were subject to isotopic analysis. The results indicated that none of the individuals came from the Bamburgh area, instead their results suggest that they were from the wider Bernician community.

Dr. Sarah Groves taking samples for isotopic and DNA analysis.

Isotopic analysis has also been undertaken to determine diet, using carbon and nitrogen isotopes. Furthermore, a DNA feasibility test has also been undertaken, as DNA can help us sex skeletons and recognise family groups. The findings of this project are currently been turned into a monograph publication, plus there are also a number of published and forthcoming articles.


Groves, S.E. (2010) Feasting or Fasting? Diet and Health in Early Medieval Northumbria. 5000 Years of Death and Disease. Festival of British Archaeology Day School, Durham.

Groves, S.E. (2010) The Bowl Hole Cemetery, Bamburgh: Life and Death in Early Medieval Northumberland. Teesside Archaeological Society, Stockton.

Roberts, C.A. (2009) Where did people buried in the Bowl-Hole, Bamburgh originate? Some answers and a general overview of developments in recognizing migrations in bioarchaeologyNewcastle Antiquaries, Newcastle

Groves, S.E. 2007-8 Bodies in the Bowl Hole – Life and Death in Anglo-Saxon Bamburgh. Paper presented at the Tees Archaeology Day School “Angles on the Saxons, Stockton, November 2007, and for the Newcastle Historical Studies Society, February 2008

Groves, S.E. (2007) Human remains from the Bowl Hole Anglo-Saxon cemetery, Bamburgh. Public lecture given to the Northumberland Archaeological Group


Groves, S.E., Wod, P. and Young, G. (2009) The Bowl Hole Early Medieval Cemetery at Bamburgh, Excavations 1998 to 1999. Archaeologica Aeliana 38: 105–22

Groves, S.E. (2010) The Bowl Hole Burial Ground; A Late Anglian cemetery in Northumberland. In J. Buckberry and A. Cherryson (eds): Burial in Later Anglo-Saxon England, c.650 to 1100AD. 114 – 125. Oxbow Books

Groves, S.E. (in Press) Social and Biological Status in the Bowl Hole Early Medieval burial ground, Bamburgh, Northumberland. In Petts, D and Williams, H. (eds) Early Medieval Northumbria. Brepols

Further links

As part of the project, geophysical survey of the area was also undertaken, suggesting the presence of several anomalies which could be graves and associated features. To read the report follow the link.


The Bowl Hole Cemetery: Part Two

Today we continue the blog thread: The Bowl Hole Cemetery. This post does contain images of human remains.

What we found.

From 1998 to 2007 the Bamburgh Research Project excavated over 100 skeletons from the Bowl Hole Cemetery. These include remains of men, women, adolescents and infants.

Students excavating grave cuts within the burial ground. Note the different alignments.

The remains were found in a variety of positions, including crouched and supine (on the back).

Crouched burial under excavation
Supine burial under excavation.

We also have different alignments and even some cist burials (a cist is a burial that uses stones to line the grave edge). This type of variety is very common in earlier Anglo-Saxon burial grounds.

First cist burial found at the Bowl Hole

Amongst the burials we have also found associated features, such as linear ditches packed with crushed shell. The exact function of these features is not entirely clear but they are not unexpected, as it is quite common to find evidence of mortuary activity such as post holes, areas of burning and mortuary monuments, such as mounds. Furthermore, we have had limited finds from the actual graves themselves including knives and buckles, plus a few animal bones around the heads. We have also had a number of finds from outside the graves, including this amazing bone comb.

Anglo-Saxon bone comb

The lack of grave goods and the composition of the burials indicate that this site is what is known as a ‘final phase’ burial ground. This refers to the intermediary phase between pagan and Christian burial practices around the 7-8th century AD.

Once the skeletons have been carefully excavated they are recorded. This process is very similar to excavating other archaeological features. We fill out a skeleton sheet which records things like alignment, size of the grave cut, associated finds and which bones are present. We draw the grave cut and skeleton in-situ, take photographs and survey the grave using the level and/or total station.

Grave cuts being photographed by one of the former directors, Phil Wood.
Example of photographic recording.

Part of the planned cemetery

Once we have completed the recording process the skeleton is carefully lifted from the grave. The human remains are then cleaned ready for scientific analysis.

Students cleaning the remains from the bowl hole.

Follow the link for a short film about the Bowl Hole excavation http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JEQNC8uLAQY

In the next post I will discuss what the scientific analysis has told us about the people who were buried here some 1400 years ago. I will also introduce you to an old BRP student, Dr. Sarah Groves, and her on-going research.

The Bowl Hole Cemetery

Over the next few months I will be posting information about previous trenches and sites that the BRP have explored since the projects inception in 1996. I begin this exploration with the Bowl Hole Cemetery, which does contain some images of human remains.

In the beginning……

One of the initial aims of the Bamburgh Research Project was to re-discover an ancient burial ground that had once been exposed during storms and which was believed to dwell in the sand dunes around Bamburgh Castle. Thankfully the location was noted on the 1890 ordnance survey map marked as the ‘Old Danish Burying Ground’.

Ordnance Survey Map 1890. Edina Digimap (2010)

The BRP took this information and began test-pitting to the south of the castle.

Test-pitting at the Bowl Hole
Extended test-pit with exposed human remains and grave cuts

These initial trenches exposed human remains and so began an extensive excavation of the burial ground.

Opening up the Bowl Hole for open area excavation

In the next post I will discuss what we found over nine years of excavation, including on-going research by the University of Durham.

BRP Features in BBC’s Digging for Britain

The BBC’s Digging for Britain programme team and film crew joined the BRP in Week 2 of the 2010 season, filming with us and with Dr. Sarah Groves of Durham University for the four-part documentary series that’s been exploring and reporting on some of most important digs in the UK this summer. The BRP featured in tonight’s episode and we’d love to know what you made of us! If you didn’t catch it this evening or would like to watch the programme again, you can see it or download it on iPlayer for the next few weeks.

We had a really busy summer with UK media. The BBC’s Countryfile team featured us in an episode that investigated the Northumberland landscape, and Channel 4’s Time Team filmed a programme with us later in the season. This will air sometime in the Spring of 2011 – watch this space for further details in the New Year.

In the mean time, if you’re interested in learning more about the items featured in Digging for Britain visit our main website. You can also find out more about Dr. Groves’ work in the Bowl Hole Cemetery, as well as further links to publications and details of forthcoming books at the Durham University website.

If you have any questions about the programme or about the work of the BRP more generally please do get in touch – we’re very happy to help with any enquiries you may have. You can drop us a comment below, get in touch by e-mail or via our Twitter pages: @brparchaeology and @PostXbrp.