Progress with the Bamburgh Castle Trench 8 publication

We always have a quiet period on the blog following the excavation season but although work has slowed we are still busy. The current focus for the Bamburgh Castle excavation is on producing a publication centred on our re-evaluation of Brian Hope-Taylor’s first excavation in the West Ward of the castle that he undertook in 1960. The Bamburgh Research Project emptied the backfill and re-drew the sections in 2006, taking the opportunity to sample excavate two baulks of material that Hope-Taylor had left in place. We have been fortunate to receive some funding support from the Royal Archaeological Institute towards a good part of the specialist analysis costs and to fund some radiocarbon dates. More information about this can be read here on a previous blog post.

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Combining the H-T and BRP small find locations in QGIS using georeferenced to import Hope-Taylor’s section to our section drawing. Fun but not entirely straight forward.

We now have reports on the pottery and glass and reports on the flint and metalwork are close to completion. Graeme Young, one of the BRP Directors, is currently working on illustrations that compare the original Hope-Taylor records with our own. Not as easy a job as you would imagine as one set of records was compiled in feet and inches and the second, forty six years later, in metric. The two records also show the many changes in excavation techniques that have taken place as well. Given that the trench represented some 2000 years of occupation, and produced some amazing finds, it is definitely worth the effort.

Ashington Academy Challenge Week at Bamburgh Castle

Recently Brian Cosgrove and Catrina Clements of Ashington Academy brought three of their pupils, Liam Clark, Ethan Elliot and Ben Hardy up to Bamburgh Castle for Challenge Week. Although we had officially finished the dig the weekend before we were happy to host them and in fact left a little corner of the site open for them to work in.

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Ben Hardy, left and Ethan Elliot, right excvating our troublesome layer

We had a plan to investigate a small block of deposit that might provide clues to help us resolve a problem with Trench 8, our re-evaluation of Brian Hope-Taylor’s Trench 1 from 1960. The deposit was a small triangle of isolated stratigraphy between Trench 8 and Trench 3. it was the continuation into Trench 3 of a confusing layer that we identified when we re-evaluated the Hope-Taylor trench. This layer that produced a limited amount of glazed pottery, now seems to reach down well into the early medieval period (see the section below). It confused us at the time of the re-evaluation in 2006 and now we have excavated much deeper in Trench 3 we have more information and it appears to extend from the 12th to the 9th centuries. As such it spans far too large a period of time for a single phase of activity and must surely represent a series of layers that we are failing to differentiate between. Elswhere in Trench 3 we have clearly different events and structures from this 300 year period. That fact that it is up to 0.4m thick is a further clue that we are missing changes that are simply very hard to see.

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The digitised east facing section of Trench 8 as re-recorded in 2006. Layers 806 and 820 are part of a known series of deep midden deposits that date from the 13th centuy to the 15th century. Directly beneath is the probalematic layer, 825, that extends in section all the way to a series of layers and features that we can now date. Thin layers 828 and 863, along with the large post-hole 835 are all provisionally dated to the 9th century. The cobble feature 827 is likely to be even earlier and 8th century.

Excavation within Trench 3 has also revealed that the stratigraphic layers get deeper to the south and west and that near Trench 8 the accumulation of deposits over time was slower and shallower. As we are currently writing up Trench 8 for publication it would be very useful to be able to demonstrate if this deep deposit really did comprise more than one stratigraphic layer. So we decided that we would excavate a sample of the surviving deposit in three successive units, in a verticla sequence, separating the finds and taking a sub-samples for flotation from each. We hoped that we just might be able to see changes in the finds or identify material we could date from each unit, as a test of our idea.

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Liam Clark helping out with recording

Brian and Catrina and their small team helped to excavate the layer in its units, take the samples and for good measure we processed one on site with them as well. As normal we identified and collected the finds as we dug, sieved all the deposit through a 6mm grid and 3D located the one small find, a piece of lead. We were not able to differentiate layers in plan as we dug them any better than we were in the section. Animal bone was common throughout the three units, but the only pottery sherds came from the upper one. Interesting, but far too limited evidence to form any conclusions yet. We will further analyse the finds and samples over the next few weeks, but may need to date each unit through radiocarbon assay to stand a chance of coming up with solid proof.

The Trench 3 ‘doughnut’ has been lifted

An unusual worked stone that we have been referring to as the ‘doughnut’ has been a familiar feature in the southern part of Trench 3 for the last few seasons at Bamburgh Castle. It was first revealed in 2011, but it took two further seasons to lower the ground surface around it sufficiently for its unusual form to become apparent.

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The metalworking building roughly outlined by the stones used for its foundations with the top of the ‘doughnut’ just visible 1m outside the west wall, in the lower- left of the photo.

It lay immediately west of the metalworking building and is broadly contemporary with that structure, which would make it middle 9th century AD in date. The wear pattern on the side suggests that the top third of the stone was uncovered above the surface for sufficient time for it to wear and erode more than the base which appears to have been set into the ground. We believe therefore that it was inserted into a cut which we have struggled to see.  The presence of a small number of what are likely packing stones reinforces this interpretation.

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As removed sitting right side up. The unusual form and perforation is visible (scale 0.5m demarked with 10cm units).

The stone is difficult to interpret and has been suggested as a socket for a timber pivot, a socket for a standing cross, which would be exciting but sadly is rather unlikely give its circular shape. It could also to have been set as a soakaway, given that it is perforated all the way through. Now we have lifted it and examined it seems likely that it started life as a mortar as the upper part of the perforation is smooth and the lower crudely cut through. Our best guess is that it was a large mortar re-used as a pivot stone.

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In the side view the more eroded upper third of the stone is seen to the right (scale 0.5m)

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The base of the stone. It is just possible to see tha the last part of the perforations is quite crudely chiselled unlike the upper part which is finished or worn to be relatively smooth. Also just visible are a series of shallow dimples unevenly arranged around the hole (scale 0.5m).

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.

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.

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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.