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.

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:

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!

Way Back Wednesday: Week 6

Today’s artefact from the archives was set aside for one of the project’s very dear friends to take a look at, and his conclusion was a possible bombshell. Zooarchaeology is one of the strengths of our staff this season, but there’s always more to learn, so we invited David Constantine, zooarchaeologist and specialist in bone-working, to look over some of our more curious cases. There was a small unassuming bit of cow rib with linear incisions on it, but it didn’t quite look like butchering or de-fleshing, and it came out of a high medieval (11th-13th centuries…ish) layer. We played around with the lighting, as changing the angle of the light source can help both etching and carvings in relief stand out a bit better. And suddenly, these lines started to look a little bit more purposeful. Are they tally marks? Or something else?

After much back and forth, we may…just maybe…have some runes on this little bit of bone! Runes used in Germanic languages tend to be very linear, making them more easily carved on stone, bone, and wood. The question then becomes, whose runes? The likely answer is the runic system used for Anglo-Saxon writing known as the “futhorc” or “fuþorc.” (Click here and scroll down to the fifth paragraph for a reminder on how to pronounce that weird-looking letter!) This rune system is intrinsically tied the runic system of the Viking Age as both are descended from an earlier corpus known as the Elder Futhark (roughly beginning in the 2nd century). The futhorc is used in Frisia, one of the Anglo-Saxon homelands, and makes its way to Britain during the 5th-7th centuries; its displacement begins due to the rise of the Roman alphabet employed by the arriving Christian missionaries. Anglo-Saxon runic inscriptions, however, are still used into the 12th century! There are only about 200 surviving futhorc inscriptions, so if these are proper runes we’ve got something pretty cool in our archive.

Did you notice how “futhorc” and “futhark” sound similar? Both words are literally just an elision of the first few sounds of the rune alphabet. By the way, the word “alphabet” is just the smushing of “alpha” and “beta” from the first two letters of the Greek writing system (itself descended from the Phoenicians) that heavily influenced the Roman alphabet allowing you to read this very blog post.

Carved bits and bobs have been found in northern European contexts of both the futhorc and Viking Age Younger Futhark (9th-12th centuries) on small portable items like bits of wood and bone known as runesticks, but also on large carved runestones. The well-known (and beloved here at the project) Franks Casket contains numerous runic inscriptions carved into whale bone panels and likely originated here in Northumbria in the 8th century.

Whale ivory box with low-relief carvings of various well-known tales and Anglo-Saxon runes.

The 8th-century Franks Casket depicts a variety of scenes from the biblical to the folkloric. Photo courtesy of the British Museum.

Runes were clearly a major part of early Germanic writing culture, and they feature prominently in several of the Exeter Book riddles, as well as a poem known as the “Old English Rune Poem” whose original has since been lost but describes 29 Anglo-Saxon runes. The runic alphabets employed from the 2nd century get revamped over the years and become associated with magic and mystery. Authors like Tolkein and the creators of other intricate fantasy universes have seized on this popular image of runes, and it doesn’t seem they are disappearing any time soon from our collective consciousness.

Chart of Anglo-Saxon runes, transliteration, and phonetic value.

Rune chart from user aldomann on Deviantart.

The chart above shows the rune, transliteration (meaning the letter image for the sound we would write it as in modern English), and International Phonetic Alphabet phonetic sound. The IPA uses symbols to represent the different sounds humans have the ability to articulate, so you can match the symbol in the right columns to this interactive chart here so you can hear the sounds they each represent.

St. Aidan’s Miracles at Bamburgh

We have written before about bishop-turned-saint Aidan’s famous interaction with king-turned-saint Oswald previously, but we’d like to share a little bit more about Aidan because he features so prominently in the history of Northumbria, and especially our little corner of it.

Aidan was an Irish monk educated on Iona in the traditions of Celtic Christianity that had taken root in Ireland. He was actually the second missionary sent to Northumbria at King Oswald’s request, as the first was deemed too strict toward his congregation. Oswald tasked him with returning the Northumbrians to Christianity, after a period where many had turned back to paganism. He founded the monastery on Lindisfarne, but frequently walked the kingdom preaching to regular folk and engaging in acts of charity. We have a nice account of his life as bishop from the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History, who lavishes him with praise and yet can’t seem to let go that Aidan calculated Easter the Celtic—and therefore “wrong”—way. Truly Bede brings it up multiple times as this embarrassing con of an otherwise perfectly Christian life. Many miracles are associated with him, but there are two especially dramatic ones that took place right here in Bamburgh.

st aidans

The first miracle involved the pagan Mercian king, Penda, who marched on Bamburgh in the mid-7th century. On the road to the city, he dismantled villages and appropriated their timber as kindling. His troops piled the wood around the walls of the city and castle, lighting them and stoking them until the smoke rose high into the sky. From one of the Farne Islands where he lived as a hermit late in life, Aidan saw the unfurling smoke and feverishly prayed. The winds suddenly changed, blowing the embers back onto Penda’s army. They fled, fearing what seemed to be the power of the Christian god that stopped their attempt to subdue Northumbria.

The second miracle involves the small church now known as St. Aidan’s down in the village. The structure now is Norman, but it stands where the Anglo-Saxon church would have stood. Aidan was staying in a tent beside an outside wall beam of the church, and when he fell ill and died, his body was found leaning against it. The church since that time in 651AD has been razed by multiple fires, but each time the flames do not affect the beam. The church that stands today has what might be the miraculous beam, as well as a small, unobtrusive shrine dedicated to the Irish monk.

These miracles both involve fire, a fairly common fear in any society with many timber-built structures, but makes for an interesting coincidence for a man whose name means “little fire” in Irish.

Riddled with Riddles

Another off-day, and that means another foray into Old English. We have written before about how much Anglo-Saxon writers and speakers loved to employ riddles, but we only focused on the kennings, or mini-riddles you need to quickly solve to understand much of their prose and poetry. Today, we have our favorite riddle for you to solve. Better yet, this riddle has a very close tie to Northumbria, where we are based. We’ll post the scholarly-accepted answer at the end of our Sunday post, but don’t be afraid to think outside the box! Give us your best guesses in the comments below, or on our Facebook or Twitter link to this post.

exeter book

The Exeter Book, 10th C home to over 90 riddles in Old English, MS 3501, Exeter Cathedral Library.

The following riddle has an interesting history, as it appears to be an Old English translation of an Old English translation of one of Aldhelm’s “enigmata.” The “enigmata” are Latin riddles the Wessex-born scholar, abbot, bishop, and poet produced in the late 7th-early 8th centuries. This riddle is known simply as the Lorica in its Latin form, which is also the solution. (Resist the urge to google translate, or, if you translated that in your head, whoops, we spoiled it.) The initial translation into Old English is known as the Leiden Riddle; it is paired with its Latin version in a manuscript presently held in Leiden, Netherlands. The Leiden manuscript uses the older Northumbrian dialect of Old English, as opposed to the later-period West Saxon that is often taught as the standard of Old English. The riddle appears again in the Exeter Book, a late 10th-century compendium of Anglo-Saxon poetry written by one scribe, this time in something close to the West Saxon you’d learn in your regular Old English survey course. In the Exeter compilation, the riddle is number 35 of just under 100 riddles; some of the riddles are about daily life, some about precious objects, and some are just QUITE cheeky.

The Latin and Northumbrian verses are mostly preserved in the West Saxon-ish version, save for the very last hint to the riddle’s answer: both Aldhelm and the Northumbrian translator conclude with a declaration that the object in question fears no arrows sent from their quivers.

Let’s take a look at the Northumbrian version, the Leiden Riddle. Rule number 1, DON’T PANIC. It looks weird if you’ve only seen West Saxon, that is okay; it looks extra bad if you’ve never seen any Old English, and that is also okay. Just scroll away and scream into the void for a minute, and hopefully it will pass.

1              Mec se uēta uong, uundrum frēorig,

ob his innaðae aerest cændæ.

Ni uaat ic mec biuorthæ uullan fliusum,

hērum ðerh hēhcraeft, hygiðonc….

5              Uundnae mē ni bīað ueflæ, ni ic uarp hafæ,

ni ðerih ðreatun giðraec ðrēt mē hlimmith,

ne mē hrūtendu hrīsil scelfath,

ni mec ōuana aam sceal cnyssa.

Uyrmas mec ni āuēfun uyrdi craeftum,

10           ðā ði geolu gōdueb geatum fraetuath.

Uil mec huethrae suae ðēh uīdæ ofaer eorðu

hātan mith hæliðum hyhtlic giuǣde;

ni anoegun ic mē aerigfaerae egsan brōgum,

ðēh ði n… …n sīæ nīudlicae ob cocrum.

MS Leiden, Vossius Lat. 4° 106, 25v, Bibliotheek der Rijksuniversiteit

Transcription from M. B. Parkes, ‘The Manuscript of the Leiden Riddle’, Anglo-Saxon England, 1 (1972), p. 208.


Now here’s the West Saxon version:

1              Mec se wǣta wong, wundrum frēorig,

of his innaþe ǣrist cende.

Ne wāt ic mec beworhtne wulle flȳsum,

hǣrum þurh hēahcræft, hygeþoncum mīn.

5              Wundene mē ne bēoð wefle, ne ic wearp hafu,

ne þurh þreata geþræcu þrǣd mē ne hlimmeð,

ne æt mē hrūtende hrīsil scrīþeð,

ne mec ōhwonan sceal ām cnyssan.

Wyrmas mec ne āwǣfan wyrda cræftum,

10           þā þe geolo gōdwebb geatwum frætwað.

Wile mec mon hwæþre seþēah wīde ofer eorþan

hātan for hæleþum hyhtlic gewǣde.

Saga sōðcwidum, searoþoncum glēaw,

wordum wīsfæst, hwæt þis gewǣde sȳ

MS 3501 (“Exeter Dean and Chapter Manuscript 3501”), Exeter Cathedral Library

Transcription from C. Williamson (ed.), The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill, 1977), pp. 88-89.


Many differences are immediately obvious in the texts. For example, “u” in Leiden is “w” in the Exeter Book, “ð” (a voiced version of “th” like in the word “then”) is “þ” (the voiceless th-sound in the word “thorn”) respectively, and many of the vowels are shifted; these represent temporal and dialectal changes from the Northumbrian used in the Leiden manuscript versus the West Saxon Exeter Book version. But you don’t even need to know what the words mean to notice things like repetition and alliteration.

Repetition is exactly was it sounds like: a word or phrase is repeated for emphasis or clarification, and in this case it’s anaphora, where a word is repeated at the beginning of a clause: “ni” in the Leiden manuscript, “ne” in the Exeter Book.

Alliteration is the repetition of a sound at the beginning of words throughout a clause. See line 6 in both versions. Both lines repeat the “thr” consonant cluster, but Leiden uses the voiced version, ð, while Exeter uses the voiceless version, þ. Voicing has to do with how you articulate a sound, so say “then” and “thorn” again aloud, with your fingers on your voice-box. You can do this with other related sounds like “b” and “p.” Alliteration is a type of consonance, which itself is when a consonant sound is repeated throughout a clause.

Finally let’s look at the riddle in modern English:

1              The dank earth, wondrously cold,

first delivered me from her womb.

I know in my mind I wasn’t made

from wool, skillfully fashioned with skeins.

5              Neither warp nor weft wing about me,

no thread thrums for me in the thrashing loom,

nor does a shuttle rattle for me,

nor does the weaver’s rod bang and beat me.

Silkworms didn’t spin with their strange craft for me,

10           those creatures that embroider cloth of gold.

Yet men will affirm all over this earth

that I’m an excellent garment.

O wise man, weigh your words

well, and say what this object is.

K. Crossley-Holland (trans.), The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology. (Oxford, 1999), pp.242-243


This riddle in translation has so many lovely poetic touches, so we do want to acknowledge the incredible skill of the translator of here, Crossley-Holland. The first thing we encounter is how some of the lines run into the next line, which is enjambment. There is repetition of the negatives, giving us this heartbeat of a rhythm of the common thing the solution is definitely not (a textile), just like the two Old English versions. The alliteration in lines 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, and 13 leaps off your lips when you read aloud, and oops we just did it right there. Line 6 contains onomatopoeia: the word “thrums” exists because it is a sound the author is trying to describe. The consonance turns line 7 into its own bit of onomatopoeia as well, like rickety taps of the loom’s movable parts criss-crossing an unfinished cloth.

If it wasn’t already clear, we adore this riddle in every form! One hint we have for you is that this garment would have been worn at Bamburgh. Do you think you’ve solved it? Comment below or on our Facebook or Twitter link to this post.

Fresh from the Trench: Week 1

Our first few finds have turned up, via some diligent and patient excavation to work through the tamped-down surface our trench. Even though we cover the site, the surface of the soil still forms a crust that we remove with our trowels, and we call this “cleaning.” We only take the thinnest of layers off the surface just to help us find those subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, color, texture, and moisture-retention differences that allow us to see different areas we call “contexts.” Each context has a number and has been recorded carefully, but after some time away, archaeologists like to look at a fresh cleaned surfaced to re-calibrate their mental picture of the site.

Sitting pretty next to some flagstones in the southern area of the trench was this lovely little styca:

Small, pale green (copper alloy) coin on drying light brown soil.

A 9th-century copper alloy coin called a styca.

A “styca” is a copper alloy coin from the 9th century, and its name comes from the Old English “stycce” for “piece.” These coins were minted at York for Northumbrian kings and archbishops. They were roughly the same size as the earlier Anglo-Saxon silver pennies found further south, and initially did contain silver like the pennies known as “sceattas.” The coinage became debased, eventually having little to no silver at all. The copper alloys were particularly common beginning around 830AD, and the low value of the coin actually made it more regularly employed for daily exchanges. These coins fell out of use, however, before 880AD, partly due to the presence of Vikings in York, but there seems to have been a gradual decline in the coins and the rise of anonymous and badly struck ones. We have found many stycas onsite but that doesn’t make their discovery any less fun!

Launch of our 2019 Archaeology Field School


We are delighted to announce that booking details are now available for our 2019 field school season, which runs from June 16th – July 27th. The field school will operate out of Bamburgh Castle and we are offering two programmes:

Excavation and Post-Excavation or Post-Excavation only

You can book anywhere from one to six weeks. However, we recommend booking two weeks minimum for a well rounded experience. Our dates are listed below:

  • Week 1: June 16th- June 22nd
  • Week 2: June 23rd- June 29th
  • Week 3: June 30th- July 6th
  • Week 4: July 7th- July 13th
  • Week 5: July 14th- July 21st
  • Week 6: July 22nd- July 27th

Student spaces are limited, so we encourage you to book your place as soon as possible.

Tuition is £280 per week, which will cover all on-site excavation and post-excavation activities. You can learn more about what this covers by visiting our website.


Excavation of Trench 3 at 8th century levels

Accommodation must be booked separately. The staff are staying at Budle Bay Campsite and we very much encourage you to join us there for a more communal experience. Most who join the dig find making new friends and the social side of the excavation just as much fun as the dig itself.  Budle bay offers a variety of options from basic camping to booking your own Eco Hut. Options for space in the Bunkhouse that we are booking for staff are also available but do contact us to ensure that places are still available in it before booking with the campsite.

Note: There were a number of changes to the field school last year, such as our training schedule and when you are expected to arrive. Even if you have booked in years past we encourage you to read-through the updated website pages.

If you have any questions please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Archaeomagnetic Studies at the Bradford Kaims


Sam Harris, Doctoral Research Student – University of Bradford

Firstly, it is purely coincidental that I study in Bradford (West Yorkshire) and am coming to take samples at the Bradford Kaims. As an archaeomagnetist, and we are pretty few and far between, it is always amazing the variety of sites that you get to see and work on. Having parachuted into the Bradford Kaims trenches for the second time, this site is no exception in its wonder. Placed at the edge of a fen, the variety of soil and sediment types on site is impressive! This offers the perfect opportunity for archaeomagnetic studies.

For those that aren’t quite sure what this odd science (magic) is, you are welcome to peruse my website, which is listed at the end of this blog post, for some answers. Simply put, the Earth has a magnetic field which varies over space and time. A record of the past geomagnetic field can be found in the in situ remains of hearths, furnaces, or other anthropogenically fired features that we as archaeologist excavate on a regular basis. Archaeomagnetic studies seek to improve our knowledge of past geomagnetic field changes through the analysis of this material. Why though, I hear you ask…

This is because we can use the knowledge of geomagnetic fluctuations over time to conduct archaeomagnetic dating and gain an idea of the last time that some fired archaeological features were heated. Having a dating method which directly relates to an anthropogenic activity, rather than to the end of an organism’s carbon absorption for example, is a powerful tool for the archaeologist.

Archaeomagnetic dating was first attempted at the Bradford Kaims in 2011. While the study was successful and the date recovered for a fired hearth feature in Trench 6 (c.4350 cal.BC) was considered accurate given other artefactual dating evidence for the site, newly acquired radiocarbon dating evidence suggests that the calibration methods used for the archaeomagnetic dates produced erroneous results. This was due to the use of an experimental and alternative calibration model from outside the UK, as the current UK calibration model does not stretch back into the Bronze Age or before. This previous study, and others since, have identified the need for further work to be undertaken. This is where me and my PhD come in! My main aim is to improve our understanding of geomagnetic field change during prehistoric periods, but particularly the Neolithic.

At the Bradford Kaims this season, I sampled two features associated with the Bronze Age burnt mounds, both of them interpreted as fire pits containing fired stones, burnt sediments, ash, and charcoal. These features will provide good radiocarbon dating records, alongside the archaeomagnetic signatures for the fired subsoils within and below them.

Thanks to the Bamburgh Research Project’s excellent radiocarbon dating programme at the Bradford Kaims, the fired archaeological features that I can archaeomagnetically study will have independent dates associated with them. By building up a number of well-dated features in this way, a new calibration curve for the UK can be created, with the Bradford Kaims being a central case study in this process. Through the combined use of radiocarbon dating and archaeomagnetic dating on prehistoric sites like the Bradford Kaims, we can gain a more nuanced understanding of their chronologies.

Sam’s website can be viewed at;

Sam’s Twitter can be viewed at; @Archaeomagnetic

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.


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.


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.


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.