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.

Section

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.

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.

Looking back at this year’s work in Trench 3

Trench 3 has set us some real puzzles in recent years and made it hard to be certain we were excavating in a single phase. In simple terms this means that we wanted to be confident that the surface of the site we had exposed represented a single period in time. We made excellent progress with this once we had uncovered a 9th century AD metalworking area complete with a smithy and linked it to a contemporary timber building to its immediate north. Last year and this year to we have been excavating down to the surface beneath the two buildings and back in time to the beginning of the 9th century, even into the 8th century.

At the end of last year we uncovered a pebble surface in the central and eastern part of the trench and we continued to reveal this during this year. Finding an intrusive later medieval pit in the process. This summer we removed an enigmatic wall, thought to be some kind of revetting structure, probably associated with the smithy. Stripping this away has really brought home to us just how close we are to reaching the base of Brian Hope-Taylor’s 1970’s excavation north of the old sewer pipe, long since removed, that divided his dig into two halves. We are now only centimetres from being level with him and have high hopes of joining the two digs together next year. It will take a while longer to reach the same levels he reached to the south of the sewer pipe as he dug deeper there reaching the 7th century or earlier.

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Removing the crude stone wall

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The (small) pebble surface fully exposed on the western side of Trench 3

One of the more fascinating investigations this season was the cleaning and straightening of the section that formed the north side of this deeper Hope-Taylor excavation. We did this to better understand the way the layers were behaving. We strongly suspected that they sloped gently down to the south and west – and indeed the section revealed they did. Important for us to know if we were not to get confused as we dig deeper.

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The straightened Hope-Taylor section ready for recording. His deeper excavation on the left side of the photograph still mostly covered in tarps and soil.

The west end of this section revealed stone structures and colourful stratigraphy, almost certainly industrial waste associated with earlier metalworking. This was beneath a stone linear that Hope-Taylor called his lower pavement that extends along the western limit of his excavation. We are unsure what this represents. It may be a foundation for a timber building, if so a large one, or a path inside the western defensive wall line to the ward. Something to investigate next year.

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The ‘lower pavement’ beneath the right end of the ranging rod with the industrial layers beneath.

We decided to dig a narrow sondage (a sounding trench) continuing this section into our excavation area in order to investigate what the next horizon down looks like. This revealed a well constructed surface composed of quite substantial pebbles. It looks like a yard surface or a floor surface within a structure and may be related to the pebble surface to the north, though clearly they are not the same feature as the northern surface is constructed of much smaller pebbles. Whatever it turns out to be we can’t wait to explore it further.

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The trench close to the end of the season. The sondage has been extended to the east section and the (large) pebble surface is visible even from this distance.

 

Bamburgh Castle, Trench 3 – Hope Taylor nearly in reach!

As the level of Brian Hope Taylor’s 1974 excavations gets tantalisingly close, Trench 3 staff continue the process of gradually joining our excavations to his.

 

 

This is achieved through the removal of features and contexts which are stratigraphically higher in sequence including a stone wall (possibly 9th Century) last week, underneath which a number of finds were discovered. Our progress is described in the video below.

 

 

Bamburgh Castle, Trench Three – Week 2

Week two was in stark contrast to the week before in terms of weather. Where previously we had beautiful sun, week two featured persistent cloud, broken by drizzle and rain. However, contrary to what you might, think it’s been great weather for doing archaeology! The weather has allowed us to identify context boundaries features in trench 3 which were not previously visible.

 

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Graham and Izzy (Trench 3 Supervisor and Assistant Supervisor) taking advantage of the rain to study exposed contexts.

 

Work has started on re-excavating Brian Hope Taylor’s Trench 1. This excavation lies partially underneath our access ramp. This was done to see if there was evidence of a pebble surface which appears elsewhere on site. No pebbles were seen, however in their place the section revealed a medieval pit which had previously been obscured. It turns out that both Brian Hope Taylor and excavations in 2009 had missed this feature, and it only came to light this year. A reminder of how changeable the soil can be across different conditions!

 

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The section showing the medieval pit, the edge is marked by the stone inclusions.

 

Over in the north-west area of the trench work has continued on the stone feature laying on a burnt deposit just on the bedrock. This has now been half-sectioned and revealed a further sandy band directly underneath the stones. Our initial interpretation of this is that it may be a supporting post pad for a structural timber, sat on top of a consolidating layer.

 

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Half-sectioned stone feature.

 

This week has also seen us finish the high medieval pit in the north-east area of Trench 3. This feature was spotted at the end of last year, and appears to have been cut from higher up in the stratigraphic sequence. Previously found in the pit was High Medieval green-glazed pottery. While completing the pit this year, and interesting lead object was discovered. Ideas about its use are varied. While it looks somewhat like a pendant with its curled loops, this piece may also be a medieval treasury tag, or a rough out for casting. Investigation and research of the artefact will continue this week.

 

 

 

 

New article on our excavations at Bamburgh Castle

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The windmill office in the West Ward, between our two excavation trenches

Archaeology, the magazine of the Archaeological Institute of American has published an article on our excavation work at Bamburgh Castle. It is available online here:

Stronghold of the Kings of the North

 

Fire of the North’ 2014 Cuthbert – Northumbria’s First Nature Warden

We have been sent some information about an events programme that may well interest the readers of our blog.. Details below:

A unique venture bringing together three iconic National Nature Reserves and three major national organisations – Lindisfarne NNR (Natural England), Farne Islands NNR (National Trust), and St Abb’s Head NNR (National Trust for Scotland) – around the figure of Cuthbert, the ‘Fire of the North’, and evoking a time when the ancient kingdom of Northumbria straddled what is now England and Scotland.

On the evening of 4 September this year beacons/fires will be lit on the Inner Farne AND St Abb’s Head to celebrate the ‘Fire of the North’s links with the wider region and its nationally/internationally important nature reserves. There is also a programme of linked walks/talks at each National Nature Reserve leading up to the 4 September event.

PROGRAMME OF EVENTS

Mon 25 August (St Aebbe’s Day)
St Abb’s Head NNR – Liza Cole and John Woodhurst
Liza, the National Trust for Scotland’s Senior Ranger at St Abb’s Head NNR will talk about the Reserve, whilst local historian John will explore Cuthbert’s links to St Abbs, stressing the importance he gave to nature and the animal kingdom.
Meet at St Abb’s Head Nature Centre (Grid Ref NT 913674) at 1pm to walk to Kirk Hill, the site of St Aebbe’s Anglo-Saxon monastery.

Thurs 28 August
Inner Farne NNR – National Trust Rangers and John Woodhurst
John will meet the 11, 12, 1 and 2 o’clock sailings from Seahouses to the Inner Farne, and in a short walk/talk offer the opportunity to find out more about Cuthbert’s links to the Farnes, referencing the archaeology with sites extant today, and stressing Cuthbert’s self-sufficient lifestyle as a hermit. NT Rangers will also be on hand to talk about the wildlife of the Inner Farne.

Standard boat booking from Seahouses to Inner Farne (NT landing fees apply to non members – see NT website for details), and meet John and NT Ranger on landing.

Sun 31 August (St Aidan’s Day)
Lindisfarne NNR – Laura Scott and John Woodhurst
Reserve Warden Laura will talk about Lindisfarne NNR, and John will do his regular walk/talk, ‘Cuthbert – Lindisfarne’s First Nature Warden?’.

Meet at Window on Wild Lindisfarne building (Grid Ref NU129419) at 12.30 pm to walk around the Harbour, along the Heugh, across to St Cuthbert’s Island, and back via the ‘Sacred Corridor’ to St Mary’s Church.

Thurs 4 Sept at Dusk ca.8.30-9.00pm (St Cuthbert’s Day)
‘FIRE OF THE NORTH’
Beacons/Fires to be lit on Inner Farne and St Abb’s Head
NT Rangers will repeat the beacon/fire from last year near the lighthouse on Inner Farne.
St Abb’s Head beacon/fire will be on a hill close to St Abb’s Head lighthouse, with a linked walk from Kirk Hill to the site led by Daniel Rhodes, National Trust for Scotland Archaeologist (meet foot of Kirk Hill – Grid Ref NT914687 at 7.30). John will lead a group from the Window on Wild Lindisfarne building (meet 7.30) to the Watchtower on the Heugh to view, weather permitting, both beacons/fires. Along the way he will give a shortened version of his ‘First Nature Warden’ talk.

ALL WALKS/TALKS ARE FREE.
FOR MORE INFORMATION PHONE OR EMAIL:
Lindisfarne – 01289 381470 or laura.scott@naturalengland.org.uk.
Inner Farne – 01665 576874 or Rebecca.Hetherington@nationaltrust.org.uk.
St Abb’s Head – 01890 771443 or lcole@nts.org.uk.

Please wear suitable footwear and be prepared for all weather. Bring a drink/snack. Children must be accompanied by an adult.

Quiet Saturday

Its a quiet Saturday in the castle. The new features exposed in Trench 3 are being planned, and with a little time to spare the author is working on the Trench 3 matrix. This brings to mind the fact that we have a stratigraphic puzzle to solve regarding the new stone structure and its relationship to the newly traced timber hall. Which came first? A look through what we have of Brian Hope-Taylor’s photographs has not helped. There is no sign of such a stone structure, nor of the construction cut for the timber building. Yet one certainly, and the other probably, passed through the northern part of his main excavation. This may well reflect on the partial survival of his archive, as it is unlikely he missed them. It seems it will be down to us to resolve this within our own excavation area. Watch this space next week.

The stone feature, beyond the T-shaped ranging poles, and the construction trench, barely visible foreground, must have crossed within Hope-taylor's trench.

The stone feature, beyond the T-shaped ranging poles, and the construction trench, barely visible foreground, must have crossed within Hope-Taylor’s trench.

TAG 2012: BRP Media

Just before Christmas, Liverpool University hosted the annual TAG conference, one of the premium venues for theoretical archaeology and new innovative methodologies. This year one of the sessions focused on ‘Archaeology and the Media’. As many of you will know the BRP has been using video recording for many years, spearheaded by Gerry Twomey. It seemed only right that the BRP should be represented.

Gerry starting his first paper in the Archaeology and the Media session at TAG 2012

Gerry starting his first paper in the Archaeology and the Media session at TAG 2012

Gerry gave two papers, the first of which explored the methodology implemented at Bamburgh, plus the problems encountered and solved along the way. The second part looked at clips from the BRP feature-long documentary exploring the early years of the BRP and the impact Dr Brian Hope-Taylor has had on the project. Both papers were presented to others working on similar projects or those hoping to develop a media aspect alongside archaeological investigations. The session was also streamed live to over 600 people.