Round-up: Week 6

Yesterday was our last day on site for the field school, but there will be some bits and bobs to take care of over the next few weeks for each of the departments as we approach the off-season. The off-season is the time we get some of our work published, send out artefacts for conservation, ship the environmental sample flots to the lab, apply for funding, and plan out next season!

We floated, sorted, and bagged numerous samples from this season and cleared up some of the backlog of older samples.

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The finds team led digitisation of our finds catalogues and the eventual physical removal of boxes from our old office in the Windmill, our temporary office in the castle apartments, and the long-term archive room under the staterooms. We’ll be storing most of our material securely off-site in the future!

In the trench, we excavated a pit abutting the Lower Pavement at the centre of the western side of the trench as well as the ash deposits to the northeast of the western latrine pit and to the north of the eastern latrine pit. We also invited a team of specialists to take some samples of the hearth to the south of the western latrine pit.

We also planned the entire trench the past two days to get a final picture of Trench 3 in all its messy glory.

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For all of us here at the BRP, we thank you for keeping up with us this summer! We hope to keep the blog posting occasionally in the off-season with interesting bits about next season. Please check back in the next few weeks for a closing word from Director Graeme Young, as well as a few thoughts for the next phase of the project.

 

1 Project, 6 Weeks, a Lifetime of Memories: Cassidy’s Takeaways

Today was our last day with the students, but before we post our round-up for tomorrow we wanted to share the story of one student who joined us for the ENTIRE season. Below is a great read from Cassidy Sept about her experience with us. Mucho thanks to Cassidy for taking the time to share this with us and for in general being A Very Good Egg.


It was 2016 and I was reading my new Archaeology magazine cover to cover (as 22-year-old archaeology nerds often do) when I came across an article titled “Stronghold of the Kings of the North.” This article described 20 years’ worth of archaeological excavation and research at Bamburgh Castle, a fortification located on “the windswept northeastern coast of England.” What I remember most of this article was the introduction of the late archaeologist Brian Hope-Taylor’s work at Bamburgh in the 1960-70s and the rediscovery of his field offices which had remained unopened for decades. It was through this article that I first learned about Bamburgh Castle and the Bamburgh Research Project (BRP). Little did I know how much BRP would come to mean to me in just 3 years’ time.

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I graduated this past year with my master’s in archaeology from the University of Edinburgh and I have participated in several diverse field schools, both in the UK and the US. I say this to provide context for what I write below regarding my views on the BRP field school experience. I was the only student “crazy” enough (the staffs’ words, not mine… though I don’t entirely disagree!) to sign up for the full six weeks of this year’s field school. I was eager to sign up for BRP’s field school ever since I read that article; however, the timing hadn’t worked in my favor until this summer and I wanted to make the most of the opportunity. I’m so glad I did as it has turned out to be one of the best times of my life thus far and my best archaeological experience to date.

Lauren, our public outreach officer, asked me in week two if I would write a summary blog of my time here at the end of week six. I readily agreed, thinking I would have plenty of time to gather my thoughts, organize them in a somewhat coherent manner, and write up something illuminating or at least informative. Well, those weeks flew by and my good intentions were otherwise directed to learning everything I could during the field school and to developing new friendships. So, I have instead decided to condense these rambling thoughts on the BRP 2019 student experience into 4 main points.

 

  1. Field schools are also about forming friendships. This field season saw 45 students pass through the trench. Each student brought something new and interesting to the group dynamic: ages ranged from 16 to 75; careers or degrees ranged from archaeology (no surprise) to nursing to engineering; archaeology experience ranged from none to some to returning BRP graduates; nationalities and socioeconomic levels also varied amongst the student pool… but two things brought us all together: archaeology and BRP 2019. As sappy or cliché as it sounds, life-long friendships were forged here, and memories were made to last us all a lifetime. Or at least until next year’s field season when we can make more friends and memories. In all honesty, archaeology field schools routinely bring together people of all walks of life, united by a common interest (or downright passion), and these friendships are just as rewarding as the practical skills gained by the training side of the field school.
Four adults crouch to lift small grey and blue cobbles and place them in yellow buckets.

Lifting some of the cobbled surface. (top left)

  1. It’s not just about the digging. As any archaeology student or hobbyist knows, this work goes beyond the excavations. Our discipline is inherently destructive and it’s the recording processes that ensure some relative permanence to what we uncover. Learning and reinforcing skills in photographing, planning, leveling, documenting, and digitizing all form the fundamental process to what we label “excavation.” BRP does a phenomenal job of introducing students to the entire process from start to finish. Not a day goes by that we don’t hear staff say “record, record, record”… and to paraphrase Tom Howe: digging slowly and recording is what separates us from the animals. Out of all the field schools I’ve been to, BRP teaches this the best.

 

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Cassidy (centre) working at the flotation tank.

  1. Post-excavation and “enviro” are EVERYTHING. This goes along with point 2, but it’s surprising how many affordable fields schools do not teach students the post-excavation and environmental sampling processes. Again, kudos to BRP for ensuring we all get a taste of these fundamental archaeological procedures. Being at the trench edge may be more exciting, but I’d argue that learning to catalogue, digitize, illustrate, organize, and preserve our artifacts is just as stimulating as it helps to establish their survival after the excavation process. Not to mention the ability to work with BRP’s archaeobotantist and learn to float soil samples, identify botanical residues like charcoal and seeds, and see their composition under the microscope. Not many field schools offer this in-depth post-excavation tuition and I would recommend BRP to anyone particularly interested in what comes after the excavation process. The adage goes that every day of excavation generates at least two or three days of post-excavation work.
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Cassidy (R) and Nathalie digging…all smiles!

  1. Friends, laughter, whisky, and sugar. In that order. To me, those are the ingredients to surviving six weeks in a tent… with a communal living arrangement… with at least 15-20 other people at any given time. It doesn’t hurt to have killer music playlists and endless rounds of Sh*thead – the BRP 2019 students’ card game of choice. Find what makes you happy, surround yourself with good friends, throw in some quality archaeological excavation work, and you’re guaranteed to have a great time at your field school of choice. It’s always what you make of it.

 

Many thanks to the BRP 2019 staff and students for making this such a memorable summer for everyone involved – whether for one week or five… or six. It’s going to be a grand reunion at BRP 2020.

Link to Archaeology article mentioned above.

Environmental Archaeology Crash Course: Flotation

Environmental Supervisor and archaeobotanist Alice Wolff gives us some insight into her work on site:

Today’s blog is going to be a more in-depth look at the environmental archaeology activities here at Bamburgh. Last weekend, we had three open-day sessions where members of the public helped us process some samples through flotation. In this blog, I’m going to break down what exactly we did and what it helps us learn about the site!

A wooden tank labeled “HMS Floaty McFloatface."

What is flotation?

Flotation is a method of processing bulk soil samples using water. Essentially, the different materials in the sample (such as the soil, the rocks/bones/artefacts, and the charred material) have different densities. When you put the whole sample in water, the soil and the artefacts sink while the charred material floats. This allows us to extract fragile and hard-to-see objects such as charred seeds or fish bones that are essential to our understanding of diet and environment at the site but are nearly impossible to excavate in the trench.

Flotation at Bamburgh

After recording pertinent information about the sample – i.e. where it came from in the trench, its volume and weight, what the soil looks like – we dump it into a 500µm mesh that lines the flotation tank.

Two students with their hands in the flot tank.

Next, we raise the water level until it covers the sample completely. We then shut off the water and gently massage the dirt with our hands.

Two pairs of hands submerged in muddy water in a flot tank.

Once most of the soil has fallen through the mesh to the bottom of the tank, we turn on the water again and let it flow through the spout, catching any floating material in a 250µm mesh bag.

A stream of muddy water flowing into a white bag held in place with clips.

In order to conserve water, we use two settling tanks and a pump. This allows us to recycle water and avoid flooding the castle at the same time!

Two students at the flot tank in front of two black bins filled with muddy water.

Once flotation is finished, the heavy fraction of the sample (the bones/rocks/artefacts) is dried in trays while the light fraction bag is hung up on a line indoors out of direct sunlight to dry slowly. After drying, both fractions are sieved, sorted, recorded, and stored in our archive for future researchers to look at! The heavy fraction can be picked over by students, but the light fraction requires the use of a microscope to separate out and identify the charred seeds.

The members of the public only spent a few hours in enviro, but our students spend at least one full day per week doing flotation and/or sorting. On particularly sunny days, enviro is a welcome break from the trench! After spending so much time carefully studying the various materials we find in samples, students return to the trench with a better understanding of what they are digging up and why environmental samples are so important for filling in the picture.

 

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.

Fresh from the Trench: Week 6 – Two for the price of one!

Within minutes of each other, we found two very curious artefacts, and admittedly we are a little confused by both.

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The first was a bit of glazed pottery from the very bottom of a late medieval pit in the north of the trench. It is quite unlike most of the pottery we find anywhere in the trench, and initially the chocolate-y brown on beige caused some unwanted ceramic flashbacks for some of us to a particularly hideous slipware (pottery decorated with creamy clay that turns a different colour when fired, often with browns on yellows and vice versa) we see in the 17th-18th centuries (so we guess you could call them flashforwards?). We of course don’t think the pottery is that recent, but it is certainly giving off some major post-green-glaze vibes that suggest the very end of the medieval period. A tinge of green-glaze is still there, but the dark smears on the light background give the whole fragment the appearance of a sundae stirred as it melts. This sherd is curved but rather thick, but if it is part of a rim, we can place it on a chart of ruled concentric circles (or get out a good old-fashioned mathematical compass to measure the arcs and use a little maths) to determine how wide the mouth of the vessel it came from was. We are thinking it more likely might be a piece of a handle. Rims, bases, and sometimes handles can help us deduce vessel type or even a possible date range! We are still scratching our heads on this for now.

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The second artefact is even more mysterious, and we are absolutely stumped. It’s worked stone, but for what purpose? The two prongs are reminiscent of our leather hole-spacer, but the short circular tab is not really ergonomic enough for getting the same kind of leverage to actually punch a hole as the bone tool as it can only be grasped and pinched between the thumb and forefinger.. This is something we need to experiment with and brainstorm further. The object was excavated from the very weird northwest corner of the trench that never dries and sometimes produces Roman material. This little stone thingamabob was inside a pit abutting the bedrock. Any ideas or guesses are welcome!

Way Back Wednesday: Week 5

Orange-red potsherd with raised tree and bird decoration.In keeping with our Roman theme from yesterday, our Way Back artefact is this lovely bit of Roman pottery. It is known as Samian Ware or terra sigillita, an orangey-red often slightly-shiny type of pottery found throughout the western empire from around the late 1st century BC to the 3rd century AD. Samian refers to island of Samos, a Greek island where is supposedly originated, while the Latin name means “sealed earth.” Much of the Samian Ware we find was actually imported from manufacturers in the southern parts of Gaul, a region that corresponds to modern France and the western Rhineland of Germany. Some Samian ware is made on a potter’s wheel but the decorated type, like our piece, is made in a mould; either way they are then dipped in a fine slip (watery clay, kind of creamy to the touch, used to decorate vessels or bond ceramic parts) before being fired in a kiln.

Line drawing of Roman pottery sherd.

Illustrated by Finds Assistant Kennedy Dold.

We at Bamburgh sit between two walls…the stone forts and milecastles of Hadrian (started in 122AD) and the turf of Antoninus (started 142AD). This is truly a frontier zone for much of the Roman presence in Britain, so we can’t say for sure that our artefact belonged to a Citizen of Rome (capitalized as such because that was a strict legal status that afforded certain rights) or one of the Celtic-speaking peoples that lived in and around what became Bamburgh. There was certainly interaction, which we know from both archaeology and Roman primary sources, but the extent of the Roman presence and/or Roman merchandise diffusion at Din Guaire/Din Guayrdi (which is the name derived from Brittonic that scholars have projected back onto the site before it was named for Bebba around the turn of the 7th century…the origins of the Welsh-ish name is a whole other can of worms, to be honest) is still a bit of a mystery.

Way Back Wednesday: Week 4

Today’s Way Back artefact was certainly a bit of a head-scratcher for a while! It’s a worked bone object that was discovered in 2006 in a late medieval midden (rubbish heap). Bone and antler are very common for hand-tools going back over (at the very least) 1.5 million years of human evolutionary history, because they are quite hardy and may be sourced as a byproduct of subsistence (eat the animals, use the bones!). There is also evidence, however, that some species were not used in early tool-making communities, perhaps due to a societal taboo rather than availability. We would have to do more invasive tests to get what species this tool was made from, as there are no diagnostic shapes or blemishes that could hint at what animal it once was.

Small rectangular bone tool with two stubby, triangular prongs. Carved with a sharp knotwork pattern.

We previously looked at our blundered or practice knife handle, but this object is of a different quality of craftsmanship entirely. The object below has carving on both flat sides as well as along the edges.

Small rectangular bone tool with two stubby triangular prongs.

The other side.

Side view of bone tool with incised dots.

Incised dots running down the sides.

Its size and shape suggest it is also a craftworking tool, fitting neatly in one’s hand, but from what industry? Our best theory is that it’s for leather-working, as small metal tools of the rough dimensions has been used for pricking leathers and skins. Bone awls are known from sites around the world, used to work hide and even wood, so perhaps this is in a similar vein. Other uses could be associated with basket-working or thread-twisting (lucets/chain forks for knotting long cords etc), as double-pronged bone has been used in those crafts, but the scale of the prongs on our piece seems to rule out these uses. Microscopic examination could reveal more about the wear-patterns on the surface of the tines, but even from cursory examination the curve in the piece probably came from use in a stabbing or thrusting motion. There is no visible sign of twisting or torqueing, or even the constant flipping in one’s hand of a lucet. The stubby prongs also support the poking or pricking theory.

This illustration by Finds Assistant Kennedy really brings out the detail of the carving in a way that a simple photo couldn’t!

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Anyway, we also cannot rule out 100% that it’s not a chip fork from an Anglo-Saxon chippy…okay we can rule that out or the Finds Team will be cross with us.

Fresh from the Trench: Week 4

Light brown latch with a loop at one end and a very shallow hook resting in someone's cupped palms.

Right at the end of the day yesterday, one of our new students was working in the extended sondage near the trench entrance ramp. She found this iron object in the southwest corner of the mini-trench, abutting the edge of the cobbled yard in the southeast part of the trench. We think it looks like a latch, with a suspension loop at one end and a tapered, very shallow hook at the other end that might catch an “eye,” or loop/U-shape hammered into a surface. Even though it is corroded, it still retains the probable shape of the object rather well.

This isn’t always the case! Iron is particularly difficult to work with when it corrodes. Much of the iron we excavate are small objects completely covered in corrosion, sometimes identifiable as nails or tacks but other times just oblong lumps. On other sites, we have all seen iron concretions that reveal nothing of the original object until they are x-rayed! On another site, for example, something vaguely like a scotch egg appeared, and when x-rayed was shown to be multiple links of a chain that had rusted together. Iron corrosion is also very cheeky in that it often consumes or cements the iron object to nearby objects in the findspot, making them corrode as well. Think back to the image in our riddle solution post to see what iron and copper rivets look like corroded together: pretty unidentifiable at first glance. We have all seen iron corrosion pick up soil and sand, and sometimes even bits of bone and pottery!

How do we know it is iron? Many of the common metals we find archaeologically are fairly readily identifiable by their corrosion! Other clues like weight could be used but examining the corrosion allows you to simply observe particularly vulnerable metal objects without handling them. Iron commonly forms oxides, in an attempt to stabilize itself, and that’s how we end up with rust. Ferric oxide and ferrous oxide, brown and red/orange respectively, are what we find most often. Another metal that we have found on site frequently are copper alloys, which in our particular archaeological environment tend to turn green and pale green depending on the electrochemical changes; these colors represent the presence of chlorides rather than oxides. Lead, in addition to being much heavier than it looks, usually corrodes into carnbonates, giving it a white or grey appearance. Silver is most often affected by sulfur, leaving a black tarnish. And what about the shiniest-of-shinies? Gold doesn’t corrode hideously at all, it just becomes a purer form of itself!

YAC Attack! Day 1/Round-up: Week 3

Today’s YAC attack is by some of the members of the Flodden chapter of the Council for British Archaeology’s Young Archaeologists’ Club! We were so excited to have them on site with us, and they brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm. That’s why archaeological education and community archaeology are so much fun for us here at the BRP. Through the generous support of the Mick Aston Archaeology Fund, we were able to host these future archaeologists and really give them a day in the life of an archaeologist at Bamburgh Castle.

We had our young archaeologists rotate through a few of our daily activities, with special emphasis on the environmental work of Alice Wolff. They learned to process environmental samples through flotation, sorting, and analysis. But we didn’t just help them with the technical stuff, we really wanted to explain WHY we are looking so carefully at the palaeoenvironment. We can learn a lot looking at how past communities subsisted through times of plenty and times of scarcity, and Bamburgh Castle’s long history of occupation makes it a great candidate for exploring long-term cycles of environmental stasis and change. We broke them up into teams, and their team names did not disappoint!

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Team Ducky McPlatypusface running the flotation tank, gently letting the water break down clumps of soil to release any charred seeds that would float to the top.

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Team Artichoke looking at the heavy fraction produced via flotation, as well as some small finds that were in the sample.

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Describing the soil before processing via the flotation tank.

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Analysing some seeds under the microscope.

Both teams spent time with Alice (above), but also got to work with Tom Fox on some finds washing and Tom Howe and Kelly Tapager in the trench.

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Finds washing and intro to zooarch with Tom Fox.


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Excavating The Porch with Tom Howe.


Round-up:

This week had some up-and-down weather, and it was quite windy atop our perch in the West Ward. Regardless, we made some great progress throughout the trench.

The western wall just north of the BHT mortar mixer and the section adjacent to said mortar mixer now are some lovely sections, which our students cleaned and planned. On the way down, we found an interesting flattened aluminum cylinder that launched a day-long research dive you can read about here. Here we are taking an environmental sample:img_20190706_153042

The cobbles in the southeast corner of the trench lay mostly untouched this week, but the sondage near the entrance ramp to the trench was extended and it approaches the cobbles to the south at a fair clip.

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In the northwest corner of the trench, that weird section we always go on about, we’ve decided to divide it into quarters. We excavated the southeast quadrant and then took an environmental sample of the northwest quadrant which included a large patch of charcoal smears and orange clay.

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The environmental department has a new serif tank (link to twitter) we’ve named HMS FloatyMcFloatface. We’re telling everyone that we planned to name it after David Attenborough but took a popular vote and Floaty won as a write-in. Too soon? Too soon.

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In terms of finds, we might have been a little spoiled the past two weeks, so we aren’t too worried that we’ve mostly been finding vast quantities of animal bones. Finds supervisors Tom Fox has been using these animal bones to run sessions on zooarchaeology identification. We sat in on a few between tours and it was a great refresher for the basics, but also completely changed the way the rest of us non-zooarch-experts look at the animal bones that comprise the majority of our bulk finds.

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We also have two metal…somethings. The copper alloy object may be a strap-end that’s now clogged with soil. The lead object looks like a thin, rectangular piece of lead was rolled up to create a cylinder, or possibly rolled upon itself to give a spiral cross-section.

Way Back Wednesday: Week 3

Today’s Way Back Wednesday is an oldie but a goodie, as the youths say. In 2008, we found an iron object pointed at both ends but moderately corroded. It looked like it may have been a long knife, but what we discovered is even more exciting.

Before conservation:

 

It wasn’t just any knife, but a “seax,” the very type of long dagger or short sword the Anglo-Saxons themselves, both men and women, used in their daily life. “Seax” is actually the Old English word for “knife.” Larger seaxes would be used as weapons.

Here is our seax after conservation:

 

We turn to seasoned students Cassidy Sept and Olivia Russell for a rundown of just what makes this seax so special:

Size: The fragment is approximately 23cm/10in in length, 3cm/1in in width.

Period: Late Anglo-Saxon, c. mid 9th to late 11th century CE. We can refine this to the mid-to-late Anglo-Saxon period due to the presence of pattern-welding (so the 8th to 10th century CE perhaps), as pattern-welded blades decreased in the late Anglo-Saxon period.

Style: The pattern welding type is indicative of a compressed banded ladder design, which is a common Damascus steel design. Pattern-welding was common in Northern Europe for much of the early medieval period. According to Thomas Birch, University of Aberdeen, pattern-welded swords/seaxes/etc. reached their pinnacle during the 6th and 7th centuries CE and decreased in practice by the end of the Viking Age. This was largely due to procurement of better materials to make stronger weaponry and tools, thus rendering obsolete the necessity of welding metals in various patterns to provide reinforced strength. Despite this abatement in pattern-welding to strengthen blades, the practice likely continued for aesthetic or ceremonial purposes as the designs are beautiful, intricate, and highly skillful.

banded ladder

The banded ladder pattern that is similar to what our seax has. There are, however, many other patterns (external site) available to the experienced steelworker.

seax modern

A modern pattern-welded seax similar typology to ours. Here (external site), in progress.

Typology: Using the Wheeler seax typology, it is likely to be a broken-back straight edge type III/IV with a straight, slightly concave tip and a single-edged blade.

seax typology

Seax typology, modified from Wheeler (1927) by Kirk Lee Spencer.

Further reading:

Birch, T. 2013. “Does pattern-welding make Anglo-Saxon swords stronger?” in D Dungworth and RCP Doonan (eds) Accidental and Experimental Archaeometallurgy (London), 127-134.