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!

boneobj

 

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.

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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.

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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.

Meet the Team: Finds Crew

We have an amazing finds team that works with all the artefacts we excavate as well as managing our archives. They identify, sort, draw, 3D model, and store all of the things we have found! Here is a little about them in their own words.

Tom Fox, Finds Supervisor

Tom explaining how we label and wash bulk finds.

Hey, I’m the resident finds goblin here at the Bamburgh Research Project. I’m an MSc Bioarchaeology student at the University of York, graduated from the University of Nottingham. My areas of specialisation are Zooarchaeology and stable isotopes. In my free time I enjoy archery, kendo and a few handy crafts.

Kennedy Dold, Finds Assistant

Kennedy perturbed by her supper.

Hi, I’m Kennedy the Assistant Finds Supervisor. I get to organise the old stuff.

I deal with all things post-excavation with a focus on technical finds illustration, re-organising the project’s bulk finds, and ensuring Tom Fox eats his lunch.

I just graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a First in History & Archaeology and will pursue a Masters in Museum Studies at the University of Kansas this autumn.

Combining my undergraduate degree with my upcoming Masters, I hope to translate the complexities of history and archaeology in new and exciting ways. I love seeing people engage with the past and want to work in international cultural heritage management with the ultimate dream being a job with UNESCO.

For the past four years, I have been a member of the Edinburgh University Mountaineering Club and have spent many a weekend festering in bothys, bagging Munros, or falling in bogs.

I am very excited to be back at Bamburgh for the summer and can’t wait to see what sort of ‘preciouses’ this season will uncover.

The Festival of Archaeology is just under a month away!

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This is your big, bold reminder to come join us at Bamburgh Castle on 20th or 21st July.

Our free trench-side activities will focus on environmental archaeology, under the guidance of environmental supervisor Alice Wolff. Participants can join one of our half-day sessions for hands-on experience in recording, sorting, and analysing soil samples. Sign up here!

Three dark-haired women stand around a square tank of muddy water.

Environmental Supervisor Alice works alongside two students on a brisk day.

Now you might be thinking, “What are soil samples, and what could they possibly tell us?” Environmental sampling is a process by which archaeologists can collect and study the fills or even floor surfaces of archaeological features; these fills include the soil that is inside rubbish pits, postholes, and even buildings. The samples are carefully collected and then processed with a sieve and running water known as a flotation tank. The sample is suspended by a small mesh and water is pumped from beneath it. The water separates the silt from the small rock fragments, allowing the tiny grains of silt to sink through the mesh. The small rocks and any artifacts will rest in the mesh, while charred seeds and sometimes even the shells of small molluscs (like tiny snails) will float to the top and can be skimmed off into another fine mesh. You end up with three resulting products: pure silt, rocks and artifacts, and the skimmed material known as “flot.” This flot can be analysed under a microscope to identify the seeds and molluscs. Seeds tell us all about the domesticated and wild plants consumed by a community on a site, while small molluscs can actually tell us about the climate because certain species only survive in very particular temperature ranges. The rocks and artifacts will be dried and sorted to get a clearer picture of what the area sampled was used for. And the silt? Mostly clogs up our water jets, to be honest. It’s a good bit of fun, but when you join us, be sure to wear something that you won’t mind getting a little muddy, as well as sturdy footwear!

The Festival of Archaeology is a celebration of archaeology where everyone is welcome to listen, learn, and get their hands dirty! It is a Council for British Archaeology initiative, and this year the focus is on the intersection of archaeology and scientific technology. We’re able to run our event during the festival this year due to a grant from the Mick Aston Archaeology Fund. We hope to see you there!

Artefact Drawing

Finds Assistant Kennedy Dold has been leading tutorials on archaeological illustration, which is all about accurately portraying the artefacts as they are.

First, she shows the students the tools needed: graph paper, tracing paper, pencils, rulers, and pens for inking final drawings. Next, she helps them set up the layout of the graph paper drawing sheet, by recording all the critical information about the artefact including its finds number and context. Every illustrator needs to become acquainted with their artefact, by observing it and, if safe, handling it. The front is the most important view one will be drawing, but the back, sides, and a cross-section must also be presented to scale on the same sheet. Instead of shading areas with pencil graphite to create a gradient, we use stippling (small dots). After the drawing on the graph paper is complete, the illustrator has two options for creating an inked version: they can trace by hand with a fine-tipped ink pen on tracing paper or scan the drawing and digitally trace the lines. The entire purpose of drawing these artefacts is to show the qualities that aren’t visible or clear in artefact photos!

Below are two examples of our students’ work this week:

Cassidy drew a comb made of antler found in 2017 in a 7th/8th context. Notice the stippling that shows the surface depth. On the left you can see the final inked version, and under the tracing paper you can see the pencil drawing on the graph paper.

Inked drawing of fragment of antler comb with fine teeth. Lighter drawing in pencil of same information beneath.

Anglo-Saxon comb, as drawn by Cassidy.

Rebecca produced this drawing of the spindle whorl (used for making yarn) from Tuesday afternoon. It was in a sondage (mini-trench within a trench) that initially was dug to examine a possible pit feature, but eventually was extended after finding a deposit of intact shells. The inked lines nicely accentuate the circles carved around the whorl.

Inked drawing of spindle whorl with carved concentric circles.

Recently discovered spindle whorl, drawn by Rebecca.

Way Back Wednesday: Week 2

This Wednesday we have taken a fantastic iron arrowhead out of the archive to share because it looks very…shall we say…sharp. The pointy end is 5cm, while the other end is socketed, meaning it has a round opening that would be slid over a wooden shaft and secured with hide glue (a glue technology that goes back thousands of years involving stewing animal hides treated with lime).

BC04 SF1616 Before (2)

BC04 SF1616 Before (1)

Before conservation.

 

This medieval weapon would have likely been used for hunting rather than warfare, but in a pinch would certainly do the job if needed. Our arrowhead is slender with a triangular head and diamond or oval cross-section, suggesting it could have had multiple uses. Armour-piercing arrows from the medieval period, which we call bodkins, tend to be thin, squared and tapered to a point or even chisel tip, but without barbs; they are more successful against mail and plate armour than broadhead arrow points (large triangular heads with barbs) which themselves caused more damage to flesh. We can get an estimate of our arrowhead’s date simply by looking at the typology provided by Oliver Jessop’s 1996 typology which calls it a “multipurpose triangular arrowhead (MP1).” It is a bit longer than the example he provides, but we are relatively confident that that is just a minor variation of the same type. The London Museum’s earlier typology from the 1940 catalog call it a “type 2,” but they used a much narrower classification system. Unfortunately, these socketed arrowheads were in use a long time, from about the 11th to 15th centuries, so it is at this moment that we turn to our excavation record! We can look at the data from the context in which it was found, examining the context’s location in the trench and the other artefacts associated with said context. From our records, this arrowhead was found in a 13th-century occupation layer that may have been associated with a timber building.

BC04 SF1616 After (2)

BC04 SF1616 After (1)

After conservation.

Round-up: Week 1

As this first week comes to a close, we’ve cleaned most of trench 3 and already started logging some interesting metal small finds.

Along the eastern side of the trench, cleaning and sectioning a rubble pile has proved to be raising more questions than answers. Where the rubble meets a lower stretch of stone pavement, several pits have been revealed, all intersecting with each other. We’ve had to temporarily cover that area to tend to the section wall, so we’ll have a photo for you all when it’s fresh and clean again next week.

In the southeast corner of the trench, we’ve revealed the cobbled surface from the 7th/8th century and recorded it. Pardon the pipe which was actually added AFTER we had excavated to the 9th century.

Blue and gray river cobbles as a floor surface extending to a squared corner edge of the excavation.

Cobbled yard surface in the southeast corner of the trench.

We’ve begun taking down the area between the pair of WWI latrine pits south of “the Porch,” an area many BRP alumni will remember as a long-time trench landmark. There is a stone standing upright that very clearly wouldn’t have fallen into that position, and we’d like to know why it was placed there.

Student in blue shirt kneeling in front of the baulk between two pits.

Current view of “the Porch.” Upright stone at far right.

The small finds from this week include TWO copper stycas along with other copper alloy and iron objects. The stycas suggest we are not as far back in time as we had thought, which is not at all disappointing because the stycas are pretty cool and are being analysed by the finds team at the moment, but we hope to have more info on them in the near future.

Below are some of the other metal objects discovered this week:

Thin, grey pin in two pieces with light green corrosion visible in some parts.

Copper alloy pin or needle.

Grey-green rivets and broken rectangule of copper alloy.

Copper alloy plaque.

Brown nail, slightly bent before the point.

Clinched iron nail.