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.
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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.

 

Festival of Archaeology: Day 1/Round-up: Week 5

Today is the first day of our free Festival of Archaeology programme at the Castle. Participants get to spend a half-day with Environmental Supervisor Alice Wolff processing soil samples, sorting the residue (artefacts and gravel), and examining the flot (the charred seeds skimmed off the top of the soaking sample). This programme was made possible by the Mick Aston Archaeology Fund through the Council for British Archaeology.

Here are some pictures of the environmental samples being floated!

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Round-up: Week 5

This week we took down the Porch, the area in between the latrine pits, as well as the area south of the porch that abuts the entrance ramp sondage. We were able to mattock the area, which tickled everyone because everyone loves a mattock.

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When we first extended the sondage (mini-trench) near the entrance ramp, there were two large flat stones just a few centimetres down; the one in the centre of the sondage is visible in the top left corner of the photo. This of course was not nearly enough evidence to say anything meaningful…until we had a bit of rain. The rain revealed something peculiar: three areas drying at different rates. The right of the main stone was light brown, the area in front of the stone was light brownish yellow, and the left side of the stones out of frame was dark brown, and all retaining water differently. We call this “differential drying.” Usually when a patch of earth doesn’t dry as quickly as others that means that something is happening under the surface, like stone that has affected the drainage path of the water or clay is acting as a shallow bowl. We thought that we might possibly have a linear feature, but the constant cycle of rain and bright, drying sunshine kept revealing and obscuring it over the past week. We sometimes wondered whether it was a mass hallucination.

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As we worked outside of the sondage near its northwestern corner, suddenly more stones appeared at roughly the same angle of the boundaries of the weird light yellow patch. They formed a little channel that we are carefully chasing as it heads toward the eastern latrine pit. The only artefacts found associated with this linear feature were some fragments of copper.

On the western side of the trench, we reach the edge of excavation from BHT and our re-dig from many years ago and began taking down the midden deposit. Here is the cutest little section ever excavated:

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We finally bottomed out the western latrine pit! We reached our re-excavation horizon, as well as BHT’s initial attempt to fully excavate it. We were so excited to reach unexcavated soil perhaps holding some Iron Age material…but the excitement was not long-lived, as it turns out BHT stopped only 15cm above the bedrock. Oh well!

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Lastly, the weird northwest corner of the trench continues to gift us more mysteries. The Roman glass bangle fragment (hyperlink) came from this area, which had been quartered and each quadrant excavated individually. It’s remained damp through the sunniest days, as usual.

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Calendar of Upcoming Events

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We’ve got so many cool events in conjunction with the Council for British Archaeology’s Festival of Archaeology coming up and wanted to drop you all a breakdown of the next week!

17 July – Ask an Archaeologist Day

Send us all your burning archaeology questions on here, on Facebook, or on Twitter using the hashtag #AskAnArchaeologist. If you’re using Twitter, please make sure your account is unlocked so we can see your questions! Tweet your questions to @BRParchaeology to reach us, but don’t be surprised if you get some answers from other archaeologists…we’re very talkative. This initiative is to get people from all walks of life into the conversation about archaeology! We hope to help connect interested non-experts with archaeology, museum, and heritage professionals in a more accessible way. We love sharing our work (which is our passion), and this is a great way to give people some insight into what we do.

 

20-21 July – Festival of Archaeology FREE Environmental Archaeology Experience at Bamburgh Castle

Our very own archaeobotanist Alice Wolff will be running half-day tutorials both Saturday and Sunday on how we process environmental samples! Come spend a morning or afternoon with us and get a behind the scenes look at some of the great work our team is doing to better tell the story of Bamburgh. These two days of programming are supported by the Mick Aston Archaeology Fund.

Sign up here! It is completely FREE. Sunday still has some slots open, but Saturday is booking quickly, so what are you waiting for?

 

22 July – A Day in Archaeology

Have you spent some time with us on the dig as a student? Volunteered on any dig recently? Share your story in the week leading up to A Day in Archaeology by uploading a blog post or video telling us what your typical day looked like. Check out the posts so far this year, or dive into the archives. We’ll be posting about the most mysterious member of our team…me…the Outreach Officer! So stay tuned to the website above for what a typical day looks like in a public-facing role at a field school!

 

YAC Dig It! Winners Come to Bamburgh Castle/Round-up: Week 4

Three incredible future archaeologists from the Young Archaeologists’ Club joined us today at Bamburgh Castle! Bethany, Margot, and Myles won a day of archaeological instruction (through YAC’s Dig It! competition) with our knowledgeable team, as well as a set of new tools to help them in their future archaeology adventures.

The rain in the morning kept us out of the trench for a bit, but we washed a big tray of animal bone, while Finds Supervisor Tom Fox gave us an introduction to zooarchaeology. We learned some basic facts about bones, like the different types and what parts of the skeleton they are found in, then we practiced identifying the different bones, and, for a real tough test, trying to determine what animal they came from!

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After a quick lunch, we went on a tour of the castle led by Tom and Lauren and had quite a few laughs along the way.

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Finally, the trench was a bit drier (and therefore safe) for us to do some excavation. Our YAC winners were in the southwest area of the trench where we joined up with the old Brian Hope-Taylor trench and our re-excavation of his work (from over a decade ago) with our current open area excavation. A toolkit was generously provided by Past Horizons, so everyone had a brand new dig bag filled with the necessary bits and bobs and shiny, pristine trowel. Within minutes, everything was covered in mud, as it should be for all archaeologists.

 

 


Round-up: Week 5

Early in the week we had quite a bit of excitement!

First, we had a member of the Castle staff join us in the trench, and she was a natural! We’d love to have more of our colleagues drop in and see up close what we do all day. Maybe a topsy-turvy day where they all end up covered in mud, and we all get to wander amongst the Armstrong collection dropping decorative and fine art knowledge on visitors, and then we meet up at the end of the day to sit and eat fudge???

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Next, we got to say our final goodbyes to Trench 1. Most of us had great memories in that trench, but it was rather exciting to see it filled in. The final tasks now are to get that report published and results ready for public interpretation in concert with the Castle’s development plan for the area by St. Oswald’s Gate.

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The weather unfortunately eventually brought things to a crawl in the trench as it was so wet the second half of the week, but some afternoons were bright and warm enough to give us some trench-time after lunch! We caught up on lots of bulk processing (via finds washing) and completed a fair bit of trench paperwork (plans, sections, etc). Over the week, the students were treated to multiple lectures: an introduction to environmental archaeology from our archaeobotanist Alice, archaeological theory from trench assistant supervisor Tom Howe, an overview of strontium isotope analysis from Tom Fox, and Anglo-Saxon kennings and riddles from outreach officer Lauren Nofi.

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Meet the Team: Environmental

This season we are really refocusing on environmental archaeology to better tell the loooooong story of the site. Archaeobotanist Alice is analysing all the data from our soil samples, so here’s a bit about her background in her own words.

Alice Wolff, Environmental Archaeologist

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Like a lot of the team here, I decided to be an archaeologist when I was six and haven’t changed my mind since! I’ve been digging in England since 2013 and doing environmental archaeology since 2014, but only joined the BRP in 2018. Prior to joining the BRP I received my BA in Medieval Studies from Smith College and my MPhil in Archaeology from the University of Cambridge. When I’m not in the field I am a rising second-year PhD student in Medieval Studies at Cornell University where I study human responses to climate change in the first millennium AD. At the BRP I spend most of my time running the flotation tank and looking at charred plants under a microscope.

YAC Attack Day 2 and The Riddle

Today was part 2 of our weekend of YAC-tivities. For part one, click here.

We had some participants from the York chapter of the Council for British Archaeology’s Young Archaeologists’ Club. Like yesterday, everyone got a chance to work with Alice on environmental processing and analysis. We’ll hear more from Alice about her work here with the BRP and why it’s so important next week. Once again, we’d like to thank the Mick Aston Archaeology Fund for helping us deliver this weekend of programming.

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We also wanted to reveal the answer to The Riddle. Did you miss it? Click that link and have a read and a think. We’ll wait.

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Okay. Are you ready for the solution?

The solution to all three versions of the riddle is a “coat of mail.” What’s so fascinating about these poetic little riddles is that they provide us with so many words associated with the craft of weaving. Linking the tiny loops of metal involves weaving them in and out of each other, rather than weaving weft and warp stretched across a loom. Just like a garment, your mail could be mended, extending its lifetime maybe even from parent to child. The elevation of handicrafts to poem-worthy status is a common feature of Anglo-Saxon riddles, giving us such a lovely but brief glimpse into everyday life.

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This is actually part of a corroded coat of mail from the 7th-century burial at Sutton Hoo.

 

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.

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.