End of an era as Trench 1 at Bamburgh Castle closes (1999 to 2017)

Long long ago (in a different century) we first opened Trench 1 at Bamburgh Castle. It was the Bamburgh Research Project’s first ever trench within the castle as our previous work had been centred on the Bowl Hole burial ground and desk based research. Its end has been predicted for a couple of seasons now, but each year more post-holes and features seemed to weather out and become visible, frustrating our plans to close the trench. This year though we dealt with the last few of those and even further investigated the glacial deposits at the base just to be certain that nothing lay hidden. We have officially closed the trench and it is under semipermeable membranes waiting for backfilling.

IMG_0878

Some Trench 1 staff from present and past were there for the last day. Left to right- Constance Durgeat, Alex Stevens, Marsaili Heatley, Graham Dixon and Graeme Young. Former supervisors not pictured: Graeme Attwood, Neal Lythe, Phil Wood, Matthew Claydon.

Some of the earliest features have been the most difficult to identify and interpret, cut into boulder clay and often having a fill very close to the surrounding natural in both colour and composition. At this lower level the site resembles a moonscape with craters cutting craters. A definite challenge for our continued interpretation during post-excavation.

IMG_0855

We made a list of the senior staff from the trench for a time capsule

There will be many more blogs on the trench in the future as we work to write it up and publish it but today I thought I would post a few early photos as contrast to the trench today. Many thanks to all of the supervisors, assistant supervisors, and hundreds of students who worked in trench one over the years.

IM000272

A junior Trench 1 from 2001, a small version of what it became!

BC01 printfilm8, no 08-09

Part way through the high medieval sequence with the consuction cut for the early 20th century wall on the right

IM000523

A thanks to the many students who worked hard and recorded diligently over many years

IMG_3973

The last days of the trench with sondages across the boulder clay – just in case!

Looking back at this seasons work in Trench 1

When we set out at the start of the season we were fairly confident that this would be the last year of excavation in Trench 1. There seemed only a limited number of questions left to be answered and since we had exposed boulder clay and bedrock over the full area of the trench at the end of last season, it’s not as if there was much more to dig. Trench 1 always seems to have more secrets to reveal though, so the appearance of more post-holes and small features, due to slow weathering, and the difficulty of answering one of our last research goals, frustrated us in the end. I can’t say I am sad to have a little more to do next year.

We started the year with two outstanding research goals. The first was to complete the investigation of the corn-drying kiln (a kiln or oven used to dry damp cereal for use or storage) in the north-west corner of the trench and the second was to further investigate the timber defensive rampart leading to St Oswald’s gate and also to see if we could also trace evidence of the rampart along the northern limit of the perimeter of the site. It presence here had long been speculated on but never proved.

The kiln has been a fascinating feature, constructed from fired clay set around laths of timber that would have at one point supported a domed top, fragments of which we find broken and forming a substantial part of the fill of the bowl. It also contained a considerable quantity of charred cereal grain that will help us learn a little more about the diet of the inhabitants. The kiln was likely used to dry damp grain on its way into the fortress for long term storage. This would explain its location close to the entrance at St Oswald’s Gate. At the moment we have a series of potential dates for the kiln based on archaeomagnetic samples. The most likely period of its use is the late Anglo-Saxon period, but a radiocarbon date will be needed to confirm this.

Kilndouble

The kiln at the start of the season (left) and following complete excavation (right)

One aspect that has intrigued us about the kiln for a while is that it underlies the earliest phase of high medieval wall, which is probably 12th century in date. The edge of the rock plateau is close by so when the kiln was in use there must either have been a much thinner stone wall or no defensive feature at all, given that a timber rampart would have been at a severe risk of burning down if right next to a kiln. We know that we have at least two phases of timber defence on the west side and that the kiln cuts and post-dates the latest of these. This summer we have further investigated this, excavating more of the later rubble foundation for a timber sill beam to reveal a series of post-holes beneath it. On the same alignment. The post-holes are spaced about 0.5m apart and, like the sill beam, almost certainly represent the inner face of a box rampart.

rampart

The norther part of the stone rubble rampart foundation excavated to reveal two earlier post-holes that formed an earlier phase of the feature

We have long speculated that the rampart likely continued around the fortress perimeter on the north side and have even seen what appeared to be a linear formed from a stony clay extending in the right place and on the right alignment for this. We began the excavation of a slop through the boulder clay across the trench to try and investigate this idea. We assumed that if the spread was to represent the former fill of a timber rampart then we would have re-deposited boulder clay on a boulder clay surface that had not been disturbed. The theory seemed reasonable but proving it has turned out to be much harder than thought. The boulder clay turns out to be more variable and mixed than we thought from its surface and, not at all surprisingly, hard to dig! By the end of the season we had a number of potential post-holes, a series of enigmatic patches of apparently burnt clay and no clear buried surface. Unable to make firm conclusion just what this evidence means, we will be conducting a limited amount of further excavation next year. Hopefully we will be able to get some secure answers, but if not then at least we will have done everything we could to reveal this last secret.

boulder clay

Trench 1 looking west with our sondage into the boulder clay marked by the ranging rod. Lots of confusion at the north end but no certainlty about just what we are excavating yet!

 

Trench One, Week Four Update – Bamburgh Castle

 

This week in Trench One we starting digging the test pit which we discussed in our last blog post. During excavations we identified a feature running east to west which showed as a dark patch running across the sondage with 4-5 vertically standing stones within it.

 

4092

Test Pit A.

 

Also uncovered were at least two areas of burning which may possibly be related to the early timber palisade defence wall of the castle, but the evidence is currently inconclusive.

Excavations have revealed a grey patch, a pit dug on the robber trench, closer to the south edge of the trench, which is filled with rocks. It can be seen in section on the east wall of the test pit.

 

4094

Test Pit A – facing St Oswalds Gate.

 

A second sondage was dug (measuring approximately 20x40cm and 60-70cm deep) in order to see if we could reach the bedrock and determine the depth of the natural boulder clay. This extent has not yet been reached.

The plan for the next couple of weeks is to identify 2-3 areas of interest to dig small sondages through to the bedrock. Digging out the whole trench would take far too long and too much effort when targeted depth investigations will suffice.

On a side note, the kiln has very nearly been completed and only one more layer remains within the kiln.

 

Bamburgh Castle, Trench One Update.

Welcome to this Trench One update!

Test pit A (as mentioned in the week 1 interview video) has now been set up and we’ll keep you posted as progress continues.

 

IMG_3967

Test Pit A extending north-south across the width of Trench One.

 

We found the construction cut for the 12th/13th Century curtain wall and it contained a number of pottery sherds, mostly green glaze. It was also the source of the ‘mystery’ clay circular objects which we tweeted last week. One possible explanation of them was bungs scored into unfired ceramics which then popped out during the firing process.

 

Clay obj tweet photo

Unidentified clay objects. Any thoughts?

 

Underneath the rubble foundation of the curtain wall we have an earlier (possibly 8th/9th Century) masonry block with adhered mortar associated with two others, which may have been used as the  backing corner of the kiln.

Last week in Trench One the kiln was sampled as planned. It looks like it was damaged and/or broken with use quickly discontinued – there is grain still in situ in large quantities, and the upper fill layer appears to be a ‘demolition’ context with extensive CBM fragments from the body of the kiln. In the video below Sam Serrano, Trench 1 Assistant Supervisor discusses the kiln and its excavation in more detail.

 

Work has also continued excavating half-sections in various small features, post-holes and pits to help add to the stratigraphic sequence and story of Trench One.

 

New article on our excavations at Bamburgh Castle

Slide 8

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

 

Bamburgh Castle, Trench 1 – Week 1 Interview

In this video Sam Serrano, Trench 1 Assistant Supervisor, discusses progress in the first week of the season and what’s planned for the coming weeks.

Stay tuned for further videos and updates here and on our YouTube Channel as the season progresses!

And so it has begun…

Week one is well underway here at Bamburgh Castle and things are picking up for the 2016 dig season!

Trench One

Trench One was left uncovered over the winter and allowed to weather and next week the students will begin investigating whether this exposure has revealed any discrete features or contexts not previously visible.

This week, excavation began around the base of the Medieval curtain wall at the kiln feature in preparation for photogrammetry. Once the photogrammetry is complete the feature will be sampled for environmental processing.

IMG_8350

Trench Three

Trench Three is almost completely de-tarped and cleaning has begun in preparation for the start of season trench photo. This cleaning removes the washed in silt and weathering from the past 10 months from the surfaces and features within the trench, including wall slots and the 1970s test pit from Brian Hope Taylor’s excavations.

The trench has already yielded its first small find – a possible metal stylus uncovered by student Ayesha.

IMG_3351

Post-excavation

The Finds and Environmental department has been hard at work this week getting ready for the season and updating the databases. The flotation tank is pumping, and everyone seems to be enjoying it.

IMG_3540

As part of our traditional introduction to the site, students started the week washing bulk find material from last season. This helps to introduce them to the stages of post-excavation processing, and familiarises them with the common artefact types and materials found on site – very helpful when they begin excavating!

IMG_0051

More news on the way soon!

A confused person’s guide to Trench 1

We thought it might be helpful, for regular users of the blog, to put up annotated photographs of our two trenches, as I am sure at times it is difficult to imagine just where the individual buildings and features lie. In this blog we will start with Trench 1.

Trench 1, labelled to identify the key features, facing north

Trench 1, labelled to identify the key features, facing north

As regular readers will be aware, Trench 1 lies at the northern tip of the fortress, at the lowest point of the bedrock plateau. Here we have unearthed evidence of the early phases of defensive structures built in timber together with a rather substantial timber hall. On the photograph you can see this as a shaded outline with the outline of a later stone hall superimposed on top of it. It is perhaps only when you outline it so clearly that its full scale becomes apparent. As we have described before it completely dominates the gate cleft (in the bedrock) to its south-west, which is the earliest known entrance to the fortress.

The stone building has been assumed to be the later of the two, but it is only this season, whilst investigating the area where the two structures come close to each other in the north-east corner, that we have proved that this is indeed the case. The date of the stone structure’s construction is uncertain, but it appears to have been robbed out before the Norman Conquest.

We are on less certain ground on the western side of the trench where we have a massive laid stone boulder foundation, for what we believe to be a timber wall, that we are interpreting as part of an early phase of defences. This is based on its general alignment with the break of slope of the bedrock, and the presence of a large timber post-setting that could have carried an archway across the gate cleft itself.

The later medieval defences are much better understood, as we have written records surviving from the 12th century to help in our interpretation. The later medieval gate is built in two phases, the first dating from the later 12th century with a 13th century widening, presumably to carry a breteche (an extension like a balcony built over a gate, with openings in its base to shoot projectiles or drop objects through). The gate widening and breteche are likely to be contemporary with the glacis built in front of the gate that we have no direct dating evidence for.

The tall stack of surviving medieval curtain wall that survives on the northern wall line would once have extended all the way around the seaward side of the West Ward, just as the 20th century wall does today.

Saying goodbye to the pivot stone in Trench one

The excitement of the week has been the lifting of the pivot stone (the reused quern stone), as we have removed the last of our occupation layer. The soil around it looks like there are interesting deposits still to excavate.

2014-07-01 13.52.30(1)

In other trench news, we are removing a floor surface that has been untouched for quite a long time. During this, we came across two new features: an ash deposit and a pit feature full of many giant stones, which requires a great amount of patience for our students to dig.

2014-07-02 16.00.47

Also we’re investigating a feature cutting our boulder pit. So far it appears to be rather small but seems to have interesting relationships with our timber slot building.

2014-07-02 16.00.30

Uncovering Trench One and a Giant Post Pit

Constance, Supervisor of Trench 1, and assistant Clare, give us an update:

We’ve had a busy month in Trench 1 investigating a series of possible guard houses. We have finally excavated to a low enough level that we are able to uncover the rest of Trench 1 that has been under tarp for the last three years. Now that the whole trench is revealed we’ve started the major task of cleaning. The first order of business will be cleaning the fill from the old sandbag wall which has eroded into our sections.

IMG_7835

Success as we take away the last dirt from our tarp. You can see the eroding sandbags in the background.

We’ve also worked on a post hole that is cutting one side of our stone building. We thought it was going to be fairly simple but instead of normal packing stones we ended up with an enormous dolorite boulder which made the excavation process more difficult than expected!

DSC07706

Isabelle going the distance to find the edges of the post hole in what I like to call Trench-Planking

Since breaking it up with a sledgehammer wasn’t practical we decided that the best solution was to roll it. Now that it is out of our way we can finish excavating this interesting feature. To see more about this post pit watch this short video: