Fresh from the Trench: Week 5

Today one of our students was working in the very weird northwest corner of the trench. He was taking down the last quadrant left to excavate when he discovered a small, chunky bit of glass. It was his first day in the trench, and found this:

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The glass is bluish, with pale yellow striping on one side. The thickness and curve suggest it was probably a bangle or bracelet. How can we date it since we find artefacts from multiple time periods in that weird part of the trench? The composition (as evidenced by its color) and form all suggest we are looking at a Roman object. Whether it belonged to a Roman citizen or a Celtic-speaking Iron Age inhabitant of the settlement site presently encircled by the Castle is unknown. What we do know however is that it’s likely from after the 1st century AD, when Roman glass production become more efficient both technologically and economically and its presence became more widespread.

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Roman glass was made from sand and natron (to help the silica of the sand melt at a lower temperature). The lime found naturally in the sand actually prevented the finished glass from dissolving in water. The natron, known as soda ash or sodium carbonate, is the very same natron the Egyptians used in mummification, maybe even from the very same source they used that the Romans later appropriated for their glass industry, Wadi El Natrun in Egypt. The Romans began making clearer glasses as their technology improved, but many fragments show us that their glass would retain a bluish-green hue if untreated with other elements and minerals.

We are quite lucky that this small fragment was never recycled as “cullet,” or the broken glass melted down to be reused in glass furnaces. Had the Anglo-Saxons found it, it might have been melted and worked into a bead. Maybe that’s what happened to the missing pieces? Instead, it survived as a little piece of personal adornment of a person who lived over 1,500 years ago. What a life it must have led!

 

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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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.

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.

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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.

Fresh from the Trench: Week 3

*This blog post contains several links to external sites, and we are not responsible for the content therein. We do our best to make sure that the sites we’ve linked are safe and appropriate, but as always, be mindful when browsing!*

At the end of last week and beginning of this week, we had been working hard in the southwest corner of the trench. Our excavation overlaps with some of Brian Hope-Taylor’s trenches, and perhaps the biggest shared area is that of the mortar mixer. We’ve checked on it a bit over the course of this trench’s lifetime, but mostly it has remained covered in eerie slumber as we toil elsewhere. Lately, however, we have been tidying up the section wall adjacent to the BHT trench and cutting back the section just above the mortar mixer. This work involves a little bit of the archaeology of archaeology, in that we are encountering a disturbed context that BHT created in his backfill. We know of some of his site protocol, much of which was common in the 1960s-1970s, and we know of his less common whiskey-bottle-as-grid-peg practice. But we weren’t quite prepared for one thing we pulled out of the backfill:

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It’s a small aluminum cylinder in two nested halves, reminiscent of old shoe polish tins, but much lighter and thinner metal. It’s slightly crushed, the whole thing being between 1.75 digestive biscuits in thickness. For those of you who don’t use food-based units of measure, it’s about 1.5 centimetres. The top half says:

MACLEANS LTD

SPACE FOR NAME

[ ]

GREAT WEST ROAD

BRENTFORD

LONDON

PAT NO 458867

In small letters arcing around the left and right side of the main text, it also says “British made.”

So we have a start: a company name, a place, and a patent. The only references to Macleans Ltd as a still-existing company is a customer service page by the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline…whose office is in on Great West Road in Brentford (Middlesex). We sent them a quick email explaining who we are and what we found, along with a picture, and asked if a company archivist or historian could get back to us with any information. Unfortunately, there is presently no such archive, but they offered to put us in touch with the branding department that might have some idea about earlier industrial design for the company’s products. Not quite a dead end, but we weren’t satisfied with this alone.

Next, we searched various digitised patent databases to see if we could learn more about the product itself. We got a hit on the World Intellectual Property Organization’s “Patentscope” which gives us the information that would have made searching all those other databases much easier: the application number and date as well as the publication number and date. Here’s that summary info if you’d like to nose around yourself, while the full description is here:

Text regarding a patent.

Screencap of the summary page for Patent 458867.

The patent isn’t for the substance in the aluminum petri dish, but rather the container itself! The abstract also provides an answer to a question we Americans on staff had (since we couldn’t immediately recognise the name “Macleans”), but the Brits knew all along: it’s a toothpaste company! The word “dentifrice” in the above screenshot is basically a slightly archaic technical term for powders and pastes used to clean teeth.

Macleans was founded in 1919 by a man named Alex C. Maclean, who produced a peroxide-based toothpaste for whitening in 1927. Beecham, a British pharma group, purchased the company in 1938. Combining this with our patent date, it’s possible that the container we have is from as early as 1935/1936, but we can’t be sure that the product name didn’t retain Macleans after the acquisition by Beecham (Beecham merged with SmithKline and later they all merged with Glaxo Wellcome, thus giving the world GlaxoSmithKline). “Beecham’s Macleans” is not an uncommon phrase as we scoured the internet for its history. But according to the National Archives database, the phrase “Macleans Ltd.” is still in use at least until 1960. So we have a time period of no earlier than 1935, but likely the object was of more recent manufacture since we know BHT had his trench open in the 1960s.

From top left: 1930s via GlaxoSmithKline; 1946, 1951, 1953 from History World Advert Museum; Feb, July, August, September 1954 from Grace’s Guide.

This YouTube video is the advert that is perhaps the closest in time to BHT’s trench shenanigans.

None of this information tells us for sure that BHT was particularly interested in white teeth, but one of our archive rooms tells another story. When we mentioned the curious toothpaste tin to the environmental archaeology supervisor Alice, she remembered seeing them in BHT’s archival material. We went on a field trip to our archive store and discovered cache of all sorts of tins of different sizes but all roughly comparable to a digestive biscuit or two. Poking around, we discovered that Hope-Taylor used tins just like them for flot, which are the light charred seeds and other buoyant material that are skimmed off the surface when doing flotation of environmental samples. Our tin, however, was empty this time.

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EMPTY!

Mystery solved? Maybe. But you never know what else may turn up in the backfill…

Round-up: Week 2

This week was very busy, and even with some uncooperative weather, we made a lot of headway in the trench and with some of our post-excavation work. Our flotation tank is up and running, so we have started processing samples from the first week of the season with students. The finds department has been digitizing records, as well as guiding some of the students into more advanced technical drawing of small finds. In addition, they worked on some 3D models of Brian Hope-Taylor’s old trench to better understand what he was seeing. We hope to show you those as well as models of our excavation when they are finished.

Along the western edge of the trench, we started working at the base of a section wall we re-cut that stands adjacent to Brian Hope-Taylor’s trench containing the mortar mixer (SW corner of trench). The upper pavement he had originally encountered seems to continue in our excavation.

Brown-haired girl kneels in front of wall of earth, large paving stones to her left.

The upper pavement of which Hope-Taylor spoke, in an area adjacent to his original excavations.

We lifted some of those paving stones, which revealed a large deposit of snail shells and, as we cleaned, some really beautiful but compact stratigraphy.

Layers of soil alternating bark brown, orange, grey and ashen, above large paving stones.

The stratigraphy under the upper pavement on the western edge of the trench north of the mortar mixer.

Near the trench entrance ramp, we dug a sondage to examine a possible pit. Nearly-whole oyster shells were stacked in a small pile in the sondage. We extended our mini-trench along a stone alignment and discovered a beautifully incised spindle whorl (seen here in both drawing and photo).

Small brown rectangle of lower soil with narrow stones aligned along the bottom of the image.

Sondage looking south; shell deposit to left and spindle whorl found centre-right.

The northwestern corner of the trench was cleaned and reexamined, and it remains one of the weirdest areas of the trench going back nearly a decade. This time, what stood out was that the corner was retaining moisture differently from the adjacent areas; we call this differential drying. This tells us that there is something preventing the soil from draining and drying at the same rate, be it the composition of the soil (for example, a lot of clay) or the presence of something, natural or human-made, underneath it.

Yellow tripod in right background, triangle of grey-brown soil bordered on two sides by angular grey stones.

NW corner of the trench; tripod for our total station, which is a surveying tool that measures distance electronically by bouncing light off a prism.

Lastly, in the southeast corner of the trench, we planned all the cobbles of our 7th/8th-century yard surface and began removing them! This layer of cobbles had been exposed for a while, so lifting many of the loosest stones was extremely satisfying. And underneath? So far…more cobbles. Stay tuned!

Four adults crouch to lift small grey and blue cobbles and place them in yellow buckets.

Everyone wanted to get in on lifting the cobbles!

 

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.