Ashington Academy Challenge Week at Bamburgh Castle

Recently Brian Cosgrove and Catrina Clements of Ashington Academy brought three of their pupils, Liam Clark, Ethan Elliot and Ben Hardy up to Bamburgh Castle for Challenge Week. Although we had officially finished the dig the weekend before we were happy to host them and in fact left a little corner of the site open for them to work in.

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Ben Hardy, left and Ethan Elliot, right excvating our troublesome layer

We had a plan to investigate a small block of deposit that might provide clues to help us resolve a problem with Trench 8, our re-evaluation of Brian Hope-Taylor’s Trench 1 from 1960. The deposit was a small triangle of isolated stratigraphy between Trench 8 and Trench 3. it was the continuation into Trench 3 of a confusing layer that we identified when we re-evaluated the Hope-Taylor trench. This layer that produced a limited amount of glazed pottery, now seems to reach down well into the early medieval period (see the section below). It confused us at the time of the re-evaluation in 2006 and now we have excavated much deeper in Trench 3 we have more information and it appears to extend from the 12th to the 9th centuries. As such it spans far too large a period of time for a single phase of activity and must surely represent a series of layers that we are failing to differentiate between. Elswhere in Trench 3 we have clearly different events and structures from this 300 year period. That fact that it is up to 0.4m thick is a further clue that we are missing changes that are simply very hard to see.

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The digitised east facing section of Trench 8 as re-recorded in 2006. Layers 806 and 820 are part of a known series of deep midden deposits that date from the 13th centuy to the 15th century. Directly beneath is the probalematic layer, 825, that extends in section all the way to a series of layers and features that we can now date. Thin layers 828 and 863, along with the large post-hole 835 are all provisionally dated to the 9th century. The cobble feature 827 is likely to be even earlier and 8th century.

Excavation within Trench 3 has also revealed that the stratigraphic layers get deeper to the south and west and that near Trench 8 the accumulation of deposits over time was slower and shallower. As we are currently writing up Trench 8 for publication it would be very useful to be able to demonstrate if this deep deposit really did comprise more than one stratigraphic layer. So we decided that we would excavate a sample of the surviving deposit in three successive units, in a verticla sequence, separating the finds and taking a sub-samples for flotation from each. We hoped that we just might be able to see changes in the finds or identify material we could date from each unit, as a test of our idea.

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Liam Clark helping out with recording

Brian and Catrina and their small team helped to excavate the layer in its units, take the samples and for good measure we processed one on site with them as well. As normal we identified and collected the finds as we dug, sieved all the deposit through a 6mm grid and 3D located the one small find, a piece of lead. We were not able to differentiate layers in plan as we dug them any better than we were in the section. Animal bone was common throughout the three units, but the only pottery sherds came from the upper one. Interesting, but far too limited evidence to form any conclusions yet. We will further analyse the finds and samples over the next few weeks, but may need to date each unit through radiocarbon assay to stand a chance of coming up with solid proof.

The Trench 3 ‘doughnut’ has been lifted

An unusual worked stone that we have been referring to as the ‘doughnut’ has been a familiar feature in the southern part of Trench 3 for the last few seasons at Bamburgh Castle. It was first revealed in 2011, but it took two further seasons to lower the ground surface around it sufficiently for its unusual form to become apparent.

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The metalworking building roughly outlined by the stones used for its foundations with the top of the ‘doughnut’ just visible 1m outside the west wall, in the lower- left of the photo.

It lay immediately west of the metalworking building and is broadly contemporary with that structure, which would make it middle 9th century AD in date. The wear pattern on the side suggests that the top third of the stone was uncovered above the surface for sufficient time for it to wear and erode more than the base which appears to have been set into the ground. We believe therefore that it was inserted into a cut which we have struggled to see.  The presence of a small number of what are likely packing stones reinforces this interpretation.

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As removed sitting right side up. The unusual form and perforation is visible (scale 0.5m demarked with 10cm units).

The stone is difficult to interpret and has been suggested as a socket for a timber pivot, a socket for a standing cross, which would be exciting but sadly is rather unlikely give its circular shape. It could also to have been set as a soakaway, given that it is perforated all the way through. Now we have lifted it and examined it seems likely that it started life as a mortar as the upper part of the perforation is smooth and the lower crudely cut through. Our best guess is that it was a large mortar re-used as a pivot stone.

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In the side view the more eroded upper third of the stone is seen to the right (scale 0.5m)

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The base of the stone. It is just possible to see tha the last part of the perforations is quite crudely chiselled unlike the upper part which is finished or worn to be relatively smooth. Also just visible are a series of shallow dimples unevenly arranged around the hole (scale 0.5m).

Interpreting the Lower pavement in Trench 3

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A Trench 3 phase plan for the middle 9th century AD with some earlier features depicted in the northern Hope-Taylor area, including the ‘lower pavement’. The pit and socket were yet to be identified when this was drawn but it lies in the west part of the baulk, close to where the baulk joins our main excavation.

During the last week we have been excavating two pits in the area of the baulk through the Hope-Taylor excavation. One of these has proved to be quite substantial and associated with a broken stone socket used as a pivot, which we have now lifted. Working out what the socket was used for is difficult as we have few other features that we can associate with it at the moment. It likely held a door post that rotated in the socket so we should be looking for traces of a building in the vicinity. Hope-Taylor excavated to both north and south of the feature and there is what appears to be a construction cut for a timber structure in his records to the north of the stone. If we can prove that these two features were broadly contemporary we might be closer to solving the problem and identifying a new building.

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The socket lies on its side and with a visible crack at the centre of this photo. It lies within a pit that cuts a mortar surface to the right and stones to the left.

West of the pits we are currently working on one of the more interesting features in the Hope-Taylor excavation. It’s a linear stone structure that lies along the west extent of his trench. Hope-Taylor called it his ‘lower pavement’ and it has been a recognisable part of of his excavation since we first uncovered it. We touched on it in the last blog on Trench 3, as we were looking to see if we could join this ‘pavement’ through the baulk to a series of stones visible in section. The ‘pavement’ is important because it is a long linear feature that extends for many metres along the west side of the trench.  Importantly it represents a stratigraphic signpost linking Hope-Taylor’s excavated material back into our sequence via the section we drew of the baulk.

 

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‘Lower pavement’ extending along the west extent of Hope-Taylor’s excavation level

We have been looking at the ‘pavement’ feature itself and some characteristics seem to be apparent. Is this stone structure really a pavement/road or a structural foundation for a timber building. The fortress wall must lie within 6 to 8m of our trench edge, judging by the position of the current wall and the edge of the dolerite plateau, which certainly leaves space for a building or a road.

The lower pavement extends for 11m (assuming it is seen emerging from the baulk) but does not extend all the way to the north end of the trench or further to the south into the southern Hope-Taylor trench. This alone would seem to make the road interpretation problematic. Looking at the surviving Hope-Taylor records, and the feature in the ground, it seems that it is a discreet structure that does not quite extend to the western trench limit. This makes us think that it must surely be a structural foundation, not a road. It also contains a variety of stone from dolerite boulders to occasional dressed blocks of masonry and these must have been re-used from an earlier building. If our further investigation can define it turning right angles at each end then we will have proved it is a building. Frustratingly as the majority of the structure lies beyond our trench and under the standing castle wall we will have only a limited chance to go further and define is role.

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Aerial view of Trench 3 with a rather speculative guess at to how a building might lie between the trench and the fortress wall

 

Back up and working in Trench 3

Once we get the tarpaulins off and the site clean again there is always the same feeling of never having been away, despite the months that have past. This year we are back to contemplating the connections between our excavation and the surface that Brian Hope-Taylor reached in his last season in 1974, just as we were last July. Over the last couple of seasons we have been slowly inching our way towards this great ‘joining up’, and although it might sound like a straightforward task accomplished by simply digging down to the same level, this is not the case; the trench slopes down to the west and the south. This means that surfaces that were the same date are not at the same physical level in different parts of the trench. The whole trench, after all, is in a natural cleft in the rock, in-filled over perhaps two thousand years. A good illustration of this is what Hope-Taylor called his ‘Lower Pavement’, a stone surface that stretches along the west side of his excavation.

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The pavement at the base of the rather green section. It seems that there is a gap that may be a little more than just a thin layer of soil covering part of it.

At the moment we are working on the baulk (an unexcavated bank of ground) that Hope-Taylor left in beneath a sewer pipe that physically joins our two excavations together. This is a key to linking our recorded archaeology to his. To its north the layers within his trench are only around 10cm below ours, but to the south he excavated deeper and into earlier deposits, which has left a tall standing section. We cleaned and re-recorded this last year and continued it into our main excavation to the east. It was during this process that the decorated bird mount was found. One more incentive to get down to this lower level this season.

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The deeper part of Hope-Taylor’s excavation is still under cover (foreground) but we have uncovered the section to aid our comparison to our own levels (being planned on the right).

Of course life in Trench 3 is never simple, so at the west side of the baulk, in the spot where the ‘Lower Pavement’ joins the baulk, there is a gap before it is seen again in the section of Hope-Taylor’s deeper excavation. We are currently investigating if this absence is due to the presence of a pit that cut through the stone feature.

Excited to get back to Trench 3

It was quite late in the season last year when the new decorated copper alloy mount was discovered in Trench 3. We had been investigating once of the sections of the Hope-Taylor excavation from the 1970s, trying to make sense of the stratigraphy alongside our own and working out if the surfaces did indeed slop down from north to south. During this process we extended into our trench from the section, excavating a narrow slot down to a lower horizon. This revealed a new well laid cobble surface and it was from this level that the copper mount was recovered.

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Trench 3 from the west showing the section extended across the far side of the trench to reveal the new cobble surface.

Looking at it still encrusted with soil we thought that we might have the head of a dragon, but x-ray and conservation quickly revealed that this was a mistake. we were looking at it the wrong way around and it was a different kind of beast entirely.

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The bird as first conserved

On Monday morning we will start excavating again and expanding the slot trench and investigating the new cobble surface will be a high priority. Are we in a building or was the find dropped on a yard or road surface? Time will tell but I feel it could be an interesting summer.

The Bamburgh Bird: Unique 8th century Anglo-Saxon decorative metal work discovered at Bamburgh Castle

Near the end of last summer’s excavation season we made a marvellous new find of national significance; a beautifully decorated copper alloy bird mount. The decorated fragment is small, 23mm by 12mm, but decorated with an intricate zoomorphic representation of a bird, characteristic of early medieval North European art. The star find has since been undergoing careful conservation to reveal an intricately decorated artefact that is a window into the art of a lost era of early medieval royal society.

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Our first view of the conseved find (Karen Barker, Conservator)

Initial comments from a number of experts has suggested that the bird mount is unique, with no direct parallels and likely to be 8th century in date. It is fascinating that the new image appears to hark back in time to the bird of prey motifs of the 6th and 7th centuries AD and could represent a descendant of these earlier styles just as ‘the later 8th century York helmet, is an update of the form known from the earlier Sutton Hoo, Staffordshire and Wollaston helmets’.

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The bird is a realtively thin copper allow piece undecorated on the back anmd likely to have been mounted onto a larger artefact.

The find, excavated by Harry Francis, was recovered from a cobbled surface revealed at the base of a narrow trench that was excavated to identify the next occupation surface at the southern part of Trench 3.  This was revealed as a well constructed surface just centimetres below the well dated 9th century metal working building. At this time there were a number of smaller kingdoms and Northumbria was one of these. The palace fortress of Bamburgh was one of the most important places in Northumbria at that time and we have evidence of metal working, probably associated with the production of arms and armour for the warriors of the royal court in our excavation. In summer 2017 we will continue our investigations of the find spot and we hope to discover if it represents an earlier period of metal working or some other activity. At the moment our investigation of this horizon is at such an early stage we are unsure if the find came from within a building or from a yard surface or path where it may have been dropped. We are very much looking forward to getting back on site and continuing our excavations.

Francis Armstrong and his son Will, owners of Bamburgh Castle have commented that ‘the Bird is a spectacular discovery. It is a beautiful artefact and we are proud that it has been found here at Bamburgh. Finds like this help us to connect with the Castle’s history and it is wonderful when we get the opportunity to display these ancient wonders so our visitors can enjoy them close up. We are grateful for the work the BRP do here at the Castle and we have a great time working with them unearthing the stories that Bamburgh Castle has to tell’.

Research into the new find is ongoing and we aim to have a short publication ready later this year. The bird will be on display at the castle, open 10.00am to 5pm until 29th October, with many other fascinating finds including pattern welded swords and intricately decorated gold work. You can also come and chat to the archaeologists on site when visiting the castle between June 11th and July 15th.

3-Dimensional artefact location mapping in Trench 3, Bamburgh Castle

Ryan Leckel, undergraduate student of the Applied Social Science Department at University of Wisconsin-Stout, has received a grant of more than $2,000.00 to help with his pilot study in 3-dimensional visualisation of small find locations in Trench 3 at Bamburgh Castle. The study will gather and input data from the site records in order to produce a 3-D model of the site in which the distribution of the finds can be visualised alongside the trench plans. It is hoped this will prove an invaluable tool for identifying patterns of finds on the site and greatly aid interpretation. One of the trickier aspects of such analysis will be asking the right questions of the model.

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Trench 3 Excavation

It is great to see staff and students wanting to work on project data so we are delighted that this is just one such ongoing project. We are really looking forward to this collaboration in the weeks ahead and we will update you as the work progresses- hopefully with some really nice images.

Bookings to join us on the excavation are still open, though some weeks are getting close to being full, so we would encourage anyone still thinking of joining us this summer to get in touch soon.

Click here to go to the booking page.

 

Looking back at this year’s work in Trench 3

Trench 3 has set us some real puzzles in recent years and made it hard to be certain we were excavating in a single phase. In simple terms this means that we wanted to be confident that the surface of the site we had exposed represented a single period in time. We made excellent progress with this once we had uncovered a 9th century AD metalworking area complete with a smithy and linked it to a contemporary timber building to its immediate north. Last year and this year to we have been excavating down to the surface beneath the two buildings and back in time to the beginning of the 9th century, even into the 8th century.

At the end of last year we uncovered a pebble surface in the central and eastern part of the trench and we continued to reveal this during this year. Finding an intrusive later medieval pit in the process. This summer we removed an enigmatic wall, thought to be some kind of revetting structure, probably associated with the smithy. Stripping this away has really brought home to us just how close we are to reaching the base of Brian Hope-Taylor’s 1970’s excavation north of the old sewer pipe, long since removed, that divided his dig into two halves. We are now only centimetres from being level with him and have high hopes of joining the two digs together next year. It will take a while longer to reach the same levels he reached to the south of the sewer pipe as he dug deeper there reaching the 7th century or earlier.

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Removing the crude stone wall

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The (small) pebble surface fully exposed on the western side of Trench 3

One of the more fascinating investigations this season was the cleaning and straightening of the section that formed the north side of this deeper Hope-Taylor excavation. We did this to better understand the way the layers were behaving. We strongly suspected that they sloped gently down to the south and west – and indeed the section revealed they did. Important for us to know if we were not to get confused as we dig deeper.

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The straightened Hope-Taylor section ready for recording. His deeper excavation on the left side of the photograph still mostly covered in tarps and soil.

The west end of this section revealed stone structures and colourful stratigraphy, almost certainly industrial waste associated with earlier metalworking. This was beneath a stone linear that Hope-Taylor called his lower pavement that extends along the western limit of his excavation. We are unsure what this represents. It may be a foundation for a timber building, if so a large one, or a path inside the western defensive wall line to the ward. Something to investigate next year.

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The ‘lower pavement’ beneath the right end of the ranging rod with the industrial layers beneath.

We decided to dig a narrow sondage (a sounding trench) continuing this section into our excavation area in order to investigate what the next horizon down looks like. This revealed a well constructed surface composed of quite substantial pebbles. It looks like a yard surface or a floor surface within a structure and may be related to the pebble surface to the north, though clearly they are not the same feature as the northern surface is constructed of much smaller pebbles. Whatever it turns out to be we can’t wait to explore it further.

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The trench close to the end of the season. The sondage has been extended to the east section and the (large) pebble surface is visible even from this distance.

 

Bamburgh Castle, Trench 3 – Hope Taylor nearly in reach!

As the level of Brian Hope Taylor’s 1974 excavations gets tantalisingly close, Trench 3 staff continue the process of gradually joining our excavations to his.

 

 

This is achieved through the removal of features and contexts which are stratigraphically higher in sequence including a stone wall (possibly 9th Century) last week, underneath which a number of finds were discovered. Our progress is described in the video below.

 

 

Week 4 in Trench 3, Bamburgh Castle

Last week’s main focus was on the north-east corner of Trench 3, as we were investigating the possibility that the area is in fact a Romano-British occupation layer. Questions have been raised recently about whether our previous identification of the area, as currently dating to around the 9th Century (believed so due to the beam-slot cut of our 9th Century Anglo-Saxon timber building) no longer holds, due to a large number of Roman finds appearing both this season and ones previously. This is not typically a cause for reinterpretation as artefacts from earlier periods do appear from time to time in negative features, such as pits and post-holes, but these were also appearing in normal stratigraphic layers. These finds include a section of a Roman glass bracelet, both Roman greyware and Samian pottery and, from a previous season, a Roman fibulae brooch.

 

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Part of the collection of Roman finds from the NE area of the trench.

 

To add to our current mystery, this area is cut by a number of negative features, which is making this puzzle all the more exciting to figure out. We have discovered a 9th century timber beam slot, an anglo-saxon post-hole, a high medieval pit and another possible anglo-saxon pit all in this corner. It is also difficult to see a relationship between the dated areas of the trench and this corner because there is a large WW1 test latrine pit isolating it on one side, it goes into our trench edges on two more, and finally it backs onto a higher portion of bedrock on the last. Finally towards the end of the week a stone linear feature was seen in the section of the beamslot and so work began to investigate it, which led to us reaching bedrock around 0.35m below our current level. This could give an explanation for why this area was occupied before the areas with lower bedrock levels, however more investigation is needed before we rule out any other theories.