We are back digging at the castle

When we did our round-up of the 2019 Summer dig a few weeks ago we did say we that we had some news of work that would be happening over the next few months, so I think its high time we told you what it is! There have been a number of changes at the castle this year, and more are planned. Amongst these are additions to the experience of visiting the West Ward, where the old Trench 1 has been backfilled and landscaped, and now there is the intention to add more public activities from next summer. As our major excavation (Trench 3) rather sprawls over a substantial area of the ward it is rather in the way of this so following discussion with the castle, we are doing a staff dig to complete the excavation by next spring. We are able to do this due to a generous grant from the estate that will pay many weeks of wages and because we had pretty much reached he same level as Dr Hope-Taylor had managed in the 1970s, so all that remains is to excavate a sufficient sample down to the earliest occupation beneath the Hope-Taylor levels.

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Just started and we already have a new stone-lined  hearth uncovered

By adding this deeper sample we will have a full sequence from the prehistoric to the modern era. We will of course have to sample the earliest deposits over a much smaller area. This is necessary because of the time available but also unavoidable due to the need to step the area in for safety reasons due to the depth we need to reach. This could be as deep as 4m below ground level in places.

We will have a smaller team than usual so will not be able to do as many social media posts as we would like as we need to concentrate on the excavation, but we do intend to keep you informed as well as we can.

It will be the end of an era for the BRP but not the end of our work at Bamburgh as future projects are already being developed.

End of Season Thoughts

It has been a busy but productive excavation season and, as always, seemed to come to a close all too soon. Thankfully it seems very likely that one of our principal objectives for the summer, which was to identify a building, or buildings, associated with our large and impressive-looking cobble surface, was fulfilled. We had been looking for post-holes or beam slots of a series of modest to small buildings that would front onto the cobbles. This was based on the metalworking building/forge that we had seen in a later (9th century) layer, that was build alongside a pebble pathway. It was quit a modest-sized building and, as we were looking for other industrial style workshops, it made sense that they would also be quite modest in size.  As is often the case in archaeology, what actually was found turned out to be a little different. Instead of a series of smaller structures, we have now identified a large building at least 9.6m north-east to south-west. It extends beyond the trench towards the sea and as we have only seen clear evidence of two of the walls, we are far from certain about its width.

Rather than seeing evidence of the building itself, what we found was that the edges of two cobble and pebble surfaces align at 90 degrees (a right angle, like the corner of a rectangle) and therefore appear to outline the space where two sides of a structure once stood. As we only have its outline in general so far, we are still uncertain if, like the later 9th century one, it was associated with metalworking or some other industrial style activity. It does include in its floor space a hearth and stone-lined water channel that was uncovered by Hope-Taylor, but it seems likely that this is an earlier phase of activity so not evidence of what our newly discovered building was for.

This year we were also fortunate to have a donation to fund some radiocarbon dates, and we used them to confirm the date of the cobble surface and some potential associated features in the main section that passes through the Hope-Taylor area. As this is an important–and very likely deliberately-planned–surface, being able to more closely date this will help to interpret it better, and, just as importantly, interpret the features and structures associated with it. This new dating has confirmed that the cobble and pebble surfaces that outline two sides of the large timber structure discussed above are of the right date to be contemporary and are mid-7th to mid-8th century.

In addition to investigating the cobble surface and the features around it, we have also been looking at the west trench edge and Hope-Taylor’s ‘lower pavement’. We have long thought this was likely to be the foundation for a substantial timber building or structure rather than a pavement and further work seems to have confirmed this. Last year we thought that we found a southern limit to it, and this year we have further investigated what appeared to be gaps spaced along its length. We thought these might be indications of post-holes for raking supporting timbers (think of them as buttressing the main structure on a diagonal), but as no post-holes were found, we are now thinking that we were looking at this the wrong way! Perhaps we have a series of extensions from the line of the stone foundation and not pits cut into it. If this is so, then we still have raking supporting timbers, but they are based on extensions to the surface and would be more consistent with the main wall which must be a beam or series of posts set onto the slab stone foundation.

lower pavement explanation

It is a little annoying when a blog tells you to keep checking as we have some important announcements to come, so I feel I should apologise for doing this now! The truth is we do have some really exciting projects for the next few months, but are just not quite in a place to announce them yet. It does mean though that the blog will be a good bit more active this autumn and winter than it normally is, which I hope is good news.

Graeme Young, Director

 

 

Fresh from the Trench: Week 6 – Two for the price of one!

Within minutes of each other, we found two very curious artefacts, and admittedly we are a little confused by both.

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The first was a bit of glazed pottery from the very bottom of a late medieval pit in the north of the trench. It is quite unlike most of the pottery we find anywhere in the trench, and initially the chocolate-y brown on beige caused some unwanted ceramic flashbacks for some of us to a particularly hideous slipware (pottery decorated with creamy clay that turns a different colour when fired, often with browns on yellows and vice versa) we see in the 17th-18th centuries (so we guess you could call them flashforwards?). We of course don’t think the pottery is that recent, but it is certainly giving off some major post-green-glaze vibes that suggest the very end of the medieval period. A tinge of green-glaze is still there, but the dark smears on the light background give the whole fragment the appearance of a sundae stirred as it melts. This sherd is curved but rather thick, but if it is part of a rim, we can place it on a chart of ruled concentric circles (or get out a good old-fashioned mathematical compass to measure the arcs and use a little maths) to determine how wide the mouth of the vessel it came from was. We are thinking it more likely might be a piece of a handle. Rims, bases, and sometimes handles can help us deduce vessel type or even a possible date range! We are still scratching our heads on this for now.

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The second artefact is even more mysterious, and we are absolutely stumped. It’s worked stone, but for what purpose? The two prongs are reminiscent of our leather hole-spacer, but the short circular tab is not really ergonomic enough for getting the same kind of leverage to actually punch a hole as the bone tool as it can only be grasped and pinched between the thumb and forefinger.. This is something we need to experiment with and brainstorm further. The object was excavated from the very weird northwest corner of the trench that never dries and sometimes produces Roman material. This little stone thingamabob was inside a pit abutting the bedrock. Any ideas or guesses are welcome!

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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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.