The Laidly Worm/#ToadWatch2021

A 1904 painting of the tale hanging in the first stateroom at the castle, what was once the medieval kitchen.

The Tale

A beloved king based at Bamburgh mourns his former wife and searches for a new wife to rule beside him and help raise his two children, Childe Wynd and Margaret. He eventually marries an evil witch who appears as a beautiful woman. His son goes off on adventures in the Frankish realm on the Continent, while the princess is left to face the ire of her stepmother. The witch is incandescently jealous of the attention Margaret receives from the other nobles, so she places a curse only breakable by the prince, assuming he will never return, on the young maiden. Margaret is turned into a hideous dragon, and she escapes the castle and hides in a nearby cave until hunger forces her to pick off local farmer’s livestock. Her brother returns after hearing of the terror in his father’s kingdom, evading witches and warriors sent by his stepmother en route. He plans to slay the dragon, but it speaks to him in his sister’s voice, begging for three kisses to undo the curse. He obliges and Margaret is transformed back to her human form. The witch is turned into a toad to spend eternity. The princess, prince, and king likely live happily ever after.

The Background


The story was published in 1778 by William Hutchinson in the form of a ballad in a collection of folk songs, based on a version presented by Reverend Robert Lambe of an English village near Berwick. Lambe insisted it was from a 13th-century Latin manuscript of a local bard named Duncan Frasier. It was retold in several publications in the early 19th century and expanded into a prose account nearly a century later. You can read the full ballad here starting on page 156.


While this bit of folklore often describes the princess as a Saxon (“in Ida’s time”), there’s a bit of confusion about the actual composition of the story versus the transmission and textual appearance. First, the kingdom of Bernicia, and then Northumbria, were actually Anglian, which would have an effect on the dialect and possibly the names of places and characters. That’s a nitpicky thing, but it has to be said (see the dialect differences in this old post regarding a riddle in the West Saxon dialect which is often taught in university and the Northumbrian dialect which would have been the dominant version in our area). The romantic and chivalrous tropes of the story gave us a later medieval vibe, but the names of our characters might possibly give us some insight into the dating of the story as well. It’s not uncommon to see a kernel of a story going back as far as the Iron Age being transmitted nearly a thousand years before being written down, and we do see this in Irish mythological cycles and Arthurian literature.

“Behoc” seems to have no extant sources nor any standardised accent notation beyond possible Celtic roots; we tried to chase down possible Germanic origins to match the supposed time period, but that took us down an absolutely ridiculous path that gave us the meaning “being a marshmallow” so we abandoned that thread rather quickly. It may have come from Bethóc which is found in Gaelic sources, including one that refers to a Scottish prioress living as late as the 13th century. The spelling is a roughly phonetic version of how the name would have been pronounced in Irish or Scottish Gaelic. Variants include Beathag, Bethag, Beathog, and Behag and come from the word for “life.” The “-óc” suffix is from Old Irish (in use 7th-10th centuries), while “-ag” is from Scottish Gaelic, both as a diminutive meaning “little.”

The name “Childe Wynd” seems to be a Middle English spelling, where the first part of the name is a later medieval word (from the Old English term for the son of a nobleman) and refers to a particular low-level rank of a male in their pursuit knighthood. Wynd is a Northern English/Scottish dialectical word for a side street, but here could also be a variant of the word wind.

The name of the princess, Margaret, only becomes common in English after the 11th century, likely Conquest-related since it comes from Marguerite.


The rock where the prince hitches his horse. Photo by Wayne Phillips, used here under Creative Commons licence.

The main locales in the story are Bamburgh, with which you all are now rather familiar, and Spindlestone Heugh. A heugh is a crag of cliff in Northern English and Scottish for those of you like our American staff that have never encountered that word except in the regional toponyms (place-name words). The Spindlestone itself is a bit of dolerite, the same type of rock that was injected into the sandstone here at the castle and along Hadrian’s Wall as the Whin Sill, standing conspicuously; this where the prince tethered his horse before encountering his sister-turned-dragon. The site is about 8 minutes by car from the village as seen via the route below.

Google Maps.

A hamlet just a minute down the road known as Waren Mill also has dragon-y roots. A waren is a dragon’s lair, with the linguistic root that implies a place where one keeps watch; it seems to be distantly related to the words warden and guardian (which have their own interesting history that may be a subject for a future blog if we find ourselves with Anglo-Norman material). In addition, just beside Waren Mill is Budle Bay, which is mentioned explicitly in the song.

The Vocab

Laidly” (variant: “laidley”) is a Scottish and Northern English word for “loathsome” or “ugly.” It comes from the same root as the French laid, the Latin word laitus which itself can be traced to a Proto-Indo-European word (the theoretical language from which most of the European languages descend) for “unpleasant.”

A slow worm. She’s so cute! Kati Kemppainen/ via Natural History Museum’s British wildlife database.

“Worm” as we use it today refers to annelids like the earthworm or parasites like roundworms and flatworms. Less common but present in the southeastern UK, we have the slow worm, a legless lizard that is actually rather adorable but gets mistaken for snakes fairly regularly. In folk tales, it could mean [sea] serpent, legless dragon-like creature, or wingless dragon; multiple legends which may be allegorical in the northeast of England (Northumberland and Durham) and the Scottish Borders tell of great dragons haranguing the locals. This usage was often written as wyrm having been borrowed in both forms at different times, but we tend to associate it with Old and Middle English. It comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstructed wrmis, giving us the Latin vermis (root of “vermin”) and all the cognates found in modern Germanic languages.

The Toad Herself

Since the day we arrived on site, we have been telling students and young visitors to help us search for the witch-turned-toad, #ToadWatch2021. We can now announce that she hasn’t only been spotted, but she briefly sat with us for a while near Trench 5a! Presenting, Behoc:

We kind of love her. Truly a high-quality toad, as toads go. Has she had enough time to think about her crime? We don’t know how to turn her back in any case, but #ToadWatch2021 is officially over, in success.

Witchcraft Wednesday

This is Part II of a series on witchcraft, where we look at medieval attitudes toward magic and witchcraft. Part I explained why we are in a witchy mood this season and gave a very brief overview of the Classical influences on western Europe when it came to magic, gender, and power.

The Late Antique world was changing rapidly, but the arbitrary separation of religion and magic by those in power was still a prevalent tool to control communities. Early Christianity was a minor religion that had not yet been fully defined or codified, particularly with respect to its boundaries with Judaism. The New Testament does include the Magi, eastern wise men given the power of prophecy in the Nativity story, and other New Testament books, Gnostic gospel, and apocrypha (stories that are not officially or widely recognized throughout Christendom), tell stories of a convert named Simon Magus that sought power and fame through magical works. These stories rely on recognisable forms of the Greek mageia discussed briefly in our previous witchcraft post. During this period, Christian authorities associate the Roman pantheon, and other gods found throughout the Empire, with fallen angels or demons. We can see the early seeds of orthodoxy, but these are blurry and malleable lines between what is accepted and what is heresy. There’s this incredible shift where Christianity that started on the fringes of society rises to dominance, becoming writ large on empire for centuries, but the conversion period hits different regions over those centuries at different times.

Scholar Karen Jolly and her comrades have produced a thought-provoking volume on the medieval period in the series Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe (2002). They describe three main phases of medieval attitude shifts: conversion period, 12th-century scholasticism, and 14th-century upheaval.

Phase I: Conversion Period(s)

The conversion period, although staggered through time, is a period of syncretism (the merging of multiple cultures or religion into something not quite clearly one of the components). There’s strong influence of the Classical (Greek and Roman, in particular), the Christian, and the “pagan” roughly Iron Age systems that have survived in western and central Europe in the development and form of medieval magic. These systems include the Celtic, Germanic, Scandinavian, and even Slavic traditions. In Scandinavia especially, conversion comes centuries after, say, Ireland and Britain, with a long period of coexistence that allows us in our time to read contemporary documentation of magic traditions that may be analogous to earlier northern Germanic practice. The conversion of peoples in Britain may have started as early as the 5th century, but Saint Augustine (of Rome, later Canterbury) is credited along with the Frankish Queen Bertha, wife of Aethelberht of Kent, for bringing Roman Christianity to the English. (Up here amongst the Northumbrians, Celtic Christianity was the converting force due to our beloved Saint Aidan).

Documents that talk about magic and witchcraft in the early parts of this period in Europe fall into both negative and positive approaches. The former are the condemnations which often juxtapose the power of prayerful words and saintly miracles against incantations and demonic illusions perpetrated by fraudsters. Saint Augustine (of Hippo) wrote numerous condemnations in the 4th-5th centuries as did Isidore of Seville in the 6th-7th centuries; these denunciations get repeated during the medieval period forming a basis for some of the most heinous persecutions in the early modern period. The latter includes saints’ lives (hagiography), medical texts, and guides to appropriate rituals for clerics and laity, including penitential texts that describe how to atone for minor and major sins. These texts in Britain and Ireland especially in regard to magic and witchcraft made their way to the Continent, and in return the laws of Charlemagne and his dynasty were imported, and their vocabulary translated into Old English. Bald’s Leechbook, a book of medical texts in Old English written down in the 10th century, contains several charms that require ritualistic behavior and/or herbal concoction. Where does the line between magic and medicine lie?

Folio 012v of Bald’s Leechbook via the British Library digitised copy. Royal MS 12 D XVII

Phase II: 12thC Scholasticism

The second phase evolves in the intellectual revolution beginning in the 12th century; the rise of towns and cities create changing socio-economic structures and division of labour, and old and new ideas are shared across Europe. Classical texts are rediscovered and reinterpreted, such as Aristotle’s discourse on science. Contemporary Arab and Jewish thinkers are being incorporated into the emerging philosophical approach of scholasticism, yet, at the same time, those scholars are portrayed as “The Other,” worthy of fear and persecution. All sorts of questions on the nature of things, including nature itself, the worlds of faith and reason, and the supernatural are asked and debated during this period of scholasticism. Many scholars theorise a natural magic or white magic that examines and manipulates phenomena of the natural world, giving rise to what today we consider sciences like botany, chemistry, and astronomy. The occult was not immediately negative, not instantly demonic, but rather the harnessing of hidden knowledge of nature. This further develops into the opposing forces of white and black magic, and high and low magic, which seeks to differentiate process and intent when passing judgement on magical pursuits. These frameworks push the focus of authorities like the Church away from writing off magic as simplistic paganism due to ignorance, and into the realm of purposeful heresy. The Church takes its growing role as an arbiter of knowledge seriously, but reserves handling cases of magic and witchcraft on a local or mid-level scale, rather than with the full force of the institution. Punishment was limited to excommunication or exile rather than death. Pastoral care, by way of warnings against witchcraft and magic and the introduction of confession as preventive and restitutive measures respectively, became a duty of the religious class.

Phase III: 14thC-16thC

The final phase aligns with the political upheaval across western and central Europe in the 14th and 15th century. This is when the millennia-old assertion of magic as at all times demonic (asserted by Saint Augustine) becomes truly entrenched. The increase in literacy and the earliest days of printing create new channels for communication, as ritual and folk medicinal texts become more widely available. Some have noted that the prevalence of anti-magic treatises may have actually led to more popular interest and the transmission of stories of magic. But now magic is active allegiance with the devil, a conspiracy of organised groups to endanger souls (and the authority of the Church). What were once dismissed as illusions is now mortal (and eternal) peril. Political scandals during the period were riddled with accusations of magic, witchcraft, and poisoning in royal courts and papal circles. The early inquisitor Bernard Gui publishes a guide in 1323 for the investigation and prosecution of those who dare to threaten the order of things with magic. In 1487, the Malleus Maleficarum (literally “Hammer of Women who Commit Crimes of Magic”) goes straight at the diabolical roots, targeting witches and urging further social persecution and legal prosecution; its provocative and violent approach to the subject matter was even debated at its publication. This movement is not universal, but we see higher tiers of authority picking up these cases, sending ripples upward and downward through the ranks of society.

One such case occurred just across the Irish Sea in 1324 when Alice Kyteler, a well-off heiress to a merchant family’s fortune, was accused of witchcraft. Clearly the intersection of her status in the community, her gender, and her degree of independence all could have been perceived as a threat to rivals and local authorities. Her trial included a number of firsts such as the accusation of an organised conspiracy to commit heresy, which sadly led to the torture and burning of her servant Petronilla later that year. In addition, she is the first documented reference to a woman having sexual intercourse with a demon to gain her power. Women, regardless of their influence, were still disempowered when accused; they were unable to be independent perpetrators but were easily-seduced victims of the devil and his demons. Secular laws and well-timed escapes to England kept Kyteler out of the flames, but various Continental authorities in the Church and secular roles were inspired to pursue charges of heresy for witchcraft.

The fervor died down in the early 16th century…but not for long.

Further reading:

Jolly, K., Raudvere, C., & Peters, E. (2002). The Athlone history of witchcraft and magic in Europe: Volume 3: the Middle Ages. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Fresh IN the Trench

We can now present: The Room!

The footprint of the tower has been partially emptied of rubble. We’ve got masonry extending beyond our present level, down to what must have been ground-level at least in the 18th century when the Witch’s Cottage was built into the tower. The lower phases of the walls we’ve posted images of so far are sandstone, with rounded and slightly eroded faces, while the top and likely post-medieval courses have more angular grey blocks.

The new face of wall that we have exposed is part of the initial L-shape masonry that we revealed at the very beginning of the season.

This morning, one step emerged from the rubble. We have chosen not to continue downward for now, because there is so much rubble and soil still to remove, and we are applying stricter-than-required rules for remaining at a safe depth within standing masonry. The Room is certainly deeper than the level at which we have stopped now, but how much deeper is unknown. Finding the floor level will be a project for next year.

Previously, we mentioned the rediscovery of plans from the 19th century, of the outworks. This excerpt of a map from 1803 shows us the steps down from Saint Oswald’s Gate to the postern and other outworks which are not pictured but would still have been standing.

Pardon the dirt, this was taken trench-side!

Our step appeared exactly where the stairs should have been, which gave us hope that the location of the well would also be where we expect it to be. As we cleared it further, however, it seems to either be a remnant of former stairs now removed or simply a threshold for a second doorway.

We will be clearing the break in the masonry and rubble to the left which seems to correspond with the main doorway into the 18th-century cottage structure.

Meet the Team – Finds Assistant

Finds Assistant Margot Lautrey introduces herself!

Hi, I’m Margot, your Finds Assistant from France! I have an MA in Business and Languages and after 7 years working for internet startups in Berlin I decided to go back to university to pursue my lifelong interest in archaeology – I’m now an undergraduate student at the University of York. This is my first season in Bamburgh and I very much enjoy being one of the finds nerds on site!

Fresh from the Wash

At nearly every site in use by the British in the late 16th century or after, from here to Ireland to the east coast of the United States, there is one artefact type that is often found in quantity: clay pipe fragments. The material is often English white clay, usually still white or beige after recovery and a quick wash, but local production material and use could lead to variation. They are almost never found intact, but rather as separate stems or bowls. Both fragments however can help us get a rough date on the artefact and perhaps even a range for the surrounding assemblage.

Just as an aside, (you know we love digressions on this blog), the prevalence of pipe fragments on colonial sites in Virginia has actually confirmed historical documents and proved wrong architectural conservators’ assertions in a heated series of arguments witnessed by one of our staff members. A certain structure was being surveyed by an interdisciplinary team of experts to prepare for excavation, conservation, and restoration at living history museum. The archaeologists and historians posited the structure had a porch during the mid-18th century, based on trial trenches for the former and primary sources for the latter. The primary sources referred to one of the more colorful residents sitting on the porch smoking and shouting hellos to other townsfolk as they passed by. The architects swore up and down that the building phases all went against the stylistic conventions for porches for the period. Finally, a trench that spanned the front façade of the building was opened, and, when it reached the expected depth of the 18th-century street level, the perfect outline of a porch and its supports was visible almost entirely due to ash deposits and pipe fragments.


If you are lucky enough to find a fragment with a maker’s mark, that could be a first major clue to production site and time range. On other sites, members of our staff have been able to literally in the field search local pipe maker mark databases and get a date based on the style of the mark. (This database from a governmental heritage organisation based in Canada was the key to unlocking a particularly plain maker’s mark from Bristol in 1668 at a dig along the Welsh border.)

There is also a noticeable evolution of the bowls from the beginning of English production in the 1580s through the 19th century. Adrian Oswald mapped the changes in bowls to create a seriation of stylistic and functional elements from rims of the bowl to the heels and spurs for setting the pipe down upright.

In the mid-20th century, a technique for dating the pipe stems was devised by JC Harrington who looked at a huge collection of colonial and early republic stems from excavations at Jamestown and Williamsburg in Virginia, USA. He measured the diameter of the bore-hole using standard imperial drill bits with increments of 64ths of an inch and found a relationship between size and date of production. In the decades since, multiple archaeologists and mathematicians teamed up to develop increasingly more precise formulae. The graph is giving us statistical information in that there is variation in bore-hole size for each of the date range, where the longer bar is the higher number at a specific diameter which is the mode of the sample (the increment with the highest prevalence in the entire set). The best use of this technique would involve a large sample size in a secure context, and even its inventor noted the inadequacies of his model. In general, however, the earlier stems, produced just before the turn of the 16th century, have wider bores. Over time, the bores are narrower perhaps as a function of the longer stems that came into fashion.

A bit clearer graph designed by McMillan after Harrington.
McMillan, L.K. (2016). An Evaluation of Tobacco Pipe Stem Dating Formulas. Northeast Historical Archaeology, 45(45), Article 3.

Both bowl and stem methods of dating should be used if the assemblage of pipe fragments allows, and these results should be cross-referenced with seriation models for pottery, architecture, and other dateable finds and features.

Unfortunately, the two pipe stem fragments we found so far this summer were in the topsoil and thus unstratified. They were clearly in a very disturbed layer and cannot give us precise chronological information, and one would never base an entire thesis on the presence of one or two pipe stem data points, but they are useful for teaching. We broke out the old drill bits and determined that both are most likely from 1720-1750!

For more information, we highly recommend this primer from the National Pipe Archive.

Weekly Round-Up: Week 2

Trench 5a

After finding over a dozen iron objects in Trench 5a, but still no medieval wall, we extended northward. This topsoil was a treasure trove of 19th and 20th-century rubbish, which may sound pretty foul, but can be quite enjoyable from a research perspective because there are lots of great resources for antique and vintage material culture from collectors and enthusiasts. Check out our recent post on the rubber bottle stoppers!

Trench 5b

Trench 5b was very busy this week. We uncovered another corner of what we believe to be Elmund’s Tower, but there is still a fairly messy mortar spread, protected by the thick foliage, to deal with.

The footprint of the tower has a post-medieval structure that sits on top of the western return of the wall that juts out into the middle of the tower footprint. We can follow that wall down via ‘The Void’ (an area under excavation where we are removing the rubble and silt/sand that currently fills the tower interior), which we extended in three directions, because the medieval wall on the sea-ward side is our tower footprint.

In the mock-up below, the green is masonry we have exposed, the blue is what we expect to find under the soil and windblown sand yet to be removed. The red square is the area cleared of the interior fill, while the yellow is rubble.

After getting our hands on two 19th-century plans, from the beginning and end of the century, we now believe the well is under the rubble (the yellow area). It is our intention to continue to remove the rubble interior fill, focusing on the area to the right of the red square in the drawing below, to reveal as much of the room below as possible.

Trench 5b, sea-ward area.
The Void is Void-ier – area cleared of rubble fill within the interior of the medieval tower structure. There are now 3 visible iron pegs from left to right bottom of the wall face depicted. There are also wood door frame remains that are likely only a century or two old.

The medieval wall under the post-medieval wall that runs from the modern wooden gate erected by the castle, looks like it connected to the large, extant, ivy-covered masonry still visible today. Our students planned this 9 metre stretch of post-medieval wall and what remains of the wider medieval masonry upon which it sits (see photo above).


We cleaned and sorted many kilograms of 2020 material and began to examine the finds from the first week of this season. The most tedious things to clean were the many winkles shells, which are small edible sea snails.

In addition, former staff member Kennedy dropped in to provide a masterclass on archaeological illustration! She pulled some of our recent finds from the archive which the students were able to handle up close to practice capturing the important details and working to scale.

The Witch’s Cottage

It’s almost Spooky SZN (read that as the word “season” because we hear that’s what the youths are saying these days)! As such, we wanted to share a bit more about the history of one area of Trench 5b: the Witch’s Cottage. The base of the Tower of Elmund’s Well was repurposed in the late 18th century as the framework of a cottage rumoured to belong to a local “witch” or possibly several generations of witches. Most likely the house belonged to a male apothecary which does raise eyebrows for us, because it doesn’t fit neatly into the often gendered history of witchcraft. While this structure is post-medieval and over a century removed from the worst witch persecutions in Europe and across the pond, we wanted to share a little bit about how magic and witchcraft evolved in western Europe over the last two millennia.

The top left corner is the outermost past of the West Ward, and visible in the centre is the archway down into the outworks. The bottom right corner shows part of the tower-turned-cottage still partially standing in the 1950s.

What even is magic? There are thousands of pages asking that very question, but the best combined definition I could piece together is that magic consists of practices used by individuals or groups to explain and/or control the world around them. Magic could be the specialty of men, women, or non-binary practitioners, but a common thread of illicit magic in primary sources is the association with women and foreigners. Magic could be a tool of inclusion, or one of exclusion: socially-acceptable magical ritual was put at odds with magic that could threaten or subvert established social order. Particularly this is seen most clearly in the way gender and power dynamics are held up or challenged by the practice of magic.

In the 19th century, anthropologist EB Tylor articulated a common theory from the period about cultural evolution (which placed Western Europe as the zenith); in his work Primitive Culture (1871), he addresses three concepts: magic, religion, and science. Another anthropologist, James George Frazer, goes a step further, considering magic the lowest tier of cultural understanding of the nature of things, religion as a step higher (likely due to Christianity’s dominance contemporarily to the development of the theory), and finally science as the pinnacle of human rationality. It’s easy to see from our perspective how this avowed evolution from “primitive” to enlightened can be extremely problematic. In some cultures, they each may be interpreted as a hierarchy, but projecting our rigid categories onto past societies is often folly. One person’s magic may be another’s religion, and still another’s science. There was so much overlap, and so much wiggle-room, among those three terms for centuries, even up into the medieval period!

We always like to look at proper terminology on our blog so let’s look at the roots of some words associated with magic and witchcraft to situate ourselves. The word “witch” itself comes from the Old English wicca (a masculine noun) meaning sorcerer or soothsayer .Folk etymologies suggest a connection to the Hwicce people of early medieval Britain, but that has largely been abandoned as a route of serious linguistic inquiry. “Magic” derives from the Greek mageia, which itself comes from Greek accounts of Persian priests referred to as magos. An outside body of authors is thus writing about the society of a rival, and, over time, the related terms became pejorative, implying trickery and charlatanism.

Since much of the earliest language has been borrowed into English, there is a definite influence of Classical (Greek and Roman, in particular) conceptions that persist to today. There was doubtless magic and ritual in prehistoric periods, but it’s a bit harder to pin down because (1) we don’t have documents from the practitioners themselves (no documents at all in the earlier periods or only material written by outsiders in the later), and (2) archaeologically we can get some clues, but unknown functions of artefacts or entire places are often attributed to this nebulous idea of “ritual.”

Medea and her chariot pulled by dragons on a 5thC BCE Greek krater (container for mixing wine and water). Yes, we are aware they don’t LOOK like our modern concept of dragons, but just go with it. From Oxford Classical Art Research Centre, originally Sotheby’s.

The Greeks, however, did write extensively on what we might today call magic beginning in the 5th century BCE. Scholars such as Kimberly B. Stratton posit that the idea of magic and its role in asserting or denying legitimacy is tied to the development of democracy and empire in tandem. Greek notions of magic and witchcraft include very specific terms for specialist approaches that have changed connotation over time: pharmakon was used as healing drugs or poison depending on context, but evolved into an almost exclusively negative term. Witchcraft and magic during the rise and height of Greek empire is presented in numerous tragedies like that of Medea or Deianeira, who are reacting to the infidelity of their husbands (Jason and Heracles, respectively). They are justified to an extent, but still bound by customs that equate male honour with the sexual behaviors of women with which they are associated (wives, mothers, daughters).

Roman witchcraft was most often associated with older women; again this is illicit magic that challenges social norms regarding women’s roles and particularly their sexuality, which was seen to threaten Caesar Augustus’ ideal family dynamic that he attempted to codify during the beginning of empire. Instead of being defensive or reactive, Roman witches called sagae were described as predatory. Witch tales describe hideous old women with wild hair and bare feet sneaking into cemeteries to gather human bones for love spells to bewitch younger men. Many of these Roman traits ascribed to witches are passed down through late antiquity prompting accusations of heresy (again putting magic and religion at odds) in later Christianity.

Part II to follow where we discuss early and late medieval witchcraft in western Europe.

Way Back Wednesday: Week 2

For today’s dive into our finds archive, we’re cheating a bit: the artefacts in question are actually from just last year! During the clean-up of Brian Hope-Taylor’s backfill above the mortar mixer in Trench 3, two early medieval coins known as stycas were discovered. They were a very common find in the southern half of the trench over many years, often as single coins but once as a hoard. We have numerous single finds in the archive, while much of the hoard is on display in the medieval kitchen of the castle staterooms. We have discussed stycas in the past on the blog, but we felt this was a perfect time to give a little refresher.

Stycas are copper alloy coins from the 9th century of low denomination; their base metal was valuable to an extent in itself but could now be used to purchase smaller things than could be acquired via coinage with precious metals. They initially were struck in silver like their predecessor the sceat (which was basically a penny) but became debased over the decades: the silver content was reduced eventually to nothing by 830AD. These coins were likely being minted in York, but they were only in production for a relatively short time, from the very end of the 8th century to 850AD, but may have remained in circulation until York and finally Northumbria were firmly under Viking control. The latter decades of their use as legal tender saw an increase in forged coins, however. All of these traits make stycas extremely valuable for dating their associated contexts. The word styca comes from the Old English stycce meaning “a small piece.”

These two stycas as yet haven’t been associated with a king or archbishop (whose name would be on one face) or a moneyer (whose name would be on the other). So far the only visible letter is a D on the coin on the right. This bit of surviving text could have been helpful if (1) we could get a clear idea of which face we are looking at to know whether it’s the issuer or the moneyer AND (2) Northumbrians didn’t love names with the letter D (Eardwulf, Eanred, Aethelred…I could go on).

Fresh from the Trench: Week 2

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On Monday, clearing a new area to extend Trench 5b produced a 20th-century artefact that we were able to quickly identify: a WWII-era rubber stopper with a moulded screw for sealing glass bottles. We can date it easily because the phrase WAR GRADE is moulded into the top.

During WWII, British rubber supplies were in danger as the Japanese expanded into Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. Sri Lanka became one of the last sources in Asia for British supply, while the Americans made deals with South American countries to import natural rubber. Massive rationing and recycling efforts were undertaken in the UK (and US) as evidenced by the British propaganda posters above. Experimentation in synthetic rubbers became a high priority as well. “War grade” was a designation for consumers to know that this material was an acceptable standard, but likely unable to be recycled. Apparently, the little cup in the top of the stopper was meant to use less rubber.

Imperial War Museum archived image of a woman leaving out wellies and a hot water bottle to be collected for recycling in 1942.

The object we found was very clearly made of rubber, but didn’t have any spring to it, which prompted a little further research into its composition and history. There seems to be some confusion over whether the bottle stopper is a synthetic rubber that underwent the process to make hard rubber similar to the process for vulcanite (the rubber, not the mineral) that in most cases involves natural rubber. Some collectors say it’s simply vulcanite, while other insist it was lower quality synthetics. Vulcanite was also under the brand name Ebonite from Goodyear. (The famed tyre manufacturers actually started their rubber revolution with buttons in the first half of the 19th century!)

Chemically, vulcanite began with natural India rubber that was vulcanised with sulphur. The process involves heat and sulphur facilitating links between polymers, which themselves are chains of big, repeating molecules. Different temperatures and additives can alter the elasticity, viscosity, conductivity/insulative properties, and strength of the resulting rubber. Vulcanisation is named for the Roman god Vulcan (Greek: Hephaestus) who represented fire and metallurgy. The original US patent for the process issued to Charles Goodyear’s team can be read here, whereas the UK patent was assigned to Thomas Hancock, who exposed the rubber to even higher temperatures forming proper vulcanite (the UK patent record  has been a bit harder to track down). Hancock is the father of British rubber, with numerous patents including a shredder for rubber recycling. Both inventors and their further improvements continued parallel and roughly simultaneously beginning in the 1840s, while both sides claimed to have invented the process and resulting product independent of each other.

A Brief Interlude, a Digression, if you will…

In addition to claims of 19th-century corporate espionage, this particular compound had further associated scandal. While looking for more examples of vulcanite especially in its early days, we came across a page from the British Dental Association on vulcanite dentures that alluded to a juicier story of dentures, dentists, and murder. We would never deny you a digression as wild as this, so here is a New York Times article published 24 April, 1879 (it’s behind a paywall unfortunately, but we have a PDF view below). The Goodyear company had a treasurer of their dental division who served as a compliance officer named Josiah Bacon; he would go around to dentists who had failed to pay for the licence to use the technology. His archnemesis, dentist Samuel Chalfant, showed up at the hotel he was staying in and shot him dead.

Who knew there was so much drama over the intellectual property rights of rubber? Not us.

But back to the stoppers…

These particular stoppers however do go back to 1872, and for more information there is a lovely post from London-based mudlark (someone who salvages artefacts from rivers, bays, and shorelines) and artist Nicola White’s blog.

As our blog was being written, MORE bottle stoppers came out of both trenches Check them out below!

Meet the Team: Finds Supervisor

Our Finds Supervisor this season is Pauline Clarke, who introduces herself below:

A late starter in archeology I have since 2015 completed my BA (Hons) and MA at the amazing University of Chester, in a combination of history and archaeology. I am now a post graduate researcher there, hopefully on the way to a PhD, and I’m fortunate enough to get some teaching hours there too, which I really enjoy. I love an Anglo-Saxon and I specialise in their material culture and artefacts. I’ve been lucky enough to excavate previously at Star Carr and Repton, and now I’m here, at another iconic site. The only thing that could improve this experience is having my dogs with me, but I somehow don’t think that they would be much help!