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.

Further Reading:

Stratton, K. B. (2007). Naming the witch: magic, ideology, and stereotype in the ancient world. Columbia University Press.

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!

Well, well, well…

Any castle worth its weight would not need just defensive structures, but also internal infrastructure to support the many people who made the community run day-to-day. One absolute necessity for any community was drinkable water, whether or not they were expecting to be subjected to a siege or trapped during inclement weather. We have documentary evidence of at least three wells situated around the outcrop, but only one is still securely located: the well at the base of the keep. We’ve talked about it briefly before here on the blog.

The Saxon well with a Victorian cap at the base of the Keep.

The other two? A wee bit harder to pin down. One attributed to Waltheof is likely located on the northern side of the Inner Ward of the castle, where the clock tower now stands. The third, the Tower of Elmund’s Well, is hopefully somewhere in our trench! These two wells were recorded in the 13th or 14th century on castle plans, but likely were in use long before. The names of the men associated can give us some clues about possible dating. Let’s break them down.

Waltheof is of North Germanic, that is Scandinavian, origin, and it has been recorded alternatively as Waldehaveswell. The first half of the name probably comes from the word for “foreigner,” in Old English as wealh, which eventually was also used to mean “slave.” We can see this word root in both the English name for Cymru, known as Wales, and the surname Walsh. Thēof is the root of the modern word “thief.” Perhaps together, therefore, they meant “foreign thief,” but that sounds a bit cruel to saddle a cute little baby with such a name.


What seems to have happened to shift the name to the alternate form of Waldehaveswell is the th sound, represented in Old English as ð or þ has been voiced as a d. Ð and ð are the letter called eth, upper and lower case respectively, which is a voiced interdental fricative. That is a fancy linguistics way of saying there is more vibration in your throat while you put your tongue between your upper and lower teeth and force out the air. Think of the word “father.” The letter thorn is represented by the symbols Þ and þ (for upper and lower) such as in the word “thorn.” This is a voiceless version of the interdental fricative, meaning you don’t quite feel the same grumble in your voice-box, but you articulate the sound by forcing air around your tongue between your teeth. Scandinavian languages like Icelandic still differentiate, but sometimes in Old English texts you see the letters substituted for each other. It can be rather confusing! Put your fingertips on your neck over your voice-box and say “father” and “thorn” and you will feel a stronger grumble when saying the former. As mentioned above, this sound can be articulated as a d. The f of thēof has been voiced as a v in the alternate name. The suffix “well” naturally tells us a well is involved.

We know of primary sources for least two famous Waltheofs in Northumbria during the medieval period:

The earlier Waltheof was active in the end of the 963-995 as an ealdorman here at Bamburgh. He was a grandson of Osulf I, a high-reeve of Bamburgh in the mid-10th century known from several charters and usurping Eric Bloodaxe. Waltheof also fathered Uhtred the Bold, the name that inspired that of the main character of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon tales and television show “The Last Kingdom.” We do get asked about Uhtred a fair bit out here!

The later Waltheof was a son of Earl Siward (who defeated Macbeth of Shakespeare fame in 1054) and a descendant of the earlier Waltheof. He was Earl of Northumbria, but the last of the English hierarchy and beheaded for his pair of revolts and recants. He supported an attack on York under Sweyn II (Denmark) but received pardon from William I; his second mistake, this time, joining the Earls who rebelled against William led to his execution in 1075. After his death, he was regarded a martyr with a miraculously incorrupt corpse and suddenly reattached head. He was recorded in folklore and might have been partially a source for the Robin Hood legend.


The name Elmund is a bit trickier, but it seems to be quite early for Old English naming. The first half may come from a very early Germanic word for settlement, temple, or house with the connecting idea being shelter: ealh. The second part of the name, mund, also means protection, or guardian, or even poetically one’s hand. There are entries in the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England with the name Ealhmund in the 8th and 9th centuries, so we know that it’s a cognate. His name in essence is “protection-protection,” but more kindly could be probably “house guardian.”

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is map.jpg
From Directors Graeme Young and Paul Gething’s 2003 Bamburgh Castle: The Archaeology of the Fortress of Bamburgh AD 500 to AD 1500.

In search of Elmund’s Well

Our Trench 5b is looking for Elmund’s Well, and we seem to have chased the footprint of the associated tower. There are, unfortunately, no references to Elmund beyond his tower and well. The Void initially intrigued us as a possible well, but after extending it, it appears to be a rubble and soil-filled room within the tower. We have considered two other nearby areas, the adjacent masonry that stands within the footprint of the tower or, less likely, the as-yet un-landscaped area on the north end of the enclosed outerworks. Stay tuned!

Weekly Round-Up

This first week of the season was the perfect way to ease back into our investigation of the Castle and its grounds, as well as an opportunity to guide a fantastic group of students! The week began with an introduction to the project’s past work and induction to the methods and protocols we employ on-site. The students learned the basics of finds identification and washing and also absolutely loved getting their hands on some of our recent special small finds. You can find out more about this here (the bulk find process and the small finds process).

The beginning of the week involved quite a bit of landscaping! The team worked hard to clear the stone steps down from Saint Oswald’s Gate of any greenery to make the area more accessible. We do intend to be going up and down those stairs a fair bit over the season, so this was an absolute necessity. The modern steps appear to follow the natural slope towards the base of the outcrop, suggesting they are smack dab on the very path used for centuries. We then turned our attention to the more level ground near Elmund’s Tower.

Once the ground surface was exposed, three interesting areas were selected for further investigation.

Trench 5a is the trench closer to the base of the outcrop on the landward side, where we are trying to pick up a bit of medieval wall that was visible a few metres to the north. The trench has produced numerous small finds already, but most are corroded iron objects we have not yet identified.

Each white tag represents a small find from Trench 5a.

Trench 5b is a unique shape, starting as an L-shaped open area with bits of masonry visible above the ground surface and a long trench alongside yet another bit of wall above ground surface that runs perpendicular to the ivy-covered 13th or 14th-century wall visible from the village green. The long rectangular trench has probable medieval masonry that the post-medieval visible wall is chasing.

In the L-shaped trench towards the beach, we have the probable corner of a structure that may very well be from the medieval tower, which was still partially standing as late at the mid-20th century.

And roughly to the north appeared a hole dubbed ‘The Void’ by our students. At first, we eagerly thought this could be the well that was associated with Elmund’s tower, but soon the stones visible from above revealed themselves to be part of a wall extending downward.

As the rock tumble that was associated with ‘The Void’ was cleaned, naturally some of us felt the undeniable need to put mobile phone torches, arms, and faces down into the hole for a little nose around (adhering to all safety instructions of course!). There may have also been a pokey stick. Soon, a large iron peg was visible extending about 15cm out of the stone wall.

A bit more cleaning was undertaken, which revealed what might be a door handle, but no associated door fittings or signs of a threshold yet, as it was just loose within the soil and rubble.

More parts of ‘The Void’ have opened as the area around the obvious hole was cleaned, which makes us think this is part of a ground floor room in the tower substantially below present-day ground-level.


In the finds department, the team has been washing the bulk material (animal bone and shells) from 2020. This material relates to the early medieval period and the probable Romano-British roundhouse excavated at the end of the season. We have uncovered a number of pieces of worked bone, some of which have already appeared on the blog. Notably, the animal bone assemblage appears to contain a significant quantity of juvenile bones, identifiable by the unfused long bones present in the assemblage.

Top two rows are bottle glass, while the final row is window glass.

As the trenches are still mostly in the topsoil layer, we have found a lot of modern glass and a few sherds of post-medieval pottery. The glass is almost entirely bottle glass, but today some window glass has been found as well. As mentioned in a previous post, we also had the one medieval bit of pottery, but could not tie it to a secure context.

Environmental Archaeology Update

Although we aren’t running any environmental samples this season, (but reserve the right to take some to throw at our environmental supervisor when she returns), environmental archaeologist Alice has sent along her preliminary findings based on data from the 2008 and 2019 seasons. You can read about how plant material is separated from the sample here.

Her research involves examining changes from 4th-15th centuries, which she has divided into 6 periods spanning the Late Roman to Late Medieval. Most of the samples analysed were taken from contexts dating to the early medieval period which she divided into Early Medieval 1 (6th-8thC) and Early Medieval 2 (9th-10thC). Common cereal grains during the periods represented by the samples include wheat, barley, oat, and some rye. In addition, lentils and peas, though rare, were found. These are in the legume family and related to beans, peanuts, and clover.

A stream of muddy water flowing into a white bag held in place with clips.
Plant materials from an environmental sample flow out of the flotation tank into a mesh bag for collection.

Samples from the early periods (Late Roman and post-Roman) do not show evidence for legume consumption, but this could be attributed the paucity of environmental samples from those periods, not necessarily an absence of legumes. There is a slight increase in legume presence by percentage of total remains found from the Early Medieval 1 to Early Medieval 2. Celtic beans and common vetch round out the legume results. Peas and legumes unidentifiable at the species level were the most common of the varieties. Thus far lentils have only been found in Britain during the 9th through 13th centuries, which had a warmer climate than the surrounding centuries and called the Medieval Warm Period or Medieval Climatic Anomaly.

With respect to cereal crops, the evidence shows that wheat was the dominant grain during the Late Roman and Post-Roman periods (ending in the 5thC). During the early medieval period, wheat is in decline, but oat and barley become much more common until wheat staged a comeback. We have extensive evidence of oat in Early Medieval 2 period because an oven for drying grains was sampled and therefore dominates statistically among the small sample number.

Fresh from the Trench

The first bit of definite medieval material to come out of our new trenches is a rather common find around our trenches in the past: a green-glazed potsherd. This lovely little bit of pottery normally would be wonderful for getting a rough date, but unfortunately it was found in an unstratified cleaning layer.

What does Unstratified mean?

“Unstratified” is how we refer to contexts (see the first section of our last post) that are not secure or seem to contain artefacts from multiple periods due to disturbance. Context is so important to archaeology, because artefacts and features (like hearths, thresholds, kilns– contexts we can’t actually take out of the trench) can tell us the most information when found in their resting place. Occasionally objects are not where we would expect them to be because of water (eroding vertical section walls in our trench), later human disturbance or because of animal burrowing, the scientific name of which is “bioturbation.” “Bio-“ tells us we are talking about living organisms, while “-turb” comes from the Latin for mixing or churning. In Trench 1, for example, we had a few stoats over several seasons that would disturb our excavations over each evening, which was both adorable and incredibly annoying. As we excavate, we are in essence destroying the context, and that is why we take meticulous notes and produce multiple images (plans, sections and photographs) for each context so we can tie our artefacts and features together when we begin to interpret and do further analysis.

Teaching Collections

Often unstratified finds can still have value as teaching collection items! While it’s disappointing when we find something juicy (yes, I said juicy) that is unstratified, it can still be used as ‘touchables’ for students or visitors to introduce them to specific artefacts. Unstratified contexts and disturbed sites are really valuable as places for children to get introduced to archaeology as well. A previous site one of our staff members taught at in the US was the footprint of a series of houses from the 18th through 20th centuries in a living history museum but had been excavated by architects in the 1950s. Their conceptual approach to their investigation did not preserve context; they were most interested in a brick-lined basement they were expecting to reach. Well, they reached it, but by using a JCB to remove all the earth until they hit the natural soil and then took photos of the sunken bricks and threw all the dirt back in. The entire site was one big unstratified context, and, rather than lose all the information, the archaeology team decided to open the trench as a children’s dig. The trench was arbitrarily color-coded to teach the kids about context, so they would keep their finds all together. It was a smash hit! The children would find spark plugs from the 1950s and air twist stems of glassware from the early 1700s, and both seemed unfathomably old to them. Hopefully, many future archaeologists were made in that experience. Before this programme was in place, we at BRP had already been using our unstratified finds for teaching about composition materials and post-excavation work (like washing and sorting). When the earth gives you a gift, even if that gift is unstratified, take it!

What do we know about green-glazed pottery?

Back to our sherd: the date we can safely hover around with this type of green glaze is the 13th century. A little bit earlier or a little bit later is always possible, with some of the very earliest examples from the late 12th. On most sites, it’s simply referred to as “green-glaze,” because it is a rather distinct color and usually shares the fabric (clay composition visible on broken edges) of what are confusingly called whitewares (grey, pale brown, or even pink fabric). The external color comes from the addition of copper to the glaze formula, and we often associate green minerals with copper and copper alloy objects as well. There are ceramicists especially who prefer the term “York glazed ware” for much of the similar glazed examples due to its major prevalence in assemblages in the York area, with a likely production site in Hambleton Hills. The green-glaze up here though is one local version among many local flavours of Northumberland ceramics from the period; Newcastle is almost certainly the source of this example. Several more styles with green glaze are developed such as Brandsby ware which sometimes hard to distinguish from the York ware, and the later Humber ware with a stronger reddish fabric. Northumberland has its own sequence for this period, incorporating overlapping traits with multiple traditions from a bit further south.

Fresh from the Wash and a Quest for a Hero?

Yesterday we officially opened Trenches 5a and 5b!

Trench Supervisor Constance briefs a small group on how they will use a mattock to clear the topsoil of Trench 5a marked with pink string.

Much of what was cleared from the ground surface before we properly broke ground includes modern rubbish, and since the trench technically didn’t exist until yesterday afternoon, we’ve changed today’s weekly “Fresh from the Trench” to a “Fresh from the Wash” since we have TWO small finds!

Fresh from the Wash

We have more news on the small find we mentioned yesterday, as we’ve crowdsourced some theories from trusted colleagues.

The bone object, though looking delicate, is robust. We initially considered it might be used on, or associated with, textiles, and most of the suggestions also align with that. General consensus thus far seems to be it might be a tool used in weaving, such as to hold tension for fibres! We will continue looking for parallels to the object and update when we can.

We have also checked our context sheets from the 2020 season for more information about where both objects were found. Context sheets are one of our most common bits of paperwork and provide information about a particular archaeological layer or event, such as a cut for a post-hole or the material that accumulates in a ditch. Each ‘event’ is given a context number and we generate, through excavation and recording, information for this event. The context sheet draws all this information together on one piece of paper alongside the interpretation of the ‘event.

This information includes information about the soil (color, soil texture (comparing size of the particles), soil compaction (on a spectrum of loose to firm), how it dries, and what sort of artefacts are found within it). It also records things like area and depth, how you excavated (trowels, mattocks, or other tools), what the site conditions were (usually particularly extreme weather gets noted), and its relationship to other contexts already described. We include a quick sketch to show those relationships, but the context is also recorded more precisely with to-scale plans (from above) and section drawings (from the side). The form includes space for noting the associated plans and photographs. Lastly, a preliminary interpretation is offered, which can be updated as the context is excavated more fully.

The sketch on the back of the context sheet form for 3672.

The flat object with two pierced holes was found just above a beloved (not sure if I’m being sarcastic or sincere, honestly) and long-time feature of the trench: a layer of cobbles that has cropped up across different areas of the trench, and which many students have painstakingly cleaned and drawn over the seasons. We have a pretty solid set of dates for that cobble surface of late 7th/early 8th centuries, putting the object in the early medieval period.

You can see this cobble layer above, numbered 3589. The first digit being 3 tells us this in Trench 3, the trench in the West Ward where we found the recent roundhouse, plenty of evidence for metal-working and several phases of structures during the early medieval period, later medieval rubbish dump, and, of course, the WWI latrine pits that have been with us since we opened the trench.

The worked end of the bone object.

The second small find of the season is another piece of worked bone, this time with a sawn, slightly-rounded end. It also came from Trench 3, but its context number is 4008. Why? Because after two decades of excavation, we described over 1000 contexts in the trench. Simply put, we didn’t expect that at all when we decided to use a four-digit context numbering system. The piece was discovered in the layer underneath the mortar mixer area in Trench 3. Its size and shape may suggest it was a tool handle, perhaps holding a metal point.

The Quest

We’ve been doing some research on Bamburgh’s witchy history in preparation for the investigation of the Witch’s Cottage that is now part of Trench 5b. The cottage was built into Elmund’s Tower in the early modern period, coming at the end of the absolute height of the witchcraft persecutions (more on that in a future blogpost), and we are hoping to get a better grasp on the timing. But we’ve found a story quite a bit older…in an upcoming blogpost, we will share that bit of folklore and some thoughts on it. For now, we wanted to share that the story involves an witch being turned into a toad as punishment for her cruel spell and her penchant for schemes. So we put this to the students: Who will find the witch?

In 2013, while giving a public tour, a lovely old toad landed on me, and she allowed me to walk around the West Ward carrying her on my hand while talking to a dozen visitors. I didn’t know the tale at the time, but I’m very glad I helped her on her way and hopefully did not offend. I would love to meet her again…and this sounds like a missed connections advert on the internet, but in any case, I think it is crucial to find the toad and get her side of the story.