Bookings Now Open for Our 2016 season!

We hope you can join us for the Bamburgh Research Project’s

20th Anniversary Season!

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2016 marks 20 years since the founding of the Bamburgh Research Project. Over the years we have introduced hundreds of students and community members to the wonders of archaeology. We don’t know how the time has passed so quickly. Regardless, there is TONS of archaeology just waiting to be discovered in what is sure to be an amazing season.

Our dates for next season are June 6th- July 30th

Find the Booking Form and Information here.

We hope to be able to offer several community events throughout the season that are not to be missed! More information will be available in the weeks leading up to next season.

Applications for staff members will open shortly.

A confused person’s guide to Trench 1

We thought it might be helpful, for regular users of the blog, to put up annotated photographs of our two trenches, as I am sure at times it is difficult to imagine just where the individual buildings and features lie. In this blog we will start with Trench 1.

Trench 1, labelled to identify the key features, facing north

Trench 1, labelled to identify the key features, facing north

As regular readers will be aware, Trench 1 lies at the northern tip of the fortress, at the lowest point of the bedrock plateau. Here we have unearthed evidence of the early phases of defensive structures built in timber together with a rather substantial timber hall. On the photograph you can see this as a shaded outline with the outline of a later stone hall superimposed on top of it. It is perhaps only when you outline it so clearly that its full scale becomes apparent. As we have described before it completely dominates the gate cleft (in the bedrock) to its south-west, which is the earliest known entrance to the fortress.

The stone building has been assumed to be the later of the two, but it is only this season, whilst investigating the area where the two structures come close to each other in the north-east corner, that we have proved that this is indeed the case. The date of the stone structure’s construction is uncertain, but it appears to have been robbed out before the Norman Conquest.

We are on less certain ground on the western side of the trench where we have a massive laid stone boulder foundation, for what we believe to be a timber wall, that we are interpreting as part of an early phase of defences. This is based on its general alignment with the break of slope of the bedrock, and the presence of a large timber post-setting that could have carried an archway across the gate cleft itself.

The later medieval defences are much better understood, as we have written records surviving from the 12th century to help in our interpretation. The later medieval gate is built in two phases, the first dating from the later 12th century with a 13th century widening, presumably to carry a breteche (an extension like a balcony built over a gate, with openings in its base to shoot projectiles or drop objects through). The gate widening and breteche are likely to be contemporary with the glacis built in front of the gate that we have no direct dating evidence for.

The tall stack of surviving medieval curtain wall that survives on the northern wall line would once have extended all the way around the seaward side of the West Ward, just as the 20th century wall does today.

New BRP video from Archaeosoup

We were lucky to have our friends from Archaeosoup Productions down to visit both of our sites last week. Check out their video below!

They are a fantastic group who really excel at comprehensively sharing archaeology and heritage with the wider world. They are constantly uploading new videos to their YouTube page that are informative, educational, and just plain fun. Have a look through their videos by clicking here. You can also hire them for a wide variety of workshops, lectures, activities, and media production. Check out their website for more information. 

Hammerscale Sampling and Thin Sectioning in Trench 3

In the past two weeks, apart from the usual excavation and recording process, Trench 3 did a number of hammerscale samples and two thin-sections, which is quite exciting! Today’s blog is all about elaborating on these processes, so that we may get more insight into different elements of archaeology.


Hammerscale Sampling

Hammerscale sampling is used to find out if a certain area of the trench was used for metalworking purposes. Last week we carried out a small number of hammerscale samples within the borders of our large timber building to see it it has been used for any metalworking.

Hammerscale is created when a blacksmith hammers iron; the sparks that fly off are actually tiny pieces of iron oxide that are only a couple of millimeters in size.

When we take hammerscale samples, we take a planning frame of 1x1m, which is divided into 25 smaller squares of 20x20cm. We then take small samples from each of these little squares. The hammerscale, hard to see with the naked eye, is magnetic, so when we run a magnet through each individual sample, any present hammerscale material will stick to the magnet, which is exactly what we want.

Hammerscale sampling

Hammerscale sampling

When labeling the bags we need to be mindful of the coordinates of each individual sample. We gather this information so that when the samples are processed we can relate them to their position in the trench to see how the concentrations of hammerscale fluctuate throughout the area. In some cases plotting out the hammerscale concentrations can result in a so-called ‘blacksmith’s shadow’; a negative shadow where the concentration of hammerscale is low because that is where the blacksmith was working from, sweeping the hammerscale off the anvil, resulting in a high-concentrated cone-shaped ‘shadow’ forming around the blacksmith.

In our case, we dare not hope to find anything halfway as exciting as a blacksmith’s shadow (though we can always dream!), but finding evidence of hammerscale in our samples would give us some well-needed clues as to what the function of our timber-building might have been.


Thin sections

At the end of week 5, Graeme Young led Trench 3’s staff and students alike in putting in two thin-sections in one of our World War I test latrine pits.

Trench 3 has three WWI practice latrine pits. While it is quite sad that the archaeology in these parts of the trench has been destroyed, it does give us a nice little sneak peek of what we will be excavating in future seasons.

While we as archaeologists can quite clearly see differences in contexts and different occupation layers, there is only so much we can see with the naked eye. While a context can seem fairly homogeneous to us, it may potentially consist of many single events that we are unaware of.

This is where the thin-section comes in. We take a simple metal box, and after preparing the section by cutting it completely vertical, hammer the box into the section.

Preparing the section for the thin-section sample, showing off some beautiful stratigraphy

Preparing the section for the thin-section sample, showing off some beautiful stratigraphy

Removing the thin-section box from the section.

Removing the thin-section box from the section.

After getting the X, Y, and Z coordinates using the Total Station, we then carefully spade it out and wrap the metal box, now containing a nice sample of the vertical stratigraphy, into several layers of cling film, securing the sample into place and making sure it doesn’t get contaminated.

Two succesful thin-section samples

Two successful thin-section samples

The sample is then sent off to the laboratory, where they set the sample with resin, and cut off a thin slice of the sample, which they then study under a microscope. An ash layer which up until then might have been interpreted as a single event may turn out to be dozens of smaller single events!

In Trench 3 we took two samples, slightly overlapping, so that we end up with around 20cm of continuous stratigraphy. The section we have sampled is from the industrial occupation of the trench, potentially spanning a time frame of around a hundred years.

If all goes well, both of these excavation techniques should provide us with some exciting new insights into the function of our timber building and the yet-to-be excavated archaeology in our trench!

Trench 3 Week 3: Rain foiled all our plans

While we had many exciting plans for trench 3 this week, we were only able to execute a few, due to rainy weather conditions. Two of the tasks that were completed were the removal of a large vertical stone from the ‘porch’ feature in the central part of the trench and the uncovering of the northern-most portion of Brian Hope Taylor’s excavations from 1970.

As we mentioned last week we suspected that the entranceway to the timber building lay along the southern beam-slot as there was a portion that contained uninterrupted stratigraphy where the beam-slot should have cut through. This interpretation was strengthened when we removed the vertical stone that rested where we suspected our ‘entranceway’ to be, revealing more intact stratigraphy. We proceeded to excavate the western portion of the southern beam-slot in order to find the extent of the ‘entranceway’.

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Showing the outline of the timber building

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Entranceway to timber building. See below for closeups of 1,2, and 3.

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(1) Showing stratigraphy in western cut of southern beam-slot

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(2) Showing stratigraphy cut of vertical stone

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(3) Showing stratigraphy in eastern cut of southern beam-slot

The other major development from this week was de-tarping a portion of the trench that covered Brian Hope Taylor’s original excavation back in 1970, as we are now close to the same level of stratigraphy and are getting ready to join up our own excavation with his. Years and years of the area being tarped had resulted in a buildup of blown in and trampled material, so we broke out our mattocks and spades (something that is usually only reserved for the Kaims) to tackle this plant-infested area. We reached our goal for the week, but plan to peel back the tarp even further south to unveil more of Brian Hope Taylor’s excavation extent and marry it up with our own.

Trench 3 Week 2: Excavation well underway in Trench 3!

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Eastern beam-slot being excavated

It has been an eventful week here in Trench 3. As soon as we finished cleaning the trench it was time to start excavating! We spent the week focusing on three different features; the eastern beam-slot of the timber building, a post-hole in the mid-north section of the trench and the stone paving slab feature.

The eastern beam-slot was located in previous years, however not fully excavated, and thus became one of our main tasks for the week. As it stands now the feature has been fully excavated and can be seen in relation to the rest of the timber building. A couple of interesting metal finds have come from the fill of the beam-slot, including an iron nail and fragments of lead. The south beam-slot appears to run through the southern (WW1 practice) latrine pit, however when excavating further to the west, we encountered intact stratigraphy, and a terminal to the slot, just beyond the edge of the pit. This, strongly suggests a doorway was present here. An interpretation that is supported by this feature being in the middle of the south wall. Additionally it seems that the pebble path feature, in the southeast corner of the trench, ran towards this newly discovered entrance.

Earlier in the week we discovered a post-hole located directly northeast of the paving stone feature. Throughout the course of the week we have fully excavated the post-hole. At ts base we found a piece of what appears to be middle-Saxon pottery, which makes us think we have reached the bottom of the feature (or maybe a bit past it!).

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Post hole being excavated

This week we removed four of the paving stones from a feature in the north of the trench in attempts to understand its purpose. The paving stones stand, broadly,in the centre of the timber building (described above). When the feature was first discovered in 2012, it was believed to be a drainage feature, however one would expect to find traces of an actual drain at either side. The current interpretation, as it stands, is that it may have served as some sort of a foundation for a post, but the truth is it remains enigmatic.

For week 3, once we have excavated the entirety of the timber building’s beam-slots, we aim to plan the extent of the structure and then lift the area of intermittent paving that run up to its eastern side.

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Stone paving slab feature mid-excavation

Some wet day speculation, or how to read a little too much into some burning

It’s probably only fair to start this blog with a warning that in places it contains more than a little speculation! Hopefully I will make the areas where I am reaching a little, apparent in the text.

This last week, within Trench 1 at the castle, we have been removing the last fill from our middle Saxon timber hall. This structure is clearly traced, cut through boulder clay subsoil, and also in places, through the bedrock. So we have, quite literally, hard evidence for the footprint of this building. Its height is less certain, but even if it was a fairly normal single storey structure, its position immediately above the cleft in the rock that leads down to St Oswald’s Gate, would mean that it would tower above anyone entering the fortress. Our best interpretation for it function is as the gate wardens hall. This is based on its location and impressive siting, so represents our first bit of speculation. To its immediate west and very close to the edge of the bedrock, where it falls away to the external ground surface (outside the castle), a heavily constructed rubble foundation extends, parallel to the bedrock edge. We identified this several years ago and have described it ever since as the foundation for the inner wall of a box rampart. Part of a timber phase of the fortress’ defences. We believe this to be early medieval, though can only date it to before the 12th century AD, with any certainty.

So far we have looked at the archaeological evidence and have made some quite reasonable extrapolations from the structures and material that we have unearthed. During the last few days we have identified some patches of discoloured subsoil that are almost certainly the result of some pretty intense burning. Intense enough to penetrate to the subsoil and chemically alter it. This burning lies in the narrow gap between the foundation for the wall of the building the gate cleft. One possible explanation for this would be that the workmen, who cut the bedrock for the building foundations, used a technique of heating and rapid cooling with water, to fracture the bedrock. This does not seem to be likely though as we have identified a number of examples of foundations cut through the bedrock and do not see this elsewhere.

The corner of our construction slot for the timber building as it approaches the rock cleft at St Oswald's Gate

The corner of our construction slot for the timber building, as it approaches the rock cleft at St Oswald’s Gate

The discouloured subsoil is easier to see with the naked eye, but perhaps is just discernable.

The discoloured subsoil is easier to see with the naked eye, but perhaps is just discernible.

This leaves us with another exciting possibility. The burning is very close to the gate, and our inner line of timber defensive wall, which raises the intriguing possibility that this represents an attempt, by an enemy force, to burn their way into fortress through its most vulnerable point. In fact we have a record, in the pages of Bede, to just such an event at Bamburgh in the later 7th century, when Penda, King of Mercia, made a great heap of timber against Bamburgh’s timber wall and set it on fire. In Bede’s story he goes on to relate how the prayers of St Aidan caused the wind to change direction and blow the fire and smoke back in the direction of the attackers, foiling their plans. Could we have evidence of this very attack, burned into the subsoil at the fortress’ weakest and most vulnerable point? Its certainly not impossible, but our speculation metre may now be close to off the scale, so we should perhaps leave it there. After all there are lots of reason why things catch fire and burn.

A Wonderful Start for Trench 3

As we move into week two of the 2015 season, let’s look back at everything that happened in Trench 3 last week at Bamburgh Castle.

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As is custom, the season started off with the students being inducted into the various aspects of the site, such as tours of both Trench 1 and Trench 3, as well as a finds induction provided by Jeff Aldrich and Simon Hayter. After this, the wonderful task of removing the tarps from the trench began. Every year it feels a little like unwrapping a birthday present, and this year was no different.

However, our beautiful trench was looking a little too green for our taste (while the tarp protects the underlying archaeology from rain and wind, it’s a wonderful environment for moss and other plant life to invade our beautiful contexts. Yuck).

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Thus, armed with trowels, leaf trowels and spoons (a vital archaeological instrument, to be sure), we cleaned the entire trench. ‘Cleaning’ is essentially a form of micro-excavation, where we remove only a millimetre or two of weathered soil to expose the contexts that are underneath. It took some days, but in the end I think the trench is looking very beautiful indeed.

It had been incredibly sunny all week, which had caused the contexts to all look fairly pale and dusty even after cleaning. A good watering with the hose and spray bottles revealed the true colours of the contexts (light browns, dark browns and oranges aplenty!), which makes a week of toiling in the heat really worth it.

It is also worth to mention that during our big trench clean, we also found a good number of interesting small finds, among which a styca coin, bone spindle whorl, clay bead and, most notably, a beautiful piece of a Roman bracelet made out of blue glass.

After we finished cleaning the trench, it was time to start excavating. We have had an interesting stone feature in the mid-north of the trench for the past two seasons, and on Saturday we lifted two of the feature’s large flat stones, revealing the archaeology underneath. We then proceeded to clean the newly exposed context and the area surrounding it for a photograph.

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In the coming week we aim to plan, half-section and sample the stone feature. We are also planning to remove a number of stones from the north-east corner of the trench that have been sitting there for many seasons. These stones will aid us in re-enforcing the section wall in the south-east corner.

Bamburgh Research Project: 2015 Castle Excavation Season Plans

Things are well underway at Bamburgh Castle and the Bradford Kaims. Our supervisors and assistants are busy pouring over last seasons plans and reports. At each site the students were given a fascinating health and safety lecture followed by a tour of the trenches and an introduction to our previous years finds. Soon we will start to remove the tarps! Today we will hear from Director Graeme Young who will give us an in-depth look at the plans for the castle tenches this season.


Graeme Young

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I was one of the two archaeologists who wrote to Lady Armstrong back in the winter of 1996, asking for the opportunity to do some research at the castle. It does not seem all that long ago, but mathematics tells me otherwise! A great deal has changed since then but our aims of good research, education and engaging with the public remain at the core of what we do.

Being a Northumbrian born and bread, I have known Bamburgh since I was a child, and working to understand this important site was an ambition since I first started archaeology back in 1987. Its a huge privilege as an archaeologist to have the opportunity to dig a dream site, and one which I have been delighted to share with colleagues and a generation of students. Hopefully through our blog and website and some short films we plan to make this summer, we can share something of the fun and excitement with all of you online.

When not immersed in all things Bamburgh I spend far too much money keeping an ancient Land Rover running.


So what do we hope to get up to this summer?

The 2015 season of archaeological work to be undertaken at Bamburgh will continue to build on previous season’s work within the two major excavation trenches, but this year we will be doing more photogrammetry and also testing a new databasing system.

Trench 1

This year we have the full extent of Trench 1 under investigation. During recent seasons we have been playing catch-up, excavating an extension to the trench down to the same levels that we had reached within the original trench, which extended along the north wall of the West Ward. This sets us up to try and identify post-hole structures. Previously we had identified a number of post-holes, so we are probably overdue identifying the buildings that they belong to. We have reached the boulder clay above the bedrock, which means that it is quite possible we might even be able to identify prehistoric features amongst the structures.

Trench 3

Having investigated the metal-working building at the south of the trench, and found numerous 9th century metal finds, recent work has concentrated more in the north and north-west part of the trench, where a series of structural remains have been identified. All this is part of a plan to make sure that the full extent of the trench is at the same phase. In order to do this we have had to face the difficult problem of understanding a complex stone spread that lay between these two areas. Now we believe this area contained a post-in-trench timber building, also of 9th century date. The complete excavation of this building, and a partially surviving paved surface to its east, will be amongst the main aims for this summer. As part of this process it is quite possible that the level of the northern part of the Hope-Taylor 1970s excavation will be reached this year. A big step forward with our plan to incorporate his excavation into our own in order to publish them together.

Analysis

Of course there is the post excavation recess as well. Every bit as important as the excavation itself. This year analysis of the excavation archive will continue to concentrate on the implementation of the digitisation of the site record. A trial with a server based archive system will be a key part of the programme this summer.