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

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



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



All good things must come to an end…. An end of season wrap up of Trench 3!

As week eight of the 2015 excavation season comes to its end, let’s reflect back on what we achieved and discovered this season. This blog will come to you in bite-size, area-by-area portions! How handy!

Timber building

One of the first things on our to-do list this season was to continue excavating the timber building. We started exploring the beam-slots to this building back in BC13. Beam-slots, for the confused reader, are trenches dug to contain either a horizontal timber beam to form the foundation of a building, or more likely a series of upright timbers in a construction style called ‘post-in-trench’ by archaeologists.

Understanding the western beam-slot sufficiently to be confident that we had associated the correct linear cut with our building, proved to be difficult, and took a great deal of time.  By the time the 2015 season started, we were finally confident of it, an only the southern part of the eastern beam-slot and the southern beam-slot remained un-excavated. Both these beam-slots could be seen in section thanks to the presence of three of the WWI test latrine pits (which we are pretty sure, were not used for their intended purpose, but do make good archaeological test pits).

The middle section of the southern beam-slot offered a pleasant surprise; two teminals to the construction cut marked a central doorway into the building. Fascinatingly this lay directly in the line of a pebble path in the south east corner of the trench, that ran parallel to our metalworking building (we excavated this a few seasons ago). The association of the two buildings through the presence of the path does not seem too optimistic. This means we can date the new building to the middle 9th century AD, as we a great deal of dating evidence for the metalworking building. .

This discovery motivated us to take some hammerscale samples within the boundaries of the timber building, to see if it had, at some point, been used for metalworking purposes. The low finds recovery from within the building though does make us wonder if it could have had a timber floor, which would make thethe layers within it part of an aerlier phase. Something to work out next year. Either way the sampling will hopefully be informative and not be wasted.

The outline of our new building and the pebble path that assciates it with the metalworing building. Coincidently its entrance lies in the same area as the stone theshold of the overlying large timber hall of probable 10th century date.

The outline of our new building and the pebble path that assciates it with the metalworing building. Coincidently its entrance lies in the same area as the stone theshold of the overlying large timber hall of probable 10th century date (also shown).

Elusive paving feature

You may remember from earlier blogs this season that we excavated a rectangular paved feature, consisting of 3-4 large flat slabs with two vertical flat stones to the north and south. When we originally uncovered this feature in BC13 we briefly interpreted this as a drain-feature, but quickly discarded this theory, as we could trace it no further. Sadly, excavation produced no clear-cut “Eureka!” moment, and it remains enigmatic. Our best guess, based on the realtively central location within the building, is that the horizontal slabs were put into support a large post or beam that was one of the roof supports.


The north-west corner was mostly left alone until the last two weeks of excavation. When we did return there, our main idea was to dig down two large and deep contexts, not expecting to encounter any features in the process. But as always, whenever you don’t count on finding anything, you do.

Firstly, we finally took down our large ‘jaggedy rock’ context, which took up most of the north side of the NW-corner of the trench. As expected, most of this context went down onto bedrock. However, we also found a small, circular feature consisting of small flat stones, with a diameter of about 45cm. We are choosing to excavate this feature next season, but our current interpretation is that it served as a way to level off the ground with the bedrock to the west.

Also, to the south of the NW-area, we dug down onto a large rectangular stone that looked suspiciously like it was part of a structure. Further excavation showed a line of large stones going east and then making a turn to the south of the trench. This shows that we may be dealing with the corner of a building, that might be largely extending westward outside of the trench.

Image 3 - NW

The stone linear in the NW-corner of Trench 3.

Brian Hope Taylor

This season has also dealt with the partial uncovering of Brian Hope-Taylor’s tarped area. Brian Hope-Taylor excavated at Bamburgh Castle in the early 60’s and early 70’s, and since we are almost down to the same level as the northern part of his trench, we are close to joining up the two excavation areas! BHT left us with some exciting features to excavate next season, including a drain feature and a hearth area.

Eastern side of the trench

In the eastern side of the trench, next to the eastern beam-slot to our timber building, we uncovered a pebbly surface’. As we continued excavation, this narrow strip of pebbles expanded into what we now think is either a pebble path or pebbled surface which slopes down as it extends more eastward. We are still working on finding its southern extent and finding out if it extends west of the eastern beam-slot (which would make it earlier in date than the timber building).

Image 2 - pebble path

Pebble path in the eastern side of the trench.

Lastly, to the north of our pebble context we have located what seems to be a high-medieval pit-feature. We found several shards of pottery from this period, together with two styca’s, finds that shouldn’t be in the same context under normal circumstances. This means that a pit was dug down from above (probably in the 11th-12th centuries), through 9th century layers (explaining the styca’s), which was then filled up with both the Anglo Saxon and high-medieval material. We will finish this pit next season.

So there you have it! Right now we are in the process of finishing off excavation on all the features we are currently working on; namely the pebble path/surface in the east and the potential new structure in the north-west. We will use the last two days of the excavation season to plan and level the most recently excavated areas, finish off all the necessary paperwork, and then, finally, tarp up the trench to protect it from weathering.

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.

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!

Castle Trench One Update

For our latest trench 1 update we hear from Assistant Supervisor Sam.

The highlight of the week, at least for me, came when I found a small shell-button. Although it appears relatively late, made in the last 200 years, it was counted as the first small find of the Trench and was the talk of the week, at least for my part.

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The past couple of weeks have been brilliant in terms of weather and sunshine, cheering for the staff as well as the students. Though we were happy to work under such conditions, it is very important, at least for the trench, to get a little rain to add some moisture, from time to time. This is because when its damp the soil reveals more vivid colours and contexts are easier to see. It often even reveals new features.

Our main aim for the past few weeks was to uncover as many post-holes or post-pits as we could in order to make sense of the relationships between the floor surfaces we have and possible buildings. In such matters it is worth noting that although we, in Trench1, may not find as many small finds in comparison to Trench 3, we have many interesting building features. In particular our timber and stone buildings, cut again and again by the considerable number of post-pits and post-holes, relate quite a different story about the architecture of the area.


Post hole in trench 1

As a last note on this blog, we are excited to announce that we found the base of a what appears to be a Bamburgh Ware pot. For those of you who don’t know, Bamburgh Ware is the locally produced ceramic pots which were in existence around the 11th to 12th centuries. This was found within a pit feature we had previously thought we had completely excavated. Remember how I told about how a little rain can really help us see the features!


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’.

Picture 1

Showing the outline of the timber building

Picture 2

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

Picture 3

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

Picture 4

(2) Showing stratigraphy cut of vertical stone

Picture 5

(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.

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.

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


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.


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.

Gearing up for BRP 2015: Trench 3 Staff

In today’s blog we have decided to reintroduce you to the staff of Trench 3, as a couple of lovely new faces have appeared! Unfortunately, last year’s Trench 3 Supervisor Stephanie Chapman wasn’t able to return this season because of the beautiful baby girl she had last winter. Luckily, 2-year T3 Assistant Supervisor Anne Hartog was more than keen to take up the Supervisor mantle! She will be assisted by long-term Bamburgh students Harry Francis and Isabelle Ryan.

Anne Hartog

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Anne may be a bit too attached to her clipboard…

“I have been a part of the Bamburgh Research Project since the summer of 2011, and have filled the position of T3 Assistant Supervisor in 2013 and 2014. I graduated from Leiden University in the Netherlands in 2014 with a Masters Degree in Historical Archaeology of Northwestern Europe and Museology. Outside of the season, I’m keeping my eye out for archaeological/museological work, which is proving very hard to come across! I did recently start volunteering at a local geological and historical museum as the resident archaeologist, so I’m very happy to still be working with archaeology and artefacts on a weekly basis.

As for my trench hopes and dreams, I would like it very much if we could get the north end down to Brian Hope Taylor’s level and continue from there. We are also still hoping to finally figure out all four walls of the mysterious building that covers a large part of the trench. Of course, the southern part of the trench will hopefully also get a good amount of attention and if all goes well we will try to bring it together, as one phase, with the rest of the trench, before the end of the season. Lastly, I’d like to continue cleaning up the Trench sides, as we did with the South East section last season.

Of course, like most previous seasons, we’ve always been down for big surprises, and I’m sure this year will be no different! But it’s the surprises that make archaeology so interesting!”

Harry Francis


Harry trying not to laugh because I made him freeze for this photo

“This will be my fourth year with the BRP! I have previously spent the last three years working as a student with the project but am returning as an assistant supervisor in Trench 3 this year. I am currently in my second year of doing a BSc in Archaeology at the University of Leicester and plan on continuing in archaeology after leaving.

I am looking forward to another great season working again on a great site, with an equally amazing group of people. This will be a great summer spent digging before I go to study at the University of Bologna, Italy for a year.”

Isabelle Ryan


Isabelle likes to dive right in. She is also a master of trench planking

“I’m from Baltimore, MD and am currently studying Archaeology and History at Washington College in Maryland. This will be my third season with the BRP (first season as staff). Outside of the BRP and studying, I cox for the Washington College men’s varsity crew rowing team.

This season I’m looking forward to uncovering the secrets of the Northwest Corner!”

This year’s digging season will start on Monday the 8th of June, so stay tuned for more blog entries, tweets and video footage of the intriguing finds at Bamburgh Castle and the Bradford Kaims! We can’t wait to get started!

Our end of season lecture is available to view online

Our wrap-up lecture was a great success! We had nearly 40 members of the community, students, and staff members attend. We started the evening with Director Graeme Young discussing our Bamburgh Castle trenches followed by a short explanation of 3-d model rendering and photogrammetry by Outreach Officer Cole Kelly. Finds Supervisor Jeff Aldrich gave us an overview of the small finds from the castle and Director Paul Gething wrapped up the evening talking about our Bradford Kaims site. A big thanks goes out to Phyl Carruthers for coordinating space for our lectures at the beautiful Bell View center in Belford.

Or watch the lecture on youtube.

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