Week 4 in Trench 3, Bamburgh Castle

Last week’s main focus was on the north-east corner of Trench 3, as we were investigating the possibility that the area is in fact a Romano-British occupation layer. Questions have been raised recently about whether our previous identification of the area, as currently dating to around the 9th Century (believed so due to the beam-slot cut of our 9th Century Anglo-Saxon timber building) no longer holds, due to a large number of Roman finds appearing both this season and ones previously. This is not typically a cause for reinterpretation as artefacts from earlier periods do appear from time to time in negative features, such as pits and post-holes, but these were also appearing in normal stratigraphic layers. These finds include a section of a Roman glass bracelet, both Roman greyware and Samian pottery and, from a previous season, a Roman fibulae brooch.



Part of the collection of Roman finds from the NE area of the trench.


To add to our current mystery, this area is cut by a number of negative features, which is making this puzzle all the more exciting to figure out. We have discovered a 9th century timber beam slot, an anglo-saxon post-hole, a high medieval pit and another possible anglo-saxon pit all in this corner. It is also difficult to see a relationship between the dated areas of the trench and this corner because there is a large WW1 test latrine pit isolating it on one side, it goes into our trench edges on two more, and finally it backs onto a higher portion of bedrock on the last. Finally towards the end of the week a stone linear feature was seen in the section of the beamslot and so work began to investigate it, which led to us reaching bedrock around 0.35m below our current level. This could give an explanation for why this area was occupied before the areas with lower bedrock levels, however more investigation is needed before we rule out any other theories.



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.

Windy day in the 9th century

Sometimes the most fascinating aspects of archaeology are those rare moments when you get to connect to a past event through a discrete little discovery. Whether it is the finger prints of a potter on an ancient pot or a personal object lost by an individual, it is all part of a rich tapestry of reconstructing the past.

A thin wind-blown sand lens lies just beneath the dark deposit that the leaf blade is lying on

A thin wind-blown sand lens lies just beneath the dark deposit that the leaf blade is lying on

We have been cleaning the south west corner of Trench 3 in order to record it a final time before we cover it to prevent its slow erosion. We made one of those small discoveries in the process. Bamburgh lies close to the beach and can be pretty windy. Its particularly annoying when the wind blows sand over our cleaned surfaces, adding a thin layer that has to be removed. It was amusing then to find such a thin layer of blown sand within the stratigraphy. Just a few millimetres thick separating accumulated waste lenses in the surface to the south of the 9th century metal working building. That must have been a stormy day in the early 9th century!

Good-bye mortar floor surface, hello SE section sides!

Stephanie, Trench 3 Supervisor, here with an update:

At the beginning of this week, we fully excavated the mortar floor surface in the NW corner of Trench 3. Removing the mortar surface proved to be no easy task for the mortar was quite firm and cemented together. Nevertheless, our students trowelled and chiseled through! We also sampled and excavated a small post-hole or burning deposit, located just northeast of the mortar and in line with the mortar floor’s eastern beam slot.  The NW corner has since been photographed and planned. Excavation of the layer under and surrounding the mortar floor surface will continue next week.


[Students removing the mortar floor surface.]


[Sofiya sampling the post-hole/burning deposit.]

Meanwhile, work also begun in the SE corner of the trench to recover the section sides disturbed by the 2013 off-season pipe installation. First, the sandbags from 2009 where removed, revealing beautiful, straight section edges! The sections were then cleaned to reveal the preserved stratigraphy. The medieval midden layers, excavated in previous seasons and known for their later medieval small finds, as well as two sandy abandonment layers and layers from Dr. Sharp’s time and Lord Armstrong’s time at the castle appeared quite nicely in the stratigraphy. Once the section sides were photographed, students began section drawing—a large undertaking!


[Recovering the SE section sides.]


[Students section drawing in pairs!]

We hope to finish-up section drawing on Monday, and then begin excavation of the medieval layers upon which the 2009 sandbags were sat. Afterwards, we will add those layers onto our section drawings and then begin the process of tarping and stonewalling the section sides so that they are nicely preserved for our future excavation seasons.

Internet booking is now open for the 2014 field season

The windmill in the West Ward, between our two excavation trenches

The windmill in the West Ward, between our two excavation trenches

We are very happy to let you all know that booking is now open on our website for the 2014 field season. Particular thanks are due to Emily Andrews for her work on the website.

Starting  Monday, 2nd June, we will be running for our usual eight weeks up to Sunday 27th July 2014. Of particualar interest this year will be tracing the extent of the Neolithic timber platform and seeing what exciting new finds emerge from the waterlogged peat layers.  Remember to book early to ensure you get your choice of week.



Excavation at the Bradford Kaims wetland site in 2013. A waterlogged Neolithic timber platform is just starting to emerge

Excavation at the Bradford Kaims wetland site in 2013. A waterlogged Neolithic timber platform is just starting to emerge


First Trench 1 update of 2013

Trench 1 has been making good progress during the first two weeks. In particular we have identified structural evidence within the layers on its eastern side. Two small post-holes have been sectioned and sampled and a linear stone spread, thought to define the line of a timber wall or partition, has also been identified. It is not at all clear what wider structure or building these features are a part of at this time, but hopefully this will resolve itself in due course as we clean the wider trench.

Structural linear and two post-holes under investigation.

Structural linear and two post-holes under investigation.

What is clear, however, is that this linear cuts and post-dates at least one pit. This is potentially interesting as we may now be reaching the level at which numerous pits will become visible. This is of particular interest as this was the case within the first part of the trench, excavated a few years ago. If we are arriving at a similar level there is a very real possibility we will be able to see structural patterns emerging between the two parts of the site. Identifying the phases and dates of these features will be another problem altogether.

Trench Three End of Season Report

Today we hear from the Trench 3 supervisors, Maria and Steph, as they round up the end of season.

Trench Three End of Season Report

Maria and I (your Trench 3 supervisors!) have noticed the lack of Trench 3 blogs from the end of the season—the Octocopter, Prince Charles, and the Kaims seem to have taken over!  But never fear, Trench 3 continued to excavate and remained interesting right up to the last day of our summer excavation season!  Let’s catch you up to speed:

As many of you will remember from previous blogs, we had quarter sectioned the NW corner of Trench 3 in hopes of better understanding the complex stratigraphy.

The NW corner of Trench 3 quarter sectioned. Excavations taking place in the NW and SE quadrants.

In the western quadrants, north of a substantial stone wall extending from the western limit of excavation (running roughly E-W), we had uncovered a pebbly/gravely floor surface.  The pebbly/gravely floor surface continued south, under the rubble associated with the E-W stone wall, and east as far a second stone wall extending from the northern limit of excavation (running roughly N-S).  It is thus likely that the two stone walls and the floor surface were once part of the same structure.

Upon excavating the pebbly/gravely floor surface, a linear of degraded sandstone running NE-SW was revealed.

Visible in the NW quadrant, the linear of degraded sandstone containing an area of degraded mortar.

Much to our excitement, further excavation of this area showed that the degraded sandstone turned southeast, creating a rather nice right angle!  This suggests that the degraded sandstone is the corner of a wall from an earlier building (as the linear is lower than and running in a different alignment to the stone walls).  Furthermore, the degraded sandstone contains an area of degraded mortar—possibly another floor surface!

View of the degraded sandstone forming a right angle and containing an area of degraded mortar.

As luck would have it, the features in the eastern area of the NW corner are not as clear.  Our current theory is that some sort of pit has been cut into the area, disturbing not only the stone walls and pebbly/gravely floor surface where they should meet at a right angle, but also the earlier sandstone and mortar structure.  So far, this area has a number of ‘mysterious’ features, including patches of charcoal and other burning, patches of degraded mortar and degraded sandstone, patches of clay, lead and iron small finds, and our personal favorite: an expanding hollow chock-full of loose stones (!?).  These features are similar to those found in the western area . . . but not as tidy—it is as if someone has churned up this portion of the NW corner.  Needless to say, this area will need further investigation during the 2013 season!

However, we do believe that the substantial wall running E-W from the western limit of excavation originally extended to the east onto the bedrock.  Indeed, this may partially account for the wall’s disappearance to the east.  Moreover, yet another linear (running N-S) was discovered just east of the bedrock.  The linear consists of a series of stones resting at angles, perhaps used as packing to support wooden beams (?).  Where the linear approaches the bedrock to the north a possible post-hole was excavated.  The different contexts on either side of the linear and its alignment with the substantial E-W stone wall and the N-S stone wall indicate that the linear may have been a partition wall associated with this later building.

Sue (east of the N-S linear and post-hole) and Maria (in front of the N-S stone wall) working in the NW corner.

I think I speak for everyone when I say that it was difficult to leave Trench 3 this season—the archaeology was finally providing some valuable clues to answer some of our long-standing questions, and yet we still have so many questions left to answer!  I am already looking forward to Summer 2013!

Well, that’s Maria and I from Trench 3 signing off until next summer!  We want to thank everyone (and especially our hardworking, often rain-soaked students) for a great season!

Trench 3 Supervisor’s Stephanie and Maria staying warm during tea break!

Finds Update Video

Kirstie Watson, Bamburgh Research Project Finds Supervisor, talks about some of the interesting artefacts that have been recovered from the trenches this season and in previous years. This video has been edited by BRP participant Emily Andrews with some guidance from departed media supervisor Joe Tong.

Trench 3 Removes the Metalworking Building

In 2010 it became apparent that we had an Anglo-Saxon structure in the southern part of Trench 3. This building was associated with areas of burning, including spills from probable entrances.

Metalworking building in Trench 3

Over the past two dig seasons we have unearthed all four sides of packing stones for a timber building, as well as a pebbled path that leads to the entrance. We have also sampled the entire area for hammerscale, as we believe that this area was involved in the process of metalworking (Click here to find out more about hammerscale).

Over the last few weeks we have also unearthed a mortared surface within the interior of the building.

The mortared surface in Trench 3

All these features have been photographed, planned and described on context sheets and it is now time to begin lifting and excavating the floor of the building.

Nat and Tom working on the building floor

We began by lifting the northern half of the building walls and today we have begun excavating the mortared surface, taking environmental samples as we go.

To see the first phase of this excavation watch the video below.

Finds Flash

Trench 1 had a lovely, if ambiguous, copper find this week. Suggestions for its use include a strap-end, a brooch, a horse or weapon fitting. Any ideas would be appreciated. Context 1309 is a possible floor surface, which dates to approx. the 11th century. However, this is still being investigated.

The leaf-shaped copper object

Reverse of object

The ‘back’ of the copper object.