We are all so excited to be back on-site today with a fresh bunch of new students, and some familiar faces among the staff (more on us tomorrow) as well as former students who’ve signed back on as staff (more on them next Monday). We’ve got FOUR action-packed weeks planned for you all, so follow along on here and your preferred social media site:
Our first and hopefully most straightforward goal for the season is to bottom out the tower and find Elmund’s well (discussed in this blog post about the wells from last season)…or at least find traces of it. None of us are truly expecting an empty shaft with potable water, but everyone is at the very least expecting that yours truly, against the basic premise of self-preservation and scientific safety, will offer to taste-test whatever mud or sludge lays at the bottom.
We also would like to do a full outworks extant masonry survey to get a better grasp on the complicated and numerous phases of construction. There are bits of wall that show signs of at least half a dozen separate rebuild or refacing events! We would also like to generate a to-scale model using Electronic Distance Measurement (a method of survey called EDM for short) of the masonry.
Our post-excavation goals, in addition to keeping up with processing of finds, will include a bit of housekeeping; we’ve recently moved our archives and want to make sure everything is where it should be and easily-accessible via our cataloguing system. We’ve got plenty of finds from last season to finish washing and sorting, and there will hopefully be a similar abundance of material from our excavations of the next few weeks.
We are happy to once again have the specialist staff (previously unavailable due to travel restrictions) and workspace to begin processing environmental samples again. Our main means of processing will be through flotation, and a primer on our methods can be found here. In short, flotation allows tiny artefacts and ecofacts from coins and beads to bones, snail shells, and seeds to be separated from the soil matrix. The characteristics and chemistry soil itself can also tell us about what was likely going on in a certain area of the trench during a certain time. This season we will be covering seed identification and a bit of soil science here on the blog.
Finally, we hope to enhance our database of finds with a new system of key words. We also would like to eventually integrate the Brian Hope-Taylor material we have in our care into our existing system.
This Director’s 2021 Round-up Report will split into two posts. This blog post is a round-up of previous work undertaken in the excavation area and sets out what our aims were for the 2021 season. The second post will look at how the actual excavation results matched up to what we expected and will look forward to next season and its new goals.
The 2021 Excavation Area: what we know
The focus for the 2021 dig season was St Oswald’s Gate and the area of outworks below it. Regular readers of the blog will be quite aware that St Oswald’s Gate is known to have been the original entrance to the castle – with the current gate taking over the role of principal entrance at some point in the 12th century. We do not have an actual description of the construction of the Great Gate in the records that survive but there is fabric of this date in the vault of the Constables Tower that forms part of the complex entrance behind the Great Gate. So we can date the new entry arrangement within a few decades at least.
We do have at least one, much earlier, record describing St Oswald’s Gate as the entrance, dating from from AD 774 that states – Bamburgh as ‘having one hollowed entrance ascending in a wonderful manner by steps’ – a clear reference to St Oswald’s Gate as we see it today. As we have radiocarbon evidence for the fortress being occupied since the 9th century BC, its reasonable to think this was the entrance to the site for 2000 years! So I am sure you can understand why investigating this area of the site is important to our understanding of the fortress and its long history.
One of the reasons that the gate remained in this area for so long, apart from being at a lower lying part of the bedrock and so more practical for access to the castle rock, is that it was able to service a small port that lay to the immediate north of the castle. It is logical then that this entrance and its access routes, and how they were used, goes back a very long time and is much older than the outworks that stand in partial ruins to this day. Nevertheless study of the various phases of the structures that do survive, and how they were likely used, will help us understand how the topography may have dictated long standing routes much older than the standing structures themselves.
The current phase of investigation is the second undertaken by us beyond St Oswald’s Gate (see images below). The first was way back in 2002 but was not continued as resources were needed elsewhere. It did though show us that the area was important and needed further work, so its good to be able to concentrate on this area now. The original work identified the phases of the St Oswald’s Gate main structure that we can match to the historical records. This included two phases of medieval build to the gate as well as identifying traces of timber elements of the structure known from records. The two phases should be 12th century and a 13th century widening and update to the structure. We also know of timber elements that were sent to Bamburgh from a castle at Nafferton that was for form a breteche – a defensive structure that juts out over agate to allow nasty things to be dropped on anyone attempting to force their way in.
There are a number of standing ruined walls outside of the gate forming outworks beyond the gate, sited we are sure, to control access to the gate itself and also how people would be able to move in the area. The structures that we see represent many phases of build, the earliest thought to be 11th to 12th century in date, extends south-west from the castle rock and is narrow in width and has a narrow tall archway passing through it that led towards the port area. Underlining the importance of the port if it was needed. This multiphase wall was then cut through by a newer medieval wall with a Postern gate that clearly led to the village. It is tempting to see this construction phase as responding to the creation of a new port in Budle Bay around the middle of the 13th century and we must assume that this means the little port goes out of use at this time. Perhaps a reason for rebuilding and realigning the outworks.
The Tower of St Elmund’s Well
One structure we were not able to identify in 2002 was the Tower at Elmund’s Well, known from documentary records to have been in the outworks and, rather obviously from the description, to have contained or guarded a well. We have records of the tower being repaired in AD 1250 so we know it was in place by then and if needing repair had likely been built some time before. This record mentions both the repair of the tower and the repair of the ‘barbican before St Oswald’s Gate’, which explains at least some of the phasing in the outworks that we see and perhaps records the remodelling that we see with the new wall and Postern construction.
To guide us in finding and investigating the tower and well we have two plans that show the outworks in some detail. The earliest of these is from 1803 and is the only plan we have that shows the location of the well. The building, including what remained of the tower, is shown as L-shaped and entered by steps from the south-west and these steps led down to the well room at the west end. The second plan was compiled by Cadwallader Bates (an Antiquarian) for the 1st Lord Armstrong in 1895 and shows some alterations to the entrance but seems to confirm the general shape and arrangements.
The 2021 excavation was intended to help us interpret the build sequence and understand these alterations and also tell us if the plans are accurate. We were also very keen to be able to define the medieval elements from the post-medieval cottage and perhaps identify how early the tower was constructed.
We will go over how many of these questions we have answered this season and what remains to be done next year in our next blog post. For sneak peak, you can always look at our earlier blog posts…..
The Windmill – home to the Post-excavation Department.
Good morning from the Post-excavation Department! We have had a busy few weeks with a steady flow of students coming through eager to learn. Taking into account the better weather and the remarkable finds from the trenches, there is plenty to keep us busy!
Thomas Fox, Environmental Assistant Supervisor, teaching students Katie and Weston.
With the amount of new finds, we are able to guide students through the initial processing stages: identifying, recording, and bagging the find. Archaeology at its core is about understanding the past from physical remains, so it is highly important to encourage diligent record keeping.
Students Eden and Steffi finds washing.
With the new finds processed, the students are then given the opportunity to move to the next tasks: cleaning, sorting, and illustrating the finds. This allows them the chance to walk through the entire post-excavation process and therefore improve their critical thinking skills and encourage thought on the historic use of the artefact.
Finds Supervisor, Jeff Aldrich, examining some of the finds from the Bradford Kaims.
Bradford Kaims has been updating their records to reflect the past several years of work. The finds have all been processed, it’s simply a matter of digitising and correlating the artefacts to their locations in three dimensions. Once the locations are correlated, we can store the finds for future study.
With three weeks down and new students ready to learn about archaeology, we’re getting things moving here at the Project and look forward to the next five weeks!
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.
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.
Test pit A (as mentioned in the week 1 interview video) has now been set up and we’ll keep you posted as progress continues.
Test Pit A extending north-south across the width of Trench One.
We found the construction cut for the 12th/13th Century curtain wall and it contained a number of pottery sherds, mostly green glaze. It was also the source of the ‘mystery’ clay circular objects which we tweeted last week. One possible explanation of them was bungs scored into unfired ceramics which then popped out during the firing process.
Unidentified clay objects. Any thoughts?
Underneath the rubble foundation of the curtain wall we have an earlier (possibly 8th/9th Century) masonry block with adhered mortar associated with two others, which may have been used as the backing corner of the kiln.
Last week in Trench One the kiln was sampled as planned. It looks like it was damaged and/or broken with use quickly discontinued – there is grain still in situ in large quantities, and the upper fill layer appears to be a ‘demolition’ context with extensive CBM fragments from the body of the kiln. In the video below Sam Serrano, Trench 1 Assistant Supervisor discusses the kiln and its excavation in more detail.
Work has also continued excavating half-sections in various small features, post-holes and pits to help add to the stratigraphic sequence and story of Trench One.
It seems both a long time ago and strangely almost like yesterday that we uncovered a cyst burial (a grave cut outlined with slabs of stone) and realised that we had identified the location of the lost burial ground at the Bowl Hole. Memory is a funny thing! Over the 15+ years since that weekend we have undertaken an extensive excavation, followed by a successful collaboration with Durham University, aimed at analysing the skeletons and understanding as far as we are able the story that they have to tell us.
The results have been fascinating and we very much look forward to sharing them with you in the future, through further academic papers, a long awaited monograph and, we hope, a popular publication and visitor centre. Much of this work lies in the months ahead but tomorrow a long awaited and important landmark in the story of the site will happen when we undertake the reburial of the skeletons at St Aidan’s church in Bamburgh. We always intended to rebury them following their study and ST Aidan’s, a church whose foundation is as old as the cemetery site, is the perfect place to be their final resting place.
You can read a little more about the service in the article below. If you have the chance to attend then please do.
The Windmill during a brief respite from the rain.
Good morning from the post-excavation department! We have had a busy few weeks processing some intriguing finds including a possible iron stylus, a worked stone bead, several bits of unidentified burnt clay discs, and a potential lead pendant, to name a few.
Environmental supervisor Thomas Fox has kept our students engaged at the flot tank processing environmental samples from last year while Post-ex supervisor Jeff Aldrich has been taking advantage of the poor weather to give students the a chance to illustrate and process our finds.
Students Katie and Kelly sorting environmental flotation samples.
The students have also had the opportunity to learn a bit of post-excavation from Bradford Kaims processing finds, including a plethora of worked wooden stakes and the resultant paperwork led by trench supervisor Becky Brummet. Because of its distance from civilisation, it is a separate process at each site: the Castle and the Kaims.
Students Joe and Rachel filling out timber recording sheets.
With the sun shining and the winds calmer, the students and staff will have ample time in the trenches to find us some new artefacts, hopefully further fleshing out the story of Bamburgh Castle.