Visitng the Bowl Hole

I have just had a trip out to the south of the castle to look at the dune formation with Dr Richard Tipping. The relationship between the rock fortress and its natural setting has long been of interest. We know for instance that the sea is depicted right up against the northern end of the castle rock on the First Edition Ordnance Survey map and have long suspected that the Bowl Hole cemetery site (to the south of the castle) had a much closer relationship with the north sea that is does today. In a walk over inspection Richard has identified further boulder clay plateaus, similar to the one on which the burial ground lies, emerging from the dune, further south. Just what archaeological remains my lie to be discovered here we can only speculate on at the moment, though we may be tempted to investigate in future seasons.

The cemetery, which was sample excavated by the BRP between 1997 and 2007 revealing some 91 distinct burials, lay just above the Bowl Hole depression in the sand dunes. This low lying feature frequently floods during wet winter periods but is usually dry during the summer. One thing that our walk brought home to us, if anything more was needed, was the just how much rain has fallen this summer, because the Bowl Hole was well and truly flooded.


The Bowl Hole flooded in mid winter, as seen from the cemetery plataeu.

ImageThe Bowl Hole flooded in the ‘summer’, seen from the south of the cemetery site.

The Bowl Hole: Part Three

Scientific Research at the Bowl Hole Cemetery.

Once the skeletons have been recorded, removed and cleaned they are then ready for the post-excavation process. This work has been carried out by Dr. Sarah Groves and her colleagues at the University of Durham.

Dr. Groves first came to work at Bamburgh as a student and now her on-going research is shedding light on the individuals buried just outside the castle walls. For an in-depth discussion of Dr. Groves’ work please follow the link

To begin with, each skeleton undergoes rigorous examination to determine sex, age, height etc. plus any evidence of disease and trauma.

A skeleton laid out in its anatomical position.
Skeleton’s laid out for examination.

The skeletal analysis has suggested that most of the adults are tall, robust individuals with little sign of malnourishment or disease. This has lead Dr. Groves to suggest that these individuals were of a high status background and therefore, likely to be some of the elite residents of Bamburgh Castle.

Some individuals have more to say than others. For example, one male has evidence of extensive trauma to the side of his body caused by a slashing implement, such as a sword. The trauma inflicted on the body would likely have ended this individual’s life.

Further scientific analysis has been undertaken by Dr. Sarah Groves to determine the movements and diets of the inhabitants of the cemetery. Isotopic analysis of traces of strontium and oxygen taken from tooth enamel (tooth enamel is used because it does not degrade in the ground or reproduce during life) has a specific signature which can be compared with known levels across the world.

Skull with surviving teeth, which can be used for isotopic analysis 

The results of isotopic analysis can, therefore, tell us where people lived during their childhood. For example, skeletons excavated during the 1999 season were subject to isotopic analysis. The results indicated that none of the individuals came from the Bamburgh area, instead their results suggest that they were from the wider Bernician community.

Dr. Sarah Groves taking samples for isotopic and DNA analysis.

Isotopic analysis has also been undertaken to determine diet, using carbon and nitrogen isotopes. Furthermore, a DNA feasibility test has also been undertaken, as DNA can help us sex skeletons and recognise family groups. The findings of this project are currently been turned into a monograph publication, plus there are also a number of published and forthcoming articles.


Groves, S.E. (2010) Feasting or Fasting? Diet and Health in Early Medieval Northumbria. 5000 Years of Death and Disease. Festival of British Archaeology Day School, Durham.

Groves, S.E. (2010) The Bowl Hole Cemetery, Bamburgh: Life and Death in Early Medieval Northumberland. Teesside Archaeological Society, Stockton.

Roberts, C.A. (2009) Where did people buried in the Bowl-Hole, Bamburgh originate? Some answers and a general overview of developments in recognizing migrations in bioarchaeologyNewcastle Antiquaries, Newcastle

Groves, S.E. 2007-8 Bodies in the Bowl Hole – Life and Death in Anglo-Saxon Bamburgh. Paper presented at the Tees Archaeology Day School “Angles on the Saxons, Stockton, November 2007, and for the Newcastle Historical Studies Society, February 2008

Groves, S.E. (2007) Human remains from the Bowl Hole Anglo-Saxon cemetery, Bamburgh. Public lecture given to the Northumberland Archaeological Group


Groves, S.E., Wod, P. and Young, G. (2009) The Bowl Hole Early Medieval Cemetery at Bamburgh, Excavations 1998 to 1999. Archaeologica Aeliana 38: 105–22

Groves, S.E. (2010) The Bowl Hole Burial Ground; A Late Anglian cemetery in Northumberland. In J. Buckberry and A. Cherryson (eds): Burial in Later Anglo-Saxon England, c.650 to 1100AD. 114 – 125. Oxbow Books

Groves, S.E. (in Press) Social and Biological Status in the Bowl Hole Early Medieval burial ground, Bamburgh, Northumberland. In Petts, D and Williams, H. (eds) Early Medieval Northumbria. Brepols

Further links

As part of the project, geophysical survey of the area was also undertaken, suggesting the presence of several anomalies which could be graves and associated features. To read the report follow the link.

The Bowl Hole Cemetery: Part Two

Today we continue the blog thread: The Bowl Hole Cemetery. This post does contain images of human remains.

What we found.

From 1998 to 2007 the Bamburgh Research Project excavated over 100 skeletons from the Bowl Hole Cemetery. These include remains of men, women, adolescents and infants.

Students excavating grave cuts within the burial ground. Note the different alignments.

The remains were found in a variety of positions, including crouched and supine (on the back).

Crouched burial under excavation
Supine burial under excavation.

We also have different alignments and even some cist burials (a cist is a burial that uses stones to line the grave edge). This type of variety is very common in earlier Anglo-Saxon burial grounds.

First cist burial found at the Bowl Hole

Amongst the burials we have also found associated features, such as linear ditches packed with crushed shell. The exact function of these features is not entirely clear but they are not unexpected, as it is quite common to find evidence of mortuary activity such as post holes, areas of burning and mortuary monuments, such as mounds. Furthermore, we have had limited finds from the actual graves themselves including knives and buckles, plus a few animal bones around the heads. We have also had a number of finds from outside the graves, including this amazing bone comb.

Anglo-Saxon bone comb

The lack of grave goods and the composition of the burials indicate that this site is what is known as a ‘final phase’ burial ground. This refers to the intermediary phase between pagan and Christian burial practices around the 7-8th century AD.

Once the skeletons have been carefully excavated they are recorded. This process is very similar to excavating other archaeological features. We fill out a skeleton sheet which records things like alignment, size of the grave cut, associated finds and which bones are present. We draw the grave cut and skeleton in-situ, take photographs and survey the grave using the level and/or total station.

Grave cuts being photographed by one of the former directors, Phil Wood.
Example of photographic recording.

Part of the planned cemetery

Once we have completed the recording process the skeleton is carefully lifted from the grave. The human remains are then cleaned ready for scientific analysis.

Students cleaning the remains from the bowl hole.

Follow the link for a short film about the Bowl Hole excavation

In the next post I will discuss what the scientific analysis has told us about the people who were buried here some 1400 years ago. I will also introduce you to an old BRP student, Dr. Sarah Groves, and her on-going research.