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.

Fire of the North’ 2014 Cuthbert – Northumbria’s First Nature Warden

We have been sent some information about an events programme that may well interest the readers of our blog.. Details below:

A unique venture bringing together three iconic National Nature Reserves and three major national organisations – Lindisfarne NNR (Natural England), Farne Islands NNR (National Trust), and St Abb’s Head NNR (National Trust for Scotland) – around the figure of Cuthbert, the ‘Fire of the North’, and evoking a time when the ancient kingdom of Northumbria straddled what is now England and Scotland.

On the evening of 4 September this year beacons/fires will be lit on the Inner Farne AND St Abb’s Head to celebrate the ‘Fire of the North’s links with the wider region and its nationally/internationally important nature reserves. There is also a programme of linked walks/talks at each National Nature Reserve leading up to the 4 September event.

PROGRAMME OF EVENTS

Mon 25 August (St Aebbe’s Day)
St Abb’s Head NNR – Liza Cole and John Woodhurst
Liza, the National Trust for Scotland’s Senior Ranger at St Abb’s Head NNR will talk about the Reserve, whilst local historian John will explore Cuthbert’s links to St Abbs, stressing the importance he gave to nature and the animal kingdom.
Meet at St Abb’s Head Nature Centre (Grid Ref NT 913674) at 1pm to walk to Kirk Hill, the site of St Aebbe’s Anglo-Saxon monastery.

Thurs 28 August
Inner Farne NNR – National Trust Rangers and John Woodhurst
John will meet the 11, 12, 1 and 2 o’clock sailings from Seahouses to the Inner Farne, and in a short walk/talk offer the opportunity to find out more about Cuthbert’s links to the Farnes, referencing the archaeology with sites extant today, and stressing Cuthbert’s self-sufficient lifestyle as a hermit. NT Rangers will also be on hand to talk about the wildlife of the Inner Farne.

Standard boat booking from Seahouses to Inner Farne (NT landing fees apply to non members – see NT website for details), and meet John and NT Ranger on landing.

Sun 31 August (St Aidan’s Day)
Lindisfarne NNR – Laura Scott and John Woodhurst
Reserve Warden Laura will talk about Lindisfarne NNR, and John will do his regular walk/talk, ‘Cuthbert – Lindisfarne’s First Nature Warden?’.

Meet at Window on Wild Lindisfarne building (Grid Ref NU129419) at 12.30 pm to walk around the Harbour, along the Heugh, across to St Cuthbert’s Island, and back via the ‘Sacred Corridor’ to St Mary’s Church.

Thurs 4 Sept at Dusk ca.8.30-9.00pm (St Cuthbert’s Day)
‘FIRE OF THE NORTH’
Beacons/Fires to be lit on Inner Farne and St Abb’s Head
NT Rangers will repeat the beacon/fire from last year near the lighthouse on Inner Farne.
St Abb’s Head beacon/fire will be on a hill close to St Abb’s Head lighthouse, with a linked walk from Kirk Hill to the site led by Daniel Rhodes, National Trust for Scotland Archaeologist (meet foot of Kirk Hill – Grid Ref NT914687 at 7.30). John will lead a group from the Window on Wild Lindisfarne building (meet 7.30) to the Watchtower on the Heugh to view, weather permitting, both beacons/fires. Along the way he will give a shortened version of his ‘First Nature Warden’ talk.

ALL WALKS/TALKS ARE FREE.
FOR MORE INFORMATION PHONE OR EMAIL:
Lindisfarne – 01289 381470 or laura.scott@naturalengland.org.uk.
Inner Farne – 01665 576874 or Rebecca.Hetherington@nationaltrust.org.uk.
St Abb’s Head – 01890 771443 or lcole@nts.org.uk.

Please wear suitable footwear and be prepared for all weather. Bring a drink/snack. Children must be accompanied by an adult.

Trench One’s sunken featured building slowly reveals its secrets

The SFB under investigation

The SFB under investigation

Regular readers of the blog will recall that we have been investigating a sunken feature building (often called an SFB for short) in the south east corner of Trench 1 Some new evidence for our ellusive sunken featured building within Trench 1). Its broadly rectangular shape is formed from a shallow hollow in the ground, very likely the result of a deliberate structural cut, filled with a grey-brown silt with a substantial stone content. SFB’s are common on early medieval sites, but tend to be found on subsoils such as sands and gravels, that are easy to dig into, rather than the much more intractable stony boulder clay we have at the base of Trench 1. This makes us a little cautious about our interpretation of the feature at the moment and we would not be surprised if further investigation leads to new twists in the story.

The newly identified quern stone we believe was re-used as a post support

The newly identified quern stone we believe was re-used as a post support

Earlier we identified, what we believe to be a socketed stone that was well sited to be a central roof support. This interpretation of the stone’s final role appears to be still valid, but further investigation has revealed that its a broken, or roughed out, upper stone of a rotary quern. In addition we have two sherds of pottery associated with the feature. Both have an incised decoration on the outside of what is a course fabric. At the moment we are assuming that these sherds are early/middle Saxon in date. Hopefully the decoration will allow a specialist to date them a little closer than we can at the moment.

The to sherds of pottery, decorated by incised lines. Whilst not joining fragments, they may be part of the same vessel

The two sherds of pottery, decorated by incised lines. Whilst not joining fragments, they may be part of the same vessel