The Bamburgh Bird: Unique 8th century Anglo-Saxon decorative metal work discovered at Bamburgh Castle

Near the end of last summer’s excavation season we made a marvellous new find of national significance; a beautifully decorated copper alloy bird mount. The decorated fragment is small, 23mm by 12mm, but decorated with an intricate zoomorphic representation of a bird, characteristic of early medieval North European art. The star find has since been undergoing careful conservation to reveal an intricately decorated artefact that is a window into the art of a lost era of early medieval royal society.

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Our first view of the conseved find (Karen Barker, Conservator)

Initial comments from a number of experts has suggested that the bird mount is unique, with no direct parallels and likely to be 8th century in date. It is fascinating that the new image appears to hark back in time to the bird of prey motifs of the 6th and 7th centuries AD and could represent a descendant of these earlier styles just as ‘the later 8th century York helmet, is an update of the form known from the earlier Sutton Hoo, Staffordshire and Wollaston helmets’.

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The bird is a realtively thin copper allow piece undecorated on the back anmd likely to have been mounted onto a larger artefact.

The find, excavated by Harry Francis, was recovered from a cobbled surface revealed at the base of a narrow trench that was excavated to identify the next occupation surface at the southern part of Trench 3.  This was revealed as a well constructed surface just centimetres below the well dated 9th century metal working building. At this time there were a number of smaller kingdoms and Northumbria was one of these. The palace fortress of Bamburgh was one of the most important places in Northumbria at that time and we have evidence of metal working, probably associated with the production of arms and armour for the warriors of the royal court in our excavation. In summer 2017 we will continue our investigations of the find spot and we hope to discover if it represents an earlier period of metal working or some other activity. At the moment our investigation of this horizon is at such an early stage we are unsure if the find came from within a building or from a yard surface or path where it may have been dropped. We are very much looking forward to getting back on site and continuing our excavations.

Francis Armstrong and his son Will, owners of Bamburgh Castle have commented that ‘the Bird is a spectacular discovery. It is a beautiful artefact and we are proud that it has been found here at Bamburgh. Finds like this help us to connect with the Castle’s history and it is wonderful when we get the opportunity to display these ancient wonders so our visitors can enjoy them close up. We are grateful for the work the BRP do here at the Castle and we have a great time working with them unearthing the stories that Bamburgh Castle has to tell’.

Research into the new find is ongoing and we aim to have a short publication ready later this year. The bird will be on display at the castle, open 10.00am to 5pm until 29th October, with many other fascinating finds including pattern welded swords and intricately decorated gold work. You can also come and chat to the archaeologists on site when visiting the castle between June 11th and July 15th.

Week 3 in the Post-Excavation Department

 

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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!

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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!

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.

 

 

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.

 

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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.

 

 

Bamburgh Castle, Trench One Update.

Welcome to this Trench One update!

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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

Another week in the Finds Department

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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.

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Finds Illustration

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.

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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.

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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.

Bamburgh Castle, Trench Three – Week 2

Week two was in stark contrast to the week before in terms of weather. Where previously we had beautiful sun, week two featured persistent cloud, broken by drizzle and rain. However, contrary to what you might, think it’s been great weather for doing archaeology! The weather has allowed us to identify context boundaries features in trench 3 which were not previously visible.

 

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Graham and Izzy (Trench 3 Supervisor and Assistant Supervisor) taking advantage of the rain to study exposed contexts.

 

Work has started on re-excavating Brian Hope Taylor’s Trench 1. This excavation lies partially underneath our access ramp. This was done to see if there was evidence of a pebble surface which appears elsewhere on site. No pebbles were seen, however in their place the section revealed a medieval pit which had previously been obscured. It turns out that both Brian Hope Taylor and excavations in 2009 had missed this feature, and it only came to light this year. A reminder of how changeable the soil can be across different conditions!

 

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The section showing the medieval pit, the edge is marked by the stone inclusions.

 

Over in the north-west area of the trench work has continued on the stone feature laying on a burnt deposit just on the bedrock. This has now been half-sectioned and revealed a further sandy band directly underneath the stones. Our initial interpretation of this is that it may be a supporting post pad for a structural timber, sat on top of a consolidating layer.

 

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Half-sectioned stone feature.

 

This week has also seen us finish the high medieval pit in the north-east area of Trench 3. This feature was spotted at the end of last year, and appears to have been cut from higher up in the stratigraphic sequence. Previously found in the pit was High Medieval green-glazed pottery. While completing the pit this year, and interesting lead object was discovered. Ideas about its use are varied. While it looks somewhat like a pendant with its curled loops, this piece may also be a medieval treasury tag, or a rough out for casting. Investigation and research of the artefact will continue this week.

 

 

 

 

Post-excavation, no matter the weather.

Good morning from post excavation! The first week was a busy and exciting start to the season, with a few rainy days allowing for more indoors work to be completed.

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The Windmill, home of the Finds Department.

 

Students Ayesha, Ian, Joe, and Mike have had a chance to work directly with the previous year’s finds as well as the first finds discovered this season while cleaning up Trench 3. They’ve come into the Windmill to do a bit of pottery washing and begin pot marking (once the pieces were dry).

 

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Students Ian, Joe and Mike cleaning ceramic finds.

 

Another wet trench allowed us to bring the students back in for bulk finds washing (a necessary and mostly fun task), small finds illustration, and a quick dry brush cleaning of our metal finds.

 

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Student Ayesha learning small finds illustration.

 

Interspersed throughout these tasks were many questions and teaching opportunities pertaining to both the BRP’s and the industry’s post excavation processes, as the opportunity to work with Environmental Assistant Supervisor Tom Fox in environmental processing.

 

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Tom Fox conferring with Jeff Aldrich, Post-excavation Supervisor.

We look forward to a fun and fruitful season here in the post-ex department and will be updating again soon!

 

And so it has begun…

Week one is well underway here at Bamburgh Castle and things are picking up for the 2016 dig season!

Trench One

Trench One was left uncovered over the winter and allowed to weather and next week the students will begin investigating whether this exposure has revealed any discrete features or contexts not previously visible.

This week, excavation began around the base of the Medieval curtain wall at the kiln feature in preparation for photogrammetry. Once the photogrammetry is complete the feature will be sampled for environmental processing.

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Trench Three

Trench Three is almost completely de-tarped and cleaning has begun in preparation for the start of season trench photo. This cleaning removes the washed in silt and weathering from the past 10 months from the surfaces and features within the trench, including wall slots and the 1970s test pit from Brian Hope Taylor’s excavations.

The trench has already yielded its first small find – a possible metal stylus uncovered by student Ayesha.

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Post-excavation

The Finds and Environmental department has been hard at work this week getting ready for the season and updating the databases. The flotation tank is pumping, and everyone seems to be enjoying it.

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As part of our traditional introduction to the site, students started the week washing bulk find material from last season. This helps to introduce them to the stages of post-excavation processing, and familiarises them with the common artefact types and materials found on site – very helpful when they begin excavating!

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More news on the way soon!

Find of the week: Bulky Buckle

One of our recent blog posts discussed the removal of a mortar floor surface in the northwest corner of Trench 3 at Bamburgh Castle. This surface has been a fixture in the trench for quite some time, so everyone was hoping for great finds from fill underneath. We were not disappointed. Amongst the usual artefacts of animal bone, shell, and charcoal we recovered the find of the week: a bulky iron buckle. Personal items such as this are a rarity in our trenches and there has been quite a bit of excitement surrounding its discovery.

The corroded buckle was recovered in situ by one of our students Isabelle and it has been dated as Early Medieval due to its context and association with Anglo Saxon pottery found nearby.

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At a hefty 85 grams and measuring 7×6 centimetres, this isn’t a delicate fastening, but a seriously sturdy buckle that might have been worn in conjunction with vocational clothing. Though it’s possible that the iron corrosion hides some ornamental elements, at this time the buckle appears to be unadorned or missing its decorative portion. Because it’s fashioned from iron rather than a more precious metal it’s likely the buckle was utilitarian in nature and not a part of a high status wardrobe. Even if it didn’t belong to King Oswald, this latest find from Trench 3 is a very interesting artefact and we’re looking forward to seeing what additional finds are recovered from this area of the trench.