Rabble-rousing and Rubble Removal

Today we had a little bit (okay, a lot) of extra muscle in the form of an excavator and two of the Castle’s grounds team. Stuart and Steve took down part of our seaward fence and brought over a digger to remove the largest dolerite blocks from the suspected well room.

Sneaking up on us.
Stuart is in the zone!
Our first glimpse of the other side of the arch.
Looking down the steps, and there is light on the other side.
Making some headway.
Graeme has clambered through the arch and stops to ponder.
We have multiple exposed courses of masonry showing us at least three distinct phases in the likely well room.
A slot possibly for a timber that roughly pairs with one on the seaward wall, or maybe even the timber for the pulley for the well?
Our arch on this side is clearly part of the wall, as the voussoirs (wedge blocks) and springer (block where the arch meets the vertical supports) are embedded in what looks like the same phase of wall.
Graeme is bouncing off the walls in delight.

The last video there broke some news today: we will be here in these trenches again next summer to find that well. Bet on it!

Week 3: Round-up

This week was particularly full of environmental processing, finds sorting, and trench recording! Not as much rubble has been removed from the main trench as the blocks left are much too big to be moved by hand, but we will have an update on the steps below.

The flotation tank has been up and running almost non-stop to get through backlogged samples. Nat runs a tight ship, and that ship is the HMS Floaty McFloatface. Multiple crude ceramic beads have been found this week in sorting the floated material.

Ceramic bead.

In finds, we’ve spent a lot of time sorting the huge volume of washed material from last week. Among this, we found an unusual number of very large teeth from cattle and horse which we discussed further here. And we found a possible buzz-bone!

Worked bone that may have been a toy or musical instrument.

We also spent some time illustrating finds to scale under the guidance of Finds Supervisor Margot.

LJ drawing a small copper alloy buckle.

A “new” bit of wall that has peeked out where it is interrupted by the Victorian stairs that go down to our old Trench 5a. It has been de-greened and a small trench has been opened up between St. Oswald’s Gate and the arch that looks towards Lindisfarne. So far we’ve revealed a lovely spread of mortar on the medieval masonry and lots of modern rubbish at its base.

The main wall along which the 2002 trench used to run has been further revealed and photographed. Multiple teams have each taken a few metres of wall to draw. These are just like the section drawings we do of vertical stratigraphy (the layers of occupation, or lack thereof, we can see in the soil), but instead we’ve got the masonry blocks of a standing wall to draw to scale.

More steps in Trench 5b have been partially uncovered, but not fully excavated due to particularly stubborn (and massive) rubble. These give off medieval vibes akin to what was found elsewhere in the early survey of the outworks stairs undertaken by our director long before we opened these trenches.

Steps down toward the arch.

What more will we discover in our final week? Stay tuned!

Week 2 Round-Up

This week we have had the students rotating through even more jobs than last week! In addition to finds washing and sorting and digging crews, we designated teams to work on environmental processing and the massive finds database we are building.

Environmental processing is explained further here, but it is a method of recovering extremely small organic material like charred seeds by agitating soil gently while water flows through it.

The most talked-about find in the environmental sample was a large crinoid! Crinoids are sea lilies (related to starfish and urchins), which first appeared on earth 300 million years BEFORE the dinosaurs. There are still extant species today! During the medieval period, the bits of their stem column worked as natural beads, because often they are found with a round or star-shaped hole in the centre. Locally, they are known as “Saint Cuthbert’s beads.” If we find any more, we will for sure do an in-depth post on them!

Crinoid fossil.

In the castle’s labyrinthine lower levels, we worked on updating and reconciling data in our finds archives and confirming shelf-marks. Boxes of interesting finds were opened, reassessed, passed around, and discussed while doing this archival work. We even found material that was discovered, recorded, and bagged by Constance and Lauren back when they were new staff in 2013!

During finds washing and sorting of early medieval contexts, several pieces of worked bone were discovered, including what looks like a toggle. We also had an strange tooth that was possibly worked which at first looked like bear, but it may actually have belonged to a seal. Wild bear (as opposed to imported bear) extinction is hard to date, as no one agrees what part of the medieval period they disappear, but seals are still present around the Farne Islands visible from the castle.

In the trenches, digging slowed down aside from the removal of the rubble in the two chambers split by the masonry-and-brick stacked walls. The arch has been further revealed!

Revealing the arch.

We have also begun to shore up walls and ground surfaces to prepare for the removal of the massive bits of rubble. Hard hats are now required in the rubble areas.

The trench team started recording the masonry via photograph and then via plan. Photographs are taken on a digital DSLR camera in colour, and each is recorded in a catalogue. We use large poles as scales to represent up to two metres!

Photographing each wall face.

Planning involves drawing the features and contexts in the trench to scale. What’s great about planning is that you don’t need to be a great artist to do it; when you use a planning frame like pictured below, you simply have to copy each square of the frame into a set of boxes on the grid paper. It’s like in colouring books, where you have to move a picture from the left-hand page into empty boxes on the right-hand page.

All smiles when planning.

We hope to clear more rubble out next week once everything is recorded thus far!

Fresh IN the Trench: We’ve Found an Arch!

The two rubble rooms.

The rubble-filled part of the backwards-C-shaped sunken area that we did not excavate last year has actually turned out to be TWO rooms, divided by a stone wall and up to two courses of brick on top of it, and both at different alignments, suggesting multiple phases of building.

Bricks along the top of earlier stone blocks.

We initially thought this wall was meant to seal off the well from the rest of the Witch’s Cottage, but now we think it was to control access. While removing rubble from the south part of the sunken room (which connects to the bit already excavated and the associated steps), a stone that was not the usual rectangular shape in the wall appeared. It rather looked like a keystone. A keystone is the wedge-shaped last piece of an arch or vault at the very top that allows the arch or vault to take on the compression forces of the structure.

Keystone in the center of the visible arch.

We’ve cleared out more rubble to discover that it was indeed a keystone to a rounded arch. Arches are in use as far back as ancient Mesopotamia and Lower Egypt (northern Egypt) in the Bronze Age. The earliest arches were not stone, but reeds and wattle-and-daub or plastered; later they were bricks, baked in the sun and only sometimes kilns (a really interesting, brief article can be read here for more information on the ancient use of this architectural feature). Arches are often most associated with ancient Rome, especially in bridges and aqueducts, as well triumphal monuments. They can support massive weights because of how they distribute force among the stones. As the rounded stones compress, it transfers the stress down into the supports.

In addition to the keystone, we have other curved stones on either side called “voussoirs.” Where the voussoir meets the vertical support column or stack, the stone is called an impost. We have not yet uncovered the impost or the supporting columns, but on the north end of the arch the support structure is abutting a wall coming in not quite perpendicular to it.

Arch abuts the northern tower masonry.

During the medieval period in Europe we see a lot of new and non-local types of arches being employed! The rounded arches of the Romanesque and Norman building style give way to pointed arches or ogive arches found in the Islamic and Indian spheres of influence, sometime around the 12th century. This shape also leads to the development of lancet arches used in windows in England in the 13th century. We have in Saint Oswald’s Gate a refaced modern archway disguising a pointed arch!

We hope to bring you more on our archway as we clear the rubble out this week. There are some massive stones at the moment that will need extra care in removal, but we are expecting this archway to be at person-height, rather than a culvert at knee-height (think the culvert at Helm’s Deep in LOTR: The Two Towers where that Uruk berserker leaves the bomb).

Whoosh! Wednesday

Cleaning the run of the north and western wall remains led to a little poking around in the rubble that previously filled that half of our structure in Trench 5b. As soon as the soil and loose stones were cleared back to prepare for excavating the large stones over the next few days, our team noticed two worked blocks that was not rectangular, but cut diagonally on one side.

Two blocks of grey masonry worked and positioned to create an inverted V.
The inner face of the wall looking seaward.

This in the inside of the north-facing wall showing signs of previously having an aperture, with this opening splayed out on the inner face. The outline of the original stones is very suspiciously like an arrow slit, sometimes described as an embrasure in a fortification. This would make sense considering what the line of sight through it would have made the viewshed…But why have one arrow slit? That hardly seems enough?

Oh, right. Here’s another then.

Medieval masonry with grey stones and the embrasure of an arrow slit. Rubble and dirt in the foreground.
The inner face of the wall that runs north-south, facing west.

Arrow slits are also known as arrow loops or loopholes. With the advent of artillery, embrasures (recesses that incorporated the slit itself and were angled to produce a firing arc) could also be designed to allow cannon defense. Slits designs started as vertical but were expanded to include cross shapes and even some anomalous ones exist; some associate the advent of horizontal slits to increased use of the crossbow.  We can even get an idea of who was defending based on the height of the arrow slits: slits intended for crossbowmen are closer to the ground to allow firing while kneeling.

Egyptian forts during the Middle Kingdom, such as those like Buhen near the Second Cataract of the Nile in Nubia (now modern southern Egypt and Sudan), show arrow slits as early as the 12th Dynasty or about 1860BCE under Senwosret III. We bring up this little connection because your Outreach Officer keeps running into this dude! In undergrad, Lauren did a major project on Buhen, which unfortunately is now submerged in Lake Nasser. Presently, she works at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History which has one of Senwosret III’s funerary boats from Dahshur, and she uses it for the very lesson as the case study in her upcoming essay. Seriously, how does this guy keep popping into relevance? I guess when you rule Egypt, you are truly an influencer in the time before social media.

Back to the arrow slit history! The Greeks get credit for it: our favourite bather and polymath Archimedes makes the first big splash with them at the Siege of Syracuse in 214-212BCE, as cited in Polybius’ Histories. The Romans also incorporate them into their fortifications but fall out of use during the early medieval period. General consensus is the Normans bring the feature back into European architecture design around the 12th century.

Experimental archaeologists and experts in archery teamed up to better under how the arrow slit could be used by defenders most effectively. One fascinating thing they discovered is that the defender couldn’t stand close to the slit on one hand if the embrasure was too small but also because they couldn’t fire an arrow that would make it out of the wall 100% of the time. This is because arrows actually wobble or oscillate, flexing side to side, and the wobble is strong enough to disrupt traversing the slit if the slit is extremely narrow. A defending archer needs to be back far enough from the slit in the embrasure AND have a good read on the flexing of the spines of the arrows they’re using. Here’s a cool blog post that has some really helpful diagrams explaining the behavior.

Their design was meant to allow this offense while preserving a measure of protection, hoping to limit the volume of arrows entering the structure and injuring the defending bowmen/crossbowmen defenders. The best archers and crossbowmen, however, could still prove deadly from the ground, and numerous experimental archaeologists and medieval weapons experts/reenactors have proven it.

Background to our September 2021 Field School Excavation: the outworks of St Oswald’s Gate

This year the focus of our field school excavation will be the outworks beyond St Oswald’s Gate and the ‘Witches Cottage’ situated on top of the medieval masonry.
Here we provide an introduction to this area of the castle and an overview of preliminary work undertaken in this area in the early 2000’s.

The outworks beyond St Oswald’s Gate

St Oswald’s Gate formed an entrance to the fortress from at least the later 8th century when it is mentioned in an annal written by an unknown monk. At that time it is quite likely to have been the only entrance to the fortress. Its position would have granted access out to the early medieval ‘vill’ settlement that lay beyond to the west, very likely sited around St Aidan’s church which has been present in the village from the middle 7th century. It is now thought very likely that it also provided access to the sea via the beach and possibly a small harbour.

In 2000 we lifted a couple of the paving slabs in the natural cleft, just inside the gate. We believe the paving slabs to be late post medieval in date and beneath them we found traces of what we think to be their medieval predecessors. Earlier surfaces lay beneath these in the form of a rubble surface set in a yellow mortar. Perhaps most interesting of all the bedrock beneath this surface was worn smooth, not an easy thing to do with a rock as hard as dolerite, suggesting in our minds that it had been worn by footsteps over hundreds, even thousands, of years.


Excavation within St Oswald’s Gate with the stone and mortar surface exposed.

In the later medieval period the main entrance to the castle was moved to its present location at the south end of the castle, from which the high status Inner Ward could be reached without having to pass through the East or West Wards. This relegated St Oswald’s Gate to the status of a postern gate, a secondary entrance, though in the case of Bamburgh a very well protected one. The outworks here are not just substantial but are also some of the least altered parts of the medieval castle. Given our interest in St Oswald’s Gate, which was one of the reasons for the siting of Trench 1, we were quick to  do some  investigation of the outworks, excavating various little trenches in 2001 and 2002. These were given context numbers in the 500s and collectively represent Trench 5 in our recording system.

Looking over the castle wall at the main part of the outworks beyond St Oswald’s Gate. Very little remains of the other sides but the landward wall still stands to a great height. The cross wall with the arched passage is visible at the left side.

The medieval outworks are broadly rectangular and extend out from the gate on an east to west alignment with a cross-wall extending out perpendicularly from the castle wall, dividing off a small triangular area, directly in front of St Oswald’s Gate, from the main outwork enclosure to the west.

The cross wall and archway with the later build upper right. Patching and some of the upper courses may well be of 18th century and later date. Careful study of the masonry will likely confirm more phases than this though

A gate in the main rectangular wall allowed access out across the area of the village playing fields towards the village and a further arched passage led from the triangular area through the cross wall in to the walled off area that medieval records show contained a corner tower called ‘The Tower of Elmund’s Well’. We have reference in the records (History of the Kings Works) to the tower of St Elmund’s Well that C J Bates places in the outworks beyond St Oswald’s Gate. We also have a reference to a wall at the base of the castle collapsing during a brief siege in 1138, which gives us an idea of how long this area has been fortified and also why we see so many phases. Who Elmund was we do not know but in later centuries the tower base formed the shell of a small building called, in the later post medieval period, the Witches Cottage.

The main rectangular wall that closed off the outworks area appeared to be a single massive build, four metres wide at its base, rising with a gentle inward sloping batter to a narrower top some metres above. The original height of the wall is not certain, but from what survives it was an imposing structure. The huge width of its base became obvious when we realized that it had been constructed on sand. It certainly needed the stability. It appeared to be a single phase, that is built in one phase of construction.

Looking back up at the west ward of the castle from the area enclosed by the outworks. St Oswald’s Gate is hidden behind the cross wall

The cross-wall was more complex, much thinner, only 1.3m wide, and with at least three build phases. The central and western part with the arched passage appears to be quite early in build, probably no later than the 12th century and perhaps a little earlier. The connecting element between the early mid section and the castle rock and wall is of later medieval date and the upper part, and some repairs are likely to have been constructed by Dr Sharpe in the later 18th century.

So why was the outwork built?

Well part of its function would be to add layers of defence to St Oswald’s Gate, but this clearly does not explain the size of the main part of the enclosure. It is possible that it was built to enclose and defend the well that presumably lay in or near to the Tower of Elmund’s Well. It’s also quite possible that the tall wall, and the tower, was constructed to overlook and defend our possible port.

Research questions for 2021

We have two primary research objectives for this year’s excavation:

  • To better understand the gates presence and something of the phases after this season’s work.
  • We will seek to identify what survives of the cottage and investigate if we can still trace something of the tower beneath it.