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.



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.



Trench 3 – Week 3 Update

In this video trench Supervisor, Graham Dixon, discusses the progress thus far and the plans for the weeks to come.


And a bonus video – a closer look at the small pit feature which yielded the decorated piece of Samian ware.

Samian Ware tweet photo



Stay tuned for our next video updates – coming soon!

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.



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!



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.



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.





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.


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.



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.


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!


More news on the way soon!

Continuing Developments in Trench 3

Trench 3 has had a busy few days as we continue to explore the post-holes in the NW corner and the relationship between the porch/threshold feature and another stone feature to the north. 

The very obvious and firmly compacted large circular post-hole in the NW corner has now been fully excavated.  The large stones in the eastern half were very compact with little soil amongst the stones, whereas the western half was less compact, containing more soil amongst the stones.  The post-hole goes all the way down to the bedrock and quite deep.  Below, Harry can be seen removing the last of the post-hole’s fill.


Meanwhile, excavation on the porch/threshold feature has continued.  A few weeks ago, the feature was cross-sectioned and the stone to the west were removed.  In the following days, the contexts directly under the western porch stones were excavated.  The north third of the porch sat on top of context 3366 (a variable burning layer), whereas the south two-thirds sat on top of context 3443 (a dumping deposit containing a lot of large bones).  Below you can see Alex assisting with the section drawing of the porch.


This morning, we began the removal of the remaining porch stones.  Texana and Tristan got the exciting opportunity to lift the large stones that have been a landmark in trench 3 for the last few years!  Several of the stones have mortar attached to the bottom, which may indicate that the stones have been reused from another structure.


We will continue to work on the porch area during this last week of excavation, so check the blog for future updates!


Exciting Sampling in the NW corner of Trench 3


Yesterday, the students in Trench 3 began excavating several exciting features in the NW corner!  Amy began sampling our mortar floor surface, which is turning out to be quite thick and substantial.  Meanwhile, Sam and Jessica began cross sectioning and sampling our two rock features that cut into the mortar floor surface. 


Sam’s feature is a very obvious and firmly compacted large circular post-hole filled with medium to large rocks.  Excavation of the post hole has already reach 30 cm in depth (revealing the depth of the mortar floor surface), and the post-hole may still go deeper.  Sam has had to work hard and carefully to extract the stones and maintain the cross section.


Jessica’s feature, on the other hand, is still a bit of a mystery!  Some readers may remember our mysterious pit of loose rocks from the end of the 2012 season.  Well, Jessica has begun cross sectioning that pit, but we are far from finding any answers.  Jessica has worked slowly and meticulously to maintain the cross section, as the rocks are small in size and very loosely compacted.  A clear edge of the pit has been found to the north, and its current excavated depth is 25 cm.  We are hoping that further excavation of the cross sectioned half will provide a few clues about the purpose or function of this strange feature.

Begining of the end for the building threshold

The stone setting we have interpreted as the threshold to a large timber building, that has been a feature of Trench 3 for some time, is in the process of being removed to reveal the layers beneath. The western line of stones has been removed and once the remaining part is added to the running section, the rest will go as well.



Trench Tours at Bamburgh Castle

This season we are continuing to provide twice-daily tours of the archaeological trenches. The tours run at 10:45am and 2pm. Please meet at the Bamburgh Research Project information board near the children’s archaeology pit.

 We will take you around the outside of Trench 3 to discuss the major features and artefacts of the trench, as well as some of the archaeological methods we employ on site. A quick walk down to Trench 1 at St. Oswald’s Gate will involve a description of the features as well at the historical relevance of the West Ward.

Please note the tours are free of charge (with admission to the castle), but we do accept donations and sell Graeme Young’s (Director, BRP) book The Archaeology of the Fortress of Bamburgh AD500 to AD1500.

Any changes to the times will be posted as soon as possible. If you and your group cannot make the scheduled tours, please contact us, and we can try to accommodate your visit.Image

A few thoughts from the Archaeolgical Director at the end of another season

I thought it best to start with the castle excavation and post something on the Kaims later, as we will be continuing with this project till the end of the year.

A few things stand out when I look back on the summer. The appalling volume of rain that fell so consistently is certainly among them, but despite all the weather something else sticks in my mind and that is that despite all that the drenchings, mud and even floods it was amazing the way our staff and students kept their morale up and enjoyed themselves regardless. Thankfully we had plenty of productive, and even some sunny, days too.

We made steady progress in Trench 1 overall, and identifying what is likely to be the east side of the Middle Saxon timber building is a major step forward. After all, exposing the extent of the two buildings revealed in the original trench was the major reason we extended the trench to the gate cleft in the first place. As ever there were plenty of enigmatic features to make us scratch our heads too, a stone lined sunken feature, that could be a structure, probably the most perplexing. An intriguing puzzle for next season without a doubt.

The cut in the boulder clay that we think marks the eastern side of the Middle Saxon timber building in Trench 1.

Trench 3 has some of the most complex stratigraphy I have encountered as an archaeologist and has been a challenge for some years now. The trench lies in a cleft between two areas of raised bedrock and has been used as a dumping ground for waste material, which has raised the ground level up within the cleft, expanding the surface area available for occupation, a little at a time, in successive phases. Evidence from the last few seasons has pointed to this area being used as an industrial zone in the early medieval period.

A detailed understanding of the stratigraphy has been harder to pin down than this broad understanding. We know from the sections that some of the layers are uneven and that the surface has sloped in some periods. A factor which has caused us concern in the past, when distinguishing between layers has proved difficult. What is to stop us digging different phases together thinking they are one period? This year the often extremely wet weather has helped, as the moisture content of the layers has aided colour definition. It has been possible as a result of this to trace some of the stratigraphy in the northern part of the trench more clearly and get a better idea of the phasing.

The wall in the north-west corner seems to be a little later than the main part of the trench. As a result we concentrated much of our efforts in this area this season.  This structure has had two components to it. A substantial wall extending from the western limit of excavation and a thinner wall, at right angles to it, that extended from the bedrock in the north. This season we have identified a series of surfaces within the building, including a well-laid pebble surface that extended beneath the thinner wall, indicating that this was a partition and explaining the difference in scale between the two structural elements. There is a disturbed area separating the two walls, making a clear understanding of the building they define harder to come by. That said I think it likely that the main wall originally extended to an area of flat bedrock a short distance to the east. This would make the structure a little larger than originally thought with some 4m by 2m exposed within the trench. On its north side we have the bedrock slope that rises up beneath the windmill exposed, suggesting that the building, if this it what it was, had been constructed stepped onto the bedrock slope.

The NW corner viewed from the west. The more substantial wall crosses from the right of the photo and the partition from the left. You should be able to make out the pebble surface extending beneath the partion.

So what was it? Well I have had fantasies of a defensive tower, fanciful perhaps, but not entirely beyond the realms of the possible, given its relative proximity to the eastern edge of the fortress. We have no evidence of mortar construction associated with the walls so stone foundations for a timber building seems likely. One additional fact is also clear, the recovery of metal small finds in this north-west corner is much lower than that in the area of our ‘metalworking’ building. This is good evidence that we have structures with very different functions and likely of different phases too.  Our current interpretation is that the NW building is later in date than the middle 9th century and therefore a phase or more later than the ‘metalworking’ building.

A good season, which has left us with plenty of questions to get our teeth into next time.