As I began researching 7th century Britain for my trilogy, The Traveller’s Path, I quickly came across a fascinating blog all about current archaeological digs going on at Bamburgh Castle, and through that blog discovered the Bamburgh Resarch Project. I have always wanted to talk to the directors of the project to check out some of the details in my book to ask them if I had this or that detail right in my depictions of 7th century Northumbria but I was always a bit intimidated….I mean, I figured they had better things to do than to answer questions from a unpublished author. But when I started thinking about who I would like to interview in my blog they were definitely near the top of the list. I finally got in touch with them and discovered that Graeme Young, one of the founders of the project, was a gracious man who was willing to take time during their busy excavation season to answer my questions.
So with out further ado, I present the Bamburgh Research Project! Enjoy!
1. First of all, can you give us a brief history of the archeological digs that have gone on at Bamburgh previous to the BRP?
Despite the importance of Bamburgh as a focal place for Northumberland there have been only a handful of investigations preceding us. An antiquarian called Cadwallader Bates studied the medieval ruins at the time of the reconstruction of the castle by Lord Armstrong (1894 to 1903). He drew up a detailed plan of medieval fabric and foundations, many of which where later covered over, which means the Bates plan is sometimes our only lead in understanding the medieval castle. We also have some reports of the investigation of the Bowl Hole early medieval cemetery prior to our work there. These are rather scant though, indicating some excavation in the 1890s and again in the 1930s. Sadly so far we have failed to track down any records or skeletal material from this time.
By far the most important excavation at Bamburgh preceding our work was undertaken by Dr Brian Hope-Taylor, the excavator of the important and related Yeavering early medieval site. Brian excavated at Bamburgh between 1960 and 1962 and again between 1970 and 1974. Sadly he was never able to publish the site due to illness in later life. It was the tantalizing knowledge that exciting finds had been made but not really knowing what they were that prompted the founding of the Bamburgh Research Project.
2. What prompted the creation of the Bamburgh Research Project?
It is all rather linked to why I became an archaeologist. Having an aunt from Seahouses, the village close to the castle, I knew Bamburgh from an early age and visiting this amazing site during school holidays is probably one of the main reasons I ended up as an archaeologist. As a result I think it was rather inevitable that once an archaeologist I would want to excavate here. It also helped that a friend and colleague, also from the region, and just as fascinated by the site, was equally as keen. So we wrote to the late Lady Armstrong and she was very supportive and happy to have archaeologists back at the castle. Luckily her son Francis is of the same opinion so we have the great privilege to work at this amazing site.
3. Was there something specific you were looking for?
We were particularly interested in early medieval Northumbria so the period during which the fortress was one of the principal palace sites of the Northumbrian royal house was definitely the time period that most intrigued us. Gaining a deeper understanding of the material culture, structures and fortifications that defended the site was at the heart of our original project design. Early medieval royal sites in England seem to rarely have physical defence as part of their architecture, but there was a tradition of promontory forts in the northern and western parts of the British Isles. How Bamburgh within an English kingdom fits into this tradition and how, as a result it compared to other un-defended sites such as Yeavering or Cheddar should be fascinating.
4. Give us an idea of some of your important finds. What discovery have you been most excited about?
We have a number of fascinating finds from the excavation. I know many people are particularly excited by the gold finds. Each is tiny but intricately worked and decorated and speaks to a sophisticated culture at Bamburgh. Although found by Brian Hope-Taylor in 1960 rather than ourselves the two pattern welded swords, on display at the castle, also fascinate. As an archaeologist its often what might seem more mundane that particularly excites us. Discovering a surface with high densities of hammerscale and fire waste may seem dull but when along with some crude timber structures and a concentration of iron and copper-based finds, it leads you to realise that you have an industrial area that is likely to have been a centre of production for arms and armour for the early medieval royal cour. It really does help to bring the past to life. Here we have evidence for one of the institutions that bound together aristocratic society at that time. The production of military equipment given out by a king to his followers in his royal hall, binding them to him and his fate. Straight out of the pages of Beowulf!
5. As my trilogy begins in the year 642 AD, I am most interested in 7th century Bamburgh. What has the BRP found that relates specifically to that time period?
We know that metalworking activity is being undertaken to at least the mid/late 9th century and from test pits we know that it extends back in time a number of phases. This makes it pretty certain that it was being undertaken in the 8th century and perhaps as far back as the 7th. It would certainly fit into the culture of that time. In Trench 1, at St Oswald’s Gate, we have been investigating the early medieval entrance to the fortress and its defences. We now have at least two phases of timber rampart defences (probably box rampart) and its hard not to imagine at least one phase as being contemporary with Bede’s story of Penda trying to burn his way into the fortress.
The Bowl Hole cemetery dates from the 7th to 9th centuries and gives us a picture of an aristocratic culture with far reaching ties across the BritishIsles and even to the European continent. One individual in particular may be a close link to St Oswald. His radiocarbon date and the knife he was buried with is consistent with the right period and he has an isotope signature placing his childhood in Western Scotland. A possible warrior who cast his lot in with Oswald in his attempt to reclaim his ancestral crown.
5. Wow. That is so fascinating! What are you working on this summer? And maybe you could explain a bit about the involvement of summer interns?
This year we are trying to prove that our timber rampart defences, identified at St Oswald’s Gate, extend around the perimeter of the rock. The gate defences are clearly well built and intended to look impressive. Elsewhere it may have been more utilitarian and therefore harder to identify with certainty. This involves the excavation of a trench through re-deposited boulder clay to find a construction surface and, hopefully, evidence of posts or timbers. Hard work for our students volunteers and staff. In Trench 3 we are beneath the latest phase of metalworking evidence and looking to identify structures associated with the preceding phase of activity. Added to this we are getting close to reaching the same level of excavation that Hope-Taylor reached at the north end of his 1974 excavation. Lots of complex stratigraphy to identify and interpret and all key to understanding how the two periods of excavation can be linked together. At the same time our finds department is processing finds on a daily basis, floating soil samples and catalogues and assessing everything from previous seasons to make sure our records are up to date as we begin the slow process of interpretation and publication. I like to think that all who take part in the work leave with a better understanding of how archaeology works and for some inspiration for their own research.
We do not really do official interns but we do have a tier of junior staff that perhaps fall into this category. Its a little nepotistic but we do like to encourage students who have been on the training excavation for a season or two and who showed a particular aptitude or dedication to return as junior staff. They then work closely with the finds supervisors; learning their trade and helping out with student training. It seems to work well and a number of our longer serving staff came to us through this arrangement.
We do not have the public dig at the castle as the site is not well suited to this but our parallel excavation at Bradford Kaims has open days every week when the public are welcome to take part in excavation and little experimental archaeology projects. We are hoping to do something similar with skills workshops at the castle next year.
6. I’ve heard a bit about an Anglo-Saxon sword found at Bamburgh. Can you fill us in on that?
There were in fact two Anglo-Saxon swords found at Bamburgh by Brian Hope-Taylor in 1960. He recovered these in his first ever trial trench at the castle. They were found in his apartment at the time of his death in 2001 and when they were returned to the castle we worked with the Royal Armouries to investigate them. On x-ray they were revealed to be pattern welded and one was a rare example of a six strand core. We now know their find location from Hope-Taylor’s records and they are likely to fit in with a metal-working horizon of 8th to 9th century date.
7. I would love to see those! I have about a million questions I could ask, but I guess we need to wrap it up. Is there anything else that you would like us to know about the Bamburgh Research Project?
Running a research project on what always seems to be limited resources we are always on the look out for that millionaire who might want to sponsor us! More seriously all of us who run the project were inspired at some point to want to learn about the past and now work with a belief that it is really important to communicate our love of the past and what our work can tell us about the generations long ago who lived and worked her. We have a website (www.bamburghresearchproject.co.uk), blog (www.bamburghresearchproject.wordpress.com/) and other social media accounts and are always glad to hear from people who follow our work.
Thank you so much, Graeme, for sharing with us on the blog today. I will continue to follow your work with interest, and I wish you much success as you continue to discover the historical facts about this fascinating place!
All photos (except feature photo) courtesy of Graeme Young. Aerial phot of Bamburgh courtesy of