Bamburgh Castle Excavations 2018

I just arrived back to Edinburgh last night from working excavations at Bamburgh Castle.  The castle is located south of Edinburgh, across the English border into Northumberland.  While it was largely rebuilt in the 1890s, the foundations are those of a large Anglo-Saxon coastal stronghold with close connections to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne (the site of Viking raids in 793 CE).  The excavations are focused in the outer-ward of the castle (roughly the 6/7c CE) in an area of metal working and industrial activity. If you want to read more about the site check out this article from Archaeology Magazine.

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I was on site working as an Assistant Environmental Supervisor, in the role I oversaw and taught students the process of floating samples taken during excavation, drying, sieving, and sorting.  I also completed my own admin tasks helping out Alice (Environmental Supervisor) and Tom (Post-ex Supervisor) to make sure all the paperwork was complete for Graeme (Site Director).

An aside: flotation is a process by which soil samples from the trench are put into a tank of water and broken up by hands and jets.  This allows for the organic material like charcoal and seeds to float to the top and be collected in a flot bag and the heavier, inorganic material to sink to the bottom to dry and be weighed and sorted.  It’s really great for recovering information about what people were eating and growing as well as what sort of wild plants grew in an area.

If you remember, I attended Bamburgh last summer as a student.  They must have found my jokes funny, as this year I was invited back as staff.  While it was the same site, it was totally different experience and gave me valuable time in a supervisor/management role.  I am so grateful for the team at the Bamburgh Research Project for the opportunity!

Just having turned 21 and still in my undergraduate studies, I was the youngest member on staff.  Truthfully, at first, I was worried I wouldn’t be up to par for the job or that trying to teach students who were often older than me would be a little difficult.  It reminded me a lot of my time practicing tae-kwon-do.  Since I earned my black belt at 8, I was simultaneously the youngest but also one of the senior students.  This meant that despite my age, I had a leadership role.  I learned how to teach a variety of ages and experience levels.  And honestly, as I’ve learned, if you can teach a class of 10-year-olds how to spar correctly and safely you can pretty much do anything.

But anyway, back to the archaeology.

Keeping those lessons in mind, I moved quickly into my supervising role.  In a passing comment from other staff members, I ‘turned flotation into a well oiled machine.’ We quickly moved through the sample backlog from years’ past and put the Enviro team in a really good starting place for next season.  And while I wasn’t the one actually doing most of the work this year, I learned just as much about archaeology as I had the year before.  Teaching a skill really does imprint it further.  Likewise, taking part in the ‘behind-the-scenes’ aspects of the excavation connects all the separate pieces together.

And while it made me realize how much I actually did know about my chosen field of study, it revealed what I also didn’t know.  And that was okay.  One of my biggest pet peeves of any leadership is when a leader refuses to admit they don’t know something.  As I experienced, it’s okay to admit you don’t know something.  A good leader learns just as much from their students as a student learns from a good leader.

I also learned how to quickly adapt to challenges.  We had a large sample which was taken from a shell midden last season (oddly enough, it was a sample that I had taken myself so I only had myself to blame for the mess it created).  It was 2 15L buckets of heavy organic material that when floated broken down into fibers and blocked the mesh, causing the flot bag to silt up.  The team and I had to divide the samples into smaller buckets and mix in hot water and sodium bi-carb to break down the organics.  Then we left the buckets to sit for a few days.  After the weekend, the buckets were finely ready to float.

Besides working on the environmental side of the excavation, I also taught pottery and finds illustration.  It was really fun to teach and again really helped to further ground the skills I had learned this year in my Archaeological Illustration course.  I also got hoisted 90 feet in the air to take site photos so that was pretty neat.

I’m sad to see the season over so quickly as I truly enjoyed my time on site.  Seeing both sides of an excavation was a really unique opportunity and I glad that I was able to do my part to make this season successful.  As worried as I was at the beginning, my fears quickly went away as I got into the flow of the excavation and grew more confident in my understanding of the processes and my abilities to teach.  The rest of the staff was so supportive and because they believed in me – I believed in myself.  And as my first experience in a management role on a prominent excavation – I’m pretty proud of the work we accomplished.

Today, I’m back in Edinburgh to run errands and wash my clothes, but then it’s back down south for another excavation.  More on that to come.

summer with the anglo-saxons

Hi all! It’s me.  Still alive and probably still a nuisance.  I just got back from my five week excavation at Bamburgh Castle along the Northumbrian coast.  I’m still super tired but the last five weeks have been amazing.  Here’s a quick run-down of the excavation from my excavation journal for the viewers at home.

12 June, 17.45 

First day at Bamburgh Castle excavation!  Arrived yesterday via train from Edinburgh.

Today we had a site tour, health and safety, and general info.  We are working in the outer ward of the castle with two trenches.  Trench 1 is located near St. Oswald’s Gate, the original 7c entrance to the castle.  Trench 3 is located closer to the inner ward of the castle in an area that has been identified as a manufacturing center with evidence of metalworking and animal processing.

We then took a tour of the Excavation offices located in the 19c windmill.  This is where most of the post excavation work is carried out.  We got a chance to see a multitude of finds from the project including bone artifacts and metals like iron, lead, and even gold.

We began to clean Trench 3 after removing the tarps and sandbags.  Cleaning a Trench means that you remove the top few millimeters of wash-in soils to reveals the colour changes of the archaeology below.

Trench 3 showed evidence of a structure with two cobbled paths.  The current level of excavation is around the 7/8c.  There is a large amount of animal bone as well as evidence of metalworking.  As stated, the current assumption about the site is that it was the manufacturing portion of the castle, near the entrance, with finished goods then taken into the inner ward.

13 June, 17.53

Day 2 complete.  Continued to clean back Trench to reveal colors of the features.  Nearly finished with cleaning and will start excavation in few days.

During cleaning, I uncovered an iron nail!  It was catalogued as a small find and given a number for the records.

A lot of animal bone has continued to come up so the site continues to support the ideas of a production center.

Excited to begin trench excavation.

14 June, 19.55

Finished cleaning trench today.  Took photographs of pre-excavation levels.  Will begin proper excavation tomorrow.

I was cleaning the ‘Roman’ area of the trench.  So-called because of the samian ware found in a hole in 2011.  This bedrock on this side of the trench is located higher up but is equal stratigraphically with the other side of the trench.  However, because Roman finds have been coming up on this portion of the trench, work in this area will stop until the Roman level is reached on the other side of the trench as well.

We have the castle tour tomorrow, which should be good to see with our supervisors leading the way.

Overall, I am really enjoying the site and learning a lot.

June 15, 18.54

Worked on Trench 1 today!  The Trench is nearly complete with aims to close at the end of the season.  I finished cleaning a feature, planned, and took a photo.

Today we also had a tour of the castle.  We learned more about the site and the history of the castle.

June 17, 19.21

Yesterday I worked Finds.  I floated samples, sieved, and worked in the windmill for a bit.  The Windmill is where all the records are kept and finds are managed.

As for floatation, I am always so surprised at the material recovered.  Basically, floatation consisted of taking soil samples from the trench and stimulating them in a large tank with running water.  This causes lighter organic material like charcoal and even burnt seeds to float to the top and into a collection bag.  The skill is really useful for collecting data about past environments like what I was doing in Romania last summer.  It’s a really useful way of analysing the site… I just really hate having to go through the process.

Excavation on site will continue tomorrow as I help to plan more of Trench 1 before it closes.

As for today, I had the day off and went to Alnwick (pronounced An-Ick).  I went to Barter Books as the recommendation of my friend Sophie.  The bookshop is HUGE! and is located in the old Alnwick Railway Station.  They basically just covered over the Platforms with boards and put in tons and tons of bookshelves and filled then with thousands of used books.  *heavy breathing*   After going to the bookshop, I went to the castle.  The castle was incredibly opulent and the library inside was ridiculous, I could not believe some of the title they had! Leather bound copies of both the Chronicles of Froissart and Monstrelet aka the closest we have to eyewitness accounts of the Hundred Years War including the best account for the Battle of Agincourt!  Alnwick castle was also the filming location for the first Harry Potter movie and was used for exterior scenes of Hogwarts!  And it was the birthplace of Henry Percy aka Harry Hotspur who helped to put Henry IV on the throne and then later became rivals to the family and according the Shakespeare a direct rival to Henry V.

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Causal castle crying.

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I work again tomorrow and Monday starts Week 2.

June 18, 18.04

Worked at the castle today putting a stair access into the trench by cutting back the turf and shoveling dirt.  This is because the ramp used as a second access point will soon be re-sucked back into the trench as Trench 8 (an old trench dug by Brian Hope-Taylor in the 1960s) will be reopened for re-evaluation.  The stairs will serve to allow access in. This a very important part in site planning and health and safety.

Additionally, after a long day of hard work in a surprisingly hot Northumbrian sun we ate ice cream and went for a swim on the beach.

19 June, 18.30

First day of Week 2!

Excavated a shell midden to start which proved to be a very complex feature with evidence of multiple dumping acts over a period of some time.  There were layers of shell beneath layers of sediments.

Next, I cleaned the feature in the corner and planned it.  Unsure as to just what the feature is as there are many different context boundaries and colour shifts.  It is intriguing that there is a near perfect darkened rectangle in the middle of the orange clay feature.  Possible burnt area?  Possible post hole?

June 20, 17.24

Worked a long day today.  Excavated the feature I planned yesterday.  Revealed to be a burning site, potentially in situ!!  As I found evidence of fire cracked stones.  Large stones were used as a means of boiling large vats of water quickly or could have been used to line a hearth.  However, the bone found in the area did not show evidence of burning. It was a more redish hue which could mean that it was boiled, connecting it to the fire cracked stones.

I collected two sample buckets of the burnt context for further analysis and then filled in context sheets, plan forms, and photos.

June 21, 18.24

Today I began a cross section of a possible feature.  I planned, leveled, and began to find the edges of the context.  This was in the afternoon.  In the morning, it finally rained and we went inside the Windmill and washed finds.

I am getting along great with everyone on site and am really enjoying the excavation.  I am a little tired though and probably a little bit more grumpy than usual.  But, it’s been 3.5 weeks camping for me now.  (1.5 on excavation and the two weeks before that going up to the Bothy and then the Road Trip).  My grumpiness could be linked to that or the kinks in my back.  I plan to take evening to read a little and go to sleep early.

Tonight we have a lecture about the Bowl Hole, the cemetery found outside the castle a few years back.  I am very excited for this lecture.

June 22, 17.39

Today I helped with the ramp building along Trench 8.

Trench 8 is to be re-evaluated once a safety ramp is constructed.  I shoveled dirt, belayed buckets out of the trench, etc.  No actual excavation today but setting up a proper area to work in is just as important as the actual work itself!  No one wants to become part of the archaeology!

And it was pretty fun to get some rope work in.  I used a hip belay to bring up buckets from the Trench.  Archaeology and mountaineering knowledge… am I Lara Croft yet?

24 June, 21.38

Yesterday I continued to clear out the backfill of Tench 8.  Again, T8 is the location where Hope-Taylor found the two swords and the axes in the 1960s.  We are reopening it to 1) Check the records are correct for publication and 2) Connect T8 to the cobbled path in T3 were last year a copper Anglo-Saxon bird plate was found.

We shoveled more buckets of backfill and will continue on Sunday when I work again.

Today I am off to Edinburgh to do my laundry and water my plants.

25 June, 19.46

Today we worked to plan a cross section of a pit by measuring out the grid, measuring rocks in the cross slab.  We did this by taking grid points aka eastings and northings.

Good day today with good work.  Easy Sunday.  I am excited to get back to work tomorrow.

26 June, 18.25

Today I filled in context sheets for the tri-pit.  So called because this feature is a pain in the ass.  It was thought to be a single pit.  Until two more pits were found cut into an older pit in the center.  However the southern pit has been truncated by an early section excavated in the 1960s.

The feature was half-sectioned and I filled in sheets for the section completed.  It was very confusing attempting to establish a chronology for the feature because you first need to locate the cut lines in the half section of the wall.

After completing the paperwork, for the half section the other side of the pit was excavated.  Samples were taken of the first two pits.  Each pit had to be excavated separately as to keep the samples with the least amount of contamination.

Tomorrow it is due to rain and I will be working Finds.

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living the tent life day 32. #archaeology

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28 June, 17.15

Yesterday it rained.

Today I finished excavation of the pit feature, previously called the tri-pit… now is the quad-pit. Today there was even evidence of a possible post hole burning with a perfect circle of charcoal appearing the new pit cut into the pit.

We realised that the multitudes of pits inter-cutting each other had made the feature look bigger than it actually was.  But, there was no way of telling the boundaries of the feature without excavation.

Lastly, the pit shows (maybe?) a relation to a know floor surface.  Was the floor surface cut into?

1 July, 11.59

Sorry haven’t recorded.  Thursday it rained.  So we worked finds in the morning and in the afternoon we took a trip to Lindisfarne.  We got to see the island, the priory, and walked along the beach.  It was a beautiful island and amazing to see the connections between Lindisfarne and Bamburgh.

Friday was another rainy day spent working on finds.  I sorted the environmental finds in the morning and finds washed in the afternoon.  All in all two good rainy days.

It’s been a little hectic lately with the living situation.  A group of us got majorly flooded out of our tents on Friday.  With our tents flooded all our kit got pretty soaked and the staff who had stayed at the campsite spent the day drying kit and making sure nothing was super wrecked.  It was awfully nice of them.  But, you can’t really return to a tent once it’s had nearly 2L of water poured out of it.  So I now find myself with the other students in an AirBNB here in Belford.

3 July

Yesterday I worked back in T8.  Continued to shovel backfill until the section edge reached 1.20m.  The legal working height for an open trench with small sides is 1.20m again health and safety.

Today I planned the stupid quad-pit and it still proved to a pain in the ass.  But the context is now closed.  Afterward I helped one of the staff members to locate a missing trench edge from an old plan that had unfortunately not been finished or included grid points.  By using the context register and old photos from 2002 we were able to locate the plan and then I started to remove the turf to uncover the edge.

6 July

Tuesday was the fourth of July spent in rainy Northumbria.  We worked in Trench 8 on the section plan until the rain puddled too much and we had to move to Finds.  I spend the afternoon working to track down missing samples from the Kaims which had somehow gotten lost in the shuffle a few years back.

Wednesday was sunny so we did a full clean of Trench 1.  So that it could be photographed.  T1 is again the trench by St. Oswald’s gate was thought to be complete until about 18 new features surfaced after the amount of rain we got last week. Wednesday afternoon I worked on Finds.

Today was the day!  We started the morning by going back to Lindisfarne to see the excavation being carried out there.  Looks like they found a new church!

That afternoon, I started to remove and sample the 9c pebbled surface.  The pebbled surface ran adjacent to the 9c metal working building in the SE corner of the trench.  I’m working on the area and today was excavation was recorded to later be used in some media uploads for the excavation.   The surface is between two rows of curb stones and consisted of many layers of stone deposit.  I have already found animal bone, teeth, and charcoal.  Basically, things people would have dropped or lost.  With it’s proximity to the metal workshop I am hoping to maybe find metal objects or coins.  The last part of the day I id’d a cut feature in the path which had been called a post hole.

I’m really proud to be able to work this pebbled path because it’s a really important part of the trench.

9 July

Friday I continued to clean away the surface.  We planned and photographed the area.  This included having to off sight plan by using a temporary bench mark.  We then used the tape measures to off sight the eastings and northings.

We did id a definite post hole on Friday and today I half-sectioned the post hole for sampling.  The post hole rests against one of the large curb stones and so the curb stone was probably used as a packing stone for the post.

While I was excavating the post hole my working partner half sectioned the path so that we could see the layers of stratigraphy.

After a bit time it became apparent we had entered a new layer as small pebble stones stopped and a layer of shell emerged followed back a layer of cobbles.  Next to the new layer of cobbles is what appears to be a sandstone area.

The curb stones on either side of the part are very deeply imbedded and will an absolute bitch to excavate out.

13 July

Monday, continued to work on pavement for half day and then moved to work on cleaning back trench edge on east side to reveal matching statifigaphy to missing plan.

Tuesday, worked finds.  I sorted between animal bone and human bone from old bone bags from the Bowl Hole.  Actually found a human finger mixed into the older bags.

Wednesday, worked on the cobbled path.  Removed layer of cobbles and sandstone to find that the cobbled path discovered last season underlays our area!  How big is this path?!  Also found another medieval hobnail!

Thursday, continued with cobbled path with planning and photography.

Today, last friday at the castle.  Very good season.  Today I was on Finds.  Worked through five bags of samples. I really enjoyed this season and as I weigh my options for next summer, I am really considering returning.

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Last week of excavation here and I'm sad.

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The excavation was really incredible and the site was in a beautiful location with the sea crashing up onto the nearby beach.  I am so glad that I was able to excavate here and again, I am so glad that I chose to study archaeology.  It gives me a chance to get out into the field but also stay in and work with records and books.  It’s an incredible feeling waking up each morning and entering a castle to work.  There were times when I was excavating the pebble path that I thought just how many feet had trodden over the surface and that I was now amongst them.  I guess it’s just like the pull of mountaineering.  To be able to go places and see things that few people will ever get to see.

On Saturday, a group of reenactors came to the castle to stage mock fights.  They pitched tents in the outerward by our excavation.  I shut my eyes and listened to the clanging of metal swords and spears as I worked.  For a brief minute, as I uncover the Anglo-Saxon world I got to be a small part of it and was re-learning what we once knew.

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innovative castle week

Hey all! Welcome to the blog that apparently I forgot I had. (Sorry Mom).

Anyway.  This week was Innovative Learning Week… or Festival of Creative Learning… or Innovative Skiing Week… Long story short, the university shuts down for a whole week to give us students a reading week and the staff a week to breathe.  Last year, the university offered a whole bunch of cool classes, if you remember I took a class in osteology and got #inspired. This year because the university realized that not everyone is a huge fucking nerd like myself and does normal things on a week off, like go skiing instead of wanting to learn about bones, they cut back on most of the extra classes offered and just gave us a week off.

Week off? Cue parental visit.  So mom booked a flight out a few weeks back… and then promptly lost her passport two days before she was supposed to fly out.  #notsmart.  Many long phone calls to the airline later, my dad boarded a flight to escape from the dystopian anti-First Amendment America we now face.  This is one of the few times I am glad that Alexander Hamilton is dead so that he doesn’t have to face this blatant disregard to his baby, the US Constitution.

Dad landed Sunday and stayed until his flight early yesterday morning.  It was really nice being able to see him considering my parental visits are often far and few in between.   Usually, I get to see my family about twice a year.

I spent the week showing my dad around new parts of Edinburgh that I’ve found since living here.  He took me to the supermarket and bought me a bunch of food.  It was great!  On Tuesday we took a train down to Berwick-Upon-Tweed and then a bus to Bamburgh to visit Bamburgh Castle.  In case you’re new, Bamburgh Castle is the long held Anglo-Saxon stronghold of the north.  King Oswald was the first major inhabitant, who, after returning from exile on Iona, drove out the Saxons.  Oswald had a huge bromance with Aiden, a local abbott.  He gave Aiden the nearby island on which Aiden built a huge monastery – Lindisfarne.  In 793 AD, Lindisfarne was the first site of the Viking incursions into Britain.  Erling will proudly inform you that those first vikings were in fact Norwegian.  I’ll be excavating for five weeks at Bamburgh this summer as one of my three excavations this summer!

Dad, while still very keen on the history… I mean who wouldn’t be?! was also excited that the castle was the fictional home to Utread, the protagonist from Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom books.

Here’s photo from the day out.

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Here’s photos of the excavation:

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And here’s photos of the most metal desk I have ever seen in my entire life.  It’s made of wood from Hadrian’s bridge across the Tyne at Newcastle.  I have never wanted anything more than how much I want this desk.  I’m not even kidding about how much I want this desk.  This thing is so metal and I am so jealous that I do not own this.  If anyone reading this knows how I can own this desk hit me up I will gladly sell non-vital organs for it (jokes… but seriously).   

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Castles are fucking cool kids, stay in school!

On Thursday, Dad and I went to Holyrood Architectural Salvage to look at all the cool pieces moved from Edinburgh during renovations.  There were so many cool fireplaces doors.  If it’s not clear already, Dad and I really like looking at old stuff.

Anyway.  It was great to see my dad again and talk about medieval history in person versus talking about it over the phone for 2.5 hours.  I’m working on my Medieval History essay at the moment.  It’s over the Hundred Years War and I may or may not be more than rightfully excited about it.  Class starts back up on Monday with ‘Death Monday.’

yay.