History of the Project

Excavations in the 1960s and 1970s

Dr Brian Hope-Taylor, famous for his excavation of the Anglo-Saxon royal site at Yeavering, near Wooler and for his work as a television archaeologist, undertook the first systematic modern excavations at the site.

He conducted two campaigns of excavation, the first between 1959 and 1961 and the second from 1970 to 1974. The majority of his excavation activity was concentrated in the West Ward of the Castle, unearthing such important finds as the Bamburgh beast (a gold mount with intricate zoomorphic designs), Pattern welded Swords and hundreds of styca coins. However, except for two brief interim reports, Hope-Taylor never published his discoveries. His records, notes, and many of the finds were not available for research until his death in 2001.

The Origin of Bamburgh Research Project

Bamburgh Research Project was formed in 1996 by professional field archaeologists who live and work in the North East.

Bamburgh has always been known as a great fortress and iconic landmark of the North East coast, but very little was known about it’s archaeology. When the project began, it was born out of the Project Directors’ fascination with the enigma of this famous and yet unexplored fortress. For Graeme Young in particular, the opportunity to dig at the castle that he had visited many times as a schoolboy growing up in Northumberland, was the fulfilment of a boyhood ambition. Having secured permission to excavate the Castle from Lady Armstrong, Graeme and his colleagues began their investigations within the Castle with small test pits, geophysics, and documentary research.

A particular goal was to attempt to re-discover the burial ground that Hope-Taylor had been unable to locate in the 1960s. Conveniently, marked on the earliest Ordnance Survey map was ‘Danish burial ground’. Storms must have exposed some of the skeletons at the time as the location proved to be broadly accurate. The first test pits revealed human remains. The success of this initial evaluation led to many years of further study, revealing an Anglo Saxon cemetery of enormous complexity and importance. The results of this excavation will soon be published.

The burial ground was only the beginning. As the project grew, excavations were undertaken within the castle walls to answer a number of research questions. The project began with two small trenches at the northern end of the west ward, near St. Oswald’s Gate, which have now been amalgamated together as Trench 1. The gate steps and outworks were cleared and recorded and the post-medieval steps were lifted, revealing an earlier set of steps, of probable medieval date, and beneath them the worn rock surface that may have been the ground surface during the Anglo-Saxon period and earlier.

Initially we had no records of Dr Hope-Taylor’s work available, so in order to understand the extent and location of his excavation we had to rely on an aerial photograph, that showed three spoil heaps in the central part of the west ward, behind the curtain wall. We began by digging a long narrow trench (Trench 3), parallel to the wall, to see if we could pick up signs of Hope Taylor’s backfilled trenches. We successfully located some one of his trench edges and, crucially, discovered that Hope-Taylor had not bottomed the site. Black plastic sheets and fertilizer bags were laid out between the archaeology left in situ and the backfill of the trench, so the deposits he had not excavated were preserved for us to examine. The following year, we began to dig an expanded area, adjacent to his site, from the turf down so that we would have a full sequence to relate to the deposits that Hope-Taylor had removed. In this way we would be able to reconstruct some of the archaeology Hope Taylor had excavated. Once we had removed all of Hope Taylor’s backfill, and re-recorded the trench, we resolved to leave the area he had exposed until our adjacent trench was at the same level, and then we could excavate the site as one open area.

The year we began excavating Trench 3 Dr Hope-Taylor died. A great loss to archaeology, but thankfully some of his former colleagues rescued a great deal of material from his flat that was of archaeological importance, and this included some of the records, drawings and photographs of his Bamburgh excavations, as well as many boxes of finds. This material was taken up to Edinburgh to the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS), where it is curated. Sadly it was was not a complete archive, but that which did survive will be important in developing our understanding of the site. At the same time, the castle grounds keeper opened up the store rooms next to Trench 3, that had not been opened since Hope Taylor’s time. They turned out to be his site offices and contained his desks and tools and bags of soil samples, many boxes of bone from the dig and some small finds. The labels on some of the boxes and finds were our first clue to Hope Taylor’s methodology, and after a period of years we also got full access to the material held by the RCAHMS. Since then, the project has re-investigated several other trenches that Hope-Taylor excavated in the West Ward.

This re-investigation included his trench from 1960 that was excavated through the full stratigraphic sequence to bedrock. It was referred to in his records as Trench 1 (re-excavated by us in 2006 as BRP Trench 8), and produced Roman and prehistoric pottery as well as Neolithic flint from the base of the sequence. In addition the two Anglo-Saxon swords and axe came from this excavation.

In addition to the West Ward and the Bowl Hole cemetery, the project has excavated in the village of Bamburgh and also within the Chapel of St. Peter in the Inner Ward of the castle, which revealed pre-Norman stone buildings. Our most recent work is a new landscape project in an area called the Bradford Kaims, located approximately 5 km west of Bamburgh. These excavations are focused on a prehistoric lake system and have revealed a fascinating and diverse set of discoveries of Bronze Age and Neolithic date. Last season we identified preserved timber remains within the peat bog. This summer promises to be very exciting indeed.

To buy the Project’s book on Bamburgh Castle, click on the link below.

Bamburgh Castle: the Archaeology of the Fortress

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