Bradford Kaims Wetland Heritage Project
The Bamburgh Research Project is working with the local community and universities to investigate a truly remarkable ancient wetland site, located just a few mile from Bamburgh, near the village of Lucker in Northumberland.
In 2009, the BRP began to explore the archaeological potential of an ancient wetland, now pasture prone to flooding, but in earlier times a peat filled basin and network of streams and pools formed postglacially. The wetland is located near the village of Lucker in North Northumberland, only a few miles from Bamburgh Castle. The surviving part of the wetland site was first investigated by Dr Bartley in 1966, who cored up to 10m deep into the peat bog, and more recently by Dr Ian Boomer, of Birmingham University, and Dr Richard Tipping, of Stirling University, working with the BRP. Peat is interesting as it has the wonderful property of preserving the kind of organic remains, such as wood and other plant remains, that do not survive on dry sites. Preserved pollen is particularly informative as it allows us to identify the kind of plants that once grew in the vicinity of, and on, the bog. Deep cores lifted from the accumulated peat and lake sediment allow us to develop a model of the changing environment in this corner of North Northumberland extending back thousands of years.
Figure 1: Excavations at Mound 2 in the fenland, 2015.
As archaeologist we do like to plan our work, but luck sometimes plays it part. On the Bradford Kaims Project we first undertook test-pitting around the contour level, where we believed the ancient dry land would have met with reed swamp, or even open water. We assumed that this would be a popular area for human activity, allowing as it would access to dry land and wetland resources. In short a good place for hunter gatherers to find game.
Finding the lake margin is quite easy. A line of test pits, running down-slope will show you when the dry subsoil beneath the topsoil gives way to thin layers of peat, above the subsoil. As part of this test-pitting investigation we were delighted, and lucky, to find actual features relating to ancient human activity. The first of these was an unusual layer of stony burned material, which was soon found to overly large stone slabs, that proved to be a hearth-like structure. Much more extensive investigation between 2011 and 2012 revealed this burnt layer to the first burnt of a series of burnt mounds. This lay the foundation for the larger scale excavations which we ran from 2011 to 2017.
Figure 2: Plan of Excavations at Hoppenwood Bank, 2010-2017.
A Complex Landscape:
When approaching any archaeological site, we need to understand how the wider landscape came to be the way that it is now, as this will affect the survival of the archaeological record and may also indicate how people interacted with and changed the local environment in the past.
At the Bradford Kaims, this process started with an extensive suite of boreholes and coring carried out by our community volunteers and Dr Richard Tipping of the University of Stirling. Using peat cores, conducted a subsurface survey of the fenland, mapping where the extent of the peat and ancient stream and pond systems are, and how they relate to the archaeology we encountered. Thanks to a generous award from the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust, we were able to date large swathes of these cores and add a time depth to our understanding of landscape change.
Figure 3: Dr Richard Tipping and Tom Gardner coring through Iron Age erosion deposits at the foot of Lough Bank.
Our survey to map the extent of the former lake showed us that the landscape at the base of Hoppenwood Bank is quite a complex one. One of our discoveries has been the identification of a narrow promontory that extends southwards from the base of Hoppenwood Bank. This divides what we thought of as a single peat filled lake into two basins. This, as Dr Tipping, has explained to us, is interesting because it means the we have two basins close together that appear to have had different environmental histories. This complicates things, but also means we have a more interesting story to tell. Dr Tipping and his volunteers also noted widespread localised erosion thought to represent a mix of natural landscape instability, possibly caused by climate change, and human induced landscape instability, likely caused by deforestation, overgrazing, and agriculture. Our full report on this is not quite finalised, but it appears that in the Neolithic and Iron Age especially, high quantities of soil erosion in certain areas occurred, suggesting intensive landscape use by local human populations.
This is one area where our soil scientist Dr Tom Gardner (University of Edinburgh) has been able to help, analysing these eroded soils under the microscope (supported by a grant from the Society of Antiquaries of London). Tom has noted that many of the erosional events identified by Dr Tipping contain high quantities of relict organic matter, which suggests that they originate from eroded topsoils disturbed by agricultural activity (again, watch this space for upcoming publications!).
Our seven year of excavation and survey at the Bradford Kaims have identified a rich suite of archaeology, mostly dating from the Mesolithic to the Iron Age. This has encompassed Mesolithic flint tool scatters, Neolithic working surfaces and erosion of soils, Bronze Age burnt mounds and timber platforms, and Iron Age settlements. While the full details of these can be seen in our reports and in some of our published and upcoming articles and books, the most interesting things will be expanded on below.
Figure 4: Mound 1 at Hoppenwood Bank, showing the mound deposits (partially removed) and the platform of woodworking debris stretching into the fen.
Since 2010 we have identified seven burnt mounds, all within a 150m² area, at Hoppenwood Bank within the Bradford Kaims. Mound 1 was our first proper excavation and has been expanded over the last few years to an extensive open area trench. During this time, it has become apparent that what appeared to be a single large mound is in fact composed of a series of smaller, though still substantial mounds, each some metres across and several tens of centimetres thick. This series of smaller mounds extends beyond our trench to the north-west and south-east, parallel to the former lake, making it more than 13m across. It also extends up-slope for at least 8m. We are certain we have five phases of mound, there may prove to be more. They are separated by thin layers of clay, washed down the slope of the hill or laid by flooding events. Mound 1 dates from the early Bronze Age, from c.2120 to c.1850 cal. BC, and includes two major phases of deposition associated with two small rectangular buildings built beneath the mound material. Alongside this, Mound 1 also boast an incredibly well-preserved waterlogged trough feature made from a single oak trunk hollowed out through the middle and set in the ground.
Many of our other burnt mounds, including Mound 2 and Mounds 6 & 7 were identified through collaboration with Magnitude Surveys, a geophysics company formed by one of our BRP alumni, Graeme Attwood, who used magnetometry and ground-penetrating radar to survey subsurface anomalies across the Bradford Kaims.
The second mound was investigated in 2012 and re-excavated from 2015-2017. Mound 2 is at least 10m in diameter but was very thin, at only 0.15m in depth. In the centre of the mound a limestone slab set on edge was located. Investigation revealed that it formed the head of a large pit filled by a succession of silt-rich soils containing a high proportion of charcoal. The mound was dated to the mid to late Bronze Age (c.1230 to c.980 cal. BC). The large pit at the centre was initially thought to be a trough, but high-resolution geoarchaeological analyses by Tom was able to identify that this feature had never held water, and instead comprised an ‘earth-oven’ containing repeated deposits of fired clays and fire-cracked stones, interspersed by layers of grass and sedge vegetation. The further five burnt mounds, all dating to the Bronze Age, are outlined in our reports and forthcoming publications.
Figure 5: Gridded excavation of Mound 2 in 2016.
Figure 6: Leaf-shaped projectile point from Mound 2.
As the Bradford Kaims is a fenland (a calcareous wetland), many of the archaeological deposits sit in areas that have been waterlogged for thousands of years. This provides an opportunity to identify preserved organic archaeology, most notably the oak trough at Mound 1, but also including an extensive timber platform extending from the bank of the fenland at Mound 1 into the fenland. This ‘platform’ constitutes a large mixed deposit of brushwood, larger timbers, many of which are split and show felling and working, including the radial splitting of planks, and large quantities of woodworking debris including broken worked wooden artefacts, starring a paddle, a bizarre perforated branch, and a sewn plank tip. The ‘platform’ may simply be a dump of detrital material, a stabilising platform for the waterlogged bank of the fenland, or an access route to deeper into the fenland. Whatever its function it is clear that the platform is substantial, as we have used coring to identify its extent at 11m by 9m and have yet to find its full depth, which exceeds 1.5m.
Figure 7: The Quercus trough (left) and Mound 1 interfacing with the deposits of wood-working debris (right) at Hoppenwood Bank.
Figure 8: A sewn plank tip from the deposit of wood-working detritus at Trench 6.
We do know that it overlies the most extensive of the burnt mounds and is covered by at least one later period of mound deposition, making it broadly contemporary to the period of mound formation. Equally, the earliest excavated areas of the platform lie well beneath the earliest burnt mound deposits in this area, and hence are earlier. Several radiocarbon dates from this structure date from 3362-3104 cal. BC to 1375-1087 cal. BC.
Lough Bank settlement
Figure 9: Results of Geophysics at the Bradford Kaims, 2017, showing Lough Bank settlement in north-east.
During our 2017 season we conducted a suite of geophysics around Hoppenwood Bank, and one area we targeted specifically was a field named Lough Bank to the north-east of our investigations in the fen. This area was targeted to assess a curvilinear cropmark noted in aerial survey the previous year, and the geophysics came up beautifully, showing a large double ditched enclosure with several roundhouses within it. In the autumn of 2018 a small group of our archaeologists and volunteers, generously funded by the Royal Archaeological Society and the Duke of Northumberland, conducted fieldwalking and limited trial trenching in this area to identify the extent and preservation of the archaeology. Fieldwalking showed a spread of classically late Iron Age material (including slag, some potential Romano-British pottery, and numerous pot-boilers. A small trial trench revealed the innermost ditch, preserved to a depth of 0.8m despite plough truncation, but no dateable material was retrieved. It seems likely therefor, that the Lough Bank settlement represents a major late Iron Age site within the fenland landscape, and may have had direct links to the large spreads of eroded material that we see around the Bradford Kaims in this period; future work may tell us more…
We started work at the Bradford Kaims in 2009, when peat deposits near Hoppen Hall Farm were identified during a test-pitting project. Initially we also undertook limited test-pitting but our research was greatly advanced by grants from English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2011. The Heritage Lottery Fund awarded us a grant (£35,300) through it’s Your Heritage scheme, which together with supplementary funding (£13,000) from English Heritage, enabled a programme of community archaeology activities, exploring the ancient wetland to be undertaken. This work led to the discovery of the complex of prehistoric activity at Hoppenwood Bank and the engagement of over 250 days of community volunteering working with our professional field staff.
More recently (2016/17) our work excavating the prehistoric activity around Hoppenwood Bank has been funded by the Moray Endowment Fund (£1,998), the British Academy/Levehulme Trust (£9,490), the Society of Antiquaries of London (£10,363), and the Duke of Northumberland (£756). Combined, this work allowed the engagement of over 200 further days of community volunteering, the excavation and radiocarbon dating of a suite of Bronze Age burnt mounds at Hoppenwood Bank, and the examination of the wider postglacial fenland at the Bradford Kaims through sediment coring and landscape geoarchaeology led by Dr Richard Tipping (University of Stirling) and Dr Tom Gardner (University of Edinburgh).
At the Bradford Kaims we have always prided ourselves on the training that we provide, both to students on the fieldschool, and to the many community volunteers who turn up to help in our excavations. From 2010 to 2017 we trained over 250 archaeologists at the Bradford Kaims, on exceptional archaeology ranging from brutal trial trenching in the rain, to delicate excavation of waterlogged organic deposits, in survey, excavation, recording, experimental archaeology, and outreach, and encompassing a wide rang of nationalities, ages, backgrounds, and experiences. We would like to take the opportunity to thank them here, and to thank our wonderful staff for leading this training.
Our excavations at Hoppenwood Bank closed in 2017, and while we conducted small excavations at Lough Bank in 2018, we are in a period of fieldwork hibernation while we finalise the publication of Hoppenwood Bank (see our publication section below and look at all those forthcoming articles and reports!). While we trundle on with the last of our post-ex there will be limited opportunities for future work at the Bradford Kaims, but fear not. Our wonderful colleagues at Bamburgh Castle are getting stuck in with new excavations, so there are opportunities for working with us there. And you never know, the Bradford Kaims may be back some day… Until then, thanks for all of your work and attention, and happy digging.
You can find out more in-depth information by visiting our blog:
Some interesting posts include:
- Geophysical Survey at the Bradford Kaims Uncovers a Possible Prehistoric Settlement
We have also published numerous articles on the excavations. Please visit our Publication page for a full list.