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Bamburgh Castle: West Ward

Bamburgh Castle: West Ward

Trench 3 gives us a glimpse into the industrial heart of the Anglo Saxon fortress. The stratigraphy is complex and deep with multiple phases of buildings and industry of all kinds, from high status metalworking, to blacksmithing, and even making mortar for stone buildings. There are cobbled paths and metalled walkways leading to a possible smithy and grand timber halls that span the width of the trench. This is archaeology to challenge and delight in equal measure. Excavation has now finished (for now) in this area of the castle but we are still actively processing the finds recovered from the West Ward.

Trench 3

Trench 3 was opened in 2001 in the West Ward as a 30m trial trench designed to locate the edges of Dr. Brian Hope-Taylor’s excavation known from an all too limited series of modest publications. Sadly Dr. Hope-Taylor died before he was able to fully publish the site he had excavated in the 1960s and 1970s, but luckily for us the RCAHMS (now part of Historic Scotland) and English Heritage (now Historic England) were able to retrieve numerous archives, including that from Bamburgh, from his home after his death. This incomplete archive was from another era of archaeology, recorded in feet and inches and with a complex numbering system so very different form the context recording methods used today. Even so this is a fabulously important record of this important site and it is vital we interpret the earlier results and incorporate them into our current research.

In order to properly understand the earlier excavation we devised a strategy to open an extensive new area to the east of Hope-Taylor’s trench, with the intention of excavating the sequence of layers, down to the same level that Hope-Taylor had reached.

Plan of Bamburgh Castle with trenches noted

Our hope was that in all likelihood many of these deposits would have extended into his excavation, greatly aiding our interpretation of Hope-Taylor’s surviving archive.

(Right) Trench 3 in 2018 with 7th to 8th century AD surfaces and features exposed.

At the end of the excavation of Trench 3 the BRP and Hope-Taylor areas were levelled over much of the trench.

The Buried Excavation

The full extent of Dr. Hope-Taylor’s excavations had been uncovered by 2002. The removal of the trench backfill revealed a layer of plastic sheeting and fertilizer bags that had been laid in 1974 to protect the archaeology. When the plastic was removed we could see that Hope Taylor’s excavation had reached a feature dense area of early medieval industry with ash and burning together with a stone-lined water channel, perhaps indicative of metalworking.

Hope-Taylor’s excavation methods could be clearly seen as many of his layer tags, grid pegs and baulks were preserved and it was apparent that he was not digging in the same open area style we use today. One of the more interesting features was an early mortar mixer that Hope-Taylor referred to as the ‘gin-gang’. The mixer’s presence indicates the use of mortared stone buildings within the site in the early medieval period, direct evidence of which was encountered by the Bamburgh Research Project in the Inner Ward in 2004 and 2007.

Trench 3 Extension into Un-Excavated Archaeology

Our parallel excavation has demonstrated a full sequence of occupation that extends from modern layers, and down through a midden (waste dump) during the later medieval period, through to increasingly complex deposits as we encounter the layers that pre-date the Norman Conquest. The early medieval period is characterised by timber buildings with rubble foundations of various styles and sizes, from substantial halls to small workshops.

There are pathways and cobbled areas and layer upon layer of ash from intensive industrial activity. Many of the deposits contain animal bone which provides excellent evidence of the diet of those who lived and worked in this area.

We also have many small finds from this area, including metalwork, worked bone and glass.

(Right) Anglo-Saxon metalworking building of broadly 9th century date

Early medieval metalworking building outline

Styca Coin Hoard

A large number of small copper and silver-alloy coins, called stycas, have been discovered, scattered across the site, and these and other small finds offer the best dating evidence, until our radiocarbon samples are processed. We have identified a small stone-founded timber building that contained a hoard of these coins (in the photo above) and a scatter of many more on the surface around it. This strongly suggests that the building is of a similar date as the coins, and that is the later 9th century AD. The other small finds, when they can be dated, are also consistent with this, so we are reasonably confident of this dating. The building was likely used by metalworkers; in fact the presence of iron objects including two pattern welded swords found in the vicinity and small fragments of highly decorated gold may point to rather high status production. Hammerscale sampling has been conducted across the area, and this shows evidence of extensive smithing including high temperature welding consistent with the production of iron objects such as weaponry.

Iron Age or Romano British Roundhouse

2020 was our final season excavation Trench 3. We explored the deepest areas of the trench, exposing the Roman and prehistoric occupation of the fortress. We uncovered part of the stone foundations of a substantial roundhouse (more than 10 m diameter) with what appears to be some surviving floor surfaces. We discovered an entrance facing, broadly, south-west, which would make sense, as it would maximise the light that reached the inside of the building on winter days and is very common for roundhouses because of that. 

We believe, based on the material recovered and stratigraphic sequence that this roundhouse is likely to be Romano-British in date. Find out more on our blog.

Whilst the excavation of this area is now closed the post-ex continues. We have samples to be processed that include radiocarbon dates that will allow us to develop a much clearer picture of when the roundhouse was in use. In addition to the normal palaeoenvironmental samples, we have a block from the floor surfaces that a colleague may be able to utilise to undertake detailed micro analysis.

Plan of roundhouse and associated features.

Trenches 1 and 2
Trenches 1 and 2 were the first trial trenches excavated within the Castle by the Bamburgh Research Project. They were located at the far northern extent of the West Ward with the intent of investigating the defences of the fortress. Trench 1 was excavated at the base of a surviving stack of medieval masonry that had been built into the 20th century perimeter wall with Trench 2 to its north and east, at the northernmost tip of the fortress. Here it was found that before the modern perimeter wall was built the soil layers had been eroded by the weather, leaving little to investigate. In contrast to Trench 2, Trench 1 revealed deep archaeological layers and evidence of numerous defensive structures and buildings, from the time of the early medieval Northumbrian kings, to the later medieval castle.

St. Oswald’s Gate

An important reason for placing our first trenches in this area was that we knew from documentary evidence (a monastic annals dated to 774 AD collated by Simeon of Durham in the 12th century) that the passage of steps leading to St. Oswald’s Gate was the early entrance to the castle. We even managed a small investigation in this area by lifting some of the late 18th century flagstones, leading to the gate, to reveal at least two phases of earlier surfaces, beneath which the bedrock was worn smooth, indicating an entrance in use for many generations.

Archaeology in Trench 1

Over a number of years Trench 1 expanded from a small trial trench to become an open area excavation of some size, investigating the area from the defensive wall to St Oswald’s Gate. We identified evidence of buildings including two phases of a large early medieval hall that may have served as a residence for the castle gate wardens as its position alongside the entrance of St. Oswald’s Gate is ideal for controlling access to the West Ward.

The first of the two halls was a timber building that we broadly date to the 7th century. It was later replaced by a smaller stone hall that went out of use by the 11th century, when its stone was robbed away for re-use. To the west of the halls and close to the modern wall of the castle, which also includes medieval elements built into it, we have found trances of what we believe to be earlier timber constructed defences. Structures like these are mentioned by Bede when he describes how Penda the king of the Mercians (a kingdom in the modern midlands of England) piled and burned a giant stack of timber at the base of the castle rock in a failed attempt to burn down the defensive wall.  The excavation of Trench 1 was completed in 2017 and we are starting the long process of bringing it to publication.

Main early medieval features in Trench 1

Trench 8

Trench 8 was excavated in 2006 and was our re-excavation of Hope-Taylor’s first major trench, excavated in 1960. Little survives of his site records from this early investigation, but we are fortunate to have a series of photographs and a detailed trench section, which is a wonderful example of his expert draftsmanship. We re-excavated the trench because it represented a full sequence of stratigraphy turf  down to the  earliest deposits above the bedrock, and it was also the location where Hope Taylor found two pattern welded swords! The small forge building (only a few metres away) in the south eastern half of Trench 3 may have been associated with this remarkable find. This section through the site stratigraphy has proved to be useful in making the link between our excavation and Hope-Taylor’s, and we were also able to excavate two baulks that Hope-Taylor had left in place in order to recover our own finds and samples. The stratigraphy revealed a considerable depth of occupation below the early medieval layers, with significant features and finds from the Romano-British periods including Roman pottery and below that, we discovered metalled surfaces of the prehistoric period.

In 2017 the BRP received funding from the Royal Archaeological Institute that provided us with the funds to undertake all the post-excavation analysis of the material recovered from Trench 8. We are now in the process of writing the excavation report for this fascinating trench. You can find out more about this project here: Trench 8 RAI Funding

Trench 9

Trench 9 was the re-excavation of a further Hope-Taylor trench, that extended from the steps at St. Oswald’s Gate up the hill towards the windmill. Hope-Taylor’s excavation trenches were detailed on a plan recovered from his apartment and provided to us in digital copy by the RCAHMS in 2006. He had excavated a series of small trenches, Cuttings B, C, D and E, that radiated out from the windmill mound and Trench 9 was his Cutting C.

Re-investigating this trench was of particular interest to us as it extended as far as Trench 1 and so would add to our understanding of the archaeology of the St Oswald’s Gate complex.

During investigation of one of the standing sections, we discovered a burial of a partial horse and cow skeletons overlying the robbed out medieval steps, that had been deposited in the ground in the early post-medieval period. It is difficult to understand why such skeletal material was here, blocking the entrance, but it is just possible that it was associated with the occupation of Bamburgh by the Forster family, who owned the estate from the beginning of the 17th century to the middle 18th century and were known to be a somewhat colourful bunch. Ultimately, Trench 9 will be published as part of the Trench 1 report.


You can find out more in-depth information by visiting our blog:

Some useful posts include:

We have also published numerous articles on the excavations. Please visit our Publication page for a full list.