Bamburgh Bowl Hole Cemetery
The Bowl Hole is an early medieval cemetery site just 300m to the south of Bamburgh Castle. It is thought to be the burial ground for the royal court of the Northumbrian palace that lies beneath the present castle. The excavation of the site was undertaken by the Bamburgh Research Project (BRP) between 1998 and 2007.
The cemetery was first discovered in the winter of 1816/17, following a violent storm that blew away a large volume of dune sand to reveal an ancient land surface and a number of graves marked out by stones set on edge. Although it was subject to limited antiquarian investigation in the 1890s and 1930s, few records survived and the precise location of the site was not recorded.
The present phase of research was intended to re-locate the site and undertake a limited excavation to provide information on the time period during which it was in use and its current state of preservation. During the course of the dig ninety one individual skeletons were excavated and subject to scientific analysis by the University of Durham in a collaborative project with BRP, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).
Although a tradition seems to have developed that the burials were those of Viking warriors our research has demonstrated them to be a little earlier than this. A combination of radiocarbon dates and the form of the burials, with very few grave goods, has led to the current interpretation that the cemetery was principally in use in the 7th and 8th centuries AD and that its inhabitants are likely to represent some of the earliest Christians in the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria.
Whilst it is often difficult to identify the cause of death, study of skeletal remains can reveal a great deal about the life of the individual. In many cases it is possible to define the sex and in the case of children and young adults we can determine the age at death with considerable accuracy. We have also been able to reveal much about their stature and diet and the use of state of the art isotopic analysis has revealed where many of them grew up. The science behind this is complex but the short version is that we are indeed what we eat! The geochemical signature derived from the food and water we consume is locked into our teeth at the time they form leaving a kind of finger print that can be traced back to different parts of the UK and Europe.
The people buried at the Bowl Hole had terrible teeth, with cavities and plaque very prevalent. Abscesses were all too common as well, even in relatively young people in their twenties. We think that this is a consequence of rich food. Other characteristics also stood out amongst this group, they were often tall and robust individuals, certainly much more so than the average for early medieval populations.
What does this tell us?
If we take into consideration all of these factors, physical size, the apparently rich diet and the close relationship of the burial ground to the palace its hard not to come to the conclusion that they were high status individuals associated with the royal court. This is particularly fascinating as we know quite a lot about seventh and eighth century Northumbria from the historian Bede, a monk of the monastery at Jarrow, near Newcastle upon Tyne who wrote the ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ chronicling the conversion of England to Christianity. His writings bring alive, in their pages, St Oswald the once exiled king of Northumbria who founded the monastery of Lindisfarne and St Aidan, a monk trained in the Irish tradition who played such an important role in establishing the Christian community in the north. Both are closely associated with Bamburgh and it is particularly exciting to realise that some of those buried at the Bowl Hole may have heard St Aidan preach with King Oswald translating his words from Gaelic into Old English, just as Bede described.
The scientific analysis of their teeth tells us that few grew up in the immediate area of the castle. Many were from the wider British Isles with Western Scotland and Ireland well represented, probably due to the close early connection of the Northumbrian church with Iona. In a number of cases we can even trace people’s origins from beyond the British Isles, which means that they travelled a very long way to end their days at Bamburgh, from as far away as Scandinavia or even as far as the Mediterranean. Bamburgh was a well known place even 1300 years ago.
It was always the intention of the excavators to see these individuals reburied. In 2016 they were placed in the crypt of St Aidan’s, Bamburgh, in a modern ossuary, which provides a fitting resting place for them. Excitingly the creation of the ossuary is the first part of a project led by the Bamburgh Heritage Trust to create a visitor attraction that will make the fascinating story of the investigations available to the public.
Accessing Aidan Project
The research undertaken by the BRP and Durham University has formed the basis for the NHLF funded project, Accessing Aidan. It is a remarkable partnership project to develop the crypt of St. Aidan’s Church, Bamburgh into a beautiful community and interpretation space. One of the major outputs for the project will be the publication of the excavation monograph, which we are currently working on and a digital ossuary. The digital ossuary is freely accessible online and contains all the details of the excavated skeletons from the graveyard. You can access this by visiting the Bamburgh Bones website.
You can find out more in-depth information by visiting our blog:
- Bowl Hole Part 1: background to the excavation
- Bowl Hole Part 2: what we found
- Bowl Hole Part 3: scientific research
We have also published numerous articles on the excavations. Please visit our Publication page for a full list.