Bamburgh Castle: digging the home of Northumbria’s kings

The Bamburgh Research Project is picking up the pieces of the archaeological work started by legendary eccentric Dr Brian Hope-Taylor, who had left virtually no record of his excavations – or so it was believed. The story of Bamburgh is two-fold: before properly investigating the site, the team must first excavate the archaeologist who worked there 60 years ago.

Start

Bamburgh Castle is one of those places that once visited are rarely forgotten. A large Medieval castle, re-built as a stately home at the beginning of the 20th century, it lies on an undulating outcrop of dolerite bedrock that stands up to 30m above the surrounding countryside. Sited dramatically between the modern village and the beach, it is one of Northumberland’s premier tourist attractions. The great archaeological potential of the site prompted the establishment of the Bamburgh Research Project (BRP) in 1996.

Bamburgh Castle is a natural fortress which has held a place of importance within the region throughout history, appearing in written records first as a British site (Din Guaroy) in the 6th century, and subsequently becoming one of the principal royal centres of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. Bamburgh became an English Royal castle in the 11th century AD, and remained so until it passed into private ownership at the beginning of the 17th century. Prior to the foundation of the BRP, the first systematic excavation of Bamburgh was conducted by the late Dr Brian Hope-Taylor, of Cambridge University.

Below The west ward, showing Hope-Tayor’s trenches, according to his recorded measurements. All, bar Cutting E, have been re-excavated and re-recorded by the BRP up to 2007.
The west ward, showing Hope-Tayor’s trenches, according to his recorded measurements. All, bar Cutting E, have been re-excavated and re-recorded by the BRP up to 2007.

Hope-Taylor’s interest in Bamburgh seems to have stemmed from his previous work at the Anglian royal site at Yeavering, some 25km to the west of Bamburgh. Hope-Taylor believed Bamburgh, being in the first tier of royal centres, would make an interesting parallel to Yeavering and aid in its interpretation. Indeed, his work at Bamburgh closely followed on the Yeavering excavation, as his initial campaign was undertaken between 1959 and 1962. He described the first phase of work in two short articles in the University of Durham Gazette, which discussed the excavation of a trial trench in the centre of the west ward and two further trenches outside the castle gate. The archaeological potential of the site clearly captured Hope-Taylor’s imagination, as he returned for a much more extensive campaign of excavation between 1970 and 1974. Sadly, this phase of investigation was never completed and no publication had resulted at the time of his death in January 2001.

Left The west ward of Bamburgh Castle, during the 2002 season. The white doors in the landward wall lead to the Hope-Taylor offices and storerooms. The post-Medieval windmill is now the BRP office. St Oswald’s Gate, the earliest known entrance to the castle, lies hidden from view behind the windmill mound.
The west ward of Bamburgh Castle, during the 2002 season. The white doors in the landward wall lead to the Hope-Taylor offices and storerooms. The post-Medieval windmill is now the BRP office. St Oswald’s Gate, the earliest known entrance to the castle, lies hidden from view behind the windmill mound.

Dr Hope-Taylor loomed substantially in the minds of the small group of archaeologists who initiated the Bamburgh Research Project. Following in the footsteps of such a famous name seemed a little daunting, but also, without knowing the extent of his work within the castle, we would struggle to integrate our own studies with Hope-Taylor’s original work. It was perhaps this, as much as the interest of the site itself, which prompted the initial excavation undertaken by the BRP, concentrating on the identification and investigation of an early Medieval burial site beyond the castle gate.

Excavating old archaeology

Nevertheless, the fortress is the heart of the site and understanding its archaeology was the key to gaining an insight into Bamburgh’s place in the region’s history. The obvious place to start was in the west ward, where Dr Hope-Taylor had located his original trenches. Documentary survey, resistivity and ground-penetrating radar surveys were undertaken prior to excavation and, together with anecdotal evidence from those who remembered Hope-Taylor at Bamburgh, we identified the general area of the 1970s excavations well enough to at least allow a trial trench to be sited with some confidence within the west ward in 2000.

Dr Brian Hope-Taylor in the west ward in 1970, standing between his Cuttings A and B.

This 30m by 2m trench, oriented broadly north to south, as much by good fortune as planning, identified the east side of Hope-Taylor’s main excavation trench. After that, it was a relatively simple task to follow the edge during the next season to reveal a substantial, trapezoidal, open area excavation, divided by a central baulk. The full trench was emptied to the base of the original excavation, with the exception of the southern 3m, where a service pipe had been inserted in the intervening time between the BRP and Hope-Taylor excavations. This was a relatively easy task, as the bottom of the trench had been covered by Hope-Taylor and his dig team at the end of the 1974 season with a mixture of polythene fertilizer sacks and tarpaulins, weighed down by stones and timber.

The day of the great unveiling, when the tarpaulins and sacks were peeled back, was memorable for its drama as well as the complexity of the archaeology revealed – made all the more interesting by the presence of section strings, nails and occasional marker tags left in situ. Clearly, Hope-Taylor had left with every intention of returning in a later season. Once cleaned, the trench was extensively recorded by photography, plan and section. A strategy to excavate a parallel trench on the east side of Hope-Taylor’s was formed, with hope that it would provide sufficient insight to allow a basic interpretation of what had been excavated during the 1970s. However, its primary function would be to provide an independent sample of the west ward stratigraphy.

Below The Hope-Taylor main trench on the day of the unveiling, still covered with tarpaulins.
The Hope-Taylor main trench on the day of the unveiling, still covered with tarpaulins.

In the best tradition of archaeology, no matter much we try to plan ahead with a research design, it is events and unexpected discoveries that ultimately take over and drive us forward. In this case, the event was the death of Dr Brian Hope-Taylor in January 2001. Prompt action by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) and English Heritage, led by Diana Murray of the RCAHMS, rescued the archaeological archives that had been kept in Dr Hope-Taylor’s flat and garage. These priceless records included finds as well as written, drawn and photographic records; many in a poor state of preservation and rather mixed. This timely intervention saved an invaluable record of Dr Hope-Taylor’s life’s work. Bamburgh was thankfully well represented amongst this rescued material, allowing a substantial body of finds to be returned to the castle along with a digital copy of the records and photographs.

In the summer following Dr Hope-Taylor’s death, providence again intervened and an unexpected discovery played its part in guiding the course of our project. In an effort to provide some site office space for the current excavation, a series of rooms built into the landward wall of the west ward were investigated by the castle groundsman. The locks had long since corroded in the sea air and the doors had to be forced open with a crowbar.

The Bamburgh Sword – cutting edge technology?

Discovered in 1960 by Dr Brian Hope-Taylor, the Bamburgh Sword then disappeared until his death, when it was recovered from his apartment by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland. About 80cm long, it is dated to the 7th century and is a rare example of complex pattern-welded swords: x-rays have revealed its blade is made up of six individual strands of carbonised iron bonded together to form the blade. Pattern-welded swords made up of four strands are more common and examples of this type were recovered from the Sutton Hoo burial.

The technology involved in the making of the Bamburgh Sword would have made it a vastly superior weapon at the time of its making; therefore it is believed that it was commissioned for a king or a member of the royal family. The sword is now on display in the Archaeology museum at Bamburgh Castle.

Frozen in time

The first we room entered was at the southern end and proved to be a double room divided by a crosswall. Within it were desks and chairs, a kettle, milk bottle and a copy of the Daily Telegraph dated to 1974. The date of the newspaper coincided with Hope-Taylor’s last excavation season. From that evidence, it seemed clear that this was Brian Hope-Taylor’s site office. To the north of the double room, a smaller single room contained tools and a series of palaeoenvironmental samples. The most intriguing items were four plaster casts, three taken from an archaeological surface and the fourth a single hoof print.

An accompanying letter from a local Farmer, Charles Baker-Cresswell, to Brian Hope-Taylor described the difficult operation of encouraging a bullock to step in wet plaster. It also included the slaughterhouse certificate for the animal that provided the specimen foot print. Photographs in the Hope-Taylor archive show these casts being taken around the ‘gingan’. This feature still survives within the trench and appears to be a mortar mixer of likely early Medieval date. The final room contained numerous boxes of finds, mostly animal bone, thankfully with the majority of their labels still legible, and showing that they were from the 1970 to 1974 excavation seasons.

left A limited collection of finds was also kept in the castle museum, including bronze strap-ends and a small decorated gold plaque (the famous Bamburgh Beast) that indicated the site’s potential richness.
A limited collection of finds was also kept in the castle museum, including bronze strap-ends and a small decorated gold plaque (the famous Bamburgh Beast) that indicated the site’s potential richness.

The discovery of the content of the rooms was a surprisingly emotional experience. Items seemed to have been discarded as if the excavation team had just stopped for lunch. Some finds on a table within the northernmost room were clearly laid out in the process of being recorded.

The obvious reference to the ghost ship Mary Celeste was made and others felt it was a little like opening a tomb. Recovering and cataloguing the Hope-Taylor archive always seemed to have an element of eccentricity about it; later that year, a member of the public stopped by the castle to hand over a bicycle pannier containing small finds to the Custodian. Dr Hope-Taylor had left them in her house and she thought they would be better off back at the castle. One of the finds was a kite-brooch, identical to one we had recovered from the backfill of the 1970s trench.

The surviving plans, sections, notebooks and numerous photographs relating to Bamburgh from the Hope-Taylor archive has given us a good general understanding of the work undertaken at the castle during the 1960s and 1970s. Amongst the drawings is a plan depicting the location of all the trenches excavated within the west ward. This identified a previously unknown trial-trenching programme undertaken in 1970, involving four trenches radiating down from the rock outcrop on which the post Medieval windmill now stands. They were labelled Cuttings B, C, D and E, the open area excavation being Area A. During 2006 and 2007 the BRP re-excavated them in order to re-record the sections. This process included the 1960 Trial Trench 1. This has proved very informative, particularly Trial Trench 1 where two surviving modest baulks were excavated in order to provide our own sampling sequence.

above The Hope-Taylor office as found in 2001. The newspaper, dated to 1974, lies on the chair.
The Hope-Taylor office as found in 2001. The newspaper, dated to 1974, lies on the chair.

This trench was of particular interest, as two swords and an axe referred to in the 1960 publication had been found here. These had been recovered from Dr Hope-Taylor’s apartment in the search conducted after his death. Further research (xrays) at the Royal Armouries revealed both to be of pattern-welded construction and of Anglo-Saxon date; in fact, one of them (now known as the Bamburgh Sword) is an extremely rare and complex six strand interrupted herringbone pattern. The presence of aluminium labels, still legible, stuck in the trench sides raised our hopes that something close to their exact recovery spot could be identified.

right Hope-Taylor’s drawing of the trenches excavated in the west ward.
Hope-Taylor’s drawing of the trenches excavated in the west ward.

We were not so lucky, however, as there were no sword locations amongst the various finds of pottery and coins noted on the tags. Thankfully, the following year, one of our former staff members, when working with the RCAHMS on the Hope-Taylor archive, found the missing Trench 1 section, complete with sword location, misplaced amongst the drawings from another site. Trial Trench 1 extended to a depth of 3m from the turf to the bedrock.

Excavation of the two baulks revealed the presence of a metalled surface cut through by post-holes, beneath which two flints of Neolithic date were recovered, confirming Dr Hope-Taylor’s assertion that a prehistoric sequence lay beneath layer of Roman date.

Planning future investigations

Following this series of dramatic discoveries and a period of recording and consolidation, the future of the west ward excavation and its archive seems clearer. Our plan is to continue a parallel excavation to the depth of Hope-Taylor’s excavation, publishing the two together. One of the biggest obstacles will be that the records of the earlier excavation are far from complete and integrating the two excavations will be a major task, but the quality of the archaeology makes it imperative that this is achieved. Already it is apparent that Dr Hope-Taylor excavated deeply into early Medieval layers, revealing evidence of structures and also of industrial activity.

Below Hope-Taylor photograph from the early 1970s of Cutting A, main area divided by a baulk, and Cutting B, the small trench in the background. The mortar mixer is visible towards the bottom of the photograph.
Hope-Taylor photograph from the early 1970s of Cutting A, main area divided by a baulk, and Cutting B, the small trench in the background. The mortar mixer is visible towards the bottom of the photograph.

The other major obstacle, apart from the incomplete record, is the extent to which archaeological recording has changed. We will be integrating a site that has been written up in notebooks and recorded in feet and inches, with one recorded by a context sheet system on a metric grid. In fact, just understanding the Hope-Taylor site grid has been a challenge. Two lines of grid points, in no way parallel to one another, appear on plans; one marked L1 to L6 and the other S1 to S6. It took some time for the penny to drop that the site had been recorded by triangulation from grid lines that paralleled the land and sea walls!

So far, it has been a fascinating journey and one that has allowed us to gain priceless insights not just into a truly wonderful archaeological site but also into the world of Brian Hope-Taylor, the excavator. And if, from time to time, a comment in his site notebook brings a smile to the face, or his site grid infuriates us, one only has to look at the meticulous quality of his site photography to know that we are following in the footsteps of one of the greats.

Source
Graeme Young
The Bamburgh Research Project
[email protected]