Glendale Local History Society, October meeting

FORTRESS HEART: The Heart of the Fortress, an archaeological investigation of the inner ward at Bamburgh Castle, was the subject of a talk by Graeme Young, of the Bamburgh Research Project, to members of Glendale Local History Society.

For the past 15 years, the project has been digging through the layers of settlement on top of the rock of Bamburgh, which is surely one of the most imposing natural features of our North East coastline.

Our ancestors have made use of it since Neolithic times, creating a depth of layers which, though not quite rivalling those of the great ‘tell’ of ancient Troy, challenges archaeologists with its intricacies and conjunctions.

In a fine talk from one of the project directors, Graeme Young, Glendale Local History Society was treated to a complex detective story as current excavation digs deep down into the chapel remains in the Castle’s inner ward.

The archaeologists set out in search of the St Peter’s church where, Bede tells us in the eighth century, the arm of St Oswald was preserved and venerated after the King’s death at the battle of Maserfeith in 642.

But, as our speaker had to admit a few times, it wasn’t as simple as we thought!

Visitors to the castle will know the profile of a ruined chapel, set picturesquely above the main gate to the castle, but most of this is a 19th century construction, possibly intended more as a gothic folly than an actual site of worship.

Only the apse of an old medieval church remains, built at the time of Henry II in the 12th century.

The team got really excited when a geophysical survey and a resistivity analysis suggested there was more going on underneath this medieval chapel building.

Could this be the church which Bede recalls?

To test this possibility has required years of painstaking archaeology, digging down and scraping away for clues.

Now, after excavations in 2004 and 2008, the team’s original idea that they were digging into a site with continuous religious use from early Anglo-Saxon times to early modern times no longer seems to stand up.

Graeme Young now believes, he told us, that Bede’s church must be somewhere else on the castle site. Instead, what the team has found is that the 12th century church is built out beyond an earlier perimeter wall, probably of Norman date, which itself lies over the walls of a stone building of Anglo-Saxon date.

Was this Bede’s church, perhaps?

Such stone construction is unusual for buildings of this period, though found elsewhere in North East England. Prior to this, construction was probably in wood.

However, the orientation of the building does not seem to be appropriate for a church and the team does not seem to think the structure they are finding was an ecclesiastical building.

The team has yet to get beyond a building layer of around 900AD, though they have had to sift through a waste midden which contained late Roman material through which later walls were constructed.

So slowly, work in this trench adds to the story of what was built on Bamburgh’s castle site in its heyday as a key fortress site in Northumberland.

Steering us skillfully through these complexities, full of excited moments and frustrations, our speaker showed us that geo-physical surveys are not so reliable and can sometimes indicate underlying formations an in upside-down way while gardeners can make archaeological finds just by deciding to re-organise their flowerbeds!

At the end of a very informative evening, we were all looking forward to news over the next decade of work on the site, as yet more of the history of this important castle rock are revealed.

Glendale Local History Society members and visitors are reminded that the next talk will be on Lord Armstrong the Man – his life and initiatives, by Andrew Sayer, on Wednesday, November 9, at 7.30pm in the Cheviot Centre, Wooler.