Webinar Q&A

There were many more questions than we had time to answer during our talk for the York Festival of Ideas. But luckily, we have all the questions that were submitted during the webinar and here are the answers!

Warrior: A life of war in Anglo-Saxon BritainSaturday 7 June 2020, 1.00pm

York Festival of Ideas 2020 Online

Audience Questions, captured from the Zoom Webinar:

Stan Tan 01:25 PM

Hello from Singapore!

What is a “Bowl Hole” / why is the “Bowl Hole” termed as such?

Answer: Because it is a bowl shape: a depression amid the surrounding sand dunes.

Geoff 01:25 PM

Would the bodies buried face down with legs raised maybe infer a disposal rather than a burial?

Answer: we go into this in some detail in the book but in short, there are two explanations advanced for this type of burial: that it’s a sign of the person buried being in some form of disgrace or that, with the bloating that occurs in dead bodies and the corpse being put into the grave simply wrapped in a shroud, that it can be impossible for the burial party to know which way up they were burying the body.

Jack 01:37 PM

Given the classification of “warrior” to the finds and the idea they are elites are there any traces of this in their skeleton? healed broken bones or sign of a violent death etc?

Answer: Yes, there are. We go into this in detail in the book, but some of the skeletons show clear evidence of a very violent death: I am thinking in particular of one body where the skeleton was basically cut diagonally in half, from shoulder to waist.

Beverley Hallam 01:47 PM

What evidence can be gleaned about diet?

Answer: both direct and indirect. Remains of various foods have been excavated at Bamburgh, indicating a protein-rich diet with much meat eaten and various exotic imported foodstuffs, ranging from wild crane to lentils. The bones of the people excavated are uniformly free of the stress marks that indicate periods of starvation, so they were a well-fed and wealthy elite. Among the men, there is more evidence of tooth decay than among the women, which may be the result of drinking lots of sweet, and very alcoholic, mead.

Chris U 01:49 PM

Was there any evidence of cause of death on any of the skeletons?

Answer: there are some skeletons with clear evidence that they died violently, including one unfortunate man who was cut diagonally in half, from shoulder to waist.

Ruth 01:21 PM

Don’t forget the story of Grace Darling too. Women of the North East ….. strong women!

Answer: Indeed! There is an excellent Grace Darling Museum in the village.

Anonymous Attendee 01:25 PM

Why is it called the Bowl Hole?

Answer: because it’s shaped like a bowl!

Raffi Thomas 01:31 PM

Do you know if the broad axe was found in the same context as the sword? I’d be interested if they belonged to the same individual.

Answer from Paul: In the same garage, yes 😉  Until the archives are fully analysed and published I suspect this is uncertain.

henselmd 01:46 PM

Did you find a workshop at Bamburgh or implications of one–or are the artifacts thought to be spoils of war/raids?

Answer: There is some evidence for a smithy over towards St Oswald’s Gate.

S 01:46 PM

Did you find any female burials? If not, where would the women have been buried?

Answer: Yes, there were many female burials.

Sue Cumberpatch 01:47 PM

Is the book a fictionlised recreation, or a factual account?

Answer: the book is a factual account of the archaeology and history of Northumbria and the life and times of the Warrior: to bring this to life, I also interweave episodes in the Warrior’s life written with the techniques of historical fiction but always alive to the reality of the history and archaeology.

Lesley Hagon 01:47 PM

Can you talk more about the technology of the sword making – and is this a craft that died out?4

Answer: We’d need a whole book to do that – and we’re  hoping to write one next, on how to make the perfect sword.

Anonymous Attendee 01:47 PM

The materials used particularly on the sword furniture are not local so where did these come from and so what does this say about the kind of trading relationships that these people had?

Answer: it tells us that trade links were much wider, and further reaching, than might be supposed for the time. For instance, some of the garnets used in Anglo-Saxon jewellery came from as far away as Sri Lanka. These luxury items were probably traded through a succession of middlemen before fetching up on the coast of the North Sea.

Anonymous Attendee 01:51 PM

Hi Paul, thank you for the interesting sharing. May I ask how do archaeologists tell from skeletons that these people are well-fed?

Answer: bones have a growth pattern that in some way resembles the rings in the trunk of a tree. If the person suffered periods of famine, particularly when growing up, this is shown in the patterns of bone growth.

Paul Bernardi 01:19 PM

Has any evidence of the early Angle fortress ever been found? From the time of Ida and his wife Bebba?  (appreciate i may be jumping the gun here!

Answer: Yes, there has. St Oswald’s Gate and the structures around it date from the seventh century, and the well in the castle was probably cut down through the rock at this time.

Alison Offer 01:38 PM

These warriors living in a parallel world – are they exclusively young – do they settle down if they survive – thinking of Cuthbert who seemed to have fought as a youth – would he be one of these warriors – do you see the warriors as a separate community (say like the monks) or is been a warrior a rite of passage for all elite men?

Answer: Not exclusively young, but fighting is a young man’s game, then and now. However, experienced warriors still had to be prepared to fight at need. Having proved themselves among the king’s retinue, the best of his warriors were probably granted land and became, in effect, the king’s local representative.

Simon Thomas 01:39 PM

What date was the layer in which the window glass was found?

Answer: seventh century.

Walter Van Opstal 01:42 PM

beautiful gate!

Anonymous Attendee 01:44 PM

Having visited Bamburgh many times over recent years I have to say the information boards about the project could do with updating and expanding! Can members of the public support the project in some way to facilitate updating the information boards?

Answer: any support is gratefully accepted! If you would like to help, please email graemeyoung@bamburghresearchproject.co.uk.

Ruth 01:45 PM

What is the connection with Bradford Kaims?

Answer: Bradford Kaims is about five miles from Bamburgh. The BRP is excavating an ancient (Mesolithic to the Iron Age) wetland site there. For more information about the finds, please see here: https://bamburghresearchproject.co.uk/index.php/bradford-kaims/

Danny 01:45 PM

Presumably there was a larger Anglo-Saxon settlement at Bamburgh at this time. Can you say something about that?

Answer: Not too much, archaeologically, as we haven’t excavated there. But certainly, historical sources suggest a settlement around the castle, and there was probably a beach market on the strand.

Valerie Coyne 01:46 PM

Any females amongst the burials?

Answer: Yes, and in particular a young Norwegian woman (early 20s) who died and was buried in the cemetery in the sixth century, long before the better known contacts between Britain and the Viking world.

Valerie Coyne 01:51 PM

thanks very informative

Answer: Thank you!

Nic 01:46 PM

Why do you think one of the skeletons was buried face down?

Answer: we go into this in some detail in the book but in short, there are two explanations advanced for this type of burial: that it’s a sign of the person buried being in some form of disgrace or that, with the bloating that occurs in dead bodies and the corpse being put into the grave simply wrapped in a shroud, that it can be impossible for the burial party to know which way up they were burying the body.

Susan Palmer 01:47 PM

Are you still excavating in Bamburgh?

Answer: Yes, and you can join in! The Bamburgh Research Project excavates each summer (although this summer’s dig is still up in the air for obvious reasons) and it’s open to members of the public interested in trying archaeology hands on. See here for more details: https://bamburghresearchproject.co.uk/index.php/archaeology-field-school-2/

Gavin Welch 01:47 PM

How long does it take to acquire a burial licence? And how do you secure such an important site for that time frame whilst you wait?

Answer: It’s all in the book! But the short answer is, a while. And the BRP secured the site by reburying the bodies while they waited for the licence to come through.

Anonymous Attendee 01:47 PM

Why were the swords so extravagantly decorated?

Answer: Wouldn’t you? These warriors lives depended upon their weapons, and the blades were things of beauty in themselves. Further, the wielder’s status would be enhanced by the sword’s accompanying ‘bling’.

Andrew Sefton 01:48 PM

Why were they buried away from the church, were they fully Christian?

Answer: while the earliest graves in the Bowl Hole date from the pre-Christian era, most of the people buried there would have been Christian. In the book, we suggest that the Bowl Hole cemetery was reserved for non-local people who died while in Northumbria, as many of the bodies show evidence of having been born and brought up elsewhere.

Rick Brookes 01:48 PM

Did all of the graves have the same orientation?

Answer: roughly, yes, towards the east and the sea.

Jan Garrill 01:50 PM

Are these people of a similar size in height and physical stature to modern man?

Answer: Yes. And probably much stronger.

Karl&Vicky 01:50 PM

Have any other examples of pattern welded blades been excavated eleswehere in the country? Are they specific to the Anglo-Saxon period?

Answer: Yes. The best known is the sword buried at Sutton Hoo but there have been others. Pattern-welded blades are not specific to this era, but the time and effort that went into making such a sword was best repaid at a time when armies were small (often less than a hundred men), rather than the much larger armies of the late Anglo-Saxon/early Norman era.

James Pennock 01:51 PM

The book is superb – the crossover of 2 different approaches to history works really well. What have you both taken away from the other? Can the other approach influence your own?

Answer: Thank you! That’s really kind of you. I think we were trying to do something different – dare I say, unique – with this book, hammering together different strands of narrative to make a whole that lights up the subject from different angles, rather like the way the garnets of the period were cut and polished.

Walter Van Opstal 01:53 PM

Do you know exactly where the sword was excavated from? r were the records lost in that garage?

Answer: We have a reasonable idea of the context of the swords.

Paola 01:54 PM

In terms of pathologies… was there any evidence of inter-personal trauma in the skeletons? Paul showed one skeleton buried prone which in Saxon times this is interpretated as possible ‘deviant’ and as such they’re likely to present some form of trauma…

Answer: yes, some of the skeletons did show very clear, indeed quite horrific, evidence of injury, in particular one unfortunate man who was sliced diagonally in half, from shoulder to waist.

Anonymous Attendee 01:54 PM

Where were the metal workers buried?

Answer: We don’t know.

Stan Tan 01:55 PM

Hello from Singapore!

How did the Indian or Japanese influences get imported?

Answer: There probably weren’t any Japanese influences, but some garnets did come from Sri Lanka, traded through middle men via the Middle East.

Barry 01:55 PM

Had most of these people died of natural causes or had they been killed?

Answer: You can only tell for certain a violent death if the skeleton was damaged (as happened with one man who was cut diagonally in half). Others may have died through blood loss or injury to internal organs without that leaving any trace on the body.

Raffi Thomas 01:55 PM

Do you think the Dalriadan would’ve been a Christian, and if so is this reflected in his burial?

Answer: Yes, we think the Warrior was a Christian. He has no grave goods, and the portion of the cemetery where he was buried has a number of other graves buried in a typical Dal Riadan fashion.

Helen Butt 01:58 PM

Thank you for such a fascinating talk. Can’t wait till I can visit….

Answer: You’re welcome! You should visit: Bamburgh and Northumberland are wonderful.

Warrior – Out Now in Paperback

Warrior: A Life of War in Anglo-Saxon Britain is out now in paperback. The Bookseller called it ‘enthralling…brilliantly written‘. The Spectator said it ‘reveals the disruptive and imaginative force of archaeology‘. Find out what they mean, and how the bones of an anonymous warrior excavated near Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland can reveal the deep foundations of Britain. Get it from Amazon and other good booksellers.

Adventures in Bookland: Ancestral Journeys by Jean Manco

Few books manage to be simultaneously so fascinating and so eye glazing. The tale of the movements of the successive waves of people that have made and remade Europe is fascinating, and the new science of DNA analysis that allows for the extraction of ancient DNA and its comparison to the modern inhabitants of a country is a salutary corrective to the strong tendency in archaeology and historical studies in the latter half of the 20th century to deny all movements of people in favour of cultural overlay and small groups of elite warriors while the peasants remain, lumpen and unmoved on the land (although these lumpen peasants do, by this view, display a remarkable ability to change languages and cultures at the arrival of a new bunch of guys waving swords). Since all the contemporary accounts of the age of migration talk about the movements of peoples, it’s good to accord the contemporary witnesses some credit for telling what they saw. However, on the eye glazing front, I defy anyone to get through a few pages of Y-DNA haplogroup R1a1a and the like without their head drooping.

 

Adventures in Bookland: Archaeology of the Bible by Jean-Pierre Isbouts

Coffee-table book of Biblical archaeology. Beautifully produced, with a great deal of reasonably useful material about the wider historical and archaeological context, but written with a definite although veiled Biblical minimalist view. That’s the view, adopted by some scholars, that there is essentially no, or very little, historical value in the Bible. They see it as a theological, cultural and political document, reflecting purely the realities of the times when the various books of the Bible were written, with an assumption that they were written much after the events that they supposedly record. Thus the stories of David and Solomon and the United Monarchy are not a history of what actually happened but an invented genealogy and hence rationale for much later kings. While a strong strand in Biblical archaeology, it’s by no means the only one, but there’s very little in this book to suggest that there any other interpretations of the evidence beyond those presented here. Somewhat disappointing.

See Like An Archaeologist

Paul Gething, director of the Bamburgh Research Project

“Medieval tile. Medieval pottery. Another piece of pottery. More tile. Animal bone.” Paul Gething, archaeologist, picked through his finds.

I had, literally, been walking on history, oblivious to its presence beneath my boots.

We were standing on a path down from the great crag of rock upon which Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland squats. Paul had just told me that most people are oblivious to what lies beneath their feet and I had challenged him to prove it. Within ten yards he’d found these remains.

Paul Gething is co-director of the Bamburgh Research Project (BRP), a multi-disciplinary archaeological dig investigating the history in and around Bamburgh. We’ve known each other for many years, but this was the first time I’d asked him to explain how he sees the world through the eyes of his discipline. I looked at his finds. To my eyes, they still looked like battered old stones.

“People have been here since Neolithic times, so it’s not hard to find things,” said Paul. “People drop litter now, and they threw away their rubbish then; we’ve not fundamentally changed over the centuries.”

In Northumberland, this continuity is visceral, tangible. The ramparts of Bamburgh Castle loomed above us. The fortress, capital of the lost kingdom of Northumbria, sits on top of a great outcrop of basalt, a part of the Great Whin Sill rock formation that stretches from the North Pennines to Northumberland. Out to sea, the Farne Islands, where St Cuthbert withdrew from the world and befriended the local eider ducks, are made of the same hard rock. The islands glittered darkly against an unexpectedly blue sky, while a few miles to the north, Holy Island (Lindisfarne) had, until the tide turned, rejoined the mainland.

Paul looked out to sea. “Ten thousand years ago, that was land. I think hunters camped here, watching the herds trailing past on their way to their feeding grounds.”We’d started the day by inspecting the trenches the BRP has dug in the grounds of the castle. Teams of archaeologists on hands and knees were carefully scraping away the earth with trowels, noting and tagging every find. For the really delicate work, they employed toothbrushes. The archaeologists here come in all ages, from pensioner to schoolchild, for one of the key objectives of the Bamburgh Research Project is to make archaeology accessible: anyone, from members of the public to Indiana Jones, can dig after being taught the necessary skills. The site is open in the summer and people can sign up for anywhere between one day and two weeks.

Paul Gething and Graeme Young, directors of the Bamburgh Research Project, inspecting finds in one of the trenches in Bamburgh Castle

Leaving the archaeologists in the trenches, we set off along a section of the St Oswald’s Way long distance path. It seemed to me that Bamburgh Castle, once the capital of the kingdom of Northumbria, was an obvious place to do archaeology, but Paul bet me that archaeology could illuminate any walk.

“Before setting out, look at the map. The names are clues to the past. For instance, -burgh is the Anglo-Saxon word for ‘fort’, and -by is Old Norse for a village, so that tells you who settled there and named the features of the landscape. Then look at aerial photographs, or satellite images – Google makes this easy – since things often show up more clearly from above.”

Heading down into the marram grass covered dunes, Paul told me how an old Ordnance Survey map had given them a vital clue when the BRP first started digging here. There were written references to a burial ground in the vicinity of Bamburgh Castle, but they had no idea where to search for it. But then they looked at the very first Ordnance Survey map of the area and there, to the south, were the neatly printed words ‘Danish burial ground’. We made our way through a small wood (“Just regrowth, only a couple of hundred years old”), the air thick with the buzzing of heat-drugged insects, until we came to the burial ground. Paul said they’d found over 100 skeletons here, dating from the seventh and eighth centuries. The remains indicated the people buried here were from the nobility – “They were all well fed” – and some had come from as far away as Western Scotland and Norway, only to meet their end in the service of the kings of Northumbria.

Heading inland, Paul stopped at a pasture. The cows looked up placidly before returning to cropping the grass.

“Ridge and furrow,” Paul said, indicating the undulations that ran across the field. “Or rig and frig in archaeological slang. Medieval, judging by the distance between the ridges. Roman fields have narrower gaps.” Parallel lines, like the ripples that form on beaches as the tide goes out, marked the field in straight lines. In medieval times common land was ploughed or dug in long parallel strips. The soil from the furrow was piled on to the ridge, creating two different microclimates for crops. In a dry season, the seeds down in the water-collecting furrow would be assured enough moisture for growth, but if the year was wet, the crops in the freely-draining ridge would flourish. Thus medieval peasants hedged their bets and their labour to ensure a crop. Where the field has been turned over to pasture rather than cross ploughed, the centuries-old pattern of cultivation can still be clearly visible.

“The rule of thumb is the wider the gap, the nearer it is to our own time. Roman fields have a three-metre gap between the ridges, medieval ones from five to eight metres.”

Paul was winning the argument before we’d gone a mile. I asked him if there were any other archaeological landscape features that an amateur could spot and he pointed to a roughly circular patch of nettles sitting alone in the corner of a nearby field. Nettles love phosphorus, and the excrement of cattle and sheep is rich in the element. Those solitary patches I’d often seen in the past usually marked the site of a medieval sheep or cow pen. Although the enclosure had disappeared, the plants lived on on the bounty left by the long-dead animals.

“My family are always moaning that whenever we go anywhere, I’m always saying that’s rig and frig, or there must have been Roman villa in the vicinity, but I can’t help it. It’s just part of the way I automatically process a landscape. For instance, near where I live in York, a Second World War airfield is reverting to scrub. It’s an archaeological test bed. There’s rig and frig fields, crab apples that aren’t native to Britain – my guess is that pilots flew over from America, ate the apple they’d bought there and then threw away the core – and miles of underground tunnels that I’ll bet future archaeologists will take to be sewers, but are actually communication ducts.”

BRP archaeologists hard at work

A couple of miles inland, with the Cheviots looming in the distance, we arrived at another BRP dig. This one cut through the grass, topsoil and subsoil to reveal the limits of a prehistoric lake. One of the archaeologists there told me that in Mesolithic times, that is between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, where we were standing was a large figure-eight-shaped lake, and we were standing at the pinch point of the lake. It was the obvious place for a settlement, but our distant ancestors were proving elusive. The archaeologists had only uncovered the remains of a millennia-old ditch so far.

Walking back to the castle, Paul showed me an arrowhead he’d found at the edge of a field. It was an exquisitely worked, barbed and tanged late Neolithic flint. But what could this solitary find tell us?

“I’m firmly convinced that the key skill archaeologists have to learn is how not to focus on what is in front of them. Five thousand years ago, skilled artisan could produce half a dozen arrowheads like this every hour. They were as disposable as Bic razors. The shafts, on the other hand, were a different matter. Finding and preparing a truly straight length of wood was difficult. Once that was done, the shaft had to be fletched too. For Neolithic man, the valuable part of an arrow was not the arrowhead but the shaft. What would happen, though, if an animal wasn’t killed outright but fled, taking your valuable arrow with it? So they made their arrows in such a way that the arrowhead would break off easily, leaving the shaft to be retrieved.”

Looking at the killing instrument, I was transported back in time to a world of woods and marshes, and a hunter drawing his bow on a deer and loosing his arrow, but the beast, startled, leapt away, the arrow protruding from its haunch. The shaft broke off as the deer careered through the trees and the pursuing hunter spotted the bright feathers of its fletch lying in the moss. The deer escaped, only to die a few days later when the wound became infected. Scavengers cleared the remains, but the indigestible flint of the arrowhead fell to the earth, and was covered over, only to be uncovered centuries later when a sweating medieval peasant piled the spoil from the furrow on to the adjacent ridge. There it remained, alternately exposed and hidden, until a passing archaeologist saw it glittering on the ground and grasped its significance.

Paul had won the bet.

 

The Presence of the Past – no.1 in an occasional series

Writing, as I do, about the seventh century AD, you’d think there would be precious little left in the way of physical connections to this time. After all, the Romans built in stone and stone endures, but the Angl0-Saxons were master carpenters, rejecting stone and brick-built dwellings for great halls made of wood – and wood decays, or burns.

So, yes, there is on one level much less left from the seventh century than from the four centuries of Roman rule. However, in writing the Northumbrian Thrones, I’ve been surprised at what there is to be found: places, buildings, structures and artefacts that have survived the vicissitudes of the centuries to bring into the present the witness of the past.

Of these, the Bamburgh Sword (which I wrote about for History Today here) is possibly the most evocative. Excavated by Brian Hope-Taylor from the castle grounds in the 1960s, it was forgotten and, after Hope-Taylor’s death, was put into a skip when his home was emptied – it was only the quick thinking of some pHD students that saved it. The Bamburgh Sword was forged in the seventh century of six strands of pattern-welded iron, making it possibly the finest weapon ever made, well, anywhere. It was wielded, in battle and rite, for three centuries before, finally, it broke and the shards were interred in the grounds of the stronghold it had helped to protect. Such an extraordinary weapon was fit for a king – given where it was buried and when it was forged, the extraordinary possibility arises that the Bamburgh Sword was the very weapon wielded by Oswald, the Lamnguin, the White Hand, the king who returned from over the sea.

After centuries under ground, the blade itself is a corroded shadow of its once self but it is on display in the Archaeology Room in the castle. This is what it looks like now (in the hands of Graeme Young, co-director of the Bamburgh Research Project):

15dt8oy

And this is a newly forged reconstruction of what the sword would have looked like when it was wielded in defence of the kingdom of Northumbria:

bamburgh-sword

Far away from Bamburgh, on the isle of Anglesey, is another, much-less known, connection with the seventh century. Back then, the kingdom of Gwynedd was the proudest and strongest of the kingdoms of the Britons that continued to resist the slow conquest of Britain by the Angles and the Saxons. The kings of Gwynedd had their fortresses and strongholds in the mountains of Snowdonia, but the ancient island over the Menai Strait served both as the breadbasket for the kingdom and its political centre, with the royal court based in what is now the small village of Aberffraw. Just two miles east of Aberffraw is an even smaller village, Llangadwaladr, and set into the wall of the parish church is a gravestone. But not just any gravestone. This stone marked the grave of Cadfan ap Iago, king of Gwynedd and father of Cadwallon, the nemesis of Edwin of Northumbria.

Go to the quiet, serene church of St Cadwaladr and there, embedded in the far wall, is the stone. It reads, ‘Catamanus rex sapientisimus opinatisimus omnium regum’, which means, ‘King Cadfan, most wise and renowned of all kings’. This is what it looks like:

Cadfan

And here I am, touching this direct link to the world of seventh-century Britain, when we visited Anglesey last summer.

IMG_6180IMG_6192

It is extraordinary to think that these, the sword and the gravestone, have managed to survive when so little else has. If people are interested, I’ll write about other places and things that bring the past into the present in further articles for this new series.

Book review: The Anglo-Saxon World by Nicholas Higham & Martin Ryan

The Anglo-Saxon World
The Anglo-Saxon World

Skimming the other reviews for The Anglo-Saxon World, I see I’m just adding to the consensus but, you know, sometimes a consensus exists because something is true: this really is the best one-volume introduction to the Anglo-Saxon world around. It’s not cheap, but it is worth every penny.

Nick Higham’s writing style has improved immensely since he wrote The Kingdom of Northumbria A.D. 3501100 (my go-to guide when working on Edwin High King of Britain and now Oswald: Return of the King), and he now combines engaging prose with his immense knowledge of the subject. Really, no criticisms; if you want to learn about the history and culture of the Early Medieval Period in Britain, read this book.

England’s Last Wilderness

This article first appeared in TNT magazine.

Northumberland, the most sparsely populated county in England, is the nearest thing to wilderness south of Scotland. There are only 63 people per square kilometre and, standing on a mile of pristine beach, with a castle brooding over the shore and hills fringing the horizon, I wonder why. Then the wind starts. Ten minutes later, I’m sandblasted from the beach. So that’s why no one comes here.

Puffins on the Farne Islands
Puffins on the Farne Islands

Well, no. It’s not just the weather, though a typical Northumbrian day will include four seasons, a taste of an Ice Age and half an hour trying to see the hand in front of your face when the sea fog (sea fret as the locals call it) rolls in. Northumberland is border land, it’s been border land since the Romans came up here, decided they’d gone far enough and built a wall, and its history dictates its present in a way unknown elsewhere in England.

There’s no better way to understand history than digging it up, and with the Bamburgh Research Project (www.bamburghresearchproject.co.uk, from £171 per week) I could do just that. The BRP is an ongoing archaeological project, open to volunteers, excavating in and around Bamburgh Castle. If there’s a more spectacular place to do archaeology, I don’t know it. The castle squats on a huge great hunk of dolerite, an outcrop of the Great Whin Sill that formed 295 million years ago when magma squeezed between two layers of softer rock and set hard. Since then, the soft rock has been eroding away, and outcrops of the Great Whin Sill form some of the key landscape features of the north, including High Force waterfall in Durham and the Farne Islands, a couple of miles out into the North Sea from Bamburgh.

Digging for understanding
Digging for understanding

“You can tell by the sound your trowel makes what you’re digging through. Grit is hard and clacking, sand is abrasive and scraping, clay produces a smooth hiss.” Paul Gething, co-founder and co-director of the BRP, sits back on his haunches and explains to the week’s intake of volunteers what we need to look – and listen for – as we excavate. Among the amateur archaeologists are students gaining credits for archaeology degrees, a seventy-year-old inspired by Time Team and those inspired by what Paul calls “the raw power of the past”. Most spend the week camping with the archaeologists at a nearby camp site, juddering in to the castle each morning in a bumpy Land Rover before spending the day digging with increasingly finely graded implements (culminating in the gingerly wielded toothbrush that I used to scrape sand from a tibia emerging from a rediscovered graveyard), sifting excavated materials through flotation tanks, and tagging and bagging the day’s finds (from the ubiquitous bones and pottery, through stycas – Northumbrian coins – to exquisite pieces of gold jewellery).

Yeavering Bell
Yeavering Bell

But if you’re the sort of person who finds even the handful of people on the beach at Bamburgh too invasive, head inland. In the lee of the Cheviot Hills is Ad Gefrin. It’s a field now, but it was once the summer palace of the kings of Northumbria. Looming over Ad Gefrin, the conical hill of Yeavering Bell is also testament to the illusions of power. During the Iron Age, the greatest chieftain of the land built a fort atop the hill, its great, tumbledown stone ramparts still crowning the summit. But the chieftain is forgotten, his people gone and, as I stand on the summit, I reflect that I have not seen another human being all day. And, rubbing aching legs, that our ancestors must have had thighs like bloody tree trunks.

Watched bird bites back
Watched bird bites back

A mile out from Bamburgh and accessible by boat from Seahouses (www.farne-islands.com, from £13), the Farne Islands provide a clucking, hissing cornucopia of life: 37,000 pairs of puffins, 50,000 guillemots, more than 20 other species of birds and 6,000 grey seals. St Cuthbert lived as a hermit on the island in the seventh century, when he instituted laws for the protection of Eider ducks and nesting birds; the National Trust rangers that live on the islands today continue his work. There’s stiff competition for the posts, but the eleven rangers, who remain on the islands for nine months from April to November, have as raw an experience of nature as anyone in Britain.

But that’s Northumberland: England’s last wilderness.

Recommendations

Eat

Seahouses has a number of establishments vying for the title of best fish and chips shop in the north east. Neptune Restaurant (www.neptunefishandchips.co.uk, from £7.95 for cod and chips, with pot of tea and bread and butter) is one of the main contenders. The Copper Kettle Tearooms (www.copperkettletearooms.com, mains from £4.95) in Bamburgh cooks its home prepared food fresh each day, so can run out in the afternoon – get there early.

Drink

Most Northumbrian pubs serve hearty food, but a good pint can be had at the Castle Inn (http://castleinnbamburgh.co.uk/, pints from £3) in Bamburgh and the backdrop is hard to beat. Local pubs can be insular, but the Victoria Hotel (www.victoriahotel.net, from £3.40) is friendly and doesn’t demur when BRP students spend hours over a single coffee while using its free WiFi.

Stay

Up the coast from Bamburgh, Pot-A-Doodle Do Wigwam Village (www.northumbrianwigwams.com, from £15 per person per night) provides accommodation in wooden wigwams, with three yurts thrown in for good measure. The living quarters at St. Cuthbert’s House (www.stcuthbertshouse.com, from £90 for a double), a renovated 200-year-old chapel, are considerably more luxurious. Their breakfasts, locally sourced, are wonderful.