Bamburgh Castle excavation reveals Anglo-Saxon building

An excavation in the courtyard of Bamburgh Castle has uncovered an Anglo-Saxon hall, the BBC reports.

It was already known that there was a castle here from the 6th century AD, when England was a patchwork of small Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The kingdom of Northumbria was the largest and one of the most powerful. Little was known about the Anglo-Saxon period at Bamburgh, however, because of the massive later castle built atop it.

Now archaeologists have discovered a hall, perhaps a grand building used by the local ruler. The excavation will be featured on the next episode of Time Team, aired in the UK on Channel 4 this Sunday, April 24, at 5:30 PM. The Bamburgh Research Project has an interesting blog to keep you up to date about the excavation. They also offer a Dig for a Day program where you can learn what it’s like to be an archaeologist and maybe make a major discovery of your own.

A couple of years ago we chose Bamburgh Castle as one of the ten toughest castles in the world because of its amazing military history. Check out the link for more information.

[Photo courtesy George Ford]


Exploring England’s oldest Anglo-Saxon church

One of England’s most alluring traits is the way its historical ages pile atop one another. This is a nation where farmers discover Roman coin hordes in their fields, where people drink in 400 year-old pubs, where people worship in churches that have been around as long as England has been Christian.

If you’re ever visiting Durham in northern England be sure to take a brief drive or bus trip to the nearby village of Escomb. In the center of town stands this church, built sometime around 670-690 AD. England was not England back then, but rather a patchwork of warring Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. In many regions, people had converted to Christianity within living memory, and there were still some who clung to the Old Religion. The crumbling remains of Roman cities, forts, and shrines could still be seen, remnants of a greater civilization that was already taking on the character of legend.

At this time some unknown individuals built this church. It has been in use almost continually ever since and is the oldest intact Anglo-Saxon church in the country. Its sturdy walls have borne the centuries well. If you look carefully you can see much of England’s history marked in its stone.

The Anglo-Saxons were actually three distinct tribes–the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes–who came from what is now Denmark and northern Germany to fill the power vacuum left by the departing Romans in the early fifth century. The Angles settled in this part of the country. They were still pagan then, and would remain so for a century. Eventually churches started to appear. The stone for this church mainly came from an abandoned Roman fort nearby. A couple of the stones even have old Roman inscriptions, one saying “Legion VI”, which had been garrisoned at the fort.

%Gallery-101095%The Angles added their own elements. A seventh century sundial sits high on the wall, decorated with a serpent and a monster’s head. The serpent symbolized the Teutonic creator god of the pagan Angles, and the serpent may be a symbol of the god of chaos and creativity. It’s interesting that the newly converted Angles kept a lot of their pagan symbolism! The sundial has only three marks, to show the times for mass. A more modern sundial with proper hours was added in the seventeenth century.

Inside the church are some early medieval crosses and a baptismal font that once had a locking cover to keep the locals from stealing the holy water to use for spells and folk medicine. Paganism died hard in this part of the country!

What’s most remarkable about this church is that it’s still being used. It was abandoned for a time and was in danger of falling into ruin in the nineteenth century, but the local parish decided to save it. Services are held here regularly, and during my visit I got to speak to the organist, who told me that priests vie with one another to be assigned to such an historic house of worship. The congregation uses a special old Gaelic prayer rooted in the Celtic tradition that fits nicely with the atmosphere of the place:

As the rain hides the stars,
As the Autumn mist hides the hills,
As the clouds veil the blue of the sky,
So the dark happenings of my lot
Hide the shining of thy face from me.
Yet, if I may hold thy hand in darkness,
It is enough,
Since I know, that though I may stumble in my going
Thou dost not fall.

1,000 year-old turd goes on display

The Gloucester City Museum & Art Gallery has a truly crappy new exhibition.

A 1,000 year-old piece of feces has people lining up to visit the English museum. It was originally found in 1991 and dates to Anglo-Saxon times. When it was recently put on display, curators were surprised at its popularity and now plan to make it part of its permanent display.

The turd has mineralized and has no smell. Mineralized crap, scientifically known as coprolites, are actually not that rare. Dinosaur coprolites are found quite frequently, like the one pictured here from Canada. For a time in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, coprolites were even mined for their high phosphate content. Human coprolites are less common and are important for what they can reveal about ancient diet and parasites.

The Gloucester City Museum & Art Gallery is currently celebrating its 150th anniversary. It traces local history from the age of the dinosaurs up to the present day. Artifacts include a beautifully preserved Celtic mirror, a Roman city wall, and a medieval backgammon game that is the world’s oldest complete set.

Photo courtesy United States Geological Survey.

Gold treasure revealed

Back in September we reported on an amazing find of Anglo-Saxon gold that had been discovered in England. Now some of the treasure is on display at a free exhibit at the British Museum.

The Staffordshire Hoard dates to the 7th or 8th centuries AD, a time when England was a patchwork of small Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The Anglo-Saxons were great warriors and storytellers and made some of the most beautiful metalwork and jewelry of the early Middle Ages.

The hoard was found by a man using a metal detector and includes more than 1,500 items such as bracelets, three gold crosses, sword fittings, and other pieces of jewelry. The hoard is valued at £3.285 million ($5.35 million).

Archaeologists noticed that all of the objects would have been used by men, and think this hoard may be booty taken during one of the period’s innumerable wars. There are a large number of sword fittings that had been torn off the weapons. These swords would then be untraceable, a bit like rubbing off the serial number on a gun. Perhaps the swords of defeated enemies had been stripped of their gold and the weapons redistributed among the victors.

You can learn more about the hoard at this website, complete with some dazzling photos.

Museum Junkie: Anglo-Saxon treasure goes on display

Prize pieces from a huge horde of Anglo-Saxon gold are on display at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

The horde, found in Staffordshire by a metal detector enthusiast, is believed to be the largest such find ever in the UK, rivaling even the famous horde of the Sutton Hoo burial ship, pictured here. The Staffordshire Horde contains 1,500 pieces of gold and silver and appears to be the treasure of a leading warrior or chief. The collection includes large amounts of male jewelry and decorated armor and experts believe it dates to the 7th century A.D., a time when England was a patchwork of warring kingdoms.

The exhibit is on until October 13, but if you can’t make it check out these amazing pictures on the horde’s official website. Many of the pieces are still undergoing conservation and study, but once that’s all done, you can expect a worldwide tour in a year or so. Watch this space.