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 became the subject of 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 the present phase of research has demonstrated them to be a littler 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, the 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 and perhaps also the consumption of mead. 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. 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, it’s 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 so the current plans to see them placed in the crypt of St Aidan’s Church, Bamburgh, in a modern ossuary 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.
A short exploration of the demographic of the Bowl Hole cemetery through seven skeletons:
• An older Bamburgh woman, aged 65+
• An older man, aged 60+, originally from Scandinavia
• A young Irish woman, aged about 25, whose skeletal remains show she was almost certainly a weaver or needle-worker including a wear to the right central incisor from the repeated clasping of an instrument like a needle between her teeth
• A child of about 9 with both baby and adult teeth present in the skull, the isotopes show the baby teeth (neonatal stage) formed in the southern Mediterranean and then adult teeth formed (early childhood) in France
• A young man of about 17-20 years with evidence of a sword strike down his left hand side which cut through his left clavicle, scapula, ribs, pelvis and knee
• A man aged about 25 from the Mediterranean who suffered from gout
• A Hebridean man of about 45 who was almost certainly a contemporary of St Oswald
604 Oswald born, son of Aethelfrith Ruler of Bernicia and Acha of Deira
616 Aethelfrith killed in battle, Acha’s brother Edwin became King – Acha goes into exile with her five children in Iona. The conversion of Oswald and his brother to Celtic Christianity at St Columba’s monastery begins.
633 Edwin killed in battle
634 Oswald returns to unite the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira to form Northumbria with the Royal court based at Bamburgh
635 Aidan summoned by Oswald to help convert Northumbria to Christianity, Oswald gave Aidan Lindisfarne to found his monastery
642 Oswald killed in battle
651 Aidan dies – leaning against his timber church at Bamburgh – the beam above the vestry is reputed to be the timber he leant on.
Many thanks to Jessica Turner of the Northumberland Coastal Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty for the information and the invitation to the ceremony.