27th Oct 2012 2:34pm | By Edoardo Albert
Feeling macho? Brave Northumberland’s extreme weather to dig up human bones and old treasure
I’m standing on a mile of pristine, deserted beach. Bamburgh Castle broodily overlooks the shore, hills fringe the horizon and I wonder why on earth a place as ruggedly beautiful as Northumberland is the most sparsely populated county in England.
Then a vicious wind starts to blow. Ten minutes later, I’m sandblasted from the beach. Ah, so that’s why few brave these parts, I think.
With only 63 people per square kilometre, this county is the nearest you’ll get to true wilderness south of Scotland.
A typical day can bring weather that should belong to all four seasons – be prepared for sunshine, Ice Age chills, or sea fog so thick you can’t see the hand in front of your face.
It’s no wonder the Romans decided enough was enough when they reached Northumberland at the turn of the millennium and, by building the defensive Hadrian’s Wall here, turned the county into borderland.
I’m here to find out more about the history of this spectacular place, and there’s no better way to do that than digging it up.
So I’ve signed on to do just that with the Bamburgh Research Project. The BRP is an ongoing archaeological project, open to volunteers, excavating in and around Bamburgh Castle in the hopes of learning more about medieval Northumbria.
The castle squats on a huge great hunk of dolerite, an outcrop of the Great Whin Sill – a particularly scenic natural feature of the North Pennines – 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 of the north, including the High Force waterfall in Durham and the Farne Islands, which lie just a couple of miles out from Bamburgh.
Accessible by boat from quaint fishing village Seahouses, a trip here gives you a glimpse of a clucking, hissing cornucopia of life as the islands are home to puffins, guillemots, more than 20 other species of birds and grey seals.
In the grounds of the castle, Paul Gething, co-founder and co-director of the BRP, sits back on his haunches and explains to the volunteers what we need to look – and listen – for as we excavate.
“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,” he says.
Among the amateur archaeologists are students gaining credits for archaeology degrees, a 70-year-old inspired by Time Team and those spurred on by what Paul dramaticaly calls “the raw power of the past”.
Most of the volunteers spend the week roughing it with the archaeologists at a nearby campsite.
They judder in to the castle each morning in a bumpy Land Rover before spending the day digging with increasingly finely graded implements, sifting excavated materials through flotation tanks, and tagging and bagging the day’s finds: pottery, Northumbrian coins, and even exquisite pieces of gold jewellery.
My own finds are Iess pretty – I end up gingerly wielding a toothbrush to scrape sand from human bones in a rediscovered graveyard.