Behind the Scenes

A story 1,400 years in the making


The Bamburgh Bowl Hole was excavated by the Durham University Department of Archaeology and Bamburgh Research Project (BRP) from 1999 to 2007. The skeletons found there were removed and, over a period of almost twenty years, closely analysed and researched. That journey posed many questions for the team.

Ethics and human remains in archaeology

As living people we are all individuals and will have varying opinions about how archaeological human remains should be treated.

Some feel that excavated human remains should all be stored for future research following initial analysis. On the other hand, others feel that once analyzed, the remains should be reburied. In between those extremes, there are those who believe a balance has to be struck between paying due respect to those we study while giving these once-living people a voice through analyzing them, but also accepting that there are times and places when human remains should be reburied or restricted from certain analyses.

We must also be mindful that because we cannot gain permission from the dead to excavate, analyze, curate and display them, we must treat them with all the dignity and respect we can apply. They are not the same as other things we excavate like pottery or animal bones – they are the remains of once-living people like you. The Bowl Hole skeletons were fully analyzed during a research project between 2006 and 2010, from recording their sex and age at death and estimating height (stature) to looking at their health and well being and their origins and diet using stable isotope analysis. Following this project, it was therefore appropriate that the skeletons were laid to rest in the crypt of St. Aidan’s Church at Bamburgh, close to where they were found.

Studying the skeletons

Bioarchaeologists have to have an excellent knowledge of the anatomy of the skeleton and be able to work out human from non-human bone.

After we have laid out the skeleton in anatomical position, we first estimate its biological sex, not forgetting that gender is different to sex and is a term used to reflect social identity (a person's sense of who they are based on their group membership). People who are not adult when they died cannot be sexed with any certainty, unless ancient DNA analysis is used. The pelvic bones are mainly used for adult sex estimation (their shape reflects a woman’s ability to have children). There were men, women and newborn babies, children and adolescents found at the Bowl Hole.

Age at death for people who were not adults when they died is estimated using the development and eruption of the teeth, and growth and fusion of the bones. It can be quite accurate. However, the many methods used for ageing adult skeletons are not very accurate – for example, we look at evidence of degeneration of joint surfaces like the joint at the front of the pelvis (pubic symphysis). Therefore broad age ranges or labels like ‘older adult’ are given, remembering that people ‘s skeletons degenerate at different rates according to their lifestyles. The people buried at the Bowl Hole ranged in age from newborn babies to older adults. 

We also estimate height (stature) from measuring the long bones of the legs (femur, tibia and fibula) and arms (humerus, radius and ulna) and use a mathematical equation to estimate height. It’s not a perfect science but it does show who is shorter or taller in a population, and the information can be compared with other archaeological sites. The Bowl Hole skeletons revealed people who were shorter and taller than the average for the period of time.

Health and well being can be explored by looking for evidence of disease and trauma in the skeleton. These are identified by looking for abnormal bone formation and destruction, which are the skeleton’s basic response to disease. By using information from medicine, we know how different diseases affect the skeleton and which bones are affected, remembering that a person’s immune system strength will determine what diseases they get (or do not).

For example, the infections that affect the skeleton do so differently; for example, leprosy affects the bones of the face, hands and feet, and tuberculosis usually affects the spine. Note that only a small number of diseases affect the skeleton in untreated people and then only in a small percentage of those people; the dental and joint diseases are the most commonly found in skeletons, as seen at the Bowl Hole. Diseases only affecting the body tissues beyond the bones can only be detected using methods such as ancient DNA analysis, and therefore we can miss much evidence. We can rarely detect what killed a person either, only what they experienced during life, as we see in the descriptions of each skeleton from the Bowl Hole.

Stable isotope analysis: diet and migration

How can we tell what a person ate or whether they moved around the landscape during life?

Diet: The teeth of the Bowl Hole skeletons record aspects of their diet through the dental disease we observed (cavities mean sugar!), but through carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analysis we learnt what kind of foods these people had access to (e.g. marine/freshwater protein versus land-based protein/plant-based foods). This method analyses a sample of bone/ tooth from the skeleton. Surprisingly, there was not much evidence of eating marine resources. Using this type of analysis, we can also look for evidence of breastfeeding and weaning in the past.

Migration: Samples of teeth from the Bowl Hole skeletons were also analysed to explore values for strontium and oxygen isotopes. Strontium reflects the type of diet we eat, reflecting the values of the underlying geology and soil above it on which food grows. Plants take up strontium from the soil. When a person eats those plants during the time their teeth are developing (when they are young), the strontium is captured in the tooth structure. At the time the people buried at the Bowl Hole lived, food would have been largely locally sourced, and therefore the strontium values in their teeth should reflect the local geology and soil - that is if the person was not born and raised away from Bamburgh on a different geology and soil (and different strontium values). The same can be said about oxygen isotope analysis, oxygen reflecting values for the water a person drank during their early years and the local climate. Together, using strontium and oxygen isotope analysis gives us an idea of the ‘place of residence’ of a person – were they local to where they were buried or not? The work on the Bowl Hole skeletons indicated that over 50% of those buried had not been born and raised in the Bamburgh area, and some came from as far afield as Scandinavia and possibly North Africa during their lives.

Graeme Young, director of Bamburgh Research Project, talks about the group’s discoveries at Bamburgh Castle.

Academic Insights

Fascinating research spanning around 20 years.

The following lists some publications and a PhD thesis that have resulted from the analysis of the Bowl Hole skeletons; more are in progress:

Groves, S.E. 2010 The Bowl Hole Burial Ground; A Late Anglian cemetery in Northumberland. In J. Buckberry and A. Cherryson (eds): Burial in Later Anglo-Saxon England, c.650 to 1100AD. 114 - 125. Oxbow Books.

Groves, S.E. 2011 Social and Biological Status in the Bowl Hole Early Medieval burial ground, Bamburgh, Northumberland. In D Petts, S Turner (eds): Early Medieval Northumbria. Brepols.

Groves SE, Roberts CA, Lucy S, Pearson G, Nowell G, Macpherson CG, Gröcke D, Young G 2013 Mobility histories of 7th-9th century AD people buried at Early Medieval Bamburgh, Northumberland, England. American J Physical Anthropology 151(3): 462-476.

Groves SE 2006 Spears or ploughshares: multiple indicators of activity related stress and social status in four early Medieval populations from North-East England.

Roberts CA 2018 Human remains in archaeology. A handbook. York, Council for British Archaeology

Please also see: Bamburgh Bowl-Hole Anglian Cemetery: a contextual study. A research project of the Durham University Department of Archaeology.