In search of bastles in Northumbria

In search of bastles in Northumbria

This week I joined the CDP’s Historic Environment residential field school in Bellingham, Northumbria, to understand how a particular monument type: medieval bastles (pronounced like castle, with a “b”), or fortified farmhouses, are currently being investigated by Historic England’s Assessment Team.

Bastles emerged during a period of instability in the Border region between England and Scotland in the 16th century, when warring families and clans, known as the Border Reivers, raided surrounding farms and holdings, stealing livestock, goods and kidnapping people for ransom. Massively fortified (with walls of over 1m thick), bastles were used to hastily keep livestock on the ground floor, when an incoming attack was known. The residents would then barricade the ground floor door before climbing up a ladder to the safety of the difficult to reach upper floor, which was used as the occupiers’ living space.

We visited bastles in a variety of different conditions. Some were modified when defence became less of a priority, following the Union of the Crowns, and stairs added to make access to the living quarters easier, like at Black Middens.

More information on Black Middens bastle, which we visited, can be found on English Heritage’s website:

Others lie in ruin in varying levels of preservation and consolidation, whilst others have been adapted into storage buildings, reconstructed, and even turned into B&Bs and modern accommodation. All of these pose interesting challenges to the management, presentation and conservation of these historic sites, and it will be interesting to see how such issues are discussed when Historic England publishes the results of its new study into these intriguing monuments.

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Whilst they’re of a different period to the focus of my research, its interesting that both bastles and brochs have similarities in being fortified homes, built of stone and with very similar door designs. The haar-hung wooden doors of bastles are very similar to descriptions of those found in the entrance ways of brochs, and both feature sockets hollowed out of the stone sides of the walls to insert draw bars, to keep invaders out, so it was great to see a reconstructed version of an original bastle door! More investigation is definitely needed…

Round up on IARSS 2017

Round up on IARSS 2017

Last week was the 20th Iron Age Research Student Symposium, held here in the University of Bradford (see above for the brilliant birthday cake that was made for the event!). I presented a poster that outlines the background to my PhD project, and looking forward to surveying the sites so there’ll be many exciting visualisations to create and display on my next one! VR presentation perhaps?

First poster presentation of the PhD!

We had two full days of very interesting papers, and its so good to see there’s much exciting Iron Age research happening around the world from Masters and PhD researchers! Plus a fun pub quiz (I would be biased since I helped write the questions…) and an excellent curry dinner on Friday.

Delegates at this year’s IARSS

On Saturday I joined the traditional conference fieldtrip. This year to Hull for a guided tour of Hull and East Riding Museum by Dr Peter Halkon, who was directly involved with many of the projects from which many fascinating finds emerged, which are on display there. Many thanks to Peter and the organisers for such a great trip (and sunshine!). I always enjoy IARSS as it has such a welcoming and encouraging atmosphere for early-career researchers. I’m already looking forward to the next one, when I should have some exciting 3D data to present!

A fantastically preserved Iron Age sword, at the Hull and East Riding Museum
Chalk figurine of an Iron Age warrior (a sword scabbard is on his back! – but not seen from the front)

Reading, research and Bradford

Reading, research and Bradford

I haven’t posted recently as I’ve been delving into the existing archaeological literature on the three brochs I’m researching… Their histories are greatly varied, as are the ways in which brochs have been understood and interpreted over the years, so it’s fascinating reading! I’m glad the library has such an extensive collection in this area as I go through my data trawls and research to understand brochs better.

It’s interesting working in a new city. The university definitely has an inner city feel, in contrast to Durham where I previously studied, with close rail links (two stations!) which are a short stroll away. This is very useful considering I’ve attended several Collaborative Doctoral Partnership workshops, funded by AHRC, in London over the last couple of months. My office, in the Richmond Building, has amazing views of the city. Also, there is a tradition known as Cake Monday in the School of Archaeological Sciences, where staff/PGRs have baked goods in the morning and chat. Such a good idea!

Panoramic views of Bradford from my desk

I went to the Science and Media Museum (previously known as the National Media Museum) this weekend and was very impressed with its exhibits on the history of photography and film (looking at old stereographs has become a particularly quirky hobby for me – it’s Victorian VR!). There’s much more to this region that I need to explore while I’m based here!

CIfA 2017 Newcastle 21st April

CIfA 2017 Newcastle 21st April

I was kindly invited to present at a CPD session on introducing Structure-from-Motion photogrammetry to beginners at this years CIfA Conference, by the Graphic Archaeology Group. It was a great opportunity to network, catch up with colleagues and hear about exciting new research using the technique, plus all of the advice and tips for using SFM were valuable not just to beginners but to anyone who’s using the method for recording archaeology and heritage! I shared my learning experiences from my time with Historic England, in addition to covering some of the interesting findings we made in my research reports (click here for link) and also gave a brief sneak preview of my PhD plan.

The session on managing World Heritage was also particularly insightful, as the three wonderful brochs I’m researching are all on the UK’s tentative WHS list!

CIfA 2017 1
Sharing research on recording Saxon crosses. Photo: Paul Bryan

Into the deep… underground explorations at Cresswell Crags and Grime’s Graves

Into the deep…  underground explorations at Cresswell Crags and Grime’s Graves

Over Easter I had the chance to go on some excursions away from PhD work, which were fascinating nonetheless…

Cresswell Crags

I went to see the oldest cave art in Britain at Cresswell Crags, with a guided tour around Church Hole cave, where a series of different carvings, ranging from hunted animal species to more enigmatic geometric shapes, were carved around 13,000 BP. They were only discovered in 2003.

Cresswell ibis
To the left, a naturally-created curve on the cave ceiling has been modified by carving to look like a long-necked bird, possibly an ibis. If you look at the photo upside down, you can clearly make out its long curved beak, eye and neck.
Cresswell horse
“The Ochre Horse” is an anatomically correct carving, and was found in Robin Hood’s Cave. The meaning of the horizontal lines etched to the left of the horse is unknown.

The museum also displays some fantastically preserved portable art – tiny, detailed carvings of a horse on a piece of bone, coloured with ochre (above), and strange bird-like shapes. There’s also many Ice Age artefacts and ecofacts (see top image for me meeting a hyena skull!)

The limestone gorge setting of the caves is very picturesque too!

Grime’s Graves

Seeing Grime’s Graves from afar is a very peculiar experience. Walking up the path to the site, ahead you see a large grassy field is pock-marked by deep circular craters all over! Walking between the edges of them, it’s certainly not your everyday landscape – I’ve never seen anything like it before. These are the remains of infilled prehistoric mine shafts. During the Neolithic period, this area was a source of high-quality flint – important as a material for different tools. Using antler picks and bone shovels, amazingly people dug more than 30 feet underground to retrieve the flint, and it’s possible to see their narrow mine shafts.

Grimes mine2
Neolithic flint mining at Grime’s Graves. Note the support column for the ceiling!


Grimes mine1
Duck for cover – it’s very cramped in the mine shafts!

Much more information about the site is available at

Start of the PhD and first presentation given already!

I started my PhD at the University of Bradford this month. Being new to the area, things have been exciting and hectic as I’m getting to finding my way around (getting lost while doing so)…

PhD title slide

Me and my team of excellent supervisors had our first meeting last Wednesday, and have already pencilled in some dates for the first round of surveys up in Shetland this summer! The plan is to laser scan Mousa broch first – with it being the most tricky to reach and with a limited window of seasonal ferries that can take us over there.

title slide

Further to this, today I gave my first presentation of the PhD, in the department’s PGR Seminar series, though this was mostly about my work with Historic England and CIfA, as I’ll be presenting about my photogrammetry work at CIfA’s Annual Conference, being held at the University of Newcastle next month.

Bring on 2017!

Bring on 2017!

Happy New Year! December has been pretty hectic, with TAG Southampton and all of the usual festivities. My favourite present has to be my Lego Iron Age broch, as shown above in seasonal style… though I’m very interested in looking into how VR is being used to present archaeology this year, since I had an excellent demo of viewing 3D models by the Marine Archaeology Trust with the HTC Vive headset and controller.

I’m very excited about starting my PhD. Roll on February!