That’s the problem with the bones archaeologists excavate: they are dry as the grave. Silent. Dead. And even with all the panoply of modern scientific techniques that archaeologists can bring to bear on excavated skeletons nowadays, the bones stay mute.

Except for this one. A man that archaeologist Paul Gething excavated at the turning of the millennium from the burial ground outside Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland. Bones dug up on Thursday – Thor’s day – as clouds lowered and thunder spoke but no rain fell. This man, this son of Thunder, had a story to tell: a life that could be reconstructed, at least in part. As the results came in, we slowly began to realise that we could do something extraordinary: write the biography of a man with no name, and set this man, this warrior, in the context of the times and kingdoms in which he lived and died.

These are some of the objects that Paul and the team at the Bamburgh Research Project found that enabled us to tell the story of the Warrior, and his life and times during the early seventh century as the Kingdom of Northumbria, with its capital at Bamburgh, rose to become the greatest power in the land.


The Bamburgh Sword

It doesn’t look like much. A rusty bit of broken-off iron. But what you are looking at was, quite possibly, the finest sword ever made. Sword makers are faced with two contradictory demands. The weapon must be flexible, so that it doesn’t break, but it must also be hard, so that it can take, and hold, a cutting edge. To do this, sword smiths learned how to pattern weld, folding and forge welding separate billets of iron together to create a blade that could take the stress of battle and still cut through armour, bone and muscle. The sword excavated at Sutton Hoo, a kingly blade if ever there was one, was made of four billets of iron pattern welded together. The Bamburgh sword was made of six. It is a unique weapon – and one that was almost consigned to a skip. Excavated by Bamburgh’s first excavator, Brian Hope-Taylor, in the early 1970s, it lay unrecognised among his effects until his death. The sword – along with the trove of archaeological artefacts Hope-Taylor had in his house and garage – were saved at the last minute, just as house clearers were moving in. It was Paul who saw that the blade might be something special – but no one could have guessed what an extraordinary weapon it was.


Bamburgh Gold


The Warrior himself was a healthy, well-built man. What’s more, at a time (early-seventh century) when most skeletons show evidence of periods of dearth during their life, he was a man who had never gone hungry. As such, he was a member of the wealthy, warrior elite. And they were extremely wealthy. The Sutton Hoo finds gave some indication of the wealth an early medieval Anglo-Saxon court enjoyed and, at Bamburgh, the capital of the even richer and more powerful kingdom of Northumbria, the Bamburgh Research Project has excavated many small pieces of gold that were, simply, lost, and remained lost until archaeologists came along centuries later. The piece of gold above is an example. Probably once part of a book binding, it also illustrates how the newly-literate kingdom venerated books: they were objects of visual awe as well as repositories of learning.


Bamburgh Styca

What is money worth? The styca, a coin excavated at the castle, was made of copper with a tiny admixture of silver. It was, strictly speaking, worth nothing. But because it was stamped with the head of the king of Northumbria it became a token of their power and their warrant: it became money. As such, the Northumbrian styca, backed up by the power of the kingdom that issued it, became the first currency to be minted and circulated in Britain for centuries.


Bamburgh Die

This die was excavated near the old gatehouse to the castle, through which visitors would have entered in the seventh century. It’s a die like our dice today, with side values from one through to six. But this die is slightly different from ordinary dice. Throw it, and it will come up five. Every time. Someone has carefully drilled into it and weighted the die, fixing it so that he knows what it will roll. Given where it was found, it’s tempting to think of a gatehouse guard running a game scamming unsuspecting visitors to the castle. So, while the lives of the Warrior and his friends, companions and enemies would have been in many ways completely different to our own, there were ways in which they were all too similar.


Bamburgh Glass

Glassmaking was a technology lost to Britain after the end of the Roman Empire. It remained lost for three hundred years until a peripatetic Northumbrian religious, Benedict Biscop, brought back from Europe a glassmaker – along with a haul of books, relics and paintings – to beautify the new monastery he established at the mouth of the River Wear. But outside of houses of religion, this small piece of glass, found in the West Ward of Bamburgh Castle, is the first glass found in a secular context in Britain after the end of Empire. The kings of Northumbria were rich enough, and well connected enough, to source glass for the windows of their great hall at the family stronghold in Bamburgh. Indeed, trading connections were far more extensive than one would imagine for the time: garnets from Sri Lanka, lentils from southern France, gold from the Caliphate. Bamburgh stood at the end of trading and diplomatic networks that spanned most of the known world.


Edoardo Albert and Paul Gething’s Warrior: A Life of War in Anglo-Saxon Britain, is available now from Granta Books.

Cover image © Matthew Hartley

In-text images © Paul Gething/Bamburgh Research Project


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