Newhouse Dig Diary – Day Five

In his final dig diary Dr Ryan Prescott updates us on the final day of the Newhouse excavation.

Day Five represented the final day of our excavations at Newhouse, and there was much still left to do before we wrapped up our work for the week.

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We had found it quite difficult since Monday to find the cut of the ditches from the natural, despite the clarity of their profile from outside of the trenches. While we had the JCB back on site, we thought it would be worthwhile to cut a little deeper into the ditch cuts on both Trench 1 and Trench 2 to determine more about them and their relationship to each other. Certainly, in Trench 1, we seem to have been able to find the extent of the cut and were able to record its measurements and draw sketches which will help us better interpret the nature of the earthworks as a whole. From this, it would appear that the mound was predominantly natural but had been reworked with an accompanying ditch cut around its perimeter.

Again, with the aid of our JCB, we set to work backfilling the two trenches and making sure that the site was returned as much to the state it had been in prior to our arrival. After the welfare unit had been collected, we packed up the car with our equipment, and ensured that the finds would be safely transported back to the office ready for the next phase of our project. We also had a visit from the farmer who was able to point out some other features on the broader site that he had been aware, including a much smaller mound to the north in the adjacent field which had existed until it had been ploughed out some years before.

Now that the fieldwork has been completed, we hope to bring you more information in the coming weeks about what we have found. We are hoping that the picture will become clearer in the post-excavation phase, but Newhouse has undoubtedly proven to be a site even more intriguing than we had first thought it to have been.

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Figure 1: Digging deeper into the ditch cut in Trench 1
Figure 2: The ditch profile in Trench 1
Figure 3: Trench 1 and Trench 2 were both backfilled before the end of the day

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Newhouse Dig Diary – Day Four

Dr Ryan Prescott updates us on what happened on day four of their dig

Today we have resumed our efforts in Trench 1.

The two features that garnered our attention in day three required more investigation, so we set to work to try and find the underlying cause of what was going on. We had managed to recover the pot from Trench 1 yesterday, and it remains safely packed for analysis but today we focused on the feature in the centre of the trench where the piece of leather had been found. At first, it seemed that the find had been sitting on a bed of charcoal. However, upon closer inspection (and much more digging!) it revealed to be a deposit of textile material which has remarkably survived and will provide a fantastic source of dating evidence, together with the pot. Small fragments of medieval pottery were also identified in both Trench 1 and Trench 2, as well as further pieces of flint and small animal bone.

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Figure 1: Textile remains recovered from Trench 1

Before the end of the day, we also had a visit from the Lincolnshire Historic Environment Record, as well as Peter Connelly from Humber Field Archaeology and showed our visitors what we had found so far. We have all been sharing our interpretations on what we believe may have happened at Newhouse and we have all agreed that the site is far more complex than anticipated. Previous research on the site had only acknowledged its medieval history, chiefly the construction of the abbey on the site of an ‘Anarchy’ period castle. However, it does seem that the mound may have had a much longer pedigree of human occupation which would have been an attractive prospect for Peter of Goxhill who was only too aware of the castles and monasteries which were being founded by nearby lords at Barrow and Barton upon Humber, and was keen to emulate their efforts. We are hoping that the picture will become clearer in the post-excavation phase, but Newhouse certainly has an important story to tell.

We have one more day to wrap up our work at Newhouse for this year, but we have much more work to do before we leave site, so it is shaping up to be a busy day.

Figure 2: Pottery from trench one

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Newhouse Dig Diary – Days Two and Three

Dr Ryan Prescott gives an update on what happened on days two and three.

Day Two

Day two of our investigations at Newhouse has seen us focus our efforts on Trench 2.

We spent the morning cleaning the trench and it became apparent that we were looking at two possible post holes nearer the eastern ditch of the earthwork. These were cleaned and carefully dug into before recording was then completed.

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On our first day we had unearthed a masonry slab and today we excavated around it to see if there were any other adjoining slabs. Unfortunately, it proved to have been an isolated example. It has been worked with a distinct curve, suggesting it may have been part of a doorway, likely part of the later abbey structures. Though it does not seem to have been in its original context. Nonetheless, it is a nice example which will help us date the activity on the site and build up a chronology. This is especially important as nothing from the abbey remains on the surface of the entirety of the field where we are based. This was one of the key aims of the project.

Figure 1: Two possible post holes in Trench 2
Figure 2: A masonry slab

Day Three

We are grateful to be finally benefiting from some much-needed sun. In good spirits, we returned on our third day to Trench 1 and were keen to see what the day would bring.

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Trench 1 was cleaned up and like in Trench 2, leaving it exposed over the past couple of days had really helped bring some features to light. After clearing a modern rubbish dump of bricks in the southern corner of the trench within the topsoil, we began working on a couple of areas of interest. Day one had revealed some pottery shards, and it became clear that there was more beneath the surface. After trowelling where the shards had been uncovered on Monday, we found the remains of a larger pot. Excitingly, the pot seems to be largely intact but appears to be older than the known history of the site. We also explored a potential feature in the centre of the trench where the soil appeared darker. After much digging, we discovered what appears to have been a small piece of leather, an incredible find. We recorded these two finds and importantly, safely transported them back to the site entrance before they are taken to Humberfield Archaeology for further analysis when the fieldwork has been completed.

Stay tuned to see us progress our work in Trench 1 on day 4 of our excavations at Newhouse.

Figure 3: The remains of a pot
Figure 4: A small piece of leather recovered from Trench 1

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Newhouse Dig Diary – Day One

Ryan Prescott gives an update on what happened on the first day of digging at Newhouse

The first day of our excavations at Newhouse has provided some promising results already. This week we are excavating two trenches across the earthwork identified last year from geophysical survey (please look at our aims for this year on the CST Blog).

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Trench 1 was swiftly opened with the aid of our JCB. It was hoped that this trench would help corroborate twelfth-century sources that a castle had existed prior to Newsham Abbey, founded here during ‘the Anarchy’. This trench was excavated diagonally from the west to the south-east of the earthwork in order to cut across two of its sides. However, we decided to extend our work in this trench with a perpendicular channel to the southern boundary. At a length of over 40m and 2m wide, the trench has yielded large quantities of flint, some of which appears to have been worked. We have also recovered evidence of burning and pottery finds which we will investigate further as the week progresses.

Figure 1: Trench 1 looking south.

To provide more comprehensive insight into the nature of this three-sided earthwork, Trench 2 was dug across the eastern side of the raised platform and extends from its middle into the ditch on this side at a length of around 25m, slightly longer than initially planned. At first, this trench appeared to show little of interest. Undeterred, we decided to dig deeper into the ditch, and much like in Trench 1, it is clear from this that the earthwork would have been higher than the remains which are left behind. We plan to dig deeper into this later in the week. We cleaned the rest of this trench and discovered a masonry slab, hoping to have a better view of any potential finds and features on our second day when we return to focus on this trench.

Figure 2: Trench 2 looking west with a view of the masonry slab found there.
Figure 3: The ditch being opened up in Trench 2 looking east

We are excited to see what the second day of the excavations reveals and will be posting updates as soon as we can.

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Newhouse Castle: excavation aims and objectives

Dr Ryan Prescott, project lead looks at what they hope to find at the excavations at Newhouse.

The reign of King Stephen, 1135 – 1154, commonly referred to as ‘the Anarchy,’ was marked by purported political turmoil and discord. Against this backdrop for the struggle for the throne, medieval chroniclers wrote of a surge in castle-building, seemingly in defiance of royal authority. While recent scholarship has since begun to reassess many aspects of Stephen’s reign, the archaeological dimension of these castles remains largely unexplored.

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With the support of the Castle Studies Group Small Projects Fund, a geophysical survey was carried out in the Spring of 2023 to investigate Newhouse Castle, known to have been built in North Lincolnshire amidst the conflict between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda. However, soon after its initial construction, contemporary sources indicate that the site of Peter of Goxhill’s castle was repurposed to establish a monastery, becoming England’s first Premonstratensian House, continuing to prosper until finally suppressed in 1536.

Figure 1: The results of geophysical survey conducted at Newhouse in 2023, funded by the Castle Studies Group.

On face value, the transient nature of the castle at Newhouse is typical of what we have come to recognise for ‘the Anarchy’ period, leaving much unknown about its characteristics, completion, or intended purpose. Through planned excavations made possible by a grant from the Castle Studies Trust, Dr Ryan Prescott and Humberfield Archaeology seek to achieve several key objectives in the summer of 2024:

  • Unearthing the Past: This phase of the project involves excavating the earthwork identified through geophysical survey. By examining the physical remnants of Newhouse, we hope to be able to provide evidence for its construction, size, and layout. This is a crucial step when profiling the site and attempting to determine the reasons why it was first built.
  • Dating Evidence: While historical documents offer some insights into Newhouse’s timeline, the lack of firm dating evidence leaves much to speculation. With two trial trenches planned across the monument, we aim to establish a more accurate chronology of the site, bridging the gap between written records and the physical evidence. This remains a key issue with all sites contemporary to ‘the Anarchy’ and where possible, we hope to be able to address this through the archaeological remains.
  • From Castle to Abbey: One of the most intriguing aspects of Newhouse is its rapid transition from a castle to an abbey. Through an examination of the archaeological evidence and various buried deposits present at the site, we hope to learn more about the structural changes which accompanied this transformation. Understanding how and why Newhouse evolved into Newsham Abbey is essential when interpreting the socio-political landscape of North Lincolnshire.
  • Contextual Analysis: Newhouse does not exist in isolation; it is part of a broader network of castles and religious foundations in North Lincolnshire and the Humber. By comparing Newhouse with nearby sites including the castles at Barrow upon Humber and Barton upon Humber, we aim to gain insights into the regional dynamics of lordly power during ‘the Anarchy’. How did these sites interact, compete, or cooperate in the midst of political instability? These are just some of the questions we hope to answer.
Figure 2: View of the earthwork at Newhouse looking south.

As we now enter the excavation phase at Newhouse, we will continue share our progress through blog posts, video updates, and our excavation findings when the work has been completed. We hope that our research at Newhouse will contribute to a deeper understanding of ‘the Anarchy’, and provide a much-needed local perspective into how lesser magnates, like Peter of Goxhill, expressed their wealth, power, and status through castle-building and religious patronage.

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Lowther Medieval Castle Week Four Dig Diary: Into the Labs

In Week Fourth and final week of the Lowther Medieval Castle and Village Project 2024, the team moved into the UCLan labs. This crucial phase allows us to draw together the evidence we’ve collected last year and this, from the recording of trenches to the analysis of soil samples.

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A major part of this process is the transfer of trench plans onto a Geographic Information System (GIS). During excavations, the dig team thoroughly recorded the contents of trenches in situ. This included the painstaking task of drawing the cobbled surfaces found inside the ringwork castle at 1:20 scale. Now, these hand drawings are transferred to the GIS and the outline of every cobblestone is traced digitally so that the archaeological contexts within the trenches be plotted with pinpoint accuracy.

Figure 1 Both last year and this, student archaeologists painstakingly recorded by hand the contents of all trenches
Figure 2 With hand drawings of trenches transferred to the project GIS, each component of the drawing needs to be traced digitally

Meanwhile, the team is also plotting onto the GIS hundreds of data points from around the ringwork castle taken using a Global Positioning System (GPS). This allows us to create a three-dimensional digital model of the ringwork castle, in order to investigate its form and plot the positioning and contents of trenches from this year and last, building up our picture of the castle, its features and finds.

Figure 3 Taking hundreds of data points via the GPS enables the team to construct a 3D digital model of the ringwork castle
Figure 4 Trenches from both phases of excavation can be plotted onto the 3D model of the ringwork castle using the GIS

While one cohort of student archaeologists has been busy in the computer labs, another has been hard at work processing soil samples. Throughout the excavation, the team has been collecting bulk soil samples of 40 litres from all trenches. These samples have now been processed using water flotation, in order to recover charred plant remains, as well as small bones and artefacts. This has so far yielded environmental evidence such as tiny snail shells, which can be analysed to reconstruct the surrounding environment at the time the ringwork castle was built.

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Figure 5 Dozens of soil samples have been processed using water flotation
Figure 6 Soil sample processing yields environmental evidence, such as tiny snail shells

Now that Phase Two investigations are drawing to a close, the team has also been able to take stock of the small finds garnered this year. As discussed in our last Dig Diary, this year’s finds have included cockle shells and gritty ware pottery, both of which will help us to date the castle and trace activity at Lowther in the Middle Ages. This builds on intriguing earlier finds this year of animal bones, including an articulated fetlock (discussed in our first Dig Diary this year). We can now add to this a bone bead, small but delicately carved, which looks to be dateable to the Middle Ages.

Figure 7 A small carved bone bead found during this year’s excavation

Work on analysing these finds – and the broader phase of analysis – is ongoing, and will be compiled into the project’s second interim report in due course.

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Lowther Medieval Castle Dig Diary: Week Three

After a bit of a hiatus, co-project lead, Dr Sophie Ambler, gives an update of how the excavations at Lowther Castle went with some possible dating evidence.

Weeks two and three of the Lowther Medieval Castle project brought significant progress, both in excavating a significant portion of the ringwork castle interior and ‘watchtower mound’, and in producing some long-hoped-for finds.

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Trench Seven explored the so-called ‘watchtower mound’, the protrusion of the bank at the ringwork’s south-eastern corner, overlooking the attached settlement to the east, which may have afforded the castle’s occupants an elevated view over the settlement. The trench revealed a compacted stony surface that likely represents a foundation levelling layer. No evidence has been found of a structure having stood on this mound, although it may be that postholes or other evidence of a timber palisade may have been lost over the years to slippage. Soil samples were taken from across the trench and will be tested this week for environmental evidence. Meanwhile, as noted in the last dig diary, the trench had already yielded an equine fetlock joint, which can hopefully be radiocarbon dated.

The final stage of excavation in Trench Seven also revealed further intriguing evidence of activity: two cockleshells, again from a secure context. Cockles are abundant in the bays and estuaries of Cumbria’s coast. Although Lowther is thirty to forty miles from the coast, the presence of cockles is not as unlikely as it may first seem. Excavations at other inland castle sites have shown evidence of bivalve consumption. For instance, a significant assemblage of bivalve shells from across the medieval period has been found at Dudley Castle in Worcestershire, comprising mostly oysters but also cockles, mussels and whelks. Oysters formed the focus of a recent analysis, which revealed that these made up perhaps more than ten per cent of dietary intake at Dudley in the final quarter of the eleventh century (a much higher percentage in the fourteenth century). The challenge of transporting such produce quickly to inland sites made it something of a luxury foodstuff, but one that was clearly popular for castle-holding elites. (Thomas et al, 2018).

Meanwhile, Trench Six, which covers a significant portion of the ringwork castle interior, has yielded several pottery sherds. These were also found in a secure context, here the ringwork’s bank, by the entranceway. The study of medieval pottery in the North West is challenging due to the relative lack of securely datable evidence. This is especially true in Cumbria, which is generally finds-poor for the Middle Ages and where pottery from rural settlements (as opposed to Carlisle) has been less studied. Still, comparators can be found in the pottery assemblage at Cumwhinton, a rural medieval settlement about twenty miles north of Lowther that may have been home to pottery production. Lowther’s sherds appear to be ‘gritty ware’, a utilitarian fabric, most examples of which are from jars and jugs (and occasionally small dishes). This was the dominant fabric used across the north of England in the twelfth century and the earliest form of post-Conquest pottery in Cumbria. (Railton et al, 2014).

Although not definitive dating evidence yet, these finds are contributing significantly to our evidence base, which will help us to date our site and build its biography. We also hope that analysis now being undertaken in UCLan’s archaeology labs will continue to contribute to this evidence base. This includes analysis of soil samples, which may yield environmental evidence, and of finds, including animal bone and the pottery sherds. Watch this space for an ongoing report!

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Thomas et al, 2018: Richard Thomas, Matt Law, Emma Browning, Alistair Hill and Rachel Small, ‘The Changing Exploitation of Oysters (Ostrea edulis L. 1758) in Late Medieval and Early Modern England: A Case Study from Dudley Castle, West Midlands’, Environmental Archaeology 25 (2020), 82-95

Railton et al, 2014: Martin Railton, Jeremy Bradley, Ian Millar, Meagan Stoakley, David Jackson, Don O’Meara and Alan Hall, ‘Peter Gate, Cumwhinton: Archaeological Investigation of a Medieval Rural Site’, Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society 14 (2014) 63-102.