Caerlaverock: Harbour Fieldwork

Thanks to funding from the Castle Studies Trust, Historic Environment Scotland are working with researchers Dr Richard Tipping and Dr Eileen Tisdall to understand the chronology and geography of extreme weather events in the high medieval period, and the effects they wrought on archaeological features that led to the abandonment of the old castle built in c.1229 in favour of the new built 200m away in c.1277. Here Richard Tipping gives an update on the fieldwork which too place last Saturday (2 October).

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One of the great puzzles of old Caerlaverock is the so-called harbour (Image 1). It is south of the old castle, two metres lower, and just north of where we think the early medieval coastline was, so it’s difficult to think what else it could have been. But it’s never been independently dated, there are rumours that it was Roman, and there are knotty interpretative problems. One is that the floor of the harbour is at an altitude that would make it tricky to get more than rowing boats in and out in the Middle Ages; this is also a problem if the harbour was older. A second is that there is a fourth side at the southern end, which greatly restricts access. As Richard Tipping explains below:

The harbour has three metres of sand above bedrock. We don’t know how old the sand is. One idea is that it’s all very old – 8000-6000 years old. This would mean that the harbour was never deeper than it is now. Another idea is that the sand is of two periods, with an older bed covered by medieval sand: the same stuff that filled the moat of the Old Castle. And a third is that all three metres of sand are medieval in age. This would imply that the builders created a five metre deep harbour, which was then filled with sand as storm surges drove sediment onshore.


Dating of the sand is the answer. To this end, a team of eight (Richard Tipping and Eileen Tisdall from Stirling; Tim Kinnaird, Aayush Srivastava, Richard Bates and Laura Bates from St Andrews, and Morvern French and Steve Farrar from Historic Environment Scotland) assembled under gloomy skies and a more intimidating forecast to sample the sediment.

Here Richard Bates explains what they are going to do:

Richard Bates had a vibro-corer, a machine that went through three metres of sand as if it was butter: astonishingly impressive:

The three cores came out and were immediately wrapped in black plastic bags because sunlight, even that under grey clouds, cannot be allowed to shine on the samples. The reason for this bizarre behaviour is in how the sediment will be dated

Wrapping the sample

Tim and Aayush are specialists in optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) and infra-red stimulated luminescence (IRSL) dating. This is a kind-of accumulation clock. Over time, quartz and feldspar sand grains buried by sediment accumulate energy released from surrounding sediments at a constant rate. This energy is released if sunlight hits the sand, or under controlled laboratory conditions, when light at optical or infra-red wavelengths hits the sand. If the energy released can be measured, which is Tim’s and Aayush’s job, we can establish the age of the sand as Tim explains here:

The Castle Studies Trust grant will fund three OSL dates from the base of the sand, the middle, and towards the top. As soon as we learn the results, you will.

And the rain stayed away.

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All images and videos courtesy and copyright of either HES and/or Morvern French of HES

Caerlaverock and the impact of Medieval storm surges

As Drs Richard Tipping and Eileen Tisdall along with Dr Tim Kinnaird of St Andrews return to Caerlaverock to carry out their final piece of field work this Saturday (2 October), Richard Tipping discusses what has happened so far.

Background

Earlier blogs have described the fieldwork, over the summer, at the Old Castle at Caerlaverock in south west Scotland. We have been testing the idea that several very large storm surges impacted the castle, persuading the occupants to re-build, higher up and further inland. That fieldwork involved recording sediments in the moat (Figure 1) and surrounding ditches, confirming that these sediment traps are full of silt derived, we think, from storm surges pushing sediment from the coast, through the harbour and into the moat. We’re checking the origin of the silt from diatom analyses, which can define water salinity. But we hadn’t found evidence that these storm surges were destructive, impacting archaeological features. Now we think we have.  

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Setting

The ‘park pale’ is the name given to a ditched-&-banked enclosure that extends west from the harbour at the old castle for several hundred metres (Figure 1). It was constructed along a small cliff that marked the medieval coastline, separating mid-Holocene estuarine sediment, called ‘carse’ to its north and a series of very broad, parallel east-west trending ridges and basins constructed by medieval storm surges to its south (Tipping and Adams 2007).

Figure 1. Natural and archaeological features near the ‘park pale’ at Caerlaverock.

In Figure 1, a LiDAR image, Ridges 9 and 10, and Ridges 15 and 18 are seen. Between them, lagoon basins were trapped: Basins 8, 3 and 4 here. Some basins will be radiocarbon dated because peat formed when they were isolated from wave action. 

In detail (Figure 2) the ‘park pale’ is complicated. There is an inner bank to the east, with a crest around a metre higher than the ground to its south. This is lost at a 25m wide gap and cannot be traced further west. Instead, a second, lower outer bank continues north west to the New Castle Burn (Figure 1). The outer bank has, in places, an outer and inner ditch. Another, 4m wide gap may be what Brann (2004) thought was an entrance.

Tr 3 (ii) is the line of a 50m long sediment-stratigraphic transect of 24 hand-sunk boreholes from the ‘carse’ in the north, which the inner bank rests on, south across Basin 3 to the canalised Old Castle Burn. The transect was designed to test the idea that the 25m gap in the ‘pale’ is an erosional feature from storm surge impacts.

Figure 2. Features around the distinctive 25m wide gap in the ‘pale’

Stratigraphy

What Tr (ii) shows is that the low ground of Basin 3 is floored by bedrock less than a metre down. This is covered by well-sorted sand and then by poorly sorted coarse to very coarse sand and grit with common pebbles.This fills Basin 3, thickening shoreward. This is interpreted as a storm surge deposit, deposited in a high-energy marine environment. Boreholes on the inner bank, a metre higher than Basin 3, and 25m inland, also recorded thick gravelly sand, impenetrable at 90cm depth on the inner bank. This thins north but is still found 20m inland from the medieval coastline.

Narrative

There were at least two storm surge ridges formed before the events recorded in Basin 3. Basin 8 (Figure 1) was formed by the second storm surge, as yet undated. This created Ridges 9 and 10. These broad gravel ridges in turn protected the western ‘park pale’ from subsequent marine erosion (Figure 2). What is now the outer bank, with its associated ditches, probably represents the original boundary of the ‘pale’. The ‘pale’ pre-dates the storm surge event described here. It is shown by the sediment stratigraphy to be, broadly, medieval in age and, broadly, contemporary with the old castle.

Eastward, Ridges 9 and 10 merge with the ‘carse’ of the medieval coastline, leaving this part of the coast vulnerable to later storm surges. At this point, the outer bank of the ‘pale’ is lost. In its place are storm surge sediments. The ‘pale’ was eroded by the storm surge. This storm surge pushed at least 90cm of gravelly sand north onto the surface of the ‘carse’. The cliff may have been formed after this storm surge, by later erosional wave action. Gravelly sand was pushed or thrown 20m beyond the cliff. Waves also scoured the easily eroded ‘carse’, lowering the surface by around 0.5m, up to 100m inland.

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References

Tipping, R. and Adams, J. 2007. Structure, composition and significance of medieval storm beach ridges at Caerlaverock, Dumfries & Galloway. Scottish Journal of Geology 43, 115-123.

Old Wick: Removing the Joist

On Wednesday and Thursday 22nd and 23rd of September, a team lead by Rachel Pickering of Historic Environment Scotland and Coralie Mills undertook to remove the remains of wooden joist from the keep at Old Wick Castle. The joist hole was 8 metres above ground level. If successfully removed the joist was then to be taken away for testing and hopefully provide a date for it and the castle. In a slightly different blog than usual here are three short videos looking at how the removal process went.

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Below Rachel Pickering and Coralie Mills on day one explaining what they have found:

In the second video we see Coralie Mills and her colleague Hamish Darrah attempting to remove the joist from its socket

While in the third video Coralie and Hamish give their initial thoughts on the newly extracted joist:

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All videos courtesy of Rachel Pickering of HES.

Testing time at Castle of Old Wick, Caithness

As the Old Wick project gets underway, the project lead Rachel Pickering of Historic Environment Scotland explains what they are trying to find out and how.

In the far northeast of mainland Scotland, on a narrow promontory, surrounded by cliffs on three sides, stand the ruins of Castle of Old Wick. The castle is one of Caithness’ most striking medieval sites due to its rugged location. But time has not been kind to the castle, and all that survives above ground is the stark stone skeleton of a once grand tower, within low-lying earthworks on the promontory behind. There are many unanswered questions about this castle, not least ‘when was it built?’.

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Castle of Old Wick in its dramatic coastal setting. © Crown Copyright HES

Very little is known about the castle’s origin and development – there is limited documentary evidence relating to its earlier history and no diagnostic architectural features survive, making it very difficult to date. It was once thought to have been one of the earliest stone castles in Scotland, associated with Norse earls of Orkney and Caithness. However, more recently, scholars have questioned this, suggesting a 14th century date is much more likely for its construction.

Reconstruction illustration showing how the castle and its surrounding outbuildings may have looked at its height. © Crown Copyright HES.

One tantalising clue survives that may shed light on its construction history – a single fragment of timber within a joist socket of an upper floor. The image below shows these joist sockets which indicate the tower had timber floors throughout. The sole surviving timber is increasingly at risk of decay as it is exposed to the elements. Our aim is to remove the timber and assess it for dendrochronological analysis – or tree-ring dating, before conserving the remains. From this we may be able to get a scientific date to indicate when the castle was built. At the very least, such a date may provide an age and provenance for the timber joist which provides an insight into phases of the castle’s development.

Interior of Castle of Old Wick showing joist sockets indicating the location of first and second floors. © Historic Environment Scotland.

Thanks to generous grant funding from the Castle Studies Trust, HES and specialist contractor Dr Coralie Mills of Dendrochronicle will be carrying out new research this autumn, with the hope of recovering dating evidence.

The timber is believed to be oak, making it suitable for dendrochronological analysis, though it is in a very fragile state. It will be accessed using a scaffold and very carefully removed and wrapped before being transported to the laboratory in Edinburgh for detailed examination. Its condition and suitability for dendrochronological analysis will then be assessed. If it is not possible to analyse the rings of the timber due to its condition, then an alternative method will be undertaken using radiocarbon ‘wiggle matching’. This would involve taking several samples for high precision radiocarbon dating, allowing for a more accurately calibrated radiocarbon date for the timber.  

We hope this research will shed light on the construction and development of Castle of Old Wick, by providing valuable scientific dating evidence. The project will also potentially support the on-going development of dendrochronological analysis within Scotland, as every new analysis can help to add to and refine existing tree-ring chronologies, which in turn supports future research.

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Defending Bedfordshire – a late starter

In the latest in is “Defending…” series looking at the fortifications in particular counties, Mike Osborne looks at Bedfordshire.

When I wrote Defending Lincolnshire: a military history from the Conquest to the Cold War (The History Press, 2010), I had no idea that ten years on, the series would have grown to cover ten counties with an eleventh almost completed. What I have discovered along the way is that while there exist clear cultural similarities, counties are patently different in so many regards. Some of these differences are obvious: the landscape factors which affect settlement patterns; the geology which dictates building materials and factors such as moated sites; the county’s relationship to important routes and its density of urban or rural settlements; its central or remote position within the nation; its relative vulnerability to invasion; and, above all, its recorded history. Other differences are more subtle and may be governed by local conditions and circumstances: the dominance of particular families or factions; the power struggles of kings, nobles or bishops; the economic effects of trade or farming; fashion and technology; continuity and re-use of defensive locations and the impact of localised, country-wide or international conflict. Taking the wider context of these studies which embrace all forms of fortification and military activity from Iron Age forts to nuclear bunkers, then such differences will only be magnified. 


The motte at Cainhoe (copyright Mike Osborne

Bedfordshire is unusual in that whilst there were Romano-British settlements and an established network of Roman roads: Watling Street, Ermine Street and the Icknield Way, there were, apparently, no Roman forts. Bedford became established only in Saxon/Danish times, owing to its strategic position astride the Great Ouse, and Clapham’s church-tower, on the border of Wessex and the Danelaw may well have served a defensive function. Sadly, despite the public promotion of Danes Camp at Willington and Tempsford as Viking river-side fortresses, they have both been found to be medieval moated sites. Luton only developed after the Norman Conquest becoming the location for two earthwork castles. A ‘royal’ castle was established at Bedford, soon to evolve into a masonry fortress, but the county’s numerous motte castles, notably Cainhoe, Yielden, Risinghoe and Totternhoe, and its fewer ringworks, whilst remaining as structures of earth and timber throughout, nevertheless often occupied dominant sites. Historical factors around conflict saw Bedford erased as a fortification early in its career having undergone two sieges, and most of the other castles would be superseded by more comfortable accommodation. The county was split into an unusually large number of small manors which may account for the over twenty earthwork castles and the 300+ homestead moats- the greatest density of any English county- benefiting from the underlying clay. Bedfordshire’s later medieval castles, Wrest Park, Bletsoe and Ampthill, have disappeared, but remnants of Someries survive to the background sound, in normal times, of Easyjet. Whilst largely insulated against external threats, the county still experienced the effects of conflict during the civil war between Stephen and the Empress and the Wars of the Roses, whilst suffering its share of the universal effects of famine, plague and social disorder. Probably the best-known castle-related event was the siege of Bedford by Henry III in 1224 which resulted in the destruction of the castle but not, in all likelihood, the draconian penalties reputedly enacted against the garrison.

Someries Castle: the gate-house/chapel range of the mid-fifteenth-century brick strong-house of Sir John Wenlock (copyright Mike Osborne)

Were anyone to ask me which of these counties had been the most interesting, given their differences, I should be pushed to answer. From the perspective of fortification, some will share similarities: Essex, Norfolk, and Hampshire as targets for invasion; the Midland counties of Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Leicestershire/Rutland controlling lines of communication from urban centres; Bedfordshire, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire sharing elements of landscape; whilst London has a bit of everything as, I am currently discovering, has Gloucestershire and Bristol. All of them have interesting facets either shared or individual, common or unique. Rob Liddiard, amongst others, has confirmed to me the value of the local focus alongside other approaches, and it is certainly something I will continue to explore.

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Defending Bedfordshire: the military landscape from pre-history to the present (Fonthill Media, 2021) is now available along with other counties.

Captions

Featured image: A model of how Bedford Castle may have appeared around the time of the siege of 1224

 

Richmond Excavation Day 19: Fin

By Excavation Director Jim Brightman of Solstice Heritage

And so the dig is complete. The trenches have been backfilled and re-turfed (except for the bizarre missing section in Trench 4!). The volunteers have all headed home, and the archaeological team have departed to their next jobs and sites. With the benefit of a few days’ distance as I write this, it has been such a wonderful and fulfilling experience.

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 So, what have we learned?

I covered our thoughts on Trench 1 in an earlier post, and the story of Trench 4 was very much about the plaster floor and fragments of medieval pottery showing the presence of a building of some considerable size.

But what of the other two?

William the Conqueror silver penny

It would be easy for Trench 2 to get overshadowed by the spectacular find of the William I silver penny. Whilst this is undoubtedly one of the stars of the project, its archaeological value lies in the date it gives us for the deposits at the bottom of the trench. What we found was a fragmentary clay and stone floor—perhaps not that exciting at first glance. However, it was packed with animal bone, and we are now pretty certain that we have uncovered the remains of a service building, probably a butchery or abattoir, dating to the very start of the Castle’s story. It has been wonderful to open a window into the grimy and tough day-to-day life of the Norman residents, standing in stark contrast to the towering stone walls of the lordly halls nearby.

Trench 3’s flooring

Trench 3 continued to withhold its secrets from us right through to the end of the dig. A well-made stone and cobble floor covered the entire base of the trench. Indeed, based on the geophysical survey responses we only say a small part of a much, much larger area of flooring. The fragmentary base of a stone wall showed that there was something structural associated with it, but almost all our theories were quashed by one aspect of another of the visible archaeological remains. Perhaps the best theory was that it represents a kind of ‘fancy warehouse’. Similar to the great medieval tithe barns, it could be a specific area for the gathering, tallying and storage of specific goods. There is no way we can definitively prove this, unfortunately, but it certainly fits with the remains we could see.

Right at the end of the dig Trench 3 also yielded up to us a handful of fragments of medieval coloured glass. Paired with the broken and twisted sections of window lead that we recovered throughout the dig, we can now be certain of the presence of a building with stained glass windows somewhere in the vicinity of Trench 3—a tantalising hint that will have to wait for a future project!

Returfing a trench

Overall, though, the story has been about the phenomenal support from everyone who came together to make this project such a success. Whether this be the funders (Richmond and District Civic Society, The Castle Studies Trust and Richmondshire District Council as well as local businesses and private individuals), key project partners such as Celebrate Richmond 950 and English Heritage, or the countless volunteers and visitors who have given so generously of their time. We have been honoured to work alongside these people and to taste something of the passion for history that is a fundamental part of Richmond life.

Although we are now catching up on some well-earned rest, thoughts are already turning towards how we might be able to come back to Richmond Castle and uncover more of its secrets in the future.

Feature image courtesy of Anne Stockdale

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Richmond Castle Excavation Day 17: Another Trench! (and some more cameras)

Excavation Director Jim Brightman of Solstice Heritage gives an update from the end of Wednesday 4 August

With things now very firmly heading towards the end of the excavation, we were able to arrange our logistics just right to let us to open a fourth trench on Monday. It was always our hope that we would be able to get to this point, though with the volume of archaeology (and more recent backfill) in our first three trenches, it’s been very much up in the air as to whether we would have time.

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Fortunately, Trench 2 was completed, and we were able to set to de-turfing an area very close to the southern wall of the Castle and around some slightly enigmatic wall footings that had been consolidated and left above ground in the mid-20th century. It is not entirely clear what these walls might represent, and it has given us another bite at potentially locating the medieval chapel which we were hoping might have been in Trench 3.

Although we are only a short way through the topsoil, we have already seen a real mix of finds from all periods of the Castle’s history: bits of glass and pottery potentially from the Victorian and World War I occupation, some lovely pieces of medieval pottery to show we were heading in the right direction and even a bullet casing made in 1974. What that was doing in the Castle, we have no idea!

The real star of Trench 4 (featured image) so far, however, has been the fragmentary remains of a really fine plaster or lime mortar floor—a hint that we may well be within the footprint of a well-appointed building. Hopefully, we still have enough time to get to the bottom of the remains in this new trench!

Jim Brightman with ITV film crew

The other excitement for the start of this week was the visit today by a team from our local ITV news programme. Word has spread quickly about the find of the William the Conqueror penny last week, and it was a lovely opportunity to spread the word a little wider still about the fantastic work that the volunteers have been doing through the course of the dig. For those who missed it (or are in a different ITV area), the full report can be found at this link:

https://www.itv.com/news/tyne-tees/2021-08-04/now-what-do-we-have-here-dig-uncovers-ancient-treasure-at-richmond-castle

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Richmond Castle Excavation Day 14: Another eventful week!

By Excavation Director Jim Brightman of Solstice Heritage

Reflecting at the end of the second week—two thirds of the way through our dig at the Castle—it’s been an amazing journey so far. After the excitement of the tv cameras on Thursday and Friday, we are all now taking a well-earned Sunday off, allowing some thinking time for the theories and interpretations. Yesterday, we were privileged to welcome a group from the Castle Studies Trust (one of the key project funders and hosts of this very blog!) who came to look round the excavations and offer some of their wonderful expertise and knowledge to help bring focus to some of the stories we are revealing.

Entreance/exit of a likely small postern gate at the at the exterior of the curtain wall immediately beneath trench 1 (courtesy of Dr Peter Purton)

Trench 1 has proven to be the most complex in terms of the intercutting layers and structures (what archaeologists call ‘stratigraphy’). Although there is plenty of time left for our thoughts to change with new evidence, we currently think we have an original narrow door at the base of the curtain wall which was blocked during the medieval period. After this, a small square stone building was constructed against the wall, again at some point during the Castle’s medieval life. In terms of the large stone piers and low stone wall that we can see above ground, however, we are now confident that they are indeed 20th-century inventions built by the Ministry of Works.

One of the most interesting aspects of Trench 1 has been the fantastic amount of fine medieval pottery that has come out of both the mixed topsoil and upper layers, and now from sealed medieval deposits. With a major acknowledgement to the eye and experience of Erik Matthews, we can confidently say we have not only great examples of local and regional pottery, but also of imported French and Belgian pottery. This really shows the importance of Richmond Castle as a seat of power during its medieval heyday and the interconnected nature of authority spanning the Channel in this period.

Range of pottery found in trench 1 (courtesy of Dr Peter Purton)

With the end of the project in sight, over the coming week I’ll also wrap up the stories for Trenches 2 and 3, so do keep checking back!

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Feature image courtesy of Dr Peter Purton.

Richmond Castle Excavations Day 11: Cameras are a lucky charm!

By Dig Director Jim Brightman of Solstice Heritage

The dig is rattling along really well now as we head towards the end of our second week. We’re bottoming out our questions in Trenches 1 and 2, though the ongoing mystery of our paved surface in Trench 3 continues to tax brains—hopefully the answer is lying deeper in the trench and will be revealed in the next few days.

The main story of today was the excitement generated by the arrival of Professor Alice Roberts and the camera crew from the Digging for Britain series on the BBC. It was a real honour to host the team at Richmond Castle and for our dig to form part of the upcoming series. The volunteers really seemed to enjoy having the cameras on site, and Alice was really enthused by the way in which we are unearthing these forgotten fragments of our history together as a community.

The real star of the day though was a find that came out of Trench 2 just as we were cleaning up for a photo. On her very first day on an archaeological site, from a layer that we had been interpreting as early 14th century in date, Jenny’s trowel flicked over a small disc of metal.

A silver penny with William the Conquerer’s image on it

At first, we thought we had another jetton, like the one discovered last week in Trench 3—a fabulous find! After we’d gently cleaned off a little of the dirt, however, it gradually became clear we had something much rarer on our hands. Examining the symbols and barely visible face on the obverse, we realised we were staring into the eyes of William the Conqueror stamped on a silver penny! With specialist conservation work, we may be able to discern the legend around the edge and find out where it was minted. Even with the information we have though, we know it dates to the early years of Richmond Castle, taking our story right back to the very beginnings of the town.

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Medieval Climate Change at Caerlaverock – Fieldwork Week Two

Project lead, Dr Richard Tipping, looks back at the second week of fieldwork he and Dr Eileen Tisdall are undertaking to try establish whether climate change did impact the re-positioning of Caerlaverock Castle.

Home again – after one of the most torrid week’s fieldwork I can recall: whilst Northern Ireland had the extreme weather warnings just to the east, Dumfries had day-time temperatures exceeding 26⁰C all week. And you’ll recall that I was inside a wood, where breezes never penetrate.

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At Caerlaverock on the Solway coast, we are trying to work out the natural and human impact of huge medieval storm surges on the 13th century old castle. Last time I was looking at how the moat, and possibly the castle itself, was inundated with seawater and mud driven shoreward by storms. This week I focused on the coastline itself, away from the castle. Before the storms hit, the old castle was on the coast: it had a harbour. You can still walk along the degraded cliff to the west of the castle and imagine the seascape. After the storms, the coast lay some 250 metres south of the castle. A series of large gravel ridges, tens of metres wide, grew southward, beautifully revealed in LiDAR images that peel away the nearly impenetrable woodland.

A visualisation from the LiDAR data showing the gravel ridges that Richard has been investigating this week

Each of these ridges created shallow basins protected from tides. The harbour became pointless as a result. But all we knew from earlier work was that the youngest basin was formed around AD1400. How old were the earlier ones? Could we find sediment dateable by radiocarbon?

The fieldwork, I knew, would be hard. I’d looked for dateable sediment before, simply by coring the sediments in the basins, and found only one site; and now there was the woodland to contend with. All you can do is remain patient and optimistic: unglamorous, muddy and unspectacular work. The woodland meant that some basins couldn’t now be found, others where I couldn’t core systematically, and still others where systematic coring failed to find anything to excite. But I think we can date three of the eight basins and, usefully, these include the earliest basin and the basin that blocked the harbour. Stay tuned.

An image from the LiDAR data of the old castle and its landscape. The moat and outer ditches I and II have been the subject of Richard’s investigations over the two weeks.

But it was the ditches around the old castle that were the highlight of a difficult week. Sense was made of the moat. The builders formed one of the four moat sides from an existing stream channel: the moat here is a lot deeper because of this. But then the castle mound was not made parallel with this moat side. It does seem to be a very slap-dash construction. The attempted buttressing of the castle by stonework in the moat is shown here.

And we can now show that the mud of the storm surges penetrated beyond the castle, not by a great distance but enough that the old castle would have been surrounded in these extreme events, laid siege by nature while the younger new castle was laid siege by Edward I and the English in AD1300.

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Feature image courtesy of Historic Environment Scotland