Raby Castle building survey: the report is now in

With the final report in the curator of Raby Castle, Julie Biddlecombe-Brown, gives an update on the building survey of the castle the Trust helped fund in 2022 and offers an opportunity for scholars to review it.

In 2022 the team at Raby Castle was fortunate to receive a grant from the Castle Studies Trust to digitally scan the castle exterior. Initially for research and interpretation, the scan has quickly proved to have multiple benefits and uses, and will undoubtedly have more to come. Alongside the scan, Raby (on behalf of Lord Barnard) commissioned an archaeological building survey, carried out by Durham University Archaeological Services and led by Senior Archaeologist Richard Annis, completed last year but updated in January 2024 when able to enter some previously inaccessible areas.

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There had been limited scholarly research into Raby Castle in the past; the most comprehensive history having been written by the 4th Duchess of Cleveland in 1870, drawing largely on antiquarian sources. As such, much of the story of the development of the castle has not been verified by current archaeological research methods, so alongside the survey of the fabric, by Durham University Archaeological Services, the castle team set to work exploring the archives and tracking down the sources used by antiquarians.  

The site has been occupied since before Domesday Book; the earliest record comes from the reign of Canute when Rabi was part of a gift offered by the King to the shrine of St Cuthbert in Durham. Although no trace of the early medieval structure is in evidence, it is from the later middle-ages, predominantly the 14th century when the castle was owned by the Neville family that the castle developed into the magnificent structure you see today, described by architectural historian Robert Billings in the 19th century as “the most perfect of our Northern Castles, retaining in the mass all its ancient features” … if only it did! Later developments from the 17th century onwards by the Vane family – later Barons Barnard (and even later the Earls of Darlington and Dukes of Cleveland) – who still own the castle today are well documented in the castle archives.

But apart from the castle itself, our sources for the Nevill period are limited. At some point, presumably after the attainder of Charles, 6th Earl of Westmorland for his part in the Rising of the North in 1569 or during the early years of ownership by the Vane family (purchased 1626) the documentary records for the earlier centuries of the castle were either taken away or destroyed.

One of the best early descriptions of the castle comes from the 1540s when it was still owned by the Nevilles. It was sources like this that we were keen to check against the findings of the recent survey. John Leland, in his survey of 1535-1543 wrote ….. 

“Raby is the largest castel of logginges in al the north cuntery, and is of a strong building, but not set other on hill or very strong ground.

As I enterid by a causey into it ther was a little stagne on the right hond: and in the first area were but 2. tours, one at each end as entres, and no other buildid;  yn the 2. area as in entering was a great gate of iren with a tour, 2. or 3. mo on the right hond.

Then were l the chief tours of the 3. court as in the hart of the castel. The haul and al the houses of offices be large and stateley; and in the haul I saw an incredible beame. .. The great chamber was exceedingly large, but now it fals rofid and devidid into 2 or 3 partes. I saw there a little chamber wherein was in windowed of colerid glass al the petigre of the Nevilles: but it is now taken down and glassid with clere glasse.

There is a touer in the castel having the mark of 2. capitale B from Berthram Bulmer.

There is another touer being the name of Jane, bastard sister to Henry the 4 and wife to Ralph Neville the first Erl of Westmerland.

There long 3. Parkes to Raby whereof 2. be plenished with to 92 dere. The Middle Park hath a lodge in it”. (Toulmin Smith, 1907).

Even with the later alterations to the castle, Leland’s description clearly gives an accurate depiction of surviving medieval structures but also lost features. Pleasingly stained glass windows depicting both Neville crests and those of the families connected by marriage were incorporated in the vast Barons’ Hall extension windows in Burns’s alterations in the 1840s.

The Neville Saltire. Armorial glass added to the Barons’ Hall in the 1840s. Copyright Raby Estates

Equally interesting is the fact that other antiquarian sources appear, thus far, to be generally accurate. Although no trace has been established (yet), it is likely that the earliest structure was an unfortified manor house in the 11th century from which the castle developed ‘organically’, particularly in the 14th century when in phases, a double hall, solar tower, great chamber, private or refuge tower, chapel, postern gate and towers for servants, retainers and guests were added, believed to be the work of the John Lewyn whose hand can be seen in so many north-eastern castles. The kitchen tower is particularly significant, with its high domed ceiling, clearly linking to Lewyn’s work for the Bishop of Durham in the Prior’s Kitchen, Durham Cathedral.

Raby’s remarkable domed ceiling in the Medieval Kitchen

Being in the Durham Palatinate, Raby’s License to Crenellate was granted by Bishop Hatfield in 1378, probably at the end of a phase of fortification which saw the structure emerge as a late contender for a somewhat irregular concentric castle.

How does the castle development relate to the habitation and family fortunes of the Nevilles in this early period?  Interestingly, periods of the castle’s development can be linked closely to social mobility, often brought about by advantageous marriages to wealthy heiresses. Around 1176 Isabella de Bulmer married Geoffrey Neville bringing vast land in Durham and Yorkshire to the family. Bulmer’s Tower still bears that family name, adorned with a carved lower case ‘b’ towards its highest points. Later, Elizabeth Latimer, second wife of John, 3rd Baron Neville KG, similarly brought her fortune to the family on her marriage in 1381 and her family coat of arms is proudly displayed on the Neville Gateway – the main entrance to the castle complex along with the Neville saltire and the emblem of the Order of the Garter, a very visible reminder of the position and prominence of the family.

Bulmer’s Tower from a 1723 engraving by Nathanial and Samuel Buck.

External events also had their impact on the development of the Neville stronghold. The wars with Scotland in the 14th century and particularly the Scottish raids south of the border resulted in increased security measures and fortification for those who could afford it. John Neville and his father Ralph had both played a part in the Battle of Neville’s Cross in nearby Durham (albeit John watching as a child):  A victory for English troops but a constant reminder of the need for defence.

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The ongoing research into the sources that provide context and meaning to the incremental development of the castle work hand in hand with the survey produced by Durham University Archaeological Services. It has been particularly pleasing to begin to explore some of the lost features, from the 3rd ‘court’ (courtyard) now located to the north of the Hall range to the puzzling configuration of spaces above the much-altered chapel gateway.  The myth of the earlier towers and particularly the more unusual shape of Bulmer’s Tower have been explored, along with an identification of a list of features lost to 18th and 19th century development.

At the time of writing, our initial plans to incorporate the model in a new introductory film at the castle are well underway. Film makers Heritage Interactive have incorporated views of the castle in the draft film due to be installed for the 2024 season and we’re currently looking at making more use of the model to create a more detailed approach to digitally recreating the phased development of the site. The scan has also been used by the castle’s quinquennial architects and castle team as part of the inspection and maintenance of the castle and master planning for future activity.

Inevitably, the survey report, model and associated research leave us with more tantalising questions, but the report pulls together and verifies a fascinating plethora of information which had previously been scattered, hearsay or completely unknown! Raby welcomes further scholarship and investigation, building on the work of Richard Annis, Durham University Archaeological Services and indeed Raby Castle’s Curation and Archives team. Thanks to all involved! Scholars wishing to consult the report should apply to the curator, via  admin at raby.co.uk

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Transforming our understanding of Shrewsbury Castle

With the excavation report on the third and final season of excavation which the CST has funded now published on our website, project lead Dr Nigel Baker looks at what has been achieved since the first work in 2019 to now.

Just over a century ago Shrewsbury Castle began a new phase in its long life. In 1925 its principal surviving building, having been in use as a private dwelling since the castle was finally de-munitioned in 1686, became the meeting hall of Shrewsbury Borough Council, set in extensive landscaped gardens covering the remains of the motte and inner bailey, the outer bailey having (mostly) disappeared beneath the growing town by c.1300. Shrewsbury Castle remained more or less untouched by archaeology for the remainder of the 20th century. This changed in 2019 with the award by the Castle Studies Trust of a grant for a season of geophysical survey and excavation in the inner bailey. Following permission from Shropshire Council, the site owners, and Historic England, its legal guardians, the work took place in May and July 2019, the geophysics by contractors Tiger Geo and the excavation team made up of experienced local volunteers and staff and students of University Centre Shrewsbury. The results were unexpected.

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Shrewsbury Castle Excavation 2019 showing the width of the ditch around the motte using deckchairs (copyright Dr Nigel Baker)
Arrow heads found in Shrewsbury Castle Motte Ditch (copyright Dr Nigel Baker)

Immediately under the turf was natural glacial gravel: the top of the hill on which the castle had been built; the ground surface had been lowered sometime in the past, removing nearly all archaeological remains. This was almost certainly the work of the young Thomas Telford who, from 1786 to 1790, lived in and ‘restored’ the castle for its owner, Sir William Pulteney, M.P. for Shrewsbury. However, archaeological strata were found to have survived within cuts into the natural gravel, and two of these were of major significance. The first was the edge of a previously-unknown ditch around the base of the motte. Medieval cooking-pot sherds of late 11th-13th-century date were found in its lowest excavated layers, along with two armour-piercing crossbow quarrel heads. The second significant find was of a pit containing in its fill a piece of decorated bone and two types of pre-Conquest (Saxon) pottery: Stafford-type ware, distributed widely across the emerging towns of the region and already well represented in Shrewsbury; and a limestone-tempered fabric, TF41a, never before seen in Shrewsbury, which had been made in the Gloucester area and probably imported up the Severn. This confirms that there was pre-Conquest activity on the site of the castle, and, along with the Domesday evidence that there was a church of St Michael there by 1086, may point in the direction of a high-status pre-Norman presence on this tactically-significant site controlling access to the ancient borough.

Shrewsbury Castle Excavation 2020 (copyright Dr Nigel Baker)

Excavation resumed in the autumn of 2020 with a trench seeking a sample profile through the west rampart of the inner bailey. This turned out not to be medieval in date. Both the west and the north rampart were probably created as part of Thomas Telford’s landscaping work in 1786-90. But, intriguingly, below the west rampart there was no sign within the trench of the natural hilltop gravel found close by in 2019 at a depth of just a few centimetres. The explanation may be that the bailey was enlarged westwards between the Norman period and the later medieval period, by dumping soil and levelling-up behind a new curtain wall.

Shrewsbury Castle Excavation 2022 on the motte top (copyright Dr Nigel Baker

The final season of excavations took place in 2022 on the top of the motte, and outside the north curtain wall. Telford is known to have demolished ruined medieval buildings on the top of the motte and replaced them with the surviving two-storey Gothic summerhouse there. Excavation showed that Telford’s activities had, again, removed most of the archaeology but that the foundations of early medieval timber buildings (beam slots, a post pad, post holes) survived where they had been cut into the motte material. No definite trace was seen of the ‘great wooden tower’ which is documented on the motte top until its collapse in 1269-71.

New light was also shed on the motte by vegetation clearance on its south side, revealing for the first time remains of buildings incorporated in the masonry of the retaining walls. This work was undertaken on behalf of Shropshire Council for a new conservation-management plan, currently at consultation stage, which includes photogrammetric surveying of all the castle structures. This permanent stone-by-stone record not only forms the basis for the next vital stage of work – identifying and specifying long-needed repairs – it also offers new archaeological insights, including the identification of the probable primary sandstone rubble fabric of the curtain walls. This was in turn followed by some research carried out by Jason Hurst on Civil War musketry damage in 2023 (Potential shot damage at Shrewsbury Castle – Castle Studies Trust Blog) . And now, the process of publishing this body of new archaeological, architectural and historical information is just beginning…

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Potential shot damage at Shrewsbury Castle

Jason Hurst from the University of Leicester’s School of Ancient History and Archaeology and expert on civil war damage to castles looks at the damage at Shrewsbury Castle.

In June this year I went with Dr Nigel Baker, and Dr Morn Capper of University Centre Shrewsbury, to examine suspected musket/weapon projectile damage inflicted on the Castle, possibly during the Parliamentarian assault of February 1645.

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Dr Morn Capper showing the damage to Shrewsbury Castle’s main gate

When inspecting the marks on the main castle gate I concluded that these were from musket/pistol ball strikes with some indication of possible fragments of these projectiles still embedded in the woodwork, along with possible residues.

Shrewsbury Castle Postern Gate Gun Shot Damage

On the outside of the Postern Gate the identification of some of the marks could not be positively made because of weathering, but intriguing larger impact marks seem to be from a small calibre artillery piece, possible a Robinet or similar sized calibre gun.

At the north end of the hall, facing the railway station, are marks that look like weapon projectile strikes but their trajectory is problematic. Some appear to have come in at a level trajectory towards the wall and some from a downward trajectory, so these need to be looked at in more detail to determine what has caused them.

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Raby Castle: Mapping the Hillocks

As the Castle Studies Trust funded part of the project to learn more about Raby Castle comes to a close, the funding of the digital modelling of Raby’s exterior, the castle’s curator, Julie Bidescombe-Brown explores what they have found so far which includes a short preview of the model in its glory.

Throughout 2022, the team at Raby Castle has been working with Durham University Archaeological Services on a project funded by the Castle Studies Trust to drone scan and create a digital 3d model of the entire castle exterior. At the project draws to a close, Raby’s Curator Julie Biddlecombe-Brown reflects on the work undertaken over the last year, including both the planned outcomes and unexpected benefits of the work undertaken.

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‘At the time of writing this blog, I am waiting with bated breath for an email that marks the end of a truly game-changing project for Raby Castle. The email will include the final embedded link to a detailed digital model of Raby Castle’s exterior produced over a series of drone scans during the summer months of 2022. The sneak preview given to the castle team was breath-taking. When we applied to the Castle Studies Trust for support for the grant I had no idea of the level of detail that the technology now enabled. My initial application for funding was based on the creation of a digital model that could be used as the basis for future interpretation; a tool for presenting the castle to new audiences. What we have achieved has ended up to be so much more.

For those not familiar with Raby Castle, this beautiful building in the south of County Durham has remained the family home of the Vane family for almost 400 years. Harry Vane, twelfth Baron Barnard is the current owner and along with his wife, Lady Kate Barnard, has set out ambitious plans to ensure the future sustainability of the castle and wider estate. This project reflects their vision, setting out to better understand the estate so that responsible stewardship of rich heritage assets can see the castle enjoyed and studied by future generations.

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Going back to the castle itself: from the exterior, it is one of the most intact 14th century castles in the north of England, adapted over the centuries to provide luxurious accommodation for the two families who have lived here. First, the medieval northern powerhouse of the Neville Family who lost the castle after the failed Rising of the North. It was the Neville family who created most of what can be seen today, their license to fortify the castle having been granted by Bishop Hatfield of Durham in 1378.  Second, the Vanes, later Barons Barnard, Earls of Darlington and Dukes of Cleveland came to Raby after purchasing the castle in 1626. Over two hundred years later, what remains the castle’s most comprehensive history was written by Catherine Lucy Wilhelmina Vane, the 4th Duchess of Cleveland, in 1870,  a formidable scholar and biographer whose engaging narratives combine clear research of the sources available to her, with a delightful peppering of artistic license. Her handbook has also been a useful tool in this project, with descriptions of alterations, anomalies and observations that come with complete familiarity with a site. The Duchess clearly loved the castle and during the late 19th century welcomed guests from across the globe. Earlier generations of her husband’s family down-played the castle’s splendour. Courtier Sir Henry Vane, who bought the castle in 1626 twice received Charles I there; first in May, 1633; and again in April 1639.  Charles is said to have been greatly struck by the size of the castle, and to have rebuked Sir Henry for speaking of it somewhat irreverently as a ‘mere hillock of stone.’  ‘Call ye that a hillock of stone? By my faith,’ said he, ‘I have not such another hillock of stones in all my realms.”

Images of Raby Castle have been captured for centuries. Above: 1728 Engraving of Raby Castle from the southeast. Samuel & Nathaniel Buck. These topographical images, whilst subjective and sometimes inaccurate, have provided a valuable source in considering the appearance of the castle in the past. Such images shed light on demolished features, such as the barbican depicted here on the eastern (left hand) side of the castle which then has the potential to be ‘virtually reconstructed’ on the base digital model,  

You can judge the latest capturing of ‘the hillock’ yourself, by viewing the model funded by this project. Available to the castle team in multiple formats, from a wireframe for digital manipulation to fully overlaid with photographs for a full ‘photo-real’ view, the scan has created a snapshot of the castle at a moment in time but helps us look backwards into its history and forward, securing its future.  The Raby team is working with Heritage Interactive, sector AV specialists to adapt the model to be public facing and engage visitors with the story of the medieval fabric in a new introductory film that we will launch next year. But the model also gives us the potential to add to this; to explore later phases of development in the same way, to isolate, interpret and even digitally rebuild key features that have changed over time, such as the removal of the 14th century barbican in the late 18th century, creating the now slightly confusing Chapel Gateway, or exploring the remains of passages, staircases and windows that make no sense in the current configuration of the building.  

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The base-line data has multiple benefits – in addition to creating new films, we are exploring 3d printing of a model of the castle in jigsaw puzzle-like sections for use with schools and other audiences – what better way to inspire a new generation of castle enthusiasts than to couple the challenge of a puzzle with a superb digital model? The level of detail will also be of huge benefit to the castle buildings team in monitoring condition, working in tandem with our conservation architects who can now view the fabric almost stone-by-stone. This will, we anticipate, not only help us to detect any building changes that might need attention but will also help us in master planning for the future.

A complimentary annex to the project, funded in-house is an archaeological report by Durham University Archaeological Services that will sit alongside the model.  This collation and analysis of source material – including what we have learned about the existing fabric – has been led by Senior Archaeologist Richard Annis who over the course of 2022 has delved into every nook and cranny of the castle – peering under floorboards, climbing disused staircases and opening the door of every built-in cupboard to see what lies behind. This level of survey has never been done and when linked to the model, and an examination of known archival and other documentary sources compiled by a willing group of volunteers, we start 2023 with a far better understanding of this remarkable building than ever before. The report and model will be used together by the castle team including custodian, curatorial, archive and buildings teams,  and of course our conservation architects as we care for and interpret the castle and will be available as a resource to scholars and academics, hopefully inspiring future research.

And of course, there is still research to be done! The project may have answered questions but has left us with many new ones. Over the coming months, or should that be years …  we will continue to explore some of the puzzles of the building, from the origins of some of the towers, to vertical access routes. But what has changed over the last year is that we now have a superb data set as a starting point. Our thanks go to Archaeological Services Durham University and in particular Richard Annis for bringing their enthusiasm, skills, expertise and inquisitive minds to the project, and also, of course, to the Castle Studies Trust which provided us with the funding to enable it all to happen.

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Raby Castle 3D Digital Model Nears Completion

As we draw towards the end of the year, Julie Biddlecombe-Brown, Curator at Raby Castle checks in on the 2022 research project funded by the Castle Studies Trust as this chapter draws to a close.  

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What a busy year 2022 has been and yet, this project has been one of the highlights. Working with Durham University Archaeological Services, the castle exterior was fully scanned over the summer and the scans imported into specialist software that enables us to view and fully manipulate the images. The quality of the scanned images are superb and can be used in multiple applications;  as a base model for 3d imaging (shown below) or overlaid with the HD photographic detail to provide a record of every elevation, down to the individual stone, providing inspiration for new visitor-facing interpretation and vital data for the castle architects. The team at Durham University have shared the incredible detail captured on the scans with their counterparts at Raby – demonstrating how the drone was able to access areas that have previously been very difficult to view; testimony to the skill of the drone pilot but also enabling an unrivalled view of the battlements – even into the machicolations.

Alongside the images, Raby Castle has benefitted from the experience and knowledge of Durham’s Senior Archaeologist Richard Annis in reviewing the complex interior of the building against historic plans and research notes compiled by Raby’s dedicated volunteer group. With the scans and historic plans to hand, Richard has explored the building from top-to-toe, focusing on intersections between the medieval fabric and later interventions. This has identified spaces known to the castle team which had not appeared on any of the earlier plans, enabling detailed measurements to be taken as part of the broader survey.  In addition to the overall survey which will be of immense benefit for the quinquennial survey and subsequent building monitoring and maintenance, this project sought to produce a 3d digital model of the castle that could be used to demonstrate different phases of the castle’s history. The team at Durham University Archaeological services have produced a Terra model (below) which will now be separated into phases for the conclusion of the project in December. The castle have engaged audio-visual specialists Heritage Interactive to work with them to produce new interpretation for visitors that will incorporate the models and the research findings.

Image of Raby Castle from 3D Digital Model

Special thanks from the Raby Castle team are owed to the Castle Studies Trust Trustees who visited in October to check on progress. The afternoon spent at Raby was valuable for both the Trust and the Castle, drawing on expertise and debating anomalies in the castle architecture. The discussions will feed into the final report being produced by Durham University Archaeological services alongside the model. We look forward to sharing the end results once the final report and model have been completed.

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A Window to Pontefract Castle’s Past

During the summer of 2022, Wakefield Council and Wessex Archaeology undertook several geophysical surveys of Pontefract Castle funded by the Castle Studies Trust. Ian Downes, Senior Heritage Officer at Wakefield Council explains what they found.

We were trying to discover if there were traces of the castle’s rich archaeology hidden under the ground. Specifically, we were looking for several service buildings between the kitchens and Royal apartments which had been mentioned in maintenance records for the castle, Victorian paths listed in ordnance survey maps, as well as any evidence of buried weaponry from the Civil Wars bombardment in the 17th century.

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This was not the first-time surveys of this nature had been conducted, most recently West Yorkshire Archaeology Service were commissioned back in 2010.

This image from the 2010 survey shows the resistivity results for the northern half of the bailey and two large but undefined masses of high resistance (ASWYAS)

Three techniques have been utilised here: Resistivity, Magnetometry and Ground Penetrating Radar.

Resistivity measures the ability of the ground to conduct an electrical signal between two metal probes. In its simplest form this gives us a clue about buried walls and ditches, as the latter holds water much better than a wall and the resistivity is lower. This technique is relatively quick, easy and cost effective, but has limited depth and tends to only reveal that which is relatively close to the surface.

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Magnetometry, or to be more specific magnetic gradiometry, records tiny variations in the earth’s magnetic field. These could be caused by the filling in of a ditch, a fire or magnetic items in the soil. This again doesn’t have a great depth but can help backup findings from our other two techniques. The ability to spot iron objects on a Civil Wars site that was bombarded by cannon fire is also useful.

Our third method was ground penetrating radar.  It uses a form of electromagnetic radiation similar to that used in radios, microwaves and mobile phones and employs the same technology used to detect aircraft. However, instead of sending signals into the air we direct them into the ground and measure how long it takes for those waves to bounce back. The signal bounces back better from solid objects than soil, so it can help spot buried walls or pits, and the time taken to receive the signal tells us how deep down they are

Results

Raw data from the magnetometry results (Wessex Archaeology)

We had varying success with the surveys. Unfortunately, outside the curtain wall, where we hoped to find Civil Wars evidence, the surveys didn’t show any clear results.  There were more anomalies below the queen’s tower than elsewhere, but this may be the result of later landscaping works to accommodate the later road around the castle.

The resistivity survey however had more success. Here we can see evidence of the modern paths (pink) and the remains of an elliptical path in the northern survey area which matches the design of a Victorian path system, seen in an 1881 ordnance survey map.  No images survive of these paths, so it is exciting to find some evidence of their existence beyond the original plans.

Interpretation of the Resistivity results (Wessex Archaeology)

The final survey technique, using deeper ground penetrating radar, shows a large grey area which is also seen on the resisitivity survey above. Its undefined shape and proximity to the surface suggests it is possibly rubble. However, it’s the dark orange feature about 1m down that is by far the most revealing.

Ground penetrating radar results (Wessex Archaeology)

For us, this was an exciting and unexpected discovery, as the design and shape of the structure, including the buttresses on the corners, closely matched a building seen on a 16th century drawing of the castle by Ambrose Cave.  He had been commissioned to survey the castle for Queen Elizabeth I in 1560 and it shows a number of buildings along the same section of curtain wall, including the small entrance porch, seen below with the elaborate pinnacles. 

Extract from Ambrose Cave’s Elizabethan Survey 1560

We believe it shows a 15th Century chapel that replaced the Norman Chapel which can be seen in the Eastern corner of the bailey. It was assumed from this drawing that it stood away from the curtain wall which can be seen in the background.

However, the design of its entrance closely matches the shape found in the radar survey, including the buttresses on the corners. Its possiblelocation now suggests that it was built against the curtain wall like the other buildings in the castle and was perhaps shown just forward of it for simplicity.

To have been able to finally locate this building and with such clarity and certainty is an exciting discovery for us. This new evidence adds to our knowledge and understanding of what used to be one of England’s greatest castles and will help to inform future interpretation of the site, provide a focus for potential future fieldwork and finally solves the mystery of where the 15th Century chapel actually is!

We are extremely grateful to the Castle Studies Trust for their funding which allowed us to carry out the geophysical surveys. We also acknowledge the support of Wessex Archaeology and West Yorkshire Joint Services in the production of this article.

You can find out more about the project in our short videos which can be found on the Castle Studies Trust Youtube channel

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Video updates on two 2022 Castle Studies Grants

Back in May the geophysical of survey took place at Pontefract Castle. Find out what they were surveying and the various techniques they were using to achieve the best results

You can find more about the different geophysical survey techniques in the article we published back in January 2021 by our geophysical survey specialist assessor Kayt Armstrong:

While here is a short taster video of a project yet to properly start – dating the towers of Chalkida in Greece. With permissions having been granted by the Greek government, Dr Andrew Blackler outlines what they will be doing when the fieldwork gets underway in September.

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What is on top of Shrewsbury’s Motte?

Dr Nigel Baker, Excavation Director of the Shrewsbury Castle Excavation 2022 outlines what he hopes him and his team hope to find over the next two weeks with the main focus on the previously unexplored motte.

A third season of excavation funded by the Castle Studies Trust is about to begin at Shrewsbury Castle. In 2019 a trench was excavated across the interior of the inner bailey and in 2020 an inner bailey rampart was sampled. Attention has now turned to the top of the motte, and to the north curtain wall. The excavations, the first ever to take place at the castle are carried out by a team of local archaeological volunteers under the direction of Dr Nigel Baker and David (Dai) Williams together with students of University Centre Shrewsbury (University of Chester) led by Dr Morn Capper.

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The motte top excavation will establish just how much damage Thomas Telford did to the medieval motte when he was modernising the hall and landscaping the castle in 1786-1790. Ruins on the motte top were cleared to make way for a Gothic summerhouse known as Laura’s Tower, with a garden laid out around it. The team will be looking in particular for surviving evidence of the Tower of Shrewsbury, the timber watch-tower, assumed to be of 11th-century origin, that is known to have collapsed in 1269-71.

Vertical view of Shrewsbury Castle Motte (copyright James Brennan Associates)

The irregular plan of the motte top seen in the drone photo (undertaken by James Brennan Associates for the current conservation management plan for Shropshire Council, the site owner) arises from a number of factors. Originally probably oval, the straight line across the bottom of the picture is a pale sandstone wall with red sandstone stripes built, probably by Edward I’s masons, across the damaged side of the motte after a landslip into the river below in the 13th century. Laura’s Tower occupies the bottom left corner, set off-centre on the base of a 13th-century tower demolished by Telford. The lobed shape of the motte on the left of the photo results from at least two phases of medieval building incorporated in the retaining walls: an angled structure with a high chamfered plinth and recessed masonry panels, superimposed over a projecting curving rubble footing. These remains were seen and recorded for the first time this year as part of the ongoing CMP work.

A second trench is to be opened on the north curtain wall. A long stretch of this wall is unusually consistent in its fabric, with small, squared rubble and two offset courses. 18th-century illustrations show however that a projecting bastion formerly stood in this area, of which no trace can be seen in the standing masonry. The suspicion is that a major part of the wall here has been rebuilt, and the trench is designed to explore this question – and to establish the nature of the surrounding stratigraphy.

Part of the north curtain wall of Shrewsbury Castle. The even coursing apparent over this long stretch of masonry is at odds with the complex fabric visible elsewhere in the wall and with 18th and early 19th-century illustrations showing a projecting bastion in this area. Excavation will seek to confirm whether or not this stretch has been rebuilt, and to locate in plan the features seen in the illustrations. Copyright Nigel Baker

In addition to an introductory display to be mounted in the on-site marquee, there will be two further displays in the town running concurrently with the excavations. In Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery in the Square, Dr Capper’s team is assembling a display featuring artefacts found in the first two seasons, while in Castle Gates Library (the former Grammar School buildings) a display is in place that explores the evidence for the former castle outer bailey, within whose perimeter the library stands.

The excavations run from July 18th to 28th. Visitors are welcome every day except those when the castle is closed (Thursday 21st and Thursday 28th).

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Geophysical survey of Kilmacahill deserted settlement complex, County Westmeath: project aims and goals

Vicky McAlister, project lead of the Geophysical Survey of Kilmachill explains the reasons behind the survey.

“Can we use drone (UAV) gathered imagery to see how spaces around castles were being used?” This was the question that spurred the addition of geophysical survey to a wider study of the landscape surrounding the deserted medieval settlement complex at Kilmacahill, County Westmeath. The data will then be delivered to the Human-Environmental Exchanges in the Landscape (HELM) project team for analysis to detect possible subsurface archaeological remains. HELM is led by project co-Principal Investigators Dr. Vicky McAlister and Dr. Jenny Immich, with Target Archaeological Geophysical GVC commissioned to undertake the survey.

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Kilmacahill was selected for this interrogation because of its layered landscape history and good above surface archaeological remains. The vernacular settlement site of Kilmacahill is adjacent to a Franciscan Third Order Regular monastery and within visual range (c. 1km) of Joanstown motte and bailey, located to the west of the site. The work at Kilmacahill already undertaken includes UAV collected aerial photographs and topographic data over the deserted settlement complex for analysis in geographic information systems (GIS) software.

Geophysical Area 1

In its first project phase (2019-2021) HELM addressed the theory that Anglo-Norman medieval vernacular settlements could be found in close physical proximity to elite secular and religious sites. More specifically, we hypothesised that peasant settlement could be found clustered around castle sites, parish churches, and monastic sites. To test this theory, HELM analysed UAV-gathered data for four castle sites in counties Limerick and Tipperary. At three of these four sites we found what we interpreted to be burgage plots clustered in the area between the castle and parish church. One of them, Glenogra in County Limerick, looked to have a deserted medieval village showing different areas and types of house plot compared to the very planned and regular appearance of such plots at the other sites. We wondered if this indicated that both Anglo-Norman settlers and Gaelic Irish tenants were living in this settlement.

Geophysical Area 2

This led the HELM team to begin phase two of the study, which is looking at three potential deserted medieval settlement sites in County Westmeath: Fore, Kilbixy, and Kilmacahill. Westmeath was the contact zone or frontier between the Anglo-Normans and Gaelic Irish for an extended period of time. This duration made us interested in what the medieval settlements associated with castles there looked like morphologically: more like Glenogra and haphazard, or something else entirely?

In late 2021, thanks to funding from the American Philosophical Society, Dr. Paul Naessens of Western Aerial Survey collected data from UAV flights at these three sites. At one of them – Kilmacahill – he also tested a new addition to the arsenal of digital archaeologists: UAV-mounted multispectral cameras. Multispectral data is traditionally used by scientists as an effective tool to examine soil productivity and plant health. In archaeological contexts, multispectral imagery can be analysed to reflect relative differences in vegetation health as a proxy to indicate near-surface or subsurface anthropogenic features – such as field boundaries made of stone, pits with charcoal in them, crushed gravel pathways, or other architectural features. The vegetation above these man-made features appears not as healthy as that above natural ground in the data analysis. The UAV-gathered photogrammetry data showed some interesting house plots, but also details of a complex circular enclosure not listed on the Sites and Monuments Record.

Geophysical Area 3

The HELM team agreed that concentrating our resources on one site would help to test our methodology and thus we applied to the Castle Studies Trust for funding for geophysical survey. We hope that the combination of three methods will tell us the most about vernacular settlement located between the Franciscan house at Kilmacahill and the motte castle at Joanstown. We will also be able to test the robustness of our UAV-based methodology against geophysics, which is much more expensive but is standard practice for identifying low-lying archaeological features. Geophysics currently costs up to ten times the amount of flying a site with a drone, so if we are successful in using UAV data to identify castle features, then this will be good news for everyone seeking to know what’s going on around their sites!

The data produced by the three collection methods (UAV photogrammetry, multispectral, geophysics) will be incorporated in GIS software to create a visual of the immediate subsurface archaeological remains of the DMV and will uncover finer features of the site as a whole. The HELM team should have the exciting results of the surveyed area by Autumn 2022.

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Revealing the hidden stories of Pontefract Castle

Ian Downes from Wakefield Council looks at the geophysical survey being carried out week commencing 9 May 2022 on parts of Pontefract Castle yet to be explored archaeologically. The work, funded by the Trust is being carried out by Wessex Archaeology.

Pontefract Castle in West Yorkshire is a Norman motte and bailey castle, built upon a Saxon royal palace, and used extensively during the English Civil Wars, when it suffered three prolonged sieges.  In that time, it went from being the property of a Norman Baron, to a powerful Dukedom, to the principal royal castle of the North of England.

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At the end of the Civil Wars the castle was pulled down by the people of Pontefract by order of Parliament.  The site was initially used as a market garden before it was leased by the Dunhill family for the cultivation of liquorice. Finally, it was converted into a park in 1880.  To this day the site remains a park and major tourist attraction in the town.

Now managed by Wakefield Council on behalf of the Duchy of Lancaster the castle has recently undergone a thorough restoration project seeing the ruins conserved and new visitor facilities created.

Parts of the site were excavated in the 1880s and again in the 1980s.  More recently, work commencing in 2017 to restore the site saw new areas excavated including the Gatehouse.

The Keep of Pontefract Castle courtesy of Wakefield Council.

As the Victorian excavations weren’t fully recorded or published, and more recent archaeology has been focused on areas where construction and conservation has taken place, this has left many parts of the site relatively unexplored.

The two areas we will be looking at as part of this project are the area from the Kitchens through to the Royal Apartments within the Bailey; and the northern ramparts below the royal apartments.

The first of those two is where a series of “service buildings” were sited according to historic maintenance records for the castle.  We know little more, but it was probably also the site of a gatehouse leading to a walkway to the Swillington Tower.  We hope this project will find some evidence of the footprint of the buildings, possible locations of fireplaces and to get an indication of how much survives below ground. 

Area occupied by the service buildings between the kitchens and Royal Apartments. courtesy of Wakefield Council

The second area to be investigated is an area outside of the curtain wall, which was subjected to heavy bombardment during the three sieges.  This may also be the location of a medieval garden, again mentioned in historical records, and Victorian walkways and paths. 

This area should include the bottom section of the walkway from the bailey down to the Swillington Tower. We hope to answer questions such as whether the earth mound at the side of the tower covers the remains of this walkway and how much of it survives under the start of the ramparts.

The site has seen little activity since the Victorian paths were laid, with that area falling into disuse relatively quickly.  This lack of later use raises the potential for evidence of all these things, but most excitingly the possibility of pinpointing further evidence of Civil War activity.

The outer ramparts looking from the Queens Tower back towards the Swillington Tower.

The project will see specialists from Wessex Archaeology conduct various forms of geophysics on the two areas including resistivity, magnetometry and ground penetrating radar.  The use of multiple techniques has been chosen to maximise the potential for making discoveries with the potential for quite complex buried remains being high.

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Plan of Pontefract Castle with hashed area the areas being surveyed, courtesy of Wakefield Council