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?’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With the 2020 excavation report now published, Shrewsbury Castle Excavation Director Dr Nigel Baker looks back at the two years of excavations and what they reveal about this important castle of the Welsh Marches.
Before the excavations in 2019 and 2020 funded by the Castle Studies Trust, Shrewsbury Castle was one of the least well understood major castles of the Welsh Marches. Its visible form is that of a classic motte-and-bailey, with earthen ramparts surmounted by stone curtain walls. However, the archaeological project and associated research has shown that the historical reality is more complex than this.
First recorded as a consequence of being besieged by local rebels in 1069, many aspects of its recorded history follow a familiar Marches pattern: heavy royal expenditure in the 12th and 13th centuries as a campaign base and in the face of Welsh raiding, followed by decline into obsolescence and ruination in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, arrested temporarily by a return to active service in the English Civil War in the 1640s. Its later history was as a private residence, distinguished by its ‘restoration’ by Thomas Telford in 1786-1790, and finally its return to public life as a council meeting hall in 1925 and as the home of a regimental museum in the 1980s.
First of all, the Norman castle was not built on an empty site. It occupied the end of a ridge that was critical to the defence of the old Saxon borough, and the 2019 excavation demonstrated occupation here in the 10th or early 11th century, on a plateau or low knoll at about 68m AOD, higher than its surroundings, and at one end of the likely cross-peninsula borough defences. At present the archaeological evidence is limited to a single pit and its artefacts, but reading between the lines of the historical record, it is possible that the site was shared by a church dedicated to St Michael and perhaps a hall, maybe that of the pre-Conquest sheriffs.
The Norman castle of the 1060s wiped out all that had been there before, except the church, which appears in Domesday Book; this also records the loss of 51 tax-paying households when the castle was built. It consisted of a large motte overlooking the river, elevated to a height (80m AOD) equal to that of the royal and episcopal halls within the old borough, with a substantial ditch, discovered in 2019, around its base. West of the motte was a small inner bailey. Extending south was a much larger outer bailey, separated from the English borough further south by a second cross-peninsula ditch and supplemented in the 12th century by earth ramparts around the bailey perimeter. The small size of the inner bailey, in reality perhaps more of a barbican, suggests that the royal hall, documented from 1246 but probably present from the beginning, was on the motte top.
It is not yet clear when the earth and timber defences began to be replaced in stone, but stretches of thin, slabby rubble in the curtain walls and motte wing walls may be indicative of work in the late 12th or early 13th century.
Major changes took place throughout the 13th century, some documented, some suggested by the excavations. The single surviving medieval building, often called the hall, is fairly certainly the camera regis or royal chamber built in 1239-41, a date consistent with the dendrochronological evidence from the building. It may have been constructed as part of a larger rebuilding campaign that saw the west side of the inner bailey expanded westwards by pushing a terrace out over the gradient behind a newly-built ashlar curtain wall. This is one of the conclusions of the 2020 excavation trench through the western rampart, which found medieval tipped strata at a level below that of the natural gravel seen in the interior of the bailey in 2019.
Meanwhile, the east side of the motte was subject to erosion by the River Severn and the consequent partial collapse of the motte was recorded by an enquiry held in 1255; in 1269-71 a ‘great wooden tower’ fell down and was said to be totally destroyed. The motte top was repaired towards the end of the 13th century with a new wall built across the damaged side in red and white striped masonry. The motte ditch appears to have been infilled, mainly by the deposition of rubbish, and a new castle well, which survives, was dug within it.
As the town grew, the outer bailey was built over. In 1220-c.1250 when the town walls were built, the outer bailey was walled continuously with the rest of the town and no longer separated from it; the tenements that had been established there continued to pay their ground rents to the crown while those outside, further south, paid theirs to the borough.
Two early plans show what had become of the castle by the end of the 16th century. The Burghley Map of Shrewsbury of c.1575 shows the main building unroofed, a smaller building (perhaps St Michael’s) in ruins, and just one roofed building standing in the inner bailey in the area of the surviving well. A sketch plan by the master mason John Smythson of 1627 likewise shows the main building, and most of the curtain walls, in a ruined condition; it also shows a gatehouse of which there is no other evidence.
Restoration came in 1643-44 when the castle was garrisoned by the Royalists, and the borough’s mayoral accounts record expenditure on the main gate and its new barbican, a new postern gate, walls and outworks. The castle was captured for Parliament in February 1645; what appears to be battle-damage can be seen on the woodwork of the main gate and around the openings of the main building but this identification now needs confirmation by battlefield archaeologists. After its capture, the Parliamentarians continued the Royalists’ restoration of the main building, its roof and gallery built with timber felled in the winter of 1647. The castle was finally de-munitioned in 1686 and became a private residence.
Thomas Telford’s ‘restoration’ of the castle in 1786-1790 for Sir William Pulteney was nothing if not brutal. The excavations in the inner bailey have shown that the interior was levelled down, scraped bare, and at least some of the material used to enhance or even create the ‘ramparts’ around the perimeter. Illustrations show that, until 1786, the motte top was still occupied by a 13th-century round tower and the ruins of other, as yet unidentified, buildings. These were all swept away and replaced by Telford’s ‘Laura’s Tower’, a fine, two-storey summerhouse in the Gothick style.
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.
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!
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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Excavation Director Jim Brightman of Solstice Archaeology
So, we are very much at that point on the dig where we are in amongst the really fascinating medieval archaeology, but we are still teasing the answers out of what are turning into quite complex layers.
One place where we are still not sure about whether we are seeing medieval archaeology is in Trench 1: ironically the one trench sited right against the colossal curtain wall of the Castle! The small finds have been outstanding from the upper levels, including a selection of particularly well made and decorated medieval pottery—evidence of the high-status dining that would have graced the tables of the great and good. As we have investigated the substantial buttresses, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that a lot of the stonework around the trench may in fact be an invention of the Ministry of Works in the 20th century! It turns out that the enterprising work teams may have gone a little beyond their remit of consolidation and let their imaginations run free!
Trench 3 is the biggest mystery of all though. We have a clear sequence back through time: modern topsoil, early-20th-century building foundations, the Victorian and later parade ground and a post-medieval soil that had built up after the Castle had fallen out of use. Beneath this, we were hoping for the remains of a medieval building, and that is what we have found. Sort of.
The exposed remains comprise a series of massive limestone slabs, not squared and dressed like flagstones but nevertheless laid with some skill. They look a little like a yard that we might see in front of a typical Yorkshire Dales farm, but there are a set of slabs laid at an angle as if forming the side of a shallow pond. If this wasn’t strange enough, the whole arrangement is curved in an arc, part of a much larger feature extending beyond the trench. So far, all our theories don’t quite fit with what we can see in the trench, so the only thing left to do is dig more—out and down—and see what is revealed!
By Dig Director Jim Brightman of Solstice Archaeology
A quick update today as the main theme has been deploying mattocks to really push on through the more modern levels to try and reach the undisturbed medieval deposits. That means the main excitement of the day was the small finds that continue to emerge from the mixed overburden and 20th-century landscaping: animal bone in considerable quantities, more medieval pottery, what appears to be a hobnail and something that looks suspiciously like window lead.
The highlight of the day, however, was uncovered in Trench 3 (see plan below)—an area where we the volunteers are diligently digging through the clay dump of the former military parade ground in baking heat! What at first we thought was a corroded button (we’ve had one of those already), turned out on closer inspection to be a 14th-century French jetton!
Jettons were one example of a growing system of trade tokens often used in lieu of coins in specific areas or for specific trades. Jettons, however, were primarily used as accounting tokens, providing a visual means of making calculations on a large wooden board. This find gives us a fascinating insight into both the mechanics of medieval trade centred on Richmond Castle, and also the way in which many great magnates held considerable land on both sides of the Channel in this period.
By Dig Director, Jim Brightman of Solstice Archaeology
Things are moving apace despite the sweltering conditions this week. We are now three days into the excavation, and all three trenches currently open have yielded up a variety of medieval pottery sherds as well as plenty of more recent artefacts.
Given the anticipated depths of some of the remains we are looking for, the last two days have seen a concerted flurry of digging to get through the topsoil and 20th-century overburden, particularly in Trenches 2 and 3. Once again the volunteers have excelled themselves and maintained a wonderfully positive attitude—whether debating the merits of marmalade and boiled egg toasties (apparently it’s a thing) or trying to convince the trench supervisors that they’ve found a Roman road (it wasn’t, but a good effort nevertheless).
Perhaps the most excitement that was generated among visitors to the Castle, however, was the discovery of a largely complete jawbone from a horse! Although it was a little too high in the deposits to be evidence for medieval stables (or a meal!), it was a real reminder to everyone that as we’re digging ever deeper, we never truly know what we are going to find.
From the point of view of our main aims for the excavation, the biggest news of the day is that we starting to see the hints of probably medieval walling in both Trenches 1 and 2. Trench 1 by Robin Hood Tower is butted against the standing walls of the castle, but a lot of the stonework in this area was rebuilt and consolidated by the Ministry of Works in the 20th century. What we are seeing here are the first signs of original medieval stones beneath the surface—very exciting!
Trench 2, however, was targeted to find part of a range of buildings never before known and revealed through geophysical survey. As the sun started to dip at the end of the day, and as we were starting to think about packing up the tools, loose rock started to turn up through the centre of the trench. A little more careful trowelling by the team soon revealed what may be the rubble core of a wall—our first window back into this untouched medieval structure.
Jim Brightman of Solstice Archaeology, dig director of the Richmond Castle excavation, outlines what the next three weeks of excavations of Richmond Castle to mark the 950th anniversary of its founding. The excavation is being co-funded by the Castle Studies Trust along with Richmond and District Civic Society and Richmond District Council.
By way of an introduction to the Richmond 950 community excavation, I’m going to start with a bit of a personal reminiscence. I am a former pupil at Richmond School, and in the dim and distant past when I was in in Lower School (the old Grammar School building), the first topic covered in history lessons was the medieval period. I’d already been fascinated by the past through primary school, and I was ready for it to be my favourite class. I wasn’t disappointed. On a seasonably warm autumn afternoon, we all trooped up the hill for our first site visit: Richmond Castle.
Many, many years later, having studied archaeology at university and spent my early career in and around the Peak District, I moved back home in 2012. The first time I walked back into town, I vividly remember thinking “was the Castle always that big?!”. Then as now, and as in the centuries preceding, the keep towers over the marketplace, easily the most prominent building in the town’s skyline. Indeed, I was so taken with this icon of my childhood love of history, that the outline of the Castle now features on my company’s stationery!
With the 950th anniversary of the Castle’s original founding rapidly approaching, I was overjoyed at the opportunity to run a volunteer archaeology excavation as part of the wider celebrations being held in the town through the course of 2021. Having been fortunate enough to be involved in a lot of community archaeology projects through the course of my career, it felt like a real homecoming.
As we started developing the project, it became clear that there was a wealth of places within the Castle where targeted excavation had the potential to shed light on parts of its story that have remained hidden. Geophysical survey in recent years has revealed whole complexes of possible walls and structures beneath the grassy sward of the bailey, and Richmond 950 is the first time that they will see the light of day for many, many centuries.
The volunteer archaeology project was made a reality by the kind support of several funders, all of whom believed in the vision of engaging local people directly with the tangible past in such a beautiful and historic setting. We are very grateful to the Castle Studies Trust, Richmond and District Civic Society and Richmondshire District Council for their huge generosity and support – I feel strongly we will repay your trust with a fantastic project!
As I write this on the eve of the project starting, we are almost fully booked in terms of volunteer places—a real testament to the interest in archaeology in and around Richmond. That said, if you are reading this and getting the itch to try your hand at archaeology, then there are still a few places available on our Eventbrite link; no experience is required and everything you need to unlock your inner Indiana Jones is provided! Even if you are just interested in finding out more, then the Castle is still open to visitors through the next three weeks while we are digging, and we would be delighted to talk you through the unfolding story of the archaeology.