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.
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.
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?
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 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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 Excavation Director Jim Brightman of Solstice Heritage
So, at the end of a frantic and incredibly hot first week on site, it’s time to take a day off and let things marinade a little.
It has been a joy and privilege to work with so many enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers. We have had people of all ages coming and getting stuck into the digging—sometimes it’s been delicate and sometimes it’s been fairly heavy going with mattocks and shovels—and not a single frown or grumble!
So, where have we got to?
It’s very much been an archaeological tale of two halves.
Firstly, we have the small finds that have been coming out of the ground. As I’ve mentioned in some of the earlier posts, we have had some really illuminating items, including: a fine selection of different kinds of medieval pottery, an impressive collection of animal bone (turns out it was probably a deer jaw not a horse!) with marks of butchery on them, and a lot of more recent items relating to the late Victorian and early 20th-century use of the Castle.
Some of my favourite objects have been those that have a really personal connection, however. In all the trenches we have found a fair number of graphite ‘pencils’, giving a lovely image of the army trainees at the camp in the 1900s feverishly noting down instructions and reminders.
Whilst the artefacts are giving us a general picture of all the different periods of the Castle’s history, the second part of our story comprises the archaeological deposits and layers themselves. Here, we have very much been digging our way through the deep deposits dating from 1850 onwards: the army parade ground and the mid-20th-century landscaping to turn Richmond Castle into the tourist site familiar to visitors today.
The possible wall we were so excited about on Tuesday evening turned out to be part of the drainage system from the parade ground, but as the sun was dipping on Friday we started to see tantalising hints that the loose stone lies on top of a much more well-built structure—our first hints of undisturbed medieval deposits!
So, if week 1 was spent in the time of Baden-Powell and the Richmond Sixteen, then it looks like week 2 will be when we make our acquaintance with the lords, ladies, knights and commoners of medieval Richmond.