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

By Dig Director Jim Brightman of Solstice Heritage

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

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

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

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

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

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Medieval Climate Change at Caerlaverock – Fieldwork Week Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Feature image courtesy of Historic Environment Scotland

Richmond Castle Excavation Day 8: Mysteries on mysteries

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.

Trench 3 flagstones

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!

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Richmond Castle Excavations Day 6: Pause and Re-Evaluate

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.

Trench 2: Remains of parade ground drainage system

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.

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Richmond Castle Excavations Day 4: Big digging and big rewards!

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.

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Richmond Castle Excavations Day 3: Horses and Walls

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).

Jaw of Horse

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!

Possible remains of a medieval wall

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.

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Richmond Castle Excavations Day 1: Opening Up

By Dig Director Jim Brightman of Solstice Archaeology

Although my plan with these posts was only to provide updates of juicy finds and exciting discoveries, I really wanted to just put pen to paper (so to speak) on the evening of the first day on site. It has been an absolute scorcher, which was not ideal for the back-breaking labour of de-turfing, but the project volunteers have been fantastic!

We removed all the turf in the two largest trenches we are planning on excavating: the east ‘entrance’ by Robin Hood Tower and the confluence of wall foundations near the Great Chamber revealed through geophysical survey.

First days on excavations are always a little unusual as everything gets set up, people find their feet and there’s often not a lot in the way of instant rewards in the topsoil. That said, the reception we have received from the English Heritage team and the crowds of visitors to the castle has been wonderful. Sitting with a family on the edge of Trench 1 going through the various topsoil finds and letting them hold these artefacts in their hands will never be less than a fantastic experience.

Irene with the piece of green glazed pottery she found

The first handful of finds have already started to paint a picture of the dual nature of Richmond Castle. The early 20th century was well represented with a large tent peg (let’s imagine it was from the very tent of Robert Baden-Powell!), some scattered pottery and a small bullet casing. The most exciting moment, however, was when Irene pulled out the first piece of medieval pottery: a fantastic fragment of green-glazed handle from a large jug! A few more pieces followed near the end of the day, and we are all eager to see what is revealed as we start to get deeper.

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Revealing Richmond Castle’s Secrets: Excavation Starting Monday 19 July

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.

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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!

Richmond Castle’s Great from the Bailey near where some of the trenches will be placed. Picture courtesy of English Heritage.

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.

Richmond Castle from the air. Most of the excavation will take place along the far wall where many remains have been located. Picture courtesy of English Heritage.

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.

See you in the Castle!

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Medieval Climate Change at Caerlaverock – Fieldwork Week One

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

Well, somewhat later than planned or advertised, the first week of fieldwork at the old castle at Caerlaverock began on 3rd July. It has been dated by oak tree rings from the drawbridge across the moat to c. AD1229. The new castle, a couple of hundred metres away and upslope, began construction only 50 years later. Why the rebuild? This is the mystery.

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An image from a LiDAR survey, with the vegetation removed, showing the landscape and old coastline around the ‘old’ and ‘new’ castles at Caerlaverock

The natural environment played a role. Some archaeologists think the old castle started to fall apart because it was built on soft sediment, a deep clay-rich silt locally called ‘carse’. And sure enough, the new castle was built on the nearest outcrop of bedrock. But twenty years ago, a team of environmental archaeologists from the Universities of Stirling and Coventry found an additional reason for abandonment of the old castle. They found, in a wide ditch next to its moat, a thick layer of grey estuarine-marine mud penetrating the brown freshwater peat of the ditch. This suggested that very large storm surges impacted the environs of the old castle. Further work found very large gravel beach ridges, thrown up in these storms, stacked against the old shoreline.

That team included Dr Richard Tipping and Dr Eileen Tisdall from the University of Stirling. Now we are back to find more evidence and improve the dating of the sediments funded by the Castle Studies Trust, as Historic Environment Scotland, the custodians of both castles, seek to update what we know of Caerlaverock and improve the visitor experience.

Dr Tipping using the ‘simple’ corer to extract sediment cores

For a week, 3rd-10th July, Richard Tipping stuck tiny (2.5cm diameter) holes in sediments in the ditches and moat with a simple corer, a metre-long metal gutter with a handle on the end. Push it in, turn it around to cut out a sample and pull it out, together with a metre of sediment. Record the sediment and then repeat, usually in a straight line called a transect. He did this over 80 times in the week. Isn’t science exciting? It wasn’t too hard: the sediments in the ditches and moats are less than a metre thick before the ‘natural’, as archaeologists call it, the sterile silt of the ‘carse’. But because the sediments are so thin, and because we knew that they recorded a lot of environmental ‘events’ in a short period of time, logging the cores in detail took time. A challenge, too: there are only so many shades of grey or brown.

Dr Tipping logging the details of a sediment core

Coring started in the artificial ditch that runs parallel to the moat. This was where we first began, twenty years ago, to realise that something funny was going on; in fact, several funny things. Why, in the first place, dig a 60 m long, 3 m wide ditch alongside one side, and only one side, of the moat? Twenty years ago, radiocarbon dates on freshwater peat at the base of the ditch hinted that this ditch was actually earlier than the old castle, maybe 200 years earlier. We aim to clarify this. Coring found the same sediments we found last time, which is always reassuring. Peat at the base of the ditch was replaced by grey silt. This was sealed by more peat. There is more grey silt at the end of the ditch nearest the coast, although the upper layer penetrated the full 60 m length.

We could not understand, twenty years ago, the filling of the moat with sediment: too few boreholes, too far apart. This time, cores were spaced 1.5 to 3 m apart along a 40 m long line. Archaeologists generally excavate and record continuous sections. We can’t do this because the site is a Scheduled Monument, and besides, the sediment is under water (though this week mercifully dry underfoot), so we construct our section from transects of cores, ‘joining up the dots’ by correlation. For the first time we can show that the moat was probably affected by the same environmental impacts that hit the parallel ditch. This is only ‘probable’ because radiocarbon dating has yet to show the events are the same. But grey silt entered the moat from the coast, pushing up the moat, probably eroding earlier-formed peat but not penetrating the full length. At the end farthest from the coast, near the bridge, peat continued to form.

A line of flags showing the transect of boreholes in one arm of the moat, approaching the footbridge to the old Castle, itself precisely where the original drawbridge was.

Our cores also revealed two new aspects of moat construction. The first is that the constructors took a shortcut in making the moat. In two arms of the moat, they had incorporated natural stream channels in the moat, twice as deep as the rest of the moat. This was a way, of course, to ensure the moat was under water. But away from these channels, the ‘natural’ lay only 20-40 cm below the present sediment surface. If the water surface then was as it is now, the depth of water would have been barely above the knee. You might have waded to the castle rather than use the drawbridge.

Coring in parts of the moat also hit stone at shallow depths. The carse itself is stoneless, and so the stone was emplaced by people. Stabbing around with the corer revealed these stones to be large blocks. They are concentrated at one corner of the moat, nearest the coast. Maybe they were buttresses put in to strengthen the foundations of the castle, either as it started to subside, or maybe undermined by storm surges.

Now I’m thinking and planning the next part of the campaign, straightening my back, and hoping the insect bites subside: the joys of fieldwork. From 17th July we start again, for a week, away from the old castle and out onto the old beach ridges and the basins formed by them. In the early 2000s, tree-felling of Sitka spruce allowed us to see what we were doing. Now it’s a dense tangle of semi-natural oak woodland and not easy to move around in. Wish me luck!

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Is the The Wirk a Castle? Archaeological investigations in Rousay, Orkney

Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon and Dan Lee (UHI Archaeology Institute / ORCA) project leads for the Castle Studies Trust funded project explain the reasons behind the excavations they are undertaking at The Wirk in the Orkneys and what they hope to achieve during their two week dig.

Located on the south-western coast of Rousay, The Wirk is located in one of the most archaeologically rich parts of Orkney. The Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) is undertaking geophysical survey, archaeological excavations and 3D modelling at this enigmatic castle site (pending approval from HES).

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The Wirk, meaning stronghold in Old Norse, and with the alternative name Westness Castle, is a small stone tower located close to the coast. It has variously been interpreted as a 12th century Norse Castle, a detached fortified bell-tower, a 13th century defensive tower for an incomplete church, a hall-house garderobe tower and most recently a 16th century tower and attached range.

View of The Wirk, located on the righthand corner of St Mary’s Church yard in the foreground, looking northwest to Midhowe and the Atlantic Ocean (Image: Bobby Friel @TakeTheHighView).DCIM100MEDIADJI_0558.JPG

Minor clearance and excavation in the 1920s identified similarities in construction between The Wirk and the 12th century Cubbie Roo’s Castle, on the nearby island of Wyre, considered to be one of the earliest stone keeps in Scotland. The Wirk is located in Westness which has been a large estate since at least the 12th century when it was the home of the Norse chieftain Sigurd of Westness (Orkneyinga saga). It is adjacent to Rousay parish church, likely to date from the 12th century, with standing remains of 16th century date on earlier footings.

Recently, the 12th/13th century date attribution of The Wirk has been rejected in favour of a 16th century date. This new interpretation is based on the built remains and 16th century architectural fragments which were found in the 1920s. However, architectural fragments of 12th/13th century date were also present and nearby archaeology, particularly the discovery earlier this year of a Norse hall at Skaill by the UHI Archaeology Institute would suggest this was a high-status place in the saga period. This is not to dispute that The Wirk may also have been in use in the 16th century when the estate was owned by a prominent Orkney family. One of the objectives of this project is to excavate trial trenches over Clouston’s excavation and at the eastern end of the site to identify the earliest phases of the tower and adjacent building. Upper parts of the tower were substantially rebuilt in the 19th century and so excavation will allow us to record parts of the site that have not been knowingly rebuilt.

Inside The Wirk tower, looking southeast, showing the entrance to an underground well or passage (Image: Dan Lee)

Along with the excavations, targeted geophysical survey around The Wirk undertaken in September 2020 aims to better understand any relationships between the tower and the buildings/features which surround it. The results show that the walls planned by Clouston are accurate and that they likely survive just below the ground surface. 3D modelling of The Wirk and Cubbie Roo’s Castle will enhance our understanding of these comparable sites and allow the public to explore the remains online.

 The start of the project was delayed in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and we will be glad to finally get on site for the excavations in July.

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References and further reading:

Clouston, JS 1931 Early Norse Castles. The Orcadian. Kirkwall