Lowther Medieval Castle Week Four Dig Diary: Into the Labs

In Week Fourth and final week of the Lowther Medieval Castle and Village Project 2024, the team moved into the UCLan labs. This crucial phase allows us to draw together the evidence we’ve collected last year and this, from the recording of trenches to the analysis of soil samples.

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A major part of this process is the transfer of trench plans onto a Geographic Information System (GIS). During excavations, the dig team thoroughly recorded the contents of trenches in situ. This included the painstaking task of drawing the cobbled surfaces found inside the ringwork castle at 1:20 scale. Now, these hand drawings are transferred to the GIS and the outline of every cobblestone is traced digitally so that the archaeological contexts within the trenches be plotted with pinpoint accuracy.

Figure 1 Both last year and this, student archaeologists painstakingly recorded by hand the contents of all trenches
Figure 2 With hand drawings of trenches transferred to the project GIS, each component of the drawing needs to be traced digitally

Meanwhile, the team is also plotting onto the GIS hundreds of data points from around the ringwork castle taken using a Global Positioning System (GPS). This allows us to create a three-dimensional digital model of the ringwork castle, in order to investigate its form and plot the positioning and contents of trenches from this year and last, building up our picture of the castle, its features and finds.

Figure 3 Taking hundreds of data points via the GPS enables the team to construct a 3D digital model of the ringwork castle
Figure 4 Trenches from both phases of excavation can be plotted onto the 3D model of the ringwork castle using the GIS

While one cohort of student archaeologists has been busy in the computer labs, another has been hard at work processing soil samples. Throughout the excavation, the team has been collecting bulk soil samples of 40 litres from all trenches. These samples have now been processed using water flotation, in order to recover charred plant remains, as well as small bones and artefacts. This has so far yielded environmental evidence such as tiny snail shells, which can be analysed to reconstruct the surrounding environment at the time the ringwork castle was built.

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Figure 5 Dozens of soil samples have been processed using water flotation
Figure 6 Soil sample processing yields environmental evidence, such as tiny snail shells

Now that Phase Two investigations are drawing to a close, the team has also been able to take stock of the small finds garnered this year. As discussed in our last Dig Diary, this year’s finds have included cockle shells and gritty ware pottery, both of which will help us to date the castle and trace activity at Lowther in the Middle Ages. This builds on intriguing earlier finds this year of animal bones, including an articulated fetlock (discussed in our first Dig Diary this year). We can now add to this a bone bead, small but delicately carved, which looks to be dateable to the Middle Ages.

Figure 7 A small carved bone bead found during this year’s excavation

Work on analysing these finds – and the broader phase of analysis – is ongoing, and will be compiled into the project’s second interim report in due course.

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Lowther Medieval Castle Dig Diary: Week Three

After a bit of a hiatus, co-project lead, Dr Sophie Ambler, gives an update of how the excavations at Lowther Castle went with some possible dating evidence.

Weeks two and three of the Lowther Medieval Castle project brought significant progress, both in excavating a significant portion of the ringwork castle interior and ‘watchtower mound’, and in producing some long-hoped-for finds.

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Trench Seven explored the so-called ‘watchtower mound’, the protrusion of the bank at the ringwork’s south-eastern corner, overlooking the attached settlement to the east, which may have afforded the castle’s occupants an elevated view over the settlement. The trench revealed a compacted stony surface that likely represents a foundation levelling layer. No evidence has been found of a structure having stood on this mound, although it may be that postholes or other evidence of a timber palisade may have been lost over the years to slippage. Soil samples were taken from across the trench and will be tested this week for environmental evidence. Meanwhile, as noted in the last dig diary, the trench had already yielded an equine fetlock joint, which can hopefully be radiocarbon dated.

The final stage of excavation in Trench Seven also revealed further intriguing evidence of activity: two cockleshells, again from a secure context. Cockles are abundant in the bays and estuaries of Cumbria’s coast. Although Lowther is thirty to forty miles from the coast, the presence of cockles is not as unlikely as it may first seem. Excavations at other inland castle sites have shown evidence of bivalve consumption. For instance, a significant assemblage of bivalve shells from across the medieval period has been found at Dudley Castle in Worcestershire, comprising mostly oysters but also cockles, mussels and whelks. Oysters formed the focus of a recent analysis, which revealed that these made up perhaps more than ten per cent of dietary intake at Dudley in the final quarter of the eleventh century (a much higher percentage in the fourteenth century). The challenge of transporting such produce quickly to inland sites made it something of a luxury foodstuff, but one that was clearly popular for castle-holding elites. (Thomas et al, 2018).

Meanwhile, Trench Six, which covers a significant portion of the ringwork castle interior, has yielded several pottery sherds. These were also found in a secure context, here the ringwork’s bank, by the entranceway. The study of medieval pottery in the North West is challenging due to the relative lack of securely datable evidence. This is especially true in Cumbria, which is generally finds-poor for the Middle Ages and where pottery from rural settlements (as opposed to Carlisle) has been less studied. Still, comparators can be found in the pottery assemblage at Cumwhinton, a rural medieval settlement about twenty miles north of Lowther that may have been home to pottery production. Lowther’s sherds appear to be ‘gritty ware’, a utilitarian fabric, most examples of which are from jars and jugs (and occasionally small dishes). This was the dominant fabric used across the north of England in the twelfth century and the earliest form of post-Conquest pottery in Cumbria. (Railton et al, 2014).

Although not definitive dating evidence yet, these finds are contributing significantly to our evidence base, which will help us to date our site and build its biography. We also hope that analysis now being undertaken in UCLan’s archaeology labs will continue to contribute to this evidence base. This includes analysis of soil samples, which may yield environmental evidence, and of finds, including animal bone and the pottery sherds. Watch this space for an ongoing report!

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References:

Thomas et al, 2018: Richard Thomas, Matt Law, Emma Browning, Alistair Hill and Rachel Small, ‘The Changing Exploitation of Oysters (Ostrea edulis L. 1758) in Late Medieval and Early Modern England: A Case Study from Dudley Castle, West Midlands’, Environmental Archaeology 25 (2020), 82-95

Railton et al, 2014: Martin Railton, Jeremy Bradley, Ian Millar, Meagan Stoakley, David Jackson, Don O’Meara and Alan Hall, ‘Peter Gate, Cumwhinton: Archaeological Investigation of a Medieval Rural Site’, Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society 14 (2014) 63-102.

Lowther Medieval Castle Dig Diary 2024: Week One

The first week of our 2024 excavations at Lowther (Cumbria) has brought excellent progress. This year we’re focusing our efforts on two trenches. (You can catch up with last year’s excavation on the CST blog).

Trench 7 is sited on the mound at the south-eastern corner of the ringwork. This juts out from the ringwork’s circumferential bank, overlooking the settlement to the east over which the castle presided. Could this mound have held a watchtower or any other structure? Trench 7, across the top of the mound, has so far revealed a stony context, which may be the surface of the ringwork’s built-up bank. A roundish, stone-free context within the trench might be evidence of a feature but might otherwise indicate where a tree has grown in the bank and been removed. There is no clear evidence so far of a structure, but the trench has yielded an intriguing find: horse bones, in the form of an articulated fetlock (ankle) joint. Because the joint is articulated, this means that the horse’s entire fetlock was deposited on the mound (i.e. skin, flesh and bone). Further examination of the bones, potentially including carbon dating, may reveal more.

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Figure 1: Student archaeologists from UCLan excavating in Trench 7, on the south-eastern mound of the ringwork castle.
Figure 2: Jim Morris (UCLan) demonstrates the articulated horse fetlock joint discovered in Trench 7.

Meanwhile, Trench 6 has been opened over the north-eastern quarter of the ringwork castle interior. The trench also stretches eastward through the original entranceway to the castle, which is cut into the eastern bank. The goal here is to reveal much more of the original medieval cobbled floor surface discovered last year, looking for evidence of any structures. If we can find postholes around the entranceway, this might indicate a timber gatehouse (at Castle Tower, Penmaen in Glamorgan, excavations of a similar ringwork revealed evidence of a six-posted timber gatehouse). The castle’s interior may have also have held simple timber buildings, providing shelter for the castle’s guardian and their household.

Tantalizingly, by Day 5 of our dig, Trench 6 was beginning to yield potential evidence of a structure. A dark, rectangular feature is visible within the medieval cobbled surface of the castle interior. We don’t know yet whether it overlays the cobbled surface or is cut into it and, either way, whether it dates to the castle’s earliest phases. It may be that further excavations will reveal postholes, or it may be that that the structure was built simply across wooden beams, effectively floating on the cobbled surface. Hopefully, Week Two will reveal more!

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Figure 4: While stuents continue trowelling in Trench 6, Jim Morris indicates the outline of a rectangular feature.

Meanwhile, to the north of the ringwork castle, in a partner investigation supported by the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, we are conducting a geophysical survey. Last year, in Phase One investigations supported by the CST, we surveyed a large area to the east of the ringwork castle, taking in what we think is the original Lowther village, built concurrently with the castle and linked to it by a trackway. Extending our geophysical survey allows us to investigate Lowther as a broader site, extending across the promontory overlooking the River Lowther. What was on this promontory before the ringwork castle was built? How far did the village extend across the promontory? This year, then, we’re surveying at the northern end of the promontory, in the area east of St Michael’s church.

The geophysical survey has run concurrently with excavations across Week One and will hopefully provide evidence of activity at Lowther across the centuries.

Figure 6: Rob Evershed from Allen Archaeology checks through ongoing results from the geophysical survey with UCLan students

For regular updates on our investigation, follow us on Twitter/X at #LowtherMedievalCastle. You can learn more of Lowther’s history and catch up with last year’s investigation on BBC2’s Digging for Britain, Series 11 Episode 1, available on BBC iPlayer.

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Lowther Castle excavation: season one results and what to look forward to in season two

Phase Two excavations at the putative partial ringwork castle at Lowther (Cumbria) will get underway on Sunday 12th May 2024. The project team leaders Drs Sophie Ambler and Jim Morris look at one they found in season one and look forward to what the want to will be examining in season two.

The Lowther Medieval Castle and Village Project unites History and Archaeology through Lancaster University, the University of Central Lancaster, and Allen Archaeology, with the support of Lowther Castle and Gardens Trust and the Lowther estate team.  Phase One excavations in summer 2023, generously funded by the Castle Studies Trust (CST), saw a geophysical survey of Lowther’s north park and excavations of the ‘castlestead’ earthwork. Phase Two will see further excavations of the castle earthwork, funded by the CST, and a geophysical survey of the area to the north, funded by the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society (CWAAS).

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The site at Lowther is potentially of great significance for castle studies and the medieval history of Britain. We have good reason to think the site is associated with the second phase of the Norman Conquest: the annexation and plantation settlement of the Kingdom of Cumbria under William Rufus in 1092.

Thanks to the 2023 excavations and their interim report, we can begin to investigate how Lowther sits within ringwork castle typology. This is a partial ringwork, sited on the edge of a promontory, its banks built up on the landward sides. It thus took advantage of its landscape to be seen and to see. This conforms to a model for castle siting that aimed to produce (in the words of Oliver Creighton) ‘a conspicuous symbol of power with a panoptical viewshed over the surrounding territory’. At approximately 27m X 22m, Lowther sits at the smaller end of the ringwork spectrum. In that its central area is raised above external ground level, with landward circumferential banks elevated further, it bears comparison with ringworks of Norman Ireland.

Trench Two investigated the construction of the castle’s north bank. This was one of our biggest undertakings in 2023: the trench measured 15m north-south, and 1m east-west, cutting through the northern bank, all excavated by hand. It was certainly worth the toil. A large block of limestone appears to represent the first layer of the castle’s construction; this is followed by at least four separate building deposits. Seemingly the bank was built up from a number of earthen layers with some smaller stone layers incorporated into the bank, perhaps for stability.

Lowther Castle excavation trench 2 looking north. Copyright Jim Morris

The trench’s southern part, within the castle interior, was also revealing. The stratigraphy, together with the clear level difference between the interior and northern exterior of the castle, suggest how the castle was constructed, first with a great mound, then with bank layers added around the northern, southern, and eastern banks to create the partial ringwork. No evidence has yet been found of a fosse associated with the castle, although Trench Two revealed a small feature at the far north of the trench, of a silty fill cut into the subsoil, running east-west (with a north-south width of 1.52m), possibly a drainage ditch the filled up gradually.

Lowther Castle: west facing section of trench 2. Copyright James Morris

Trench Four began to uncover the castle’s entranceway, in a break in the eastern bank. The removal of topsoil and subsoil revealed a metalled surface, comprising river stones ranging from 0.04 to 0.11m, between 0.20 and 0.15m deep. This seems to be the metalled interior surface of the castle, starting at the entranceway.

Lowther Castle: trench four under excavation. Copyright James Morris

Our 2023 excavation yielded little in the way of small finds, although this is not unusual for medieval Cumbria, and may also suggest that the castle was not long occupied. Meanwhile, in the hopes of finding good dating evidence, bulk soil samples of 40 litres (or 100% of a deposit if less was available) were taken from potentially datable features and layers for flotation for charred plant remains and for the recovery of small bones and artefacts. Bulk soil samples were processed using standard water flotation at the University of Central Lancashire. The results will be incorporated in the project’s final report.

Phase Two excavations will go further in investigating the castle’s construction – this time focusing on the interior. Can we identify a gatehouse structure? A potential comparator for Lowther is Castle Tower, Penmaen (Glamorgan), a partial ringwork sited on a promontory, of similar size and likewise with an entranceway gap: excavations here revealed a substantial Norman timber gatehouse, supported by six posts, and fosse. Phase Two will thus excavate an extended area over the entranceway and beyond. And can we identify interior structures (such as the small timber hall evidenced at Penmaen)? Phase Two will open a substantial area – a quadrant of the interior – to reveal the metalled surface, aimed at identifying postholes as well as maximising chances of recovering small finds.

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Meanwhile, a partner investigation will get underway in the area around St Michael’s church, just north of the partial ringwork. The castle, village, and Norman church of St Michael’s represent a typical configuration for a medieval manor. The presence of Hogback and other stone sculptures (c.700-1000) at St Michael’s hints at an earlier religious site: can this be established and, if so, what form did it take and how did the Norman settlement overwrite it? And how far did the medieval settlement, attached to the castle, extend northward? Building on our geophysical survey from Phase One, Phase Two’s geophysical survey, supported by CWAAS, takes in the surrounds of St Michael’s.

There is more information on the Lowther Medieval Castle and Village Project on the project website. The 2023 investigation was also featured on BBC2’s Digging for Britain (Series 11 Episode 1), available on BBC iPlayer. The May issue of BBC History Magazine also includes an article on the early medieval Kingdom of Cumbria, placing Lowther’s ringwork castle in its broader context.

Excavations will run on weekdays at Lowther Castle and Gardens from 13th to 31st May 2024. The north park, where our site lies, is free to access. Visitors are welcome! Entrance to the nineteenth-century castle and gardens offers further opportunities to explore the site’s history: the partial ringwork castle features in Lowther Castle’s new exhibition. Information on visits can be found on the Lowther Castle website.

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You can find the interim report of last year’s excavation here: Grants and Results 2023 | Castle Studies Trust

What did the Castle Studies Trust funded research at Bamburgh find?

Jo Kirton and Graeme Young, co-director of the Bamburgh Research Project (BRP) outlines what happened during their 2023 season and what the CST funded part of the research at this iconic castle revealed.

Throughout July 2023 BRP staff ran our annual field school at Bamburgh Castle, which is currently exploring the medieval outworks at the northern tip of the castle. We also welcomed several experts to site, funded by our CST grant, to undertake complementary survey alongside our excavation.

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Historic Building Consultant Peter Ryder joined us to undertake a preliminary masonry survey of the extant outworks while Tony Liddel from Vindomora Solutions created several 3D models of the standing outworks and internal structures of Elmund’s Tower and our associated trenches. Dr Kristian Strutt and his team from the University of Southampton undertook a geophysical survey of the castle ditch and explored how this interacts with the outworks, as well as identifying related features and access ways to St Oswald’s Gate. BRP staff and students worked with the team, trying their hand at GPR, resistivity and magnetometry.

The reports from the masonry and geophysical survey, plus the associated3D models have now been completed and incorporated into the BRP’s Interim Report on Work on the Outworks Beyond St Oswald’s Gate. This is a summary.

Background

The Bamburgh Research Project (BRP) was set up in 1996-97 to undertake archaeological investigation of Bamburgh Castle and its environs. The area immediately within St Oswald’s Gate was investigated in an effort to identify early elements of the fortification and structures associated with the entrance; documentary evidence indicates that this gate was the principal, and perhaps only, entrance to the fortress in the 8th century AD and likely remained such until the main gate was relocated to its present position in the 12th century.

The rock outcrop on which Bamburgh Castle stands is comprised of volcanic dolerite that rises some 30m above the external ground surface. The surface of the plateau is c.3 hectares in area. It undulates in height, sloping downwards from the Inner Ward area at the south-east, which reaches 45m OD, to the north-west end of the West Ward where St Oswald’s Gate lies. Here a natural cleft in the bedrock on the landward side leads out and down the slope of the plateau. This has formed a natural route up to the summit from earliest times bridging, if awkwardly, the height difference between the West Ward at some 22m above sea level and the surrounding ground surface that lay at 13m OD. St Oswald’s Gate is written about as the entrance to the fortress of Bamburgh in the 8th century AD (Symeon HK, III. pg 37) and was very likely the earliest route up onto the rock plateau.

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Current work

The present phase of work began in the summer of 2021. We are investigating the entrance, the access routes up to the entrance and the structures and outworks built to control this route over many generations. One area of focus was the recovery of the site of the Tower of Elmund’s Well, named in records from the 13th century (Colvin, H. M. 1973, 556) and onto which a cottage was constructed in the late 18th century.

The plan outline of the cottage/tower structure was quickly revealed during the first phase of investigation by the removal of foliage and a modest volume of aeolian sand. One of the first exciting discoveries during the 2022 excavation was the presence of two splayed lights (open window-like features) in two of the walls.

Figure 1: Aerial photo of the outworks with the cottage/tower seen in the top right corner. The steps that lead back to St Oswald’s Gate, through the Wing Wall, at the bottom of the photo. Facing west. Copyright Bamburgh Research Project

The elements of the cottage are now exposed fully in plan and when interpreted alongside the available cartographic evidence would suggest that the entrance was re-aligned due to the build-up of sand deposits in the area that have been slowly burying the standing structures during the post-medieval period. Two short flights of more recent stairs, each turning through a right angle, lead to a long straight set of stairs of older character and showing substantial wear, that extended down through the arch to the basement of the tower where we know from cartographic evidence the well was once present, in what is now a basement room. Here excavation must be getting close to the floor level and some four phases of build are seen in the exposed walls that now reach almost two storeys. The lower two of these phases are likely to be elements of the medieval tower and the upper, by default, phases of the cottage that was built on and into the tower from the 18th century.

There was further work on the postern gate that lies beyond St Oswald’s Gate that leads out to the village which had been subject to limited survey and excavation in previous seasons. Continued excavation immediately behind the wall that leads back to the castle rock has uncovered more of the structure. We intended to uncover more of the wall, recover some datable finds and identify the level from which it was constructed. The structure as uncovered is a single well-constructed feature of coursed squared masonry that ended abruptly and deliberately short of the rock. A further constructed face abutted the bedrock and the gap between the two faces is a little more than 1m wide, forming what must have been a second gate. The eastern of the two is likely the earlier of them and must have led to a timber stair as it is well above ground level. The western, that is currently still in use, may have replaced it as more practical as it is closer to ground level, though still reached by stairs, the current version of which appear to be late post-medieval. This wall extends well to the west where a form of it turns to the north towards the tower/cottage. All the elements that are currently exposed appear to be late in date and the medieval wall must lie beneath the current ground level.

In 2023 we opened Trench 5E, sited outside of the wall with the postern gate and the outworks. It was placed next to a short length of wall that we investigated last season to see if it had once extended further. It has revealed a stone alignment that extends parallel to the two standing walls. Those of the outworks and the short wall length. So far only the upper level has been uncovered, so it is possible that it could be either a wall top or a foundation or the surface of a narrow path.

Work supported by funding from the CST

CST funded BRP to undertake additional non-invasive survey work to offer additional context to the excavation outlined above. Initially, and to better frame the results of the geophysics and limited excavation a walk over study was undertaken by BRP and Peter Ryder. This aimed to provide a description of the standing structures in their historical context, as they are currently understood and was supported by selected areas of photogrammetry survey.

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St Oswald’s Gate itself extends out through the curtain wall to the landward side at the northern end of the castle. It passes through a vaulted tunnel to the gate and appears to represent two phases of medieval build with a third – post-medieval – phase represented by internal and external refacing, likely of the late 18th century.

One of the most enigmatic features is the Wing Wall (W2 (see Figure 2) that forms a partial barrier to the route down from the gate. It appears to be one of the older elements of the defences with at least four phases of masonry (see Figure 3) and is relatively narrow compared to the later medieval defensive walls, such as the South Wall (W2) that cuts and post-dates it. It also contains an unusual arched doorway of early form that may be reused from elsewhere.

Figure 2: The northern extent of Bamburgh Castle showing the site of the outworks and the silted tidal port. Copyright Bamburgh Research Project
Figure 3: The narrow ‘Wing Wall’ showing the narrow archway and multiple phases of construction, facing north-west Copyright Bamburgh Research Project

The south Wall (W1 and W3) comprised at least two build elements that joined with an overlapping joint. The wall as we now know through excavation had two postern gates that would have led to the village.

In addition to the masonry and photogrammetry survey, Dr Kristian Strutt undertook magnetometry, resistivity and Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey of areas of the Cricket Ground to the west of Bamburgh Castle. The results indicate the possible presence of a large ditch, some 45m across, immediately to the west of the outcrop, in addition to trackways, walls and other features.

Figure 4: GPR survey under way across the Cricket Ground using an Impulse Raptor 8-channel system and GPS (photo: K. Strutt)

One of the principal questions we were hoping to address with the geophysics was if the castle ditch extended across the sports field at the base of the castle rock. A ditch cut through sandstone can been traced in the area of the modern entrance that is at the site of the 12th century gate. This feature extends across the front of the castle as far as the sandstone ridge. The results of the GPR seem to strongly indicate a large feature in the area where we would anticipate the castle ditch to be and the magnetometry and resistance surveys seem to support this. It is intended to conduct further fieldwork, starting with coring, to confirm this.

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In addition, several features seen on the 1865 1st Edition Ordnance Survey (Accessed via National Library of Scotland online 23/04/2024) appear to be picked up on the surveys. Two trackways are evident, that lead to St Oswald’s Gate and to a cleft in the castle rock called the ‘Miller’s Nick’, which allowed people to scramble up to the West Ward in the 19th century. The second is an S-shaped path that meandered towards the area of St Oswald’s Gate, perhaps originally skirting around the edge of the ditch feature. One further route-way or path extends across the field parallel to the road in the village to the south, called the Wynding, that appears from records to have had a medieval origin. This path runs alongside a linear plot boundary and field boundaries and it will be interesting to see if more can be made from a number of anomalies within the enclosure areas to the south and west of the plot.

Figure 5: Interpretation plot of all three surveys, labels link to the text in the Interim Report and Geophysical Survey Report. Map Data: Google ©2023, Airbus 11/05/23

The resistivity and ground penetrating radar surveys so far cover a more limited area, due to time constraints and public access. There is an area of low resistance that lies just where the ditch would lie and matches up to the path towards the Miller’s Nick. The enclosure areas picked up in the magnetometry to the south-west also seems to be present on the resistivity. Notably, there is a high resistance feature that the S-shaped pathway may curve deliberately to avoid at the south part of the plot. A further T-shaped high resistance feature is present in the north-east extending from the area of the modern pavilion that will bear further study. The GPR further reinforces the presence of some of these features and indicates some depth to the anomaly that is interpreted as the ditch, though the signal attenuates before it could indicate a true depth.

Together, the on-going excavation and non-invasive survey work undertaken in 2023 are providing us with the opportunity to better understand the castle outworks, north of the castle, and the wider environs in which they were situated. That this area of the castle was its original entrance, and for a time gave access to a modest port, ensures that there is much yet to be discovered and understood.

Interim Report

If you would like to read more about the excavation, masonry survey & 3D models and/or the results of the geophysical survey with accompanying discussion, please take a look at

Surveying Bamburgh Castle’s Elmund’s Tower | Castle Studies Trust

We are incredibly grateful to the Castle Studies Trust for their generous support.

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References

  • Colvin, H. M. 1973. The History of the King’s Works, London: HMSO
  • Map Data: Google ©2023, Airbus 11/05/23
  • Ordnance Survey Sheet XVII 1865 (Accessed via National Library of Scotland online 23/04/2024: https://maps.nls.uk/view/102346251)
  • Ryder, P. 2024. Preliminary Assessment of the Standing Masonry Elements: St Oswald’s Gate, the Western Outwork and St Elmund’s Well Tower, Bamburgh Castle, Unpublished Report
  • Strutt, K and Barker, D. 2024. Report on the Geophysical Survey at Bamburgh, Northumberland, July 2023Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton: Unpublished Report
  • Symeon, H. K. Historia regum Anglorum et Dacorum (trans. J. Stevenson), 1858, Church Historians of England

Picton Castle: baronial innovation in southwest Wales

In September 2023, author, Neil Ludlow, with Phil Poucher of Heneb – Dyfed Archaeology (formerly Dyfed Archaeological Trust) carried out the first modern detailed survey of Picton Castle, Pembrokeshire, funded by the Castle Studies Trust. Neil Ludlow looks at what they found in this unique and enigmatic building.

Picton Castle in Pembrokeshire has long been something of an enigma. It has a unique layout – there’s no other castle quite like it – which has been much discussed, resulting in rather more questions than answers. And it’s been continually occupied since it was built, so it’s seen a lot of alteration. While outwardly it retains much of its medieval flavour, the interiors were extensively made over during the eighteenth century so that it now presents itself first and foremost as a Georgian country seat. But beneath this veneer, much medieval work still survives – though a lot of it is tucked away behind stud-walls, in cupboards, or is otherwise obscured. Yet no structured archaeological survey of the castle had been undertaken, while the documentary record for its medieval development is more or less non-existent. We don’t even know its precise date – it’s long been attributed to Sir John Wogan, an important official in Crown service and Justiciar of Ireland 1295-1313, but being baronial work it’s unlike Crown work where accounts usually survive. 

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To try and resolve some of its many mysteries, the Castle Studies Trust generously funded survey, recording and research at the castle during 2023, which was carried out by the author, Neil Ludlow, with Phil Poucher of Heneb – Dyfed Archaeology (formerly Dyfed Archaeological Trust). A full photographic record was made, along with a full 3-D survey using a Leica RTC360 laser scanner. This was not without its challenges. The castle is still occupied, as the administrative hub for the Picton Castle Trust, which means that many areas are busy, working spaces, while others are used for storage – and nearly all of it is furnished.

Longitudinal section through Picton Castle, facing north (roughly along midline) – conjectured medieval, copyright Heneb – Dyfed Archaeology
Longitudinal section through Picton Castle, facing north (roughly along midline) – as today, copyright Heneb – Dyfed Archaeology

Picton’s unique layout makes it a castle of great importance. Most castles have at least some close parallels, but Picton is effectively one of a kind. In essence, it is a towered hall-block, inviting comparisons with castles like Nunney in Somerset, and the ‘towered keeps’ of thirteenth-century Ireland, for example at Carlow and Ferns. However, close study shows that it resolves as a central first-floor hall, flanked by services and a chamber-block to form a very early example of the three-unit ‘H-plan’ house. Here, though, the end units are processed out as D-shaped towers, two on each side wall. A terminal twin-towered gatehouse lies opposite a D-shaped tower formerly lying at the western apex – seven towers in all. The hall is open to the roof; the towers have polygonal interiors (two of them disguised beneath later fittings), and contain three storeys. The ground floor is mostly rib-vaulted. The gatehouse – unusual in buildings of this kind – led onto an equally unusual ‘grand stairway’ to the hall; a second ground-floor entry probably led to an external kitchen and bakehouse. Though very forward-looking in its layout, the castle belongs stylistically to the first two decades of the fourteenth century, and analysis of the sources suggests that it was most likely built by John Wogan between around 1315 and 1320.

Picton Castle serving hatches, copyright Neil Ludlow

The castle’s spatial disposition, access and circulation are meticulously planned, while the domestic appointments show a remarkable level of sophistication for the period, including what appear to be vertical serving-hatches between the ground floor and the service rooms above. At second-floor level, the east towers and gatehouse form two integrated suites of residential apartments either side of a chapel, in a manner firmly rooted within royal planning. The opposite pair of towers, at the west end, seem to have been united internally to form a residential chamber-block, for Wogan’s officials and guests, possibly served by latrines in the former west tower; the present partition walls are later.  

Some aspects of the layout may show influence from northern Britain, or perhaps even Plantagenet Gascony. Detail shows influence from the castles of Gilbert de Clare, including the form of the spur-buttresses, the rib-vaulting and the arrow-loops. Execution of the design is however largely regional, showing great ‘plasticity’ of form and extensive squinching. There is surviving evidence for neither a defensive ditch, nor a surrounding wall until the seventeenth century, though an accompanying enclosure – containing the kitchen and other ancillary buildings – is likely from the first.

Picton Castle Great Hall area today from eastern / gatehouse end of the castle, including Georgian features

Beginning in around 1700, and spanning over 50 years, extensive works transformed the castle into an elegant country house, with magnificent and well-preserved Georgian interiors that include what seems to be only the second circular library to be built in Britain. Later campaigns included the addition of further wings and ranges. Work continued into the later twentieth century, with an extensive refurbishment in the 1960s. But the earlier work has largely survived, making the castle – along with its gardens – a popular visitor attraction.

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The Medieval Development of Raby Castle

In 2022 the Castle Studies Trust (CST) funded a 3-D digital scan of Raby Castle, County Durham, which was used as a basis for Richard Annis, then of Archaeological Services Durham University, to do a full building survey. Jeremy Cunnington, Chair of Trustees for the CST, takes a look at what he found, focusing on the medieval development of this complicated building that has seen many changes over the centuries, but retains most of its medieval exterior.

Like most castles built and owned by the aristocracy there is no written evidence of what was built when: clues lie in architectural and design features. While exact dates cannot be given, a phasing of what order structures were built in can be shown, much of which agrees with previous scholarship on the castle which suggests that much of the building took place between 1350-88 by the Lords of Raby, Ralph and his son John Neville.

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Ground floor plan of Raby Castle. Copyright Archaeological Services, Durham University

A licence to crenellate was granted in 1378 when a lot of the buildings were already in place, as the licence indicates when it refers to “towers, houses and walls”.

The origins of the castle are obscure. The property was obviously substantial enough to be stocked with deer from the royal forest in the mid thirteenth century, suggesting originally an unfortified manor house. Anthony Emery describes Raby as “an awkward and inconvenient shape [that] can only have been determined by an earlier residence on the same low and ill-defended site”.

Raby’s principal purpose has always been residential rather than military with comfortable living taking precedence over defence. The early building seems to be a standard hall house design, with the hall running north to south and utilities and household staff quarters at the north and the lord’s quarters at the south end.

Phase One of the Works

The earliest surviving part of the castle is the Great Hall block. The main discussion relates to whether it was built in two phases or one, with the ground floor being built in the first half of the fourteenth century, and being added to later in the fourteenth century, as proposed by Malcolm Hislop, or was all one build, proposed by Anthony Emery. Evidence for the former is based on the window tracery on the ground floor which is said to date from before 1320.

Blocked first floor doorway in Great Hall block, copyright Archaeological Services, Durham University

Regardless, the main entrance from the courtyard into the Great Hall block from the courtyard was always on the ground floor in a similar position to the current one. The blocked doorway on the first floor was a much later insertion to access an eighteenth century classical loggia. There was no evidence of a staircase down and more importantly the door does not align with the floor of the original first floor hall. Based on an old nineteenth century plan, the entrance to the first floor hall seems to have been a newel (spiral) staircase where the current chapel staircase is now.

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Whenever the first floor was added, it was also when the majority of structures on the east side of the castle were built. Both the “Keep” and Mount Raskelf towers at the north end seem to have been built at the same time as the first floor of the great hall given the connecting passage from the first floor great hall to the Keep Tower and probably Mount Raskelf. Although not clear today with the re-arrangement in-fill of Mount Raskelf, both were of mirrored L-shaped design.

Ground floor of Mount Raskelf tower, where the original kitchen was. Copyright Archaeolgical Services, Durham University

The first kitchen was on the ground floor of Mount Raskelf tower. It is also here where there are indications (heavy ribbed vaulting and the plain doorway) that the ground floor of the tower could have been built earlier, but the report found no evidence of a building break.   

Equally it looks as though the chapel tower was built at the same time as the upper Great Hall, as it seems that the chapel’s west window, with no evidence of glazing, was intended to allow people in the upper hall to observe, or, given the height of the window above the floor, to listen to services.

Buck engraving from the south east showing what the original high status rooms of the Great Chamber and Bulmer’s Tower looked like

At the high status (south) end of the hall the accommodation differs from what it was like originally due to the destruction of the chamber block in the eighteenth century. The Buck engraving shows a square great chamber block which was connected to the moated en bec Bulmer Tower with an arched passage way at second floor level. It seems that it was for semi-private rooms for important guests while the Bulmer Tower was the lords’ truly private accommodation, which, in addition to the second floor link, had its own external stair and gate to the south terrace.

It also seems that the Bulmer Tower could date from the same time as the Mount Raskelf tower, as its basement, had the same vaulting as the northern tower according to Hodgson’s 1885 survey. Although no evidence of that now survives.

To the west of the Great Chamber block is Joan’s Tower which had two building phases. Its interior has been much re-arranged so there are no clues to its phasing but it is likely to have been at a similar time to the large expansion around the hall. The older part of the tower was square and had two floors.

Possible blocked postern gate, now in Mount Raskelf tower

Between the original Mount Raskelf and Chapel Towers may also have been the site of an old postern gate at the southern end of the Tower. Although now part of Mount Raskelf Tower the report also suggests that it wasn’t originally, based on later plans, the room in front of the putative gate was originally part of the gate passage and separate from Mount Raskelf . The elongated nature of the gate is also reminiscent of gates at the John Lewyn-designed Bolton Castle.

At some point this gate was blocked up and replaced by an entrance in the Chapel Tower.

Phase Two of the Works

Much of this work took place before the building of the famous Kitchen Tower which couldn’t have been before 1373. The survey shows that the Kitchen Tower was added after the addition of the two northern towers, given that the original kitchens were in the base of Mount Raskelf Tower, and the position of the kitchen which is slightly oblique to the axis of the hall range and northern towers and off centre between those towers. Richard Annis suggests that this is due to the owners wanting to have a service entrance at the south-east corner of the Kitchen Tower but still allow the kitchen’s dimensions to be similar to the kitchen at Durham Cathedral which was completed in 1372.

Roof of the John Lewyn kitchen, copyright Raby Estates

More works took place in the western part of the castle. This was probably when the castle took its current concentric form between 1381-88: the coat of arms on that extension shows the crest of John Neville who died in 1388 and Elizabeth Latimer who he married in 1381. The report assumes the Joan Tower extension, the building of Clifford’s Tower along with the (re) building of the Watch Tower and Western Range took place at this time, as they both extend beyond the original gatehouse to offer protection to the gatehouse or, just as likely, be an aesthetic way to create more space.

Remains of spiral staircase in Clifford’s Tower going from the first to third floors. Copyright Archaeological Services, Durham University

All these buildings have been greatly re-arranged but of them Clifford’s Tower is perhaps the most interesting, given that it was extra lodgings for high status guests. Originally, there was no way to access floors one to three from the ground floor. The only possible access to the first floor was from the West Range, but any evidence has been destroyed by later reworkings. Access to the higher floors seems to have only been possible from the first floor via a spiral stair in the south-east corner of the tower: remains of it were discovered during the survey. No other evidence survives of any other access. There might have been a service entrance from the north yard by a newel staircase and a putative mural passage in the small rooms but that is not certain.

That the (re) building of the Watch Tower dates to a similar period to Clifford’s Tower is based on the design of the two medieval windows in the east wall of the tower, which are paired lights with trefoiled heads identical to the surviving old windows in Clifford’s Tower.

Dating the building periods

It seems likely that, given that so many of the buildings were built simultaneously, which would require large resources, much of the building was carried out by John rather than his father Ralph. While the wealth and importance of the Nevilles of Raby was growing under Ralph thanks to a good marriage and royal service, it was under John that the family’s fortunes really took off. This was particularly thanks to royal service, especially in France from the 1350s onwards. This would have brought great rewards and also allowed him to be influenced by continental styles such as the en bec design of the Bulmer’s Tower. In the early 1370s following the unsuccessful expedition to Brittany he was rich enough to pay ransoms totalling £4,500 for some of his captured companions. It is also likely that it is after that time, when he was back in the north of England, and again from the late 1380s, after a brief stint in Gascony that he would have had the time to devote to the development of the castle and help turn it into the striking castle we see today.

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Feature image courtesy of Daniel Casson

Bibliography:

Emery, A, 1996. Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales, 1300-1500 1: Northern England. Cambridge University Press

Hislop, M, 1992. The Castle of Ralph Fourth Baron Neville at Raby. Archaeologia Aeliana 5th series XX, 91-98.

—– 2007. John Lewyn of Durham: a Medieval Mason in Practice. British Archaeological Reports British Series 438. Oxford: BAR Publishing.

Hodgson, J, 1885. Raby in Three Chapters. Trans. Archit. & Archaeol. Soc. of Durham & Northumberland III, 1880-85, 113-127.

—– 1887. Raby. J. British Archaeological Assoc. 43, 307-27.

—– 1895. Raby in Three Chapters. Trans. Archit. & Archaeol. Soc. of Durham & Northumberland IV, 1890-95, 49-122

The Lodging Ranges of Late Medieval Great Houses

Dr Sarah Kerr of University College Cork explores the importance of lodging ranges in late medieval Great Houses.

With the publication of my new monograph on late medieval lodging ranges, this post summaries what makes these buildings so vital to our understanding of the great houses in England and Wales, and calls for greater centring of function over fundamental use in buildings archaeology.

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Lodging ranges are a type of collective-living building, built as part of late medieval great houses, sometimes called castles, to accommodate middle- to high-ranking members of the household. They were often long ranges occupying the side of a courtyard, divided into small yet grand rooms, these sometimes divided further into what may be an office and bedchamber.[1] Each room displays the architectural language of a comfortable living space with windows, a fireplace, and a garderobe. Each room also had an individual door that led from the courtyard or a lobby into that room and that room only, making the room a termination point (Figure 1). The individual door was almost unique in the late medieval great house, thus it sets lodging ranges apart from other types of accommodation and indeed is one of the most illuminating features in the analysis of function and use. Each room was low-occupancy, possibly single-occupancy for some periods, indicating that they were some of the most socially separated spaces in the great house with suggestions of privacy that would not become commonplace for centuries. This combination of architectural detail and separated space created some of the finest rooms within late medieval accommodation, drawing comparison with the suites of those at the head of the household.

Figure 1: Dartington Hall, Devon, Lodging Range Entrance, copyright Sarah Kerr

A dominant research focus within buildings archaeology has been, until only recently, on a building’s use which has lead to the prioritisation of practical use over more conceptual functions. Function and use are not synonymous, nor dichotomous, rather each is a coexisting layer of meaning.[2] Consider the lodging ranges’ individual doors. The door, as all doors, provided and restricted access: this was its use. The function of the door, however, was to epitomise the difference between who could enter and who could not. Its function was to communicate a sense of ownership of, or rights over, the room on the other side. Therefore there is a distinction, at least to us in the present translating the past, between the use, as a point of entrance, and the function, of communicating these meanings.

Figure 2: Dartington Hall, Devon, Lodging Range copyright Sarah Kerr

By focusing on function, the analysis reveals lodging ranges’ layers of meanings. Lodging ranges display early use of uniform elevations created through equal spacing, symmetry, and repeated features such as doors, possibly most striking at the 80m-long range at Dartington Hall, Devon (Figure 2). This strong architectural uniformity created a sense of sameness that can be extended from the fabric to the occupants, suggesting the ranges were built to construct a sense of collective identity between people drawn from different families. Within this architectural display of collective identity, however, there were expressions of individualism. Variations between rooms, both in size and provisions, created a sub-hierarchy within the lodging ranges, harking to a household in itself. This is seen clearly at Gainsborough Old Hall, Lincolnshire, which comprised three different room types concealed behind a uniform façade (Figure 3). In other examples, the differences were expressed explicitly, through larger or more intricately decorated doors and windows, ensuring the hierarchy was displayed outwardly. Centring the exploration of lodging ranges’ possible functions allows the suggestion that they were primarily built to reflect – or instil – certain identities upon the occupants. At a time of increased social mobility it could be suggested that lodging ranges were constructed in an effort to halt any aspirations of social ascension or even set in stone, quite literally, the social identities of those within the household.

Figure 3: Gainsborough Old Hall, Lincolnshire copyright Sarah Kerr

Lodging ranges draw comparison with inns, vicarial and collegiate ranges, and to a lesser extent chantry houses,[3] due to architectural similarities of individual or low-occupancy small rooms, courtyard plans, high-status provisions and uniform elevations. This allows the suggestion of a broader typology of collective-living buildings emerging in the late medieval period with collective an important distinction from communal: these were not high-density rooms comparable to dormitories.[4] While there are limitations with our over-reliance on typologies – a topic for another post – we can tentatively suggest that the collective-living building type demonstrates development from dormitories to rooms within ranges across types of auxiliary late medieval accommodation. This emergence of a collective-living building type reveals how late medieval society was responding to the shift towards specialised use of rooms and more private spaces.

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The first book on late medieval lodging ranges, Late Medieval Lodging Ranges: The Architecture of Identity, Power and Space, is available to order from by Boydell and Brewer. Use code BB135 for 35% off.

Link to book: https://boydellandbrewer.com/9781783277575/late-medieval-lodging-ranges/#generate-pdf


[1] For earlier discussions on loading ranges see within the following texts: William Pantin, ‘Chantry Priests’ Houses and other Medieval Lodgings’, Medieval Archaeology, 3 (1959), 216-58 (free access); Margaret Wood, The English Medieval House (New York, 1965); Anthony Emery, Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales 1300-1500 (3 Vols, Cambridge, 2000; 2000; 2006); Jane Grenville, Medieval Housing (London, 1997); Michael W. Thompson, ‘The Architectural Context of Gainsborough Old Hall’, in: P. Lindley (ed.), Gainsborough Old Hall (Lincoln, 1991), pp. 13-20; Christopher Woolgar, The Great Household in Late Medieval England (New Haven, 1999).

[2] Amos Rapoport, The Meaning of the Built Environment (Tucson, 1990), p. 187; Graham Fairclough, ‘Meaningful constructions – spatial and functional analysis of medieval buildings’, Antiquity, 66:251 (1992), 348-66, p. 351.

[3] Chantry houses are compared in: Margaret Wood, The English Medieval House (New York, 1965); William Pantin, ‘Chantry Priests’ Houses and other Medieval Lodgings’, Medieval Archaeology, 3 (1959), 216-58.

[4] Sarah Kerr, ‘Collective living and individual identities in late medieval England,’ Archaeological Journal, 177 (2020), 83-98.

Uncovering the Secrets of Dunoon Castle: A Collaborative Archaeological Endeavour

Harriet Tatton, Programme Coordinator, DigVentures looks at the community focused geophysical survey of Dunoon Castle in Scotland.

In summer 2023, a grant from the Castle Studies Trust facilitated an exciting collaborative venture to reveal some of the hidden mysteries of Dunoon Castle, Cowal. DigVentures, in partnership with Argyll and Bute Council, the Dunoon Area Alliance, and Castle House Museum, designed a community-orientated endeavour to learn more about the site of Dunoon Castle and raise awareness of the heritage of the Castle House Park and Gardens.

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The medieval stronghold, a scheduled monument, has long been shrouded in the enigma of its past. Thanks to the support of the Castle Studies Trust, a comprehensive geophysical survey and community activity program were initiated, providing a fascinating glimpse into the castle’s rich history.

Community participants getting to grips with geophysics in front of the Castle mound © DigVentures

Professional archaeologists, building historians and amateur enthusiasts from the local community came together to conduct a non-invasive survey that aimed to unearth the secrets of Dunoon Castle and its surrounding parkland. The results not only contribute to the ongoing heritage management of the site but also enhance the narrative that can be shared by local heritage organisations such as the Castle House Museum. In total, just under 100 people were involved in the project, which included training workshops, a public talk and tours, and activities for children and young families.

Looking for overgrown walling on the top of the mound © DigVentures

Dunoon Castle has stood witness to centuries of history. Documentary evidence traces its roots back to the early 13th century AD, and today, it stands as a modified natural mound with a curtain wall, hinting at its medieval past. There is debate over the castle’s original purpose, with suggestions ranging from a motte-and-bailey castle to a ‘castle of enclosure.’ Recent interpretations lean toward the latter, aligning with a group of castles built during the 12th and 13th centuries by successive Scottish kings.

Volunteers exploring the Castle mound © DigVentures

The castle’s complex history is evident in distinct phases. In the medieval and post-medieval era, Dunoon Castle played a pivotal role in Scottish history. From its Lamont origins, through conflicts and regencies, a visit from Mary Queen of Scots, to its eventual abandonment around AD1650, the castle witnessed tumultuous times. The 19th century marked a transformative phase as Dunoon Castle became a focal point for James Ewing’s architectural ambitions. His castellated mansion, set against landscaped gardens, turned Dunoon into a sought-after holiday destination.

As the 20th century unfolded, Dunoon Castle assumed new roles during both World Wars, serving as a strategic defence point with searchlights and coastal batteries. The aftermath of war saw the castle’s hill repurposed for military activities during the Cold War, reflecting the evolving strategic importance of the site.

Geophysicist Kimberley Teale with the project’s team of community participants © DigVentures

During the weekend of activities, DigVentures’ small team of archaeologists and local people aimed to make sense of this historical jigsaw puzzle. The magnetometer survey, conducted in areas north and south of the tennis courts and south of the castle museum, uncovered intriguing details. Possible garden wall foundations around the museum, features related to landscaping of the castle gardens, and remnants of former garden plots and a fire station emerged from the data, making sense of the castle’s historical evolution.

Simultaneously, the earth resistance survey corroborated these findings across the same areas, providing a comprehensive dataset for analysis. The revelation of garden features, potential gateposts, and additional elements related to the castle’s history further enriched the understanding of Dunoon Castle’s past.

The team review the results at the end of a day of geophysical survey © DigVentures

Over the weekend, Dr. Louise Turner spearheaded a rapid historic buildings assessment of the castle remains, and although not an exhaustive survey, the assessment hinted at the Victorian origins of much of the visible walling within the castle ruins. Surprisingly, limited evidence was found for the earlier phases of the castle and raises intriguing questions about its earlier configurations; documentary evidence suggests that a castle has been present at the site since at least the 13th century, but very little of this phase appeared to be visible.

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Complementing these efforts, historic building and aerial 3D photogrammetric drone surveys were conducted. These surveys not only highlighted obscured walls and earthworks but also uncovered hidden features concealed by vegetation overgrowth. A resulting topographic survey, compared against historical maps and surveys, revealed that a substantial portion of the castle walls, previously recorded, is now obscured or even considered submerged beneath the current ground level.

The findings underscore the importance of ongoing conservation efforts, as vegetation threatens to permeate the fabric of the surviving castle walls, potentially causing damage, in particular to the earlier, less visible phases of the castle’s structure. This collaborative project aligns with best practices outlined by Historic England, the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, and the Europae Archaeologiae Consilium, ensuring the responsible and insightful exploration of Dunoon Castle’s captivating history.

As the dust settles on this archaeological venture, Dunoon Castle stands as a testament to the power of collaboration, community engagement, and cutting-edge survey techniques in unravelling the mysteries of the town’s history. DigVentures hopes to do more work at Dunoon Castle in the near future.

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To look at the geophysical survey report you can go here: Geophysical surveys at Dunoon Castle | Castle Studies Trust

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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