By Excavation Director Jim Brightman of Solstice Heritage
Reflecting at the end of the second week—two thirds of the way through our dig at the Castle—it’s been an amazing journey so far. After the excitement of the tv cameras on Thursday and Friday, we are all now taking a well-earned Sunday off, allowing some thinking time for the theories and interpretations. Yesterday, we were privileged to welcome a group from the Castle Studies Trust (one of the key project funders and hosts of this very blog!) who came to look round the excavations and offer some of their wonderful expertise and knowledge to help bring focus to some of the stories we are revealing.
Trench 1 has proven to be the most complex in terms of the intercutting layers and structures (what archaeologists call ‘stratigraphy’). Although there is plenty of time left for our thoughts to change with new evidence, we currently think we have an original narrow door at the base of the curtain wall which was blocked during the medieval period. After this, a small square stone building was constructed against the wall, again at some point during the Castle’s medieval life. In terms of the large stone piers and low stone wall that we can see above ground, however, we are now confident that they are indeed 20th-century inventions built by the Ministry of Works.
One of the most interesting aspects of Trench 1 has been the fantastic amount of fine medieval pottery that has come out of both the mixed topsoil and upper layers, and now from sealed medieval deposits. With a major acknowledgement to the eye and experience of Erik Matthews, we can confidently say we have not only great examples of local and regional pottery, but also of imported French and Belgian pottery. This really shows the importance of Richmond Castle as a seat of power during its medieval heyday and the interconnected nature of authority spanning the Channel in this period.
With the end of the project in sight, over the coming week I’ll also wrap up the stories for Trenches 2 and 3, so do keep checking back!
By Dig Director Jim Brightman of Solstice Heritage
The dig is rattling along really well now as we head towards the end of our second week. We’re bottoming out our questions in Trenches 1 and 2, though the ongoing mystery of our paved surface in Trench 3 continues to tax brains—hopefully the answer is lying deeper in the trench and will be revealed in the next few days.
The main story of today was the excitement generated by the arrival of Professor Alice Roberts and the camera crew from the Digging for Britain series on the BBC. It was a real honour to host the team at Richmond Castle and for our dig to form part of the upcoming series. The volunteers really seemed to enjoy having the cameras on site, and Alice was really enthused by the way in which we are unearthing these forgotten fragments of our history together as a community.
The real star of the day though was a find that came out of Trench 2 just as we were cleaning up for a photo. On her very first day on an archaeological site, from a layer that we had been interpreting as early 14th century in date, Jenny’s trowel flicked over a small disc of metal.
At first, we thought we had another jetton, like the one discovered last week in Trench 3—a fabulous find! After we’d gently cleaned off a little of the dirt, however, it gradually became clear we had something much rarer on our hands. Examining the symbols and barely visible face on the obverse, we realised we were staring into the eyes of William the Conqueror stamped on a silver penny! With specialist conservation work, we may be able to discern the legend around the edge and find out where it was minted. Even with the information we have though, we know it dates to the early years of Richmond Castle, taking our story right back to the very beginnings of the town.
By Excavation Director Jim Brightman of Solstice Archaeology
So, we are very much at that point on the dig where we are in amongst the really fascinating medieval archaeology, but we are still teasing the answers out of what are turning into quite complex layers.
One place where we are still not sure about whether we are seeing medieval archaeology is in Trench 1: ironically the one trench sited right against the colossal curtain wall of the Castle! The small finds have been outstanding from the upper levels, including a selection of particularly well made and decorated medieval pottery—evidence of the high-status dining that would have graced the tables of the great and good. As we have investigated the substantial buttresses, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that a lot of the stonework around the trench may in fact be an invention of the Ministry of Works in the 20th century! It turns out that the enterprising work teams may have gone a little beyond their remit of consolidation and let their imaginations run free!
Trench 3 is the biggest mystery of all though. We have a clear sequence back through time: modern topsoil, early-20th-century building foundations, the Victorian and later parade ground and a post-medieval soil that had built up after the Castle had fallen out of use. Beneath this, we were hoping for the remains of a medieval building, and that is what we have found. Sort of.
The exposed remains comprise a series of massive limestone slabs, not squared and dressed like flagstones but nevertheless laid with some skill. They look a little like a yard that we might see in front of a typical Yorkshire Dales farm, but there are a set of slabs laid at an angle as if forming the side of a shallow pond. If this wasn’t strange enough, the whole arrangement is curved in an arc, part of a much larger feature extending beyond the trench. So far, all our theories don’t quite fit with what we can see in the trench, so the only thing left to do is dig more—out and down—and see what is revealed!
By Excavation Director Jim Brightman of Solstice Heritage
So, at the end of a frantic and incredibly hot first week on site, it’s time to take a day off and let things marinade a little.
It has been a joy and privilege to work with so many enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers. We have had people of all ages coming and getting stuck into the digging—sometimes it’s been delicate and sometimes it’s been fairly heavy going with mattocks and shovels—and not a single frown or grumble!
So, where have we got to?
It’s very much been an archaeological tale of two halves.
Firstly, we have the small finds that have been coming out of the ground. As I’ve mentioned in some of the earlier posts, we have had some really illuminating items, including: a fine selection of different kinds of medieval pottery, an impressive collection of animal bone (turns out it was probably a deer jaw not a horse!) with marks of butchery on them, and a lot of more recent items relating to the late Victorian and early 20th-century use of the Castle.
Some of my favourite objects have been those that have a really personal connection, however. In all the trenches we have found a fair number of graphite ‘pencils’, giving a lovely image of the army trainees at the camp in the 1900s feverishly noting down instructions and reminders.
Whilst the artefacts are giving us a general picture of all the different periods of the Castle’s history, the second part of our story comprises the archaeological deposits and layers themselves. Here, we have very much been digging our way through the deep deposits dating from 1850 onwards: the army parade ground and the mid-20th-century landscaping to turn Richmond Castle into the tourist site familiar to visitors today.
The possible wall we were so excited about on Tuesday evening turned out to be part of the drainage system from the parade ground, but as the sun was dipping on Friday we started to see tantalising hints that the loose stone lies on top of a much more well-built structure—our first hints of undisturbed medieval deposits!
So, if week 1 was spent in the time of Baden-Powell and the Richmond Sixteen, then it looks like week 2 will be when we make our acquaintance with the lords, ladies, knights and commoners of medieval Richmond.
By Dig Director Jim Brightman of Solstice Archaeology
A quick update today as the main theme has been deploying mattocks to really push on through the more modern levels to try and reach the undisturbed medieval deposits. That means the main excitement of the day was the small finds that continue to emerge from the mixed overburden and 20th-century landscaping: animal bone in considerable quantities, more medieval pottery, what appears to be a hobnail and something that looks suspiciously like window lead.
The highlight of the day, however, was uncovered in Trench 3 (see plan below)—an area where we the volunteers are diligently digging through the clay dump of the former military parade ground in baking heat! What at first we thought was a corroded button (we’ve had one of those already), turned out on closer inspection to be a 14th-century French jetton!
Jettons were one example of a growing system of trade tokens often used in lieu of coins in specific areas or for specific trades. Jettons, however, were primarily used as accounting tokens, providing a visual means of making calculations on a large wooden board. This find gives us a fascinating insight into both the mechanics of medieval trade centred on Richmond Castle, and also the way in which many great magnates held considerable land on both sides of the Channel in this period.
By Dig Director, Jim Brightman of Solstice Archaeology
Things are moving apace despite the sweltering conditions this week. We are now three days into the excavation, and all three trenches currently open have yielded up a variety of medieval pottery sherds as well as plenty of more recent artefacts.
Given the anticipated depths of some of the remains we are looking for, the last two days have seen a concerted flurry of digging to get through the topsoil and 20th-century overburden, particularly in Trenches 2 and 3. Once again the volunteers have excelled themselves and maintained a wonderfully positive attitude—whether debating the merits of marmalade and boiled egg toasties (apparently it’s a thing) or trying to convince the trench supervisors that they’ve found a Roman road (it wasn’t, but a good effort nevertheless).
Perhaps the most excitement that was generated among visitors to the Castle, however, was the discovery of a largely complete jawbone from a horse! Although it was a little too high in the deposits to be evidence for medieval stables (or a meal!), it was a real reminder to everyone that as we’re digging ever deeper, we never truly know what we are going to find.
From the point of view of our main aims for the excavation, the biggest news of the day is that we starting to see the hints of probably medieval walling in both Trenches 1 and 2. Trench 1 by Robin Hood Tower is butted against the standing walls of the castle, but a lot of the stonework in this area was rebuilt and consolidated by the Ministry of Works in the 20th century. What we are seeing here are the first signs of original medieval stones beneath the surface—very exciting!
Trench 2, however, was targeted to find part of a range of buildings never before known and revealed through geophysical survey. As the sun started to dip at the end of the day, and as we were starting to think about packing up the tools, loose rock started to turn up through the centre of the trench. A little more careful trowelling by the team soon revealed what may be the rubble core of a wall—our first window back into this untouched medieval structure.
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.
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.
Jim Brightman of Solstice Archaeology, dig director of the Richmond Castle excavation, outlines what the next three weeks of excavations of Richmond Castle to mark the 950th anniversary of its founding. The excavation is being co-funded by the Castle Studies Trust along with Richmond and District Civic Society and Richmond District Council.
By way of an introduction to the Richmond 950 community excavation, I’m going to start with a bit of a personal reminiscence. I am a former pupil at Richmond School, and in the dim and distant past when I was in in Lower School (the old Grammar School building), the first topic covered in history lessons was the medieval period. I’d already been fascinated by the past through primary school, and I was ready for it to be my favourite class. I wasn’t disappointed. On a seasonably warm autumn afternoon, we all trooped up the hill for our first site visit: Richmond Castle.
Many, many years later, having studied archaeology at university and spent my early career in and around the Peak District, I moved back home in 2012. The first time I walked back into town, I vividly remember thinking “was the Castle always that big?!”. Then as now, and as in the centuries preceding, the keep towers over the marketplace, easily the most prominent building in the town’s skyline. Indeed, I was so taken with this icon of my childhood love of history, that the outline of the Castle now features on my company’s stationery!
With the 950th anniversary of the Castle’s original founding rapidly approaching, I was overjoyed at the opportunity to run a volunteer archaeology excavation as part of the wider celebrations being held in the town through the course of 2021. Having been fortunate enough to be involved in a lot of community archaeology projects through the course of my career, it felt like a real homecoming.
As we started developing the project, it became clear that there was a wealth of places within the Castle where targeted excavation had the potential to shed light on parts of its story that have remained hidden. Geophysical survey in recent years has revealed whole complexes of possible walls and structures beneath the grassy sward of the bailey, and Richmond 950 is the first time that they will see the light of day for many, many centuries.
The volunteer archaeology project was made a reality by the kind support of several funders, all of whom believed in the vision of engaging local people directly with the tangible past in such a beautiful and historic setting. We are very grateful to the Castle Studies Trust, Richmond and District Civic Society and Richmondshire District Council for their huge generosity and support – I feel strongly we will repay your trust with a fantastic project!
As I write this on the eve of the project starting, we are almost fully booked in terms of volunteer places—a real testament to the interest in archaeology in and around Richmond. That said, if you are reading this and getting the itch to try your hand at archaeology, then there are still a few places available on our Eventbrite link; no experience is required and everything you need to unlock your inner Indiana Jones is provided! Even if you are just interested in finding out more, then the Castle is still open to visitors through the next three weeks while we are digging, and we would be delighted to talk you through the unfolding story of the archaeology.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
As work starts on the Caerlaverock Weathering Extremes project, Richard Tipping of the University of Stirling and Morvern French from Historic Environment Scotland explains what they hope to achieve the work involved in doing that.
Some 800 years ago, a newly built castle at Caerlaverock, on the Solway Firth, was abandoned and a new one was built higher up the hill. The first castle fell victim to climate change as huge coastal storms hit the Solway coast in the medieval period. This was the conclusion of University of Stirling researchers at Caerlaverock Castle in 2004. This May, with support from the Castle Studies Trust and Historic Environment Scotland, the same researchers are going back to Caerlaverock to gather more and better data.
The Weathering Extremes project will look in more detail at the impacts these storm surges had on the old castle at Caerlaverock, the landscape, and its people. This castle was constructed around 1229, 800 years ago. Then, the castle was on the coast and had a harbour, and it had an important role in protecting Scotland from Edward I and guarding the entrance to the River Nith and Dumfries. But in 1300, when Edward I invaded southern Scotland, he famously laid siege to a new stone-built castle, a couple of hundred metres inland and five metres or so higher. This is the castle that thousands of visitors see every year, one of Historic Environment Scotland’s most impressive and most-visited properties. As we recover from Covid-19, Historic Environment Scotland wants to enhance the visitor experience. This means learning more.
Today, the old castle, tucked at the bottom of the hill, is in an uninviting, ill-drained wetland. It was probably like this in 1220. The moat, earthworks, and ditches surrounding it all filled with freshwater peat. But suddenly, the peat-filled ditches were invaded by silt and clay. Analyses of microscopic organisms called diatoms, which are marine or freshwater algae, showed that the silt and clay was marine, coming inland from the coast, probably through the harbour. Huge storms seem to have repeatedly hit the coast, and large curved storm-ridges of gravel were piled up. Some gravel came from the west side of the Nith estuary, driven across by storms. New LiDAR imagery has detected at least seven ridges, each twenty to thirty metres wide and tens of metres long. When the storms ceased, the old castle ended up some 400 metres distant from the coast. This provides new evidence which wasn’t available when the old castle was last excavated two decades ago, and when combined with this new fieldwork we will know so much more about the chronology and impact of climatic events at Caerlaverock.
In 2004 the above features were dated by radiocarbon, but new techniques now allow radiocarbon dating to be much more precise. So, this year, Dr Richard Tipping and Dr Eileen Tisdall, environmental scientists at the University of Stirling, will go back to what they studied in 2004. They will study the sediments more closely and collect more and better samples, to trace the environmental legacy of the medieval storms. There is much we do not yet know. When did the storms first hit the coast and why did they begin? Had the builders already experienced the earliest of these but carried on building regardless, driven by military concerns, or did the climate change only after the old castle was completed? How long did the period of storm surges last – decades or centuries? How powerful were they? How far inland did they penetrate? The north Solway shore is low-lying, and floods could have extended for kilometres inland, as we know some did later in the ‘little ice age’. Do these past impacts have meaning for what is to come in the 21st century?
In this initial stage of the project, Dr Tipping will establish a series of transects across the site and will then extract cores and samples for sediment description and stratigraphic analysis. Cores taken from the inter ridge basins will be used to locate in situ plant remains. More fieldwork will take place in the summer with Dr Tisdall and Dr Tim Kinnaird when further cores will be taken from the harbour and the outer moat of the old castle. Selected samples will later be subjected to radiocarbon dating and pollen and diatom analysis. Samples from the harbour will be optically stimulated luminescence dated by measuring the level of ionising radiation stored within the sands from exposure to light. From this we can calculate the last time the mineral was exposed to light, therefore finding out the dates of the sand deposits and the final period of the harbour’s use. We hope to have the first laboratory results later in 2021, with the final results due in spring 2022.
This fieldwork will enable us to better understand the use of the wider landscape at Caerlaverock, including medieval responses to climate change events and access to the coast for travel and trade. It will also tell us more about the medieval people who built the two castles, their experiences, and their motivations in locating the castles where they did.