The Shrewsbury Castle excavation: end of dig report

The investigations funded by the Castle Studies Trust at Shrewsbury Castle, one of the most important castles along the Anglo-Welsh border have now finished. Dr Nigel Baker reveals the preliminary findings of those investigations.

Before the dig began two weeks ago, our geophysics survey showed (with complete accuracy as it turned out) a spread of hard material just under the grass directly opposite the castle hall – possibly the remains of demolished buildings. Almost immediately the turf was off it became apparent that the hard material was not rubble but a low ridge of gravel, curving slightly as it headed south towards the main gate. Cut into this road surface (as we took it to be) were round, flat-bottomed topsoil-filled cuts, probably Victorian and later flower beds.

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Excavating through the gravel immediately revealed further, cleaner gravel, that appeared to be of natural/geological origin; further testing demonstrated that all the gravel was natural – the natural/geological top of the hill. It had been levelled, planed-off horizontally, in the fairly recent past, possibly in 1925-6 when the castle was restored, and any archaeological layers or building remains above the gravel would have been removed.

However, at the east end of the trench the gravel was found dug away at a 45-degree angle by a single, massive cut, with medieval pottery in the soil within it. The cut was recognised as the edge of the great defensive ditch that formerly encircled the base of the Norman motte. This would have been about 12 metres wide; the geophysics suggests there was probably a bridge over it, just north of the excavation, opposite the present hall entrance. The objects found in the ditch include pottery – cooking pots and glazed jugs – from the period roughly 1100-1400, and a large quantity of animal bone from food waste. There were also two arrow heads or crossbow-bolt heads, both of the ‘bodkin’ type: sharp, square-edged heavy points designed to penetrate armour and clearly for military use rather than hunting.

The principal conclusion of the excavation was that, when the castle was first built by the Normans in or just before 1069, the motte, with its defensive ditch, was enormous, and the inner bailey was tiny – it was little more than an extra layer of fortification wrapped around the approach up to the motte.

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Exploring Shrewsbury Castle

This year we’re funding investigations at Shrewsbury Castle, one of the most important castles along the Anglo-Welsh border. Nigel Baker told us how the work has been going.

Phase 1 of the Castle Studies Trust’s Shrewsbury Castle 2019 project is underway. Archaeological research is a long and painstaking process, so instant results are not to be expected – it must have taken a whole three hours to establish for the first time a number of simple but really fundamental facts about the hitherto-unexplored inner bailey.

Work started on Wednesday 8th May with the arrival at the castle of Tiger Geo, specialist geophysical survey contractors. Using ground-penetrating radar and resistivity, the lawns of the inner bailey interior and the slopes of the ramparts were gridded out and surveyed; the geophysicists never stopped, nor did the rain. But two basic conclusions emerged on screen from the raw data.

Tiger Geo doing sterling work despite the weather.

The first is that a ditch did once encircle the base of the motte within the perimeter of the inner bailey. This implies that the flat area within the inner bailey must originally have been a crescent-shaped area less than twenty metres wide from motte ditch to rampart tail.

The second conclusion is that there is, under the grass opposite and parallel to the standing early 13th-century ‘Great Hall’ (which houses a very fine Regimental Museum), another big building range backing onto the motte ditch. Given that the standing first-floor Great Hall was built as a royal chamber block (‘camera’) in the 1230s-40s, there is a possibility that a real Great Hall awaits excavation in the summer. But we’ve already answered one of the project’s main questions, ‘how was the inner bailey planned?’ The answer is there were two main ranges of buildings and no room for anything else.

While Tiger Geo mowed the lawns, the writer was busy in a bush at the base of the motte, freeing-up a manhole cover sealed for a decade. Under, a 20th-century brick inspection chamber gives access to a stone well-shaft alongside. The writer had been shown it surreptitiously by a kind gardener in the 1990s but without the opportunity for much recording. Now it has been photographed (though not with stunning competence), measured at just over seventy feet deep from ground level down to water level, and the masonry identified as probably late medieval – and not something done by Thomas Telford in the 1790s. So – Shrewsbury Castle retains its medieval well.

The medieval well. It’s a dizzying 21m down to water level.

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