Newhouse Castle: excavation aims and objectives

Dr Ryan Prescott, project lead looks at what they hope to find at the excavations at Newhouse.

The reign of King Stephen, 1135 – 1154, commonly referred to as ‘the Anarchy,’ was marked by purported political turmoil and discord. Against this backdrop for the struggle for the throne, medieval chroniclers wrote of a surge in castle-building, seemingly in defiance of royal authority. While recent scholarship has since begun to reassess many aspects of Stephen’s reign, the archaeological dimension of these castles remains largely unexplored.

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

With the support of the Castle Studies Group Small Projects Fund, a geophysical survey was carried out in the Spring of 2023 to investigate Newhouse Castle, known to have been built in North Lincolnshire amidst the conflict between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda. However, soon after its initial construction, contemporary sources indicate that the site of Peter of Goxhill’s castle was repurposed to establish a monastery, becoming England’s first Premonstratensian House, continuing to prosper until finally suppressed in 1536.

Figure 1: The results of geophysical survey conducted at Newhouse in 2023, funded by the Castle Studies Group.

On face value, the transient nature of the castle at Newhouse is typical of what we have come to recognise for ‘the Anarchy’ period, leaving much unknown about its characteristics, completion, or intended purpose. Through planned excavations made possible by a grant from the Castle Studies Trust, Dr Ryan Prescott and Humberfield Archaeology seek to achieve several key objectives in the summer of 2024:

  • Unearthing the Past: This phase of the project involves excavating the earthwork identified through geophysical survey. By examining the physical remnants of Newhouse, we hope to be able to provide evidence for its construction, size, and layout. This is a crucial step when profiling the site and attempting to determine the reasons why it was first built.
  • Dating Evidence: While historical documents offer some insights into Newhouse’s timeline, the lack of firm dating evidence leaves much to speculation. With two trial trenches planned across the monument, we aim to establish a more accurate chronology of the site, bridging the gap between written records and the physical evidence. This remains a key issue with all sites contemporary to ‘the Anarchy’ and where possible, we hope to be able to address this through the archaeological remains.
  • From Castle to Abbey: One of the most intriguing aspects of Newhouse is its rapid transition from a castle to an abbey. Through an examination of the archaeological evidence and various buried deposits present at the site, we hope to learn more about the structural changes which accompanied this transformation. Understanding how and why Newhouse evolved into Newsham Abbey is essential when interpreting the socio-political landscape of North Lincolnshire.
  • Contextual Analysis: Newhouse does not exist in isolation; it is part of a broader network of castles and religious foundations in North Lincolnshire and the Humber. By comparing Newhouse with nearby sites including the castles at Barrow upon Humber and Barton upon Humber, we aim to gain insights into the regional dynamics of lordly power during ‘the Anarchy’. How did these sites interact, compete, or cooperate in the midst of political instability? These are just some of the questions we hope to answer.
Figure 2: View of the earthwork at Newhouse looking south.

As we now enter the excavation phase at Newhouse, we will continue share our progress through blog posts, video updates, and our excavation findings when the work has been completed. We hope that our research at Newhouse will contribute to a deeper understanding of ‘the Anarchy’, and provide a much-needed local perspective into how lesser magnates, like Peter of Goxhill, expressed their wealth, power, and status through castle-building and religious patronage.

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter


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.

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

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.

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

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.

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

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.

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

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!

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

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.

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

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!

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

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.

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

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).

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

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.

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

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.

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

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

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. 

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

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.

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

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.

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

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.

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

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.

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

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.

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

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.

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

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

What use a gallery?

Dr Katherine Weikert Senior Lecturer in Early Medieval European History at the University of Winchester takes a look at galleries in Anglo-Norman keeps.

At many Anglo-Norman tower-keeps, there is a significant part of the castle which remains generally under-discussed: the gallery. Often circling above a main room or hall space at least one storey above the floor level, a gallery is normally interpreted to the public as a space for musicians, or a passageway, if noticed at all.

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

Part of the neglect of the gallery often has much to do with the survival of the building remains. There is considerably reduced size and physicality to these galleries compared to great rooms such as halls and chambers. One of the best-preserved galleries is in the White Tower, London, which has galleries above both the main rooms and the connected St John’s Chapel. Dover Castle (Kent), too, demonstrates this (though you must use your imagination to remove the later brick barrel-vaulted ceiling to envision it!) But many others such as at Rochester remain in a state that make it more difficult to understand. This means that the keep galleries are often neglected not only in scholarship, but in public interpretation.

Rochester Keep Interior copyright Katherine Weikert

But understanding these galleries provides new insight to the performance of prestige at royal courts and high-status halls in the Anglo-Norman period. What comes to light is the importance of seeing, and being seen. Although in most current states of preservation this is difficult to perceive, between keeps which retain their galleries in safe conditions, and studying the galleries from a point of view of pathways and viewsheds, their meanings and use become more transparent.

Bedroom in Dover Castle Keep copyright Katherine Weikert

In castles such as the White Tower, Dover, and Rochester (Kent), the galleries providing viewsheds into the grand rooms below were a part of routes which indicate that the galleries were important parts of the castle’s ‘choreographed’ space. These passageways to and from these galleries were on paths that included ‘prestige’ places such as the hall and chamber. At Dover, the views from the second-floor galleries actually overlooked both the hall and chamber – leading to even more insight to research which indicates that a chamber was not so much ‘private’ as ‘more select.’ At Rochester, the gallery on the third level equally overlooks the main rooms on either side of the spine wall on the second floor. These galleries also provide a route between the two rooms, an alternative to the two doors in the spine wall between them: a more circuitous route no doubt, but one that provided different opportunities to see the whole rooms below, and be seen above them.

Hedingham Castle Gallery Arches, copyright Katherine Weikert

More rarely, castles retain enough fabric to actively see these viewsheds. Hedingham Castle (Essex), where some of our donors enjoyed a special event in 2021, is in superb and even liveable condition. Here, it is possible to see, experience and understand these paths and views from the gallery. At Hedingham, the gallery overlooks both sides of the grand first-floor room which is divided – but not separated – by an impressive two-storey arch. Views from the gallery overlook both sides of the hall below. Although the gallery arches are undecorated – the ground-floor arches below them have chevron patterns – the size of the gallery arches directly echoes the size of the ones below them. These are wide, open arches from which a person could be seen, while they are simultaneously seeing the action in the hall.

Hedingham Castle, view of the great room from gallery, copyright Katherine Weikert

In all of these castles, people in those great rooms below the galleries had also to consider the impact of the visual message that they were sending to those above. This could include regular matters of state or court; ceremonies or feasting at important events; crown-wearing at notable events; the reception of other high-ranking aristocrats and foreign emissaries, and more beyond this. At places such as St John’s Chapel in the White Tower, the liturgical message also needed to be seen and received. Why make such a display at times and places such as these if it couldn’t be seen? Galleries provided an audience space for those watching the enacted scenes below. In some circumstances, depending on how the hall was set for a number of guests, it may have been possible to better see the action from the gallery than from the floor!

These gallery viewing points were also important places to be seen, not just to see. At Dover, the king and queen could sit on their dais and very likely see those in the galleries in front and above them better than they might see who was at the back of the single-levelled floor of the hall itself. Remaining stone decoration of castle gallery arches further helps to understand the visual impact of being seen in these places. For example, the arches in both the great hall and the gallery at Hedingham echo each other with scalloped capital. At Dover, the gallery behind the high end of the hall is large enough for an entire visual tableau to be created, framed and presented to those in the hall below, an opportunity to view and perhaps control the vision of who was being seen in the gallery behind the seated king and queen.

Hedingham Castle, south entrance to the gallery, copyright Katherine Weikert

Further surviving stonework can lend even more to the interpretations of galleries as prestige spaces. At Hedingham, the south entrance to the gallery level has a particularly fancy doorframe with double-shafted columns with a spiral pattern and beading carving. This gallery was no service level or low-status route, but one that announced its importance in stone. As in the interpretations at Conisbrough Castle (South Yorkshire) and its fancy doors leading to high-status spaces, we should envision galleries such as these as controlled spaces, possibly with doormen allowing or denying entry into them, with access routes including a series of checkpoints in order to reach them.

What use a castle gallery then? More attention needs to be paid to these parts of castles. Although no doubt a fluid space that changed use as needed – as were most castle rooms – the galleries of Anglo-Norman keeps need to be realised as places for high-status members of the court and the castle community not only to see proceedings below, but be seen. The need to be noticed in attendance to a lord cannot be underestimated in the middle ages, where status was important, and malleable. There is more to a castle gallery than meets the eye…and the visual element of them is a key part to understanding them.

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

Further reading:

Robert Liddiard, Castles in Context (Macclesfield: Windgather Press, 2005).

Katherine Weikert, ‘Creating a Choreographed Space: Anglo-Norman Keeps in the Twelfth Century,’ in Buildings in Society: International Studies in the Historic Era, edited by Liz Thomas and Jill Campbell (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2018), 127-40.

Berkeley Castle Donjon and Moat

Berkeley Castle Project Excavation Director Dr Stuart Prior takes a look at one of the many interesting discoveries made during the dig which is part of a new book looking at 15 years of excavation.

Between 2005 and 2019 the Berkeley Castle Project (BCP), conducted by University of Bristol, carried out excavations and survey work at Berkeley Castle, which have led to the publication of a new book. Excavations in 2015, of Trench 19, were able to gain insight into the early origins of the castle and the donjon that was constructed when the castle was built in stone by Robert FitzHarding in 1153–1154.

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

It was originally believed that the first stone castle erected at Berkeley comprised a circular shell keep, but the BCP was able to shed new light on this aspect of the site’s past and its architectural evolution. In a Castle Studies Group Bulletin (CSG Bulletin 18, 2014), Neil Guy suggested that the castle may have had a square or rectangular donjon or keep that may have been modified as the basis for the Thorpe Tower by Thomas [III] Berkeley (1292–1361). Trench 19 was designed to look for evidence of the north-west corner and west wall of this postulated donjon. The argument here was that Thorpe Tower was not wholly created ‘as new’ in the 14th century but was instead a part-relic structure arising from a 1340s re-modelling of the 12th century castle. Namely, two corners and one side of a square donjon which abutted the north side of the ‘motte’, and for which the shell-keep encasing the motte was an inner (and elevated or upper) bailey.

Figure 1: Plan view of Trench 19 showing heavily robbed-out building foundations copyright Berkeley Castle Project

The archaeological remains observed in Trench 19 (Fig. 1) appear to demonstrate the presence of a heavily robbed-out building with structures of two later phases overlying it (Fig. 2). The orientation of the first structural phase (contexts 1912 and 1916) and the robber trench (context 1908) associated with it is in alignment with the south-facing elevation of Thorpe Tower. This orientation suggests that this first phase was associated with, and presumably connected to, Thorpe Tower. It is probable, therefore, that context 1912 represents a heavily robbed wall which is comparable, and most likely contemporary with, wall J3, identified by the 8th Earl, who was an amateur archaeologist, which extended from the northern elevation of Thorpe Tower (TBGAS, 1927, vol.49, 183-93 & 1938, vol.60, 308-39).

Figure 2 – Location of proposed donjon overlying plan of 8th Earl’s excavations. Copyright Berkeley Castle Project

It appears then that the shell-keep and Thorpe Tower are of a single phase, most likely dating to the mid-12th century. While there is no evidence currently that contexts 1912, 1916 and wall J3 are contemporary with this primary construction phase, it must be noted that the wall (1911) overlaid context 1912 and re-used some of its stone. Further to the evidence from Trench 19, the rear wall of this fortification can still be seen, incorporated into the castle’s later form (Figs. 3 & 4).

Figure 3 – 17th century painting by Dankerts showing original height of donjon along with remnant of projecting wall (heading north towards church).
Figure 4 – Aerial view of Berkeley showing reduced height of donjon; and with addition of 18th century laundry attached to north. Copyright Berkeley Castle Project

Accompanying the donjon, there are several medieval documents that record the cutting of moats around Berkeley Castle. In The Cartulary of St Augustine’s Abbey, Bristol, an entry made between 1171 and 1190 records a grant made by Maurice de Berkeley [I] to St Augustine’s of a rent of 5s from his mill below the castle, some tithes of pannage, and common pasture for a plough team ‘pro emendatione culpe mee de fossato quod feci de cimiterio de Berchel circa castellum meum’ (charter no. 78; Walker, 1998, 46–7), which roughly translated means ‘in recompense for my offence committed upon the cemetery of Berkeley in cutting a ditch around my castle’. This suggests that Maurice cut a moat around his castle, which encroached upon part of the cemetery, and he was subsequently fined for his actions. The grant is again confirmed sometime between 1190 and 1220 by Maurice’s son, Robert [II] (charter no. 119; ibid., 69–70).

During this period then, the castle comprised an ovoid shell-keep with adjacent forebuilding, the curtain wall of the inner ward and the Norman Great Hall, all wrapped around the skeleton of the earlier motte and bailey. Excavations carried out by the 8th Earl between 1917 and 1937 (TBGAS 1938, 321) demonstrated that the shell-keep was already adequately defended by a moat that ran around its base on the southwest, north-west and north-east sides – which may have encircled the earlier motte and bailey – and records show that Maurice [I] dug a deep moat around the south-east side of the castle, presumably to complete the defensive circuit, and diverted the Newport brook and others towards the castle to fill it.

More information on the Berkeley Castle Project (BCP), on the castle itself, and on the excavations and survey work conducted by University of Bristol can be found here: https://www.archaeopress.com/Archaeopress/Products/9781803275680

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter

Bibliography

Earl of Berkeley, 1927. Berkeley Castle. Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society

49, 183-193.

Earl of Berkeley, 1938. Excavations At Berkeley Castle. Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire

Archaeological Society 60, 308-339.

Walker, D. 1998. The Cartulary of St Augustine Abbey, Bristol. Gloucester: Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society.