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

An eclectic crop of fascinating applications asking for over £70,000 for the Castle Studies Trust to consider

The deadline for grant applications passed on 1 December. We’re going through the various projects now. Altogether the 10 projects, coming from England, Scotland and one from Turkey, are asking for over £70,000. They cover not only a wide period of history but also a broad range of topics.

We will not be able to fund as many of these projects as we would like. To help us fund as many of these projects as possible please donate here:

https://donate.kindlink.com/castle-studies-trust/2245.

In a little more detail here are the applications we’ve received:

3D Non-Destructive Chemical X-ray Imaging of Clay and Salts in Stone, Mortars, and Masonry: This ground breaking project aims to non-destructively map the distribution of clays and salts due to their significant roles in historical construction and preservation challenges. Clays and salts are commonly found in construction materials like stone and mortar, integral to understanding the original building processes of castles. The project will examine a number English Heritage sites including, Dover, Richmond and Conisbrough. It aims to contributes to the conservation of historic structures and enhance the broader understanding of historical architecture and its preservation.

Great Torrington, Devon: To provide interpretation boards for this early Norman earthwork castle using the results of the excavations being carried out at the site in late 2023.

Hereford Castle: To co-fund Friends of Castle Green to work with local community, historical societies, artists, creatives and technology providers, our goal is to uncover the hidden history behind (and underneath!) Castle Green and its environs through semi-traditional interpretation boards and interactive smartphone technology.

Higham Ferrers, Northants: To provide a geophysical survey of this now completely destroyed (by Henry VIII) former Duchy of Lancaster castle. The castle has extensive accounts dating from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries but nobody knows what it looked like. The survey would be the first step to being able to do that.

Kozkalesi, Turkey: To fund a season of field work of this 12th-13th century castle south-east of Antioch (Hatay) primarily focused on surveying the site and the surrounding area. Kozkalesi was an important Crusader site since it belonged to the Antiochene patriarchate throughout the 12th and 13th centuries and it’s a rare example of such a castle.

Leybourne, Kent: Architectural survey of the gatehouse which is of great importance to the understanding of gatehouse development, both nationally and, perhaps, internationally. It is often cited in studies of gatehouse development, but is far from fully-understood: its date and affinities are open to question, while there has been no up-to-date survey or recording.

Lowther Castle, Cumbria: Following on from last year’s excavations funded by the Trust, to see if this earthwork castle and village was an example of early Norman colonisation in the late eleventh century. In the second season, the aim would be to carry out excavations to see if there was a ditch and gatehouse and look for finds within the interior.

Newhouse, Lincolnshire: Excavation of possible ‘Anarchy’ period castle located near an abbey founded at a similar time. The aim is to try and find some dating evidence for the site to see if it was one of the many unrecorded ‘Anarchy’ castles

Penrith, Cumbria: Reconstruction of Penrith Castle as it would have been in the fifteenth century placing the viewer within the castle courtyard and replicating a human perspective. The castle was first built and then modified throughout the century, including by Richard Duke of Gloucester (Richard III) and part of the work behind the reconstruction will involve a full review of the architectural evidence.

Tinnis, Peebleshire: To produce three reconstruction drawings of this Scottish Borders castle through its three periods of occupation: Iron Age; Early Medieval Fort; Castle.

We will not be able to fund as many of these projects as we would like. To help us fund as many of these projects as possible please donate here: https://donate.kindlink.com/castle-studies-trust/2245

The applications have been sent to our assessors who will review them. You can see how the assessment process works from our blog back in January 2016: https://castlestudiestrust.org/blog/2016/01/17/how-the-castle-studies-trust-selects-its-projects/

Dig Diary Six: Lowther Castle and Village Project Highlights

In her final blog piece (for now) Project Lead, Sophie Ambler, looks back at the three excavation at Lowther

The on-site investigation of the medieval castle and village at Lowther (Cumbria) has now drawn to a close. Over the past month, a team from Allen Archaeology, UCLan, and Lancaster University has been exploring the site through geophysical surveying, excavation and archival research. We now have a geophysical survey of the village to analyse alongside LiDAR and the original earthworks survey. Over the coming months, our small finds will be analysed, together with soil samples, in the hopes that they yield dating evidence, and a report will be prepared drawing together the results from our trenches.

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Meanwhile, we have the chance to reflect on what’s been a thrilling month of investigation.

Uncovering the construction of the ringwork castle and assessing its situation has helped us to get a sense of the site’s place in the broader landscape. Since the area in which the castle stands is now wooded, this takes some imagination.

1. Lowther medieval castle OS map with label

The ringwork castle is sited on the edge of Lowther’s western escarpment, which runs down to the River Lowther. The ringwork’s positioning is clearer in OS maps (image 1), where its proximity to the river and the steepness of the escarpment are evident. Today, one can get some sense of the impact of this positioning by heading eight hundred metres or so south to take the view over the escarpment from the Jubilee Summer House, in the grounds of the nineteenth-century castle (image 2, and view the panorama on Google Maps.), although the escarpment is far less steep here. Originally, the castle would have commanded wide-ranging views to the west, across the river to Askham Fell, and would have been a highly visible – perhaps dominant – landmark for miles around.

View of western escarpment down to River Lowther from south of 19C castle

The scale and the construction of the ringwork castle has also become clearer. Again, given the tree coverage and overgrowth, it’s long been hard to perceive the earthwork’s size and form. It’s been hard also to capture the earthwork in photographs – but throughout the project Lowther’s resident photographer, Tony Rumsey, has been busy. His drone footage gives a much clearer sense of the site (image 3). To the top of the picture, the western escarpment drops steeply down from the earthwork to the river. In the foreground, Trench Two cuts into the earthwork’s northern bank.

Drone Trench 2 bank of ringwork castle in woods_Tony Rumsey

The image also shows how the floor level of the earthwork’s interior is significantly higher than the exterior ground level. As Trench Two revealed, the ringwork was constructed as a large, roughly square mound with layers of earth and stone, with its banks built up further to gird the mound. Meanwhile, the interior was topped with a metalled surface. We expect that the banks would have been surmounted by a simple fence or palisade (Trench Two did not reveal any postholes to indicate this palisade, but this is not surprising given that the top of the bank has almost certainly been lost to slippage).

Drone Trench 4 metalled surface entrance to ringwork castle Tony Rumsey

The metalled surface covering the interior of the ringwork is also clear in Trench Four (image 4). This trench takes in the approximate area of the ringwork castle’s entranceway, which cuts through the eastern bank. The entranceway may have included a wooden gateway, although we haven’t found firm evidence of one in Trench Four, and perhaps would need to open a larger area to be sure. Trench Three picked up a trackway (image 5), noted in the earthworks and geophysical surveys, which linked village to castle and brought visitors to the entranceway.

5. Drone Trench 3 trackway into castle_Tony Rumsey_

One of the highlights throughout the project has been welcoming visitors to the site. The project’s archaeology students from UCLan have been giving tours to those who’ve ventured down to the site during the course of the dig, keen to know more about what we’ve been uncovering. On Saturday 15 July, we were delighted to welcome representatives of the Castle Studies Trust and share with them our ongoing work (image 6), as well as members of several regional history and archaeology societies. We also had a visit from Professor Alice Roberts and the team from BBC2’s Digging for Britain (image 7), who plan to feature the project in their next series.

6. Visit of CST
7.Digging for Britain with project team

We still have further to go in analysing our findings and expanding our investigation of Lowther’s medieval castle and village, but are very pleased with how the on-site phase of our project has gone – not only in exploring the remains of an important medieval castle site, but also in training a new generation in castle archaeology, and encouraging public appreciation of castle studies. The project team is extremely grateful to the Castle Studies Trust for funding the project and for its support throughout, and would also like to thank the Lowther Castle and Gardens team for their help and hospitality over the past month. I’d also like to say a huge thank you to the indomitable Jim Morris, who has led the UCLan archaeology contingent, the hardworking and dedicated cohort of UCLan archaeology students, and the excellent Allen Archaeology team (Jonny Milton, Rob Evershed and Tobin Rayner).

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Lowther Dig Diary Four: Lots of questions not many answers…yet

At the end of week two of the #LowtherMedievalCastle dig and project lead Sophie Ambler gives us the latest update.

At the end of week two, we’re half way through our excavation of Lowther Medieval Castle and Village, and revealing some intriguing results.

We now have four trenches open, three exploring the medieval castle earthwork and one across the routeway linking castle to village. There is still a great deal of work to be done, so much of what follows involves some speculation, and these findings are very much preliminary!

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Trench One: Brick Patio

Trench One, on the western side of the castle earthwork, has revealed a small brick patio, bounded on the western edge with a course of cut stones. Miscellaneous finds, including a degraded iron doorhandle and pottery sherds, suggest that this might represent a phase of use concurrent with the nineteenth-century castle. Today’s Lowther Castle, the ruins of which overlook the site, was commissioned in 1806 by William, 1st Earl of Lonsdale. One theory is that the patio relates to the ‘Countess’s Stairs’, which once led up the steep slope from the River Lowther – perhaps towards the patio or a now-lost structure, which may have afforded a view across the river.

Trench Two: view down northward slope from top of northern bank

Trench Two, which cuts through the northern bank of the medieval castle earthwork, is starting to give us a real insight into how the fortification was constructed. We might expect with a ringwork castle for the bank to have been built using earth taken from an encircling ditch, but there is no evidence of a ditch at present. Instead, the bank appears to have been formed from material scoured from the immediate area: both the flat stretching north of the earthwork and the steep slope down to the River Lowther, a rich source of limestone. The bank appears to have been constructed in alternating layers of earth and stone. The team will continue working their way through the layers in this trench, in the hope of revealing more of the bank’s construction, and picking up any small finds that will provide us with dating evidence.

Trench Two northern bank of castle earthwork viewed from exterior showing layers of construction demonstrated by Jim Morris of UCLan

At the southern end of Trench Two, within the castle earthwork’s interior, is a metalled surface that may be the original medieval surface. This might tie into emerging discoveries in Trench Four.

Trench Four is our newest trench, opened over the entrance to the castle earthwork on its eastern side. Already this is beginning to yield evidence of what looks to be the same metalled surface evident in Trench Two. If so, this could suggest the original medieval metalled surface leading into the castle from the village and stretching across the floor of the ringwork. No evidence of this surface is evident so far in Trench One, either because it was destroyed by the intrusion of the nineteenth-century patio, or because the metalled surface did not cover the entirety of the castle interior. Within Trench Four, amidst a stone layer to the north of the metalled surface, is what might just be evidence of a post hole. Could this represent one side of the castle’s gateway? Watch this space!

Trench Three is another relatively recent trench taking in what is likely to be the routeway into the castle from the village, and what might be structures or plots lining the routeway. This has so far yielded two patches of disordered stone to the north of the routeway; one theory so far is that these represent demolition undertaken when the village was cleared in the seventeenth century.

All four trenches will hopefully have more to tell us as the team continues work over the second half of the project.

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You can follow the project’s discoveries on Twitter via the hashtag #LowtherMedievalCastle

Lowther Dig Diary Three: Digging up the historical evidence of Lowther medieval castle and village

In part three of our dig diary, project lead Sophie Ambler talks about another type of digging, not of holes in the ground by through the archives to discover what if any historical evidence there is for Lowther.

Whilst the archaeologist are at work on site at Lowther, I’m attempting to piece together the site’s history from the documentary evidence.

Our biggest challenge is tracing the origins of Lowther’s medieval castle and village, which we think date to the late eleventh or early twelfth century. For most of England, historians have a phenomenal source for settlement in the eleventh century: Domesday Book. This was William the Conqueror’s enormous survey of landholding, compiled in 1086. It gives various details, settlement by settlement, such as landholders, land under cultivation, notable buildings and households (for an introduction to Domesday and the latest research, listen to this BBC History Extra podcast by Professor Stephen Baxter). Domesday thus helps historians to trace the process by which the Normans conquered England over the twenty years from 1066.

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Frustratingly for us, the area of modern Co. Cumbria doesn’t appear in Domesday Book. Because this region wasn’t conquered by William I, it found no place in the Domesday survey. As discussed in our project’s first Dig Diary entry, the region was only conquered in 1092, by William the Conqueror’s son, William Rufus. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle states that William Rufus, following his campaign of conquest, ‘sent many peasant people with their wives and cattle to live there and cultivate the land’. This was, effectively, a process of Norman colonisation. We’re hypothesising that the ringwork castle earthwork and village at Lowther date to this era.

What was this region like when the Normans arrived in 1092? Here, historians have worked hard from patchy evidence for the Kingdom of Cumbria in the tenth and eleventh centuries. This was a Brittonic kingdom (distinct from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the south) but, as Professor Fiona Edmonds has described, parts of the kingdom were ‘multi-lingual and multi-cultural’ (including settlers we might think of as ‘Vikings’ and their descendants). These groups were encompassed by the term ‘Cymry’ (‘inhabitants of the same region’), from which the names Cumbria and Cumberland derive.

Who were the settlers dispatched in 1092 by William Rufus to colonise the Kingdom of Cumbria? There’s no hard evidence, but Dr Henry Summerson has suggested (in his book Medieval Carlisle) that they hailed from Lincolnshire. This theory has found some support from the late Professor Richard Sharpe, although he noted that evidence for a Lincolnshire connection dates to around 1100, so may represent a second wave of settlement.

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Our first major evidence for Norman rule of the region comes in 1130, under King Henry I (William Rufus’ brother). This is found in a Pipe Roll – a record produced by England’s central government detailing the Exchequer’s annual audit, so-called because the parchment membranes were sewn together at the top and rolled up to look like a pipe (read more on the Pipe Roll Society website). The first surviving Pipe Roll dates to 1130. Professor Sharpe used this and other evidence to reconstruct the early Norman administration of the region. He concluded that the Normans formed the shires of Cumberland and Westmorland out of the old Kingdom of Cumbria by 1130, and were administering these shires under the aegis of central government. Even then, however, both counties were run ‘as a territorial unit’ rather than shires proper, overseen by an administrator rather than fully-fledged sheriffs. (You can read Professor Sharpe’s analysis in full here). This is perhaps not surprising, given that in southern England the Normans could co-opt the governmental systems of the Anglo-Saxon state, including shires and shire courts. Cumbria was a different beast.

Is this all to say that written evidence can’t tell us much about the Norman conquest of Cumbria in general, or about our site in particular? Yes and no. It does highlight the importance of archaeological investigation in filling the gaps in written evidence – and suggests how findings from the Lowther Castle and Village project could be significant to both historians and archaeologists in tracing the process of Norman conquest and colonisation and its realities on the ground. On the other hand, we do have written evidence for the Lowther site dating from the thirteenth century onwards, which we can use together with the archaeology to trace the site’s biography. More of this in a forthcoming post!

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Follow the project on Twitter via the hashtag #LowtherMedievalCastle.

Lowther Dig Diary Two: End of Week One at Lowther Castle and Village Excavation

At the end of the first week of four, project lead Sophie Ambler gives an update of what has been going on the excavation.

As we draw to the end of our first week of the Lowther Medieval Castle and Village project, the team has made excellent progress.

Before the archaeologists arrived, the ground staff at Lowther Castle prepared the site – a big task, with the mowing of large areas of the north park. In recent years, the Lowther team has been rewilding the estate, allowing the grass and wildflowers to grow as a haven for wildlife. This meant we needed to balance the demands of the project – ensuring ready access for geophysical surveying – with the requirement to preserve this rich habitat as far as possible.

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The LiDAR and earthworks survey (discussed in our first post) allowed us to identify the principal north-south run of the medieval village along the eastern half of the site, together with the road or routeway connecting it to the medieval castle. This was the area we really wanted to survey and which had to be mowed. Meanwhile, a long strip running down the western side of the site, where we expected little medieval habitation, was left unmown. Walking across the site to the church yesterday, I was greeted by a kaleidoscope of butterflies cavorting in this long grass, and was glad we’d made this compromise!

Day One: Rob Evershed from Allen Archaeology leading student archaeologists on the geophysical survey. This is at the southern of the site, atop the village earthworks.

The geophysical survey is now largely complete. It has been led by Rob Evershed, a geophysical expert from Allen Archaeology, with the help of the project’s student archaeologists from UCLan. Rob first staked out thirty-metre grids, before training the students in the patient and disciplined task of geophysical surveying. As I learned this week, this means dressing ready for the task (no metal can be worn at all – including metal clasps and buttons – as it can interfere with the results) and carrying the equipment at a slow and steady pace across the grids.

Day Four: Rob and UCLan student, Dominic Scott, scrutinising the geophysics results.

The results are still coming in, but have already been hugely helpful. Rob was able to plot services running close to the castle (and thus where we shouldn’t be digging) and spot a target for trench three: what looks like a square ditch, potentially associated with one of the dwellings built along the east-west routeway linking the castle to the main north-south run of the village. As I left on Thursday afternoon, the team was busy opening Trench Three, incorporating the routeway and this anomaly, in the hopes of identifying features and finding dating evidence.

Meanwhile, on Monday the team had opened Trench One and Two at the castle earthwork. It wasn’t possible to use geophysics in this area, because the earthwork stands in woodland and the root systems would create too much disturbance for any results to be meaningful. The earthwork had been heavily overgrown but again, in advance of the project, the Lowther team cleared all the long grass and nettles across and around the earthwork.

Day One: the trench across the nothern bank of the castle earthwork, with Jonny Milton from Allen Archaeology (in the high vis trousers) and Jim Morris from UCLan directing the student archaeologists

This not only allowed the archaeologists easy access but also revealed the earthwork in all its glory. I was struck afresh with its scale, particularly its height, and its shape and features are now far easier to discern. The earthwork is roughly square, with an entranceway on the eastern side (presumably accessed from the east-west routeway from the village). At the south-west corner a significant continuation of the bank protrudes to form a platform. The great bank of a ringwork castle would likely have been surmounted by a timber palisade, and we’re speculating that this platform may have been home to a wooden tower, sited to give wide-ranging views north, east and south. Meanwhile, the western length of the castle was protected by a steep slope running down to the River Lowther.

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The two trenches were sited on the north and western sides of the earthwork. Under the guidance of Jonny Milton of Allen Archaeology and Jim Morris of UCLan, the student archaeologists removed the turf and set about digging. The northern trench runs from the castle interior, cutting through the bank and down along the bank’s steep northern slope. We hope this will allow us to see how the bank was constructed and provide dating evidence. There is still a long way to go, but already the trench has yielded a fragment of roughly made pottery, which will be analysed to see if it is early medieval. Over week two, the archaeologists will continue working their way down through the trench, stepping it out to take account of the steep slope.

Meanwhile, the western trench yielded some curious results: a couple of trays’ worth of Victorian detritus, a stone wall, and a floor surface nicely laid with hand-made bricks: evidence that part of the castle interior was taken over and used for purposes that are so far unclear. The team aims to investigate this phase further and, after thoroughly recording these features, to dig further down in the hope that they’ve preserved features from the medieval phase.

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There’ll be more entries in our Dig Diary to follow, and meanwhile you can follow the project’s progress on Twitter via the hashtag #LowtherMedievalCastle.

Lowther Dig Diary One: Lowther Medieval Castle and Village project

On Monday 26 June the excavation and geophysical survey of Lowther’s medieval castle and Village gets underway, finishing on Friday 21 July. Here, project lead Sophie Therese Ambler from the University of Lancaster explains what she hopes the team of students and academics from the university and University of Central Lancaster with the support of Allen Archaeology hope to find over the next three weeks.

Overlooking the Bampton Valley on the edge of the Lake District, the picturesque ruins of Lowther’s nineteenth-century castle are one of the region’s most popular attractions. Less well known are the earthworks immediately to the north, the remains of a medieval castle and village. Preliminary work suggests the site may date to the late eleventh or early twelfth century. If so, it could provide rare evidence of the conquest of Cumbria by King William Rufus and his brother, King Henry I – a generation after the Normans seized control of the rest of England. The site is potentially of national significance but has never been fully investigated.

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Who built the castle and its settlement, when and why? The Lowther Medieval Castle and Village project brings together historians and archaeologists from the North West to uncover the site’s biography.

The Castle Studies Trust has generously funded a survey and excavation, which will take place from 26 June to 21 July 2023. The project team brings together History at Lancaster University, Allen Archaeology, the University of Central Lancaster (UCLan) and Lowther Castle and Gardens Trust.

In the 1990s, the Lowther Estate commissioned a landscape report and earthwork survey. The report suggested that the Castlesteads earthwork dates to the early Norman era (late eleventh or early twelfth century), and categorised it as a ringwork, a characteristic rural castle form of the early post-Conquest period. It noted that the castle is ‘of considerable archaeological importance, particularly as it was potentially the original fortified site at Lowther’.

The report also suggested the village was integrally linked to the ringwork and ‘likely to have been a planned settlement, established under close manorial control’. The settlement, the report noted, ‘is of considerable importance being a fossilised medieval settlement and it has the potential to significantly inform our understanding of medieval nucleated settlement in Cumbria.’ At the north of the site stands St Michael’s church, which is medieval in origin and potentially related to the castle and settlement.

Lidar image showing the extent of Lowther Castle and Village

The extent and form of the site as a whole can now also be seen in LiDAR imaging (see image above), noting that the circular features are intrusions brought by landscaping after the demolition of the settlement in the seventeenth century. 

The working hypothesis is that the site dates to the Norman conquest of Cumbria. Unlike the rest of England, Co. Cumbria was not conquered by the Normans in 1066. The region was historically part of the Kingdom of Cumbria, which stretched from Strathclyde across the Solway. Then, while the Normans were conquering lowland England, the area from Lowther northwards was conquered by the Scottish king Máel Coluim III. Cumbria was only annexed by the Normans in 1092, when William the Conqueror’s son, William Rufus, led an expedition to the area. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the king then ‘sent many peasant people with their wives and cattle to live there and cultivate the land’.

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Could Lowther’s medieval castle and village date from this era? Beyond the estimations provided by the earthwork survey, it has been suggested from place name and field pattern evidence that many medieval villages in this area of Cumbria were planned or remodelled settlements established following the 1092 annexation of Cumbria and peopled largely by colonists. But written evidence for Cumbria in this era is extremely sparse, so it is up to archaeology to test this theory. Whatever the investigation finds, the archaeology at Lowther offers a fantastic opportunity to understand rural castle building and life in medieval Cumbria.

In the first few days of the project, the team will conduct a geophysical survey, before opening trenches across the Castlesteads and settlement earthworks. Visitors to Lowther Castle will be able to visit the dig site – if you are in the area, please do come and say hello.

The team will be posting regular updates on the project in a Dig Diary here on the Castle Studies Trust website. You can also follow the project on Twitter, via the hastag #LowtherMedievalCastle

Meanwhile, further information is available on the project website:

https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/centre-for-war-and-diplomacy/lowther-medieval-castle/

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The Castle Studies Trust five projects for 2023

The Castle Studies Trust have awarded five grants totalling £35,000 to support research into castles. This is a record amount for the Trust, and as we enter our tenth year as a charity, we could not have managed this without our supporters.

We will bring you updates from these projects throughout the year as the teams get stuck in. But first, let’s get to know them a bit better. They are from across England, Scotland, and Wales and take different approaches to understanding castles.

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Bamburgh

A stone building with a square tower in the middle. It stands on an outcrop, prominent in the landscape. In the foreground is a beach.
Bamburgh Castle on the coast of Northumberland. Photo by Michael Hanselmann via Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Standing on a rocky outcrop on the coast of Northumberland, Bamburgh’s history stretches back to the early medieval period when it was home to a palace of the Kings of Northumbria. Bamburgh Castle itself was owned by royalty at various points, and rebuilt in the 18th century.

Bamburgh is a massive site: its history has been illuminated by excavations, and there is still more to learn.

Dr. Joanne Kirton and Graeme Young of the Bamburgh Research Project plan to carry out a geophysical survey and a masonry survey of the castle’s outworks.

Dunoon

The mound at Dunoon Castle. Photo by Rosser1954 via Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC-BY-SA 4.0.

A castle at Dunoon was first mentioned in the late 13th century but may be older. The ruins visible today date from the 14th century. It stands on a hill on the coast of the Firth of Clyde. The castle was besieged and captured multiple times over its centuries-long history and became a royal residence.

Despite the castle’s royal links, little is known about its layout and dating. Dr. Manda Forster’s team at DigVentures will carry out geophysical surveys (resistivity and magnetometry) of the mound and the area around it to find out where there may be buried walls, foundations, or other archaeological remains.

They will also organise workshops for the local community to learn how geophysics work. So as well as learning more about the castle, they may inspire the next generation of archaeologists!

Lowther

Google Map of the medieval Lowther Castle

The present Lowther Castle was built in the 17th century, but a few hundred metres north lie the medieval remains of a castle and possible deserted village. Lancaster University Archaeology Unit surveyed the earthworks in the 1990s, but there has been no other archaeological investigation since.

Being able to date the site would be a crucial step in understanding the Norman influence in the region. Could this be part of the remains of the Norman conquest of the Kingdom of Cumbria in the late 11th century?

Dr. Sophie Ambler has devised the project to carry out geophysical surveys at Lowther Castle followed by excavations. Working with the University of Central Lancashire and Allen Archaeology, this aims to establish the site’s building chronology.

Picton

Picton Castle in 2021 by Ruth Sharvile, via Geograph. Licensed CC-BY-SA 2.0.

Pembroke’s Picton Castle is a medieval building with later alterations and additions. It is uncertain when it was built and by who, but it is likely to have been established in about 1300 by Sir John Wogan. Picton has an unusual layout but may have parallels with French medieval castles.

Neil Ludlow and the Dyfed Archaeological Trust will carry out a measured survey of the building, recording its structure and creating a photographic record of the site. This will be an invaluable resource to understand the site, and help show the castle’s development over the centuries.

Wigmore

Photo of Wigmore © Philip Hume

Wigmore was amongst the early castles established in England in the wake of the Norman conquest. It was founded by William Fitz Osbern, Earl of Hereford and later became the home of the Mortimer family. They were an influential family in the Welsh marches, and they developed the castle to reflect their growing power.

Small-scale excavations at Wigmore and geophysical surveys in the 1990s demonstrated the archaeological potential of the site, but what is missing is a reconstruction of how it looked during its heyday.

Chris Jones-Jenkins will create a reconstruction of how Wigmore Castle used to appear. This will draw on archaeological and historical sources to bring the reconstruction to life. You may also have seen Chris’ work with his reconstructions of Ruthin and Holt.

Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter to receive updates on these projects and our other ongoing work in the field of castle studies.

Header image: Bamburgh Castle by Michael Hanselmann via Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC-BY-SA 3.0.

A large and eclectic crop of fascinating applications asking for over £100,000 for the Castle Studies Trust to Consider

The deadline for grant applications passed on 1 December. We’re going through the various projects now. Altogether the 15 projects, coming from all the home nations and one from Ireland, are asking for over £110,000. They cover not only a wide period of history but also a broad range of topics.

We will not be able to fund as many of these projects as we would like. To help us fund as many of these projects as possible please donate here:

Kindlink Donation Form App

In a little more detail here are the applications we’ve received:

Bamburgh, Northumberland: The aim of the project is to better understand the outworks to the north of the castle, by using various geophysical survey techniques and a preliminary survey of the masonry remains, it will include a 3D model of the recently excavated Elmund Tower and provide materials for interactive displays.

Barnard Castle, Co Durham: The aim of the project is to try and understand a lot more about the outer ward of the castle, using a variety of methods including geophysical survey, aerial survey and test excavation

Cavers Castle, Roxburghshire: Through a combination of building survey and excavation to try to understand the early form of this important baronial castle.

Dunoon, Argyll: A community-led geophysical survey project to understand better the form and scale of this important castle that was the seat of the Lord High Stewards of Scotland. The original castle dates back to the 1200s and the remains above currently ground date from the fourteenth century.

Fun Kids, Castle Podcasts for 7-13 Year Olds: To produce a series of 8 podcasts for children aged 7-13 to engage children to explore a what, how and why of 8 castles. The series will focus on a variety of castles and build awareness of less common castles that families can explore.

Galey, Co. Roscommon: Geophysical and topographical surveys to explore the possible motives behind the placement of, as well as immediate landscape context, morphology and any attached settlement and industrial activity, that occurred at a lakeshore-sited late medieval Gaelic-constructed tower house castle.

Hartlebury, Worcestershire: The seeks to explore what looks like a possible civil war bastion ditch, which seems to have been partially revealed in a 2022 drone survey of this former bishop’s palace with remains dating from the fifteenth century. This will be done through geophysical survey and excavation.

Lowther Castle, Cumbria: Through a combination of geophysical survey and excavation to try to learn more about this ringwork castle and settlement, thought to date from the late eleventh century. the aim is to try to discover if it dates from this period and was therefore a Norman plantation; and also its history after its foundation.

Millom, Cumbria: The project will involve a drone survey to assess the condition of the 14th century fortified manor combined with a geophyisical survey to understand if there is any link between it and the nearby church and monastery.

Muncaster, Cumbria finds assessment: To make a complete assessment of the finds from the 2021 excavations which took place near the 14th century tower along with two nearby kiln sites.

Muncaster, Cumbria geophys and archaeology survey: To carry out a geophysical survey of the area surrounding the castle and to investigate a large stone feature in the cellar of the castle to understand its purpose and possible date

Northern Frontier, Beacon Hill Yorkshire: A geophysical survey of Pickering Beacon Hill, a siege castle used for the siege of Pickering in the lead up to the Battle of the Standard (1138) to better understand the landscape at the time and see how much life was disrupted during the period known as the Anarchy.

Picton, Pembrokshire: The aim of the project is to achieve a full understanding of the form, functions and affinities of the medieval part of Picton Castle through a building survey. It has an unusual plan with no close parallels within Great Britain, but shows some affinities with castles further afield including, possibly, Gascony in France

Snodhill, Herefordshire: Excavation to explore the early masonry defences and attempt to resolve the entrance arrangements and to do a geophysical survey of the Eastern Bailey

Wigmore, Herefordshire: To provide a digital reconstruction drawing of Wigmore Castle using a mixture of archaeological and archival evidence

We will not be able to fund as many of these projects as we would like. To help us fund as many of these projects as possible please donate here: Kindlink Donation Form App

The applications have been sent to our assessors who will go over them. You can see how the assessment process works from our blog back in January 2016: How the Castle Studies Trust Selects its Projects – Castle Studies Trust Blog