In five short videos Drs Will Wyeth, Coralie Mills and Hamish Darrah look at the project funded by both the Castle Studies Trust and Historic Environment Scotland to date a timber found at Old Wick Castle, Caithness, and in turn help us understand better this little understood castle.
In the first video Dr Will Wyeth gives the background to the project:
In the first of two blog posts Coralie M Mills and Hamish Darrah of Dendrochronicle look at how they managed to test and date a piece of timber found in a wall socket of the tower at Old Wick Castle, Caithness. A second article by Dr Will Wyeth will look at the historical context behind these surprising findings.
A single surviving timber fragment in the ruinous tower of Castle of Old Wick in Caithness was recovered, studied and dated through the support of the Castle Studies Trust for this Historic Environment Scotland (HES) project. The outer end of the timber was visible within a socket in the north west wall of the tower at about second floor level. Exposed to the elements, in fragile condition and at risk of further decay, it was recognised by HES as a means of dating this relatively featureless tower, variously ascribed to the 12th or later 14th century for initial construction. Therefore, our mission to recover this fragile lone timber was rather nerve-wracking and undertaken very carefully. Fortunately, it went well, and we recovered it in one piece in September 2021.
Back at base we recorded the form of the timber and sub-sampled it for dating and species identification. The sampled cross-section had two centres and was intact to sub-bark surface in one corner. The species proved to be alder (Alnus glutinosa), a common native tree of wet places including in northern Scotland. This ruled out the possibility of dendrochronological dating, given the absence of suitable alder reference data, and led to Bayesian radiocarbon ‘wiggle-match’ dating using five-year blocks of rings sub-sampled at known intervals across the 80-year tree-ring sequence. The radiocarbon dating was undertaken by SUERC and Bayesian analysis of the only two viable sub-samples provided a ‘wiggle match’ date of cal AD 1515–1550 (95% probability), with highest single-year probabilities in the range cal AD 1515–1535 (68% probability). The results represent the bark edge position and the felling date of the timber. There is a possibility this is naturally storm-thrown material being used rather than a tree being felled for the job, in which case the date is the death date of the stem, but either way it is unlikely this stem was dead for long before it was worked.
This is a short irregular length of timber, 46cm long, 12cm wide and a maximum height of 19.5cm at the exposed face, tapering to 6cm at the inner end. The outer face is heavily weathered, and we cannot tell whether that face was worked or how far the timber projected originally. At the better-preserved inner end, the timber has an axe-cut notched, faceted face which had no structural function in the socket and was just sitting free within the void behind the timber. It has no clear joinery evidence such as a mortise or trenail. Therefore, our preferred interpretation is that the notched end is the consequence of axing off the branchy top of the stem, but we cannot rule out the possibility that it represents a re-used timber. If the notched end is seen as a deliberate feature, then it may have been designed to allow this timber to be propped against another element of a structure, perhaps in something temporary like scaffolding, and could signify re-use of the timber in this context. Other than this notched feature, the only other woodworking evidence is of an axe being used to shape the timber from the round into a rectangular form.
Alder is often naturally multi-stemmed and can also be coppiced. However, eighty years is well beyond the stem age expected in any coppicing system. This is more probably natural unmanaged material. Based on the overall form, the double centre, the direction of knots and the taper on the timber, we do not think this timber is cut from a managed coppice stool or the base of a tree but rather from the upper branching top of a substantial stem. Therefore, the stem could have been a good bit older than 80 years when felled, as any tree stem will have more rings near the base than at the top. The stem must have been several metres tall after 80+ years of growth. Therefore, while we do not know how long the original timber was, this surviving short length of timber may be an offcut, with the bulk of the stem used for another purpose. Alder sill beams have been found in medieval Inverness and Perth, perhaps selected for alder’s rot resistant properties, and alder is also known to have been used as crucks historically in northern Scotland.
The socket holding the timber is much deeper than the timber, at least 70cm deep, with packing around the timber and a void behind, suggesting the socket was not built with the dimensions of this alder timber in mind and may be earlier than the timber, which would make the timber part of a secondary feature. Based on our observations of the timber’s position and character, it is clearly not part of a floor joist, and is more likely a fixture for a lost internal fitting or small structure. If the timber was used fresh in this context, our preferred interpretation, the dating results represent the time when this timber fixture was added to the castle. However, if the notch is interpreted as evidence of timber re-use than the date is a terminus post quem (date after which) for this phase of alteration to the castle. The structural and historical evidence is considered further by Will Wyeth in his separate blog piece:
On Wednesday and Thursday 22nd and 23rd of September, a team lead by Rachel Pickering of Historic Environment Scotland and Coralie Mills undertook to remove the remains of wooden joist from the keep at Old Wick Castle. The joist hole was 8 metres above ground level. If successfully removed the joist was then to be taken away for testing and hopefully provide a date for it and the castle. In a slightly different blog than usual here are three short videos looking at how the removal process went.
As the Old Wick project gets underway, the project lead Rachel Pickering of Historic Environment Scotland explains what they are trying to find out and how.
In the far northeast of mainland Scotland, on a narrow promontory, surrounded by cliffs on three sides, stand the ruins of Castle of Old Wick. The castle is one of Caithness’ most striking medieval sites due to its rugged location. But time has not been kind to the castle, and all that survives above ground is the stark stone skeleton of a once grand tower, within low-lying earthworks on the promontory behind. There are many unanswered questions about this castle, not least ‘when was it built?’.
Very little is known about the castle’s origin and development – there is limited documentary evidence relating to its earlier history and no diagnostic architectural features survive, making it very difficult to date. It was once thought to have been one of the earliest stone castles in Scotland, associated with Norse earls of Orkney and Caithness. However, more recently, scholars have questioned this, suggesting a 14th century date is much more likely for its construction.
One tantalising clue survives that may shed light on its construction history – a single fragment of timber within a joist socket of an upper floor. The image below shows these joist sockets which indicate the tower had timber floors throughout. The sole surviving timber is increasingly at risk of decay as it is exposed to the elements. Our aim is to remove the timber and assess it for dendrochronological analysis – or tree-ring dating, before conserving the remains. From this we may be able to get a scientific date to indicate when the castle was built. At the very least, such a date may provide an age and provenance for the timber joist which provides an insight into phases of the castle’s development.
Thanks to generous grant funding from the Castle Studies Trust, HES and specialist contractor Dr Coralie Mills of Dendrochronicle will be carrying out new research this autumn, with the hope of recovering dating evidence.
The timber is believed to be oak, making it suitable for dendrochronological analysis, though it is in a very fragile state. It will be accessed using a scaffold and very carefully removed and wrapped before being transported to the laboratory in Edinburgh for detailed examination. Its condition and suitability for dendrochronological analysis will then be assessed. If it is not possible to analyse the rings of the timber due to its condition, then an alternative method will be undertaken using radiocarbon ‘wiggle matching’. This would involve taking several samples for high precision radiocarbon dating, allowing for a more accurately calibrated radiocarbon date for the timber.
We hope this research will shed light on the construction and development of Castle of Old Wick, by providing valuable scientific dating evidence. The project will also potentially support the on-going development of dendrochronological analysis within Scotland, as every new analysis can help to add to and refine existing tree-ring chronologies, which in turn supports future research.
The aim is to understand the chronology and geography of extreme weather events in the high medieval period, and the effects they wrought on archaeological features that led to the abandonment of the old castle built in c.1229 in favour of the new built 200m away in c.1277. The latest thinking is that it was a series of extraordinary storm surge events which pushed a series of storm driven gravel ridges across the River Nith.
The methodology to find this out is interdisciplinary, using scientific methods to enhance understanding of archaeological fieldwork. The fieldwork will involve the establishment of a series of transects across the site and surrounding landscape from which cores and samples will be extracted for sediment description, stratigraphic analysis, and Carbon 14 dating.
Depending on Covid restrictions, the aim is to start doing the work in May this year with the receipt of the final data in the autumn.
The production of an interpretative phased floor plan for Greasley Castle in Nottinghamshire. The castle, built in the 1340s, has an obscure history and the understanding of its architectural phasing is at best very cloudy. The site is now a working farm and a number of post-mediaeval structures have been conglomerated around the remains of what is suspected to be a fourteenth century courtyard house with projecting corner towers.
The survey will act as baseline research data for a site which has not previously received serious fieldwork or publication and provide a basis for further research but also for any future conservation needs.
Work on the project will start in the early summer when covid restrictions ease.
Laughton-en-le-Morthen, South Yorkshire
To provide professional illustration and reconstruction which will also be integrated into a co-authored academic article based on the two previous research projects carried out on the site by Dr Duncan Wright and funded by the Trust. A geophysical survey and then small-scale excavation which give a strong indication that the Normans had built a motte on the site of a high-status Saxon dwelling.
Part of the monies will be used to produce phase plans of Laughton during key stages of its development, and a small percentage will pay for a line drawing of the 11th century grave cover incorporated into the fabric of the nearby church. The aim will be to start the work as soon as possible.
Old Wick, Caithness
Dendrochronological assessment of timber at the Castle of Old Wick, Caithness thought to be one of the earliest stone castles in Scotland dating from the12th century and the period of Scandinavian ascendency. Current thinking though ascribes the date to the 14th century. Analysing these samples will hopefully provide an answer.
With no architectural features or physical “independent” evidence analysing the remains of a timber joist-end (in poor condition) in one of the joist ends remains the best chance of being able to find an answer.
The taking of the samples is likely to take place in September when conditions are still going to be favourable as the castle is situated next to the North Sea and the sample can only be found 8 metres above ground level.
Richmond, North Yorkshire
Co-funding a three-week excavation of Richmond Castle, one of the best preserved and least understood Norman castles in the UK. The aim is to understand better the remains of buildings and structures primarily along the eastern side of the bailey including near the 11th century Robin Hood tower and near Scolland’s Hall.
Subject to the scheduled monument consent being granted the excavation will take place in late July.
Geophysical survey to explore evidence for subsurface features in and around the field called St John’s Close in a field adjacent to the castle with the aim to establish the location and eastern extent of the castle’s deer park in the 16th century as well as its entrance way. It also hoped to find evidence of a routeway running parallel to the possible park boundary which could represent an early route to the castle’s gatehouse from the south-west.
The plan is to do complete the geophysical survey by the end of March.
To keep up to date with how these projects progress over the coming months you can: