Old Wick – Back in the Lab

In September 2021, Dr Coralie Mills and Hamish Darrah from Dendrochronicle along with a team from Historic Envirnoment Scotland led by Rachel Pickering removed an original timber from the Great Tower at Old Wick in Caithness to help date the castle.

Following on from the successful removal of the piece of wood Dr Coralie Mills and her colleague Hamish Darrah have taken the wood back to their lab for further analysis. In three short videos they explain what they have been doing and what they have found.

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In the first video Coralie explains how the sample was prepared for testing:

In their second video Hamish explains how they managed to work out which type of wood they had removed:

Finally, Coralie explains what the implications are of Hamish’s findings and what they plan to do next:

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With thanks to both Coralie Mills and Hamish Darrah for filming the videos and Rachel Pickering from HES for editing them.

Castles & Buildings Archaeology

James Wright FSA, buildings archaeologist and project lead on our Greasley building survey project takes a look at how buildings archaeology can help us understand castles.

The study of mediaeval castles, palaces or great houses and the discipline of buildings archaeology have closely related histories. The Castle Studies Trust has asked me, as a buildings archaeologist with a long-established research interest in such structures, to write a blog outlining these relationships.

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Buildings archaeology has been defined as: ‘the study of buildings as archaeological objects in their own right… the development of structure… fabric, form and function’ (Morris 2000, 14). Ultimately, the subject demands the forensic methods associated with the careful unpicking of stratigraphy in below-ground archaeological excavation but applies those techniques to standing buildings.

Survey work at Holme Pierrepont Hall (Picture: James Wright / Triskele Heritage)

Early Castle Studies: Military Historians

Although some antiquarians had demonstrated an interest in the structures of castles, most early castle specialists approached the subject from the archives. Scholars such as G. T. Clark (1884) and Alexander Thompson (1912) were concerned with documented building phases, ownership of castles and events which took place within their walls. Both authors were also very concerned with military matters and, for them, the castle was primarily a defensive fortification.

The military focus dominated castle studies for around a century. Philip Warner (1973, 8), a senior lecturer at the Royal Military Academy, summed this up when he stated the principal purpose of a castle was: ‘for delaying and dislocating an invading army.’ David Stocker (1992, 415-20) has pointed out that the prevailing notion that castles were primarily fortifications was perhaps due to so many castle scholars having seen military service.

Alternative perspectives can be traced back as far as Ella Armitage (1912, 8) who acknowledged the military uses of castles, but also emphasised their important domestic aspects as: ‘private fortified residences of great landowners’.  This balance of military and residence can then be felt in the writings of Reginald Brown (1954), Colin Platt (1982) and Norman Pounds (1990).

Throughout much of the twentieth century the study of castles tended towards a sharp division of labour between historians and archaeologists who rarely collaborated. When the two disciplines were brought together the results were generally much improved – as happened with Howard Colvin and Philip Rahtz’s work on the royal palace at King’s Clipstone (Rahtz & Colvin 1960, 21-43). However, it was still the case that Colvin looked in the archives whilst Rahtz wielded his trowel and the standing architecture was largely overlooked.

Modern Castle Studies: A Holistic Approach

Subsequently, an emerging generation of researchers sought a more holistic approach which skilfully entwined archival sources, archaeological excavation, art and architectural history, landscape studies and the physical examination of standing buildings. Important re-assessments of sites, such as Bodiam Castle, placed emphasis on the symbolic and prestigious aspects of castles rather than the military versus residential debate (Coulson 1992; Everson 1996).

Bodiam Castle (Picture: James Wright / Triskele Heritage)

Buildings archaeology helped to revolutionise approaches to interpreting castles through the work of scholars, such as Philip Dixon and Pamela Marshall, who engaged with high quality, site-specific studies including Knaresborough Castle (Dixon 1990), Hedingham Castle (Dixon & Marshall 1993) and Newark Castle (Marshall 1998). Such work helped to build up a strong body of published fieldwork that chimed with a newly complex view of castles. Such projects placed castles in their contemporary moment as a mechanism for understanding the mediaeval lived experience.

With castle studies no longer shackled to rigid debates, the discipline was truly able to take wing. Oliver Creighton (2002, 2009) developed research into castle landscapes, Matthew Johnson (2002) took a strong theoretical approach and Robert Liddiard (2005) offered the wider context into which castle studies could be framed. Meanwhile, the multi-disciplinary investigation of individual buildings such as the Tower of London (Impey 2008), Knole (Cohen & Parton 2019) and Oxford Castle (Munby et al 2019) have remained central.

Knole (Picture: James Wright / Triskele Heritage)

Investigating Castles

When approaching a new site, such as the recent survey of the late mediaeval courtyard house at Holme Pierrepont, I first like to walk around the entire building with the landowner or curator. This recce is one of the most important moments, as the site is gradually revealed, and I can listen to my companion’s impressions of a structure that they know intimately. However, it is important to maintain a level of detachment – misidentifications, mistakes and myths can creep into the dialogue. This is why I also have a preference for not doing a deep dive into the documents prior to visiting a castle. I find it useful to let the structure “speak” without what can often be conflicting archival sources distracting me.

Then the real work begins! It is important to approach the survey methodically. When working at Tattershall Castle, I concentrated on the structures of each enclosure separately: starting with the gatehouse to the Outer Ward and gradually working my way, structure by structure, into the heart of the castle. This technique allowed a detailed progression of land-use to emerge in a sequence that would be recognisable to the lived experience of a mediaeval visitor to the castle. The last building that I tackled was the great tower – the most significant, complex and private space of the castle (Wright 2021).

Tattershall Castle (Picture: James Wright / Triskele Heritage)

Although we can employ many pieces of equipment – digital cameras, drones, total stations, laser scanners and sampling for dendrochronology (all very useful for data gathering) – the most essential gear on site are the eyes and experience of the buildings archaeologist. Trained observation and interpretation are key. Therefore, my first task at sites, such as Greasley Castle, will be to either create measured drawings – floor plans, elevations and sectional-elevations – of the building or to check, add to and annotate pre-existing surveys. Quantifying what is actually present on site underpins analysis. We can also create new data by producing measured sketches or scaled drawings of features such as roof structures and areas of the building which are difficult to  photograph due to spatial constraints.

Observations on site might include noting  the stratigraphical relationships between different phases of structures – a mediaeval window blocked in the post-medaeval period at Greasley Castle, the fifteenth century great tower at Tattershall Castle which abuts a thirteenth century mural tower (Wright 2021), or evidence for the wholesale reorganisation of roof structures at Knole (Sorapure & Wright 2013, 263-70). Depth is given to the survey by noting the stylistic typologies of particular structures – a Norman doorway at Kings Clipstone, thirteenth century window tracery at the Palace of Westminster or a late mediaeval chimneypiece at Nottingham Castle (Wright 2016, 34-37; Wright 2014; Wright 2017a, 19-23). Recording details such as mason’s marks, carpenter’s assembly marks and historic graffiti at Knole and Home Pierrepont Hall added to the understanding of the human agency behind the construction and occupation of the buildings (Sorapure & Wright 2013-14, 263-70).

Survey work at Greasley Castle (Picture: James Wright / Triskele Heritage)

Each space will be recorded systematically – usually (but not exclusively) starting at the bottom and working upwards, before looking at the exteriors. When all of the areas of the building have been drawn and annotated, it is time to move on to a comprehensive photographic survey, including both general and detailed shots. It is particularly important to capture all of the relevant data, whilst still on site to refer back to during the write up.

A standing building report will usually comprise two principal elements. Firstly, comes the historical background which establishes the known history of the structure based on a trawl of archival and published sources. At Tattershall Castle these included the 1231 licence to crenellate, building accounts from the 1430s and 40s, biographical data on its patron Ralph Lord Cromwell, parliamentary records of the slighting in 1650, antiquarian images showing its visual appearance in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the letters and papers of Lord Curzon which related to the castle’s conservation in the 1910s (Wright 2021; Wright 2020). It is crucuial to tell the whole story of the castle from its inception right up to the modern day. Secondly, the archaeological analysis of the structure will link back to historical events which may have led to alteration of the structure of the castle. This analysis is typically ordered either chronologically or by physical space, sometimes a mixture of both. The text will be liberally illustrated with photographs, historic images and measured drawings.

There are many ways in which buildings archaeology can be reported. These include site reports, published articles, books, websites, blogs, social media posts, press reports, guidebooks, on-site interpretation, mobile apps, film-making and interpretation panels. A mixture of platforms has become the norm, but reporting is literally the most important part of any archaeological project. There is simply no point doing the fieldwork if you don’t tell other people what you have found!

Surveying at Greasley Castle (Picture: James Wright / Triskele Heritage)


The incorporation of modern buildings archaeology into castle studies helped to fill a fundamental gap left by projects that had previously concentrated on archival research or archaeological excavation. By taking a detailed approach to the analysis of standing structures, alongside other data streams, the scholarship was able to move on to vital new interpretations.

In my own work on castles, I have been able to apply buildings archaeology techniques to better understand the form, function, building materials, phasing, development and histories of entire sites such as Tattershall Castle or Kings Clipstone Palace (Wright 2021; Wright 2016). It has also led to significant discoveries, such as the identification of Edward IV’s personal livery badge on a chimneypiece at Nottingham Castle or graffiti connected to the Gunpowder Plot at Knole (Wright 2017a, 19-29; Wright 2017b, 78-80). Meanwhile, on my most recent sites, at Holme Pierrepont Hall and Greasley Castle, we are helping to provide an understanding of the archaeological phasing of structures which have previously eluded specialist attention.

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Elements of this blog have been remodelled from Wright, J., 2021, ‘Background to English Castle Studies’ in Tattershall Castle: Building a History. Unpublished PhD thesis. University of Nottingham.

About the author

James Wright of Triskele Heritage is an award-winning buildings archaeologist. He has a long-lived research interest in mediaeval castles, palaces and great houses. He has worked on surveys of buildings including the Tower of London, Nottingham Castle, Knole, Holme Pierrepont Hall and the Palace of Westminster. He has written books on Tattershall Castle, Kings Clipstone Palace and the castles of Nottinghamshire. He is currently engaged in a building survey, funded by the Castle Studies Trust, at Greasley Castle.

Featured image: Buildings archaeology survey at Holme Pierrepont Hall (Picture: James Wright / Triskele Heritage)


Armitage, E., 1912, The Early Norman Castles of the British Isles. John Murray. London.

Brown, R. A., 1954, English Medieval Castles. Batsford. London.

Clark, G. T., 1884, Medieval Military Architecture in England Vol. 1 & 2. Wyman & Sons. London.

Cohen, N. & Parton, F., 2019, Knole Revealed. National Trust. Swindon.

Coulson, C., 1992, ‘Some Analysis of Bodiam Castle, East Sussex’ in Harper-Bill, C. & Harvey, R. (ed.s), Medieval Knighthood Volume 4. Boydell Press. Woodbridge.

Creighton, O., 2009 (2013 edition), Designs Upon the Land – Elite Landscapes of the Middle Ages. Boydell & Brewer. Woodbridge.

Creighton, O., 2002, Castles and Landscapes. Equinox. Sheffield.

Dixon, P., 1990, ‘The Donjon of Knaresborough: the Castle as Theatre’ in Château Gaillard Vol. 14. Publications du CRAHM.

Dixon, P. & Marshall, P., 1993, ‘The great tower at Hedingham Castle: a reassessment’ in Fortress Volume 18. Beaufort Publishing. Liphook.

Everson, P., 1996, ‘Bodiam Castle, East Sussex: Castle and its Designed Landscape’ in Château Gaillard Volume 17. Publications du CRAHM.

Impey, E. (ed.), 2008, The White Tower. Yale University Press. New Haven and London.

Johnson, M., 2002, Behind the Castle Gate. Routledge. London.

Liddiard, R., 2005, Castles in Context. Windgatherer Press. Macclesfield.

Marshall, P., 1998, ‘The Twelfth-Century Castle at Newark’ in Alexander, J. (ed.), Southwell and Nottinghamshire: Medieval Art, Architecture and Industry. British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions Volume 21. British Archaeological Association. London.

Morris, R. K., 2000, The Archaeology of Buildings. Stroud. Tempus.

Munby, J., Norton, A., Poore, D. & Dodd, A., 2019. Excavations at Oxford Castle: 1999-2009. Oxford Archaeology. Oxford.

Platt, C., 1982 (1995 edition), The Castle in Medieval England & Wales. Chancellor Press. London.

Pounds, N. J. G., 1990, The Medieval Castle in England and Wales: A Social and Political History. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Rahtz, P. & Colvin, H. M., 1960, ‘King John’s Palace, Clipstone, Nottinghamshire’ in Transactions of the Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire Vol. 64. Thoroton Society. Nottingham.

Sorapure, D. & Wright, J., 2013-14, ‘Water Court: smaller and quite demure’ – A recent building survey of a forgotten late medieval courtyard at Knole, Kent’ in Castle Studies Group Journal Volume 27. Castle Studies Group.

Stocker, D., 1992, ‘The Shadow of the General’s Armchair’ in Archaeological Journal Volume 149. Royal Archaeological Institute. London.

Thompson, A. H., 1912, Military Architecture in England During the Middle Ages. Henry Frowde / Oxford University Press. Oxford.

Warner, P., 1973, The Medieval Castle – Life in a fortress in peace and war. Book Club Associates. London.

Wright, J., 2021, Tattershall Castle: Building a History. Unpublished PhD thesis. University of Nottingham.

Wright, J., 2020, ‘Tattershall Castle and the Newly-built Personality of Ralph Lord Cromwell’ in The Antiquaries Journal, 1-32. doi:10.1017/S0003581520000505

Wright, J., 2017a, Nottingham Castle – Service Court Arches and Inner Bailey Moat Revetment: Worked Stone Assessment. Unpublished archaeological report. Triskele Heritage.

Wright, J., 2017b, ‘Cultural anxieties and ritual protection in high-status early-modern houses’ in Billingsley, J, Harte, J. & Hoggard, B., Hidden Charms – A Conference Held at Norwich Castle: April 2nd, 2016. Northern Earth. Mytholmroyd.

Wright, J., 2016, A Palace For Our Kings – the history and archaeology of a Mediaeval royal palace in the heart of Sherwood Forest. Triskele Publishing. London & Cheltenham.

Wright, J., 2014, Archaeological Assessment of Stonework on the River Thames Foreshore at Victoria Tower Gardens. Unpublished archaeological report. MOLA.

Caerlaverock: Harbour Fieldwork

Thanks to funding from the Castle Studies Trust, Historic Environment Scotland are working with researchers Dr Richard Tipping and Dr Eileen Tisdall 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. Here Richard Tipping gives an update on the fieldwork which too place last Saturday (2 October).

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One of the great puzzles of old Caerlaverock is the so-called harbour (Image 1). It is south of the old castle, two metres lower, and just north of where we think the early medieval coastline was, so it’s difficult to think what else it could have been. But it’s never been independently dated, there are rumours that it was Roman, and there are knotty interpretative problems. One is that the floor of the harbour is at an altitude that would make it tricky to get more than rowing boats in and out in the Middle Ages; this is also a problem if the harbour was older. A second is that there is a fourth side at the southern end, which greatly restricts access. As Richard Tipping explains below:

The harbour has three metres of sand above bedrock. We don’t know how old the sand is. One idea is that it’s all very old – 8000-6000 years old. This would mean that the harbour was never deeper than it is now. Another idea is that the sand is of two periods, with an older bed covered by medieval sand: the same stuff that filled the moat of the Old Castle. And a third is that all three metres of sand are medieval in age. This would imply that the builders created a five metre deep harbour, which was then filled with sand as storm surges drove sediment onshore.

Dating of the sand is the answer. To this end, a team of eight (Richard Tipping and Eileen Tisdall from Stirling; Tim Kinnaird, Aayush Srivastava, Richard Bates and Laura Bates from St Andrews, and Morvern French and Steve Farrar from Historic Environment Scotland) assembled under gloomy skies and a more intimidating forecast to sample the sediment.

Here Richard Bates explains what they are going to do:

Richard Bates had a vibro-corer, a machine that went through three metres of sand as if it was butter: astonishingly impressive:

The three cores came out and were immediately wrapped in black plastic bags because sunlight, even that under grey clouds, cannot be allowed to shine on the samples. The reason for this bizarre behaviour is in how the sediment will be dated

Wrapping the sample

Tim and Aayush are specialists in optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) and infra-red stimulated luminescence (IRSL) dating. This is a kind-of accumulation clock. Over time, quartz and feldspar sand grains buried by sediment accumulate energy released from surrounding sediments at a constant rate. This energy is released if sunlight hits the sand, or under controlled laboratory conditions, when light at optical or infra-red wavelengths hits the sand. If the energy released can be measured, which is Tim’s and Aayush’s job, we can establish the age of the sand as Tim explains here:

The Castle Studies Trust grant will fund three OSL dates from the base of the sand, the middle, and towards the top. As soon as we learn the results, you will.

And the rain stayed away.

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All images and videos courtesy and copyright of either HES and/or Morvern French of HES

Caerlaverock and the impact of Medieval storm surges

As Drs Richard Tipping and Eileen Tisdall along with Dr Tim Kinnaird of St Andrews return to Caerlaverock to carry out their final piece of field work this Saturday (2 October), Richard Tipping discusses what has happened so far.


Earlier blogs have described the fieldwork, over the summer, at the Old Castle at Caerlaverock in south west Scotland. We have been testing the idea that several very large storm surges impacted the castle, persuading the occupants to re-build, higher up and further inland. That fieldwork involved recording sediments in the moat (Figure 1) and surrounding ditches, confirming that these sediment traps are full of silt derived, we think, from storm surges pushing sediment from the coast, through the harbour and into the moat. We’re checking the origin of the silt from diatom analyses, which can define water salinity. But we hadn’t found evidence that these storm surges were destructive, impacting archaeological features. Now we think we have.  

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The ‘park pale’ is the name given to a ditched-&-banked enclosure that extends west from the harbour at the old castle for several hundred metres (Figure 1). It was constructed along a small cliff that marked the medieval coastline, separating mid-Holocene estuarine sediment, called ‘carse’ to its north and a series of very broad, parallel east-west trending ridges and basins constructed by medieval storm surges to its south (Tipping and Adams 2007).

Figure 1. Natural and archaeological features near the ‘park pale’ at Caerlaverock.

In Figure 1, a LiDAR image, Ridges 9 and 10, and Ridges 15 and 18 are seen. Between them, lagoon basins were trapped: Basins 8, 3 and 4 here. Some basins will be radiocarbon dated because peat formed when they were isolated from wave action. 

In detail (Figure 2) the ‘park pale’ is complicated. There is an inner bank to the east, with a crest around a metre higher than the ground to its south. This is lost at a 25m wide gap and cannot be traced further west. Instead, a second, lower outer bank continues north west to the New Castle Burn (Figure 1). The outer bank has, in places, an outer and inner ditch. Another, 4m wide gap may be what Brann (2004) thought was an entrance.

Tr 3 (ii) is the line of a 50m long sediment-stratigraphic transect of 24 hand-sunk boreholes from the ‘carse’ in the north, which the inner bank rests on, south across Basin 3 to the canalised Old Castle Burn. The transect was designed to test the idea that the 25m gap in the ‘pale’ is an erosional feature from storm surge impacts.

Figure 2. Features around the distinctive 25m wide gap in the ‘pale’


What Tr (ii) shows is that the low ground of Basin 3 is floored by bedrock less than a metre down. This is covered by well-sorted sand and then by poorly sorted coarse to very coarse sand and grit with common pebbles.This fills Basin 3, thickening shoreward. This is interpreted as a storm surge deposit, deposited in a high-energy marine environment. Boreholes on the inner bank, a metre higher than Basin 3, and 25m inland, also recorded thick gravelly sand, impenetrable at 90cm depth on the inner bank. This thins north but is still found 20m inland from the medieval coastline.


There were at least two storm surge ridges formed before the events recorded in Basin 3. Basin 8 (Figure 1) was formed by the second storm surge, as yet undated. This created Ridges 9 and 10. These broad gravel ridges in turn protected the western ‘park pale’ from subsequent marine erosion (Figure 2). What is now the outer bank, with its associated ditches, probably represents the original boundary of the ‘pale’. The ‘pale’ pre-dates the storm surge event described here. It is shown by the sediment stratigraphy to be, broadly, medieval in age and, broadly, contemporary with the old castle.

Eastward, Ridges 9 and 10 merge with the ‘carse’ of the medieval coastline, leaving this part of the coast vulnerable to later storm surges. At this point, the outer bank of the ‘pale’ is lost. In its place are storm surge sediments. The ‘pale’ was eroded by the storm surge. This storm surge pushed at least 90cm of gravelly sand north onto the surface of the ‘carse’. The cliff may have been formed after this storm surge, by later erosional wave action. Gravelly sand was pushed or thrown 20m beyond the cliff. Waves also scoured the easily eroded ‘carse’, lowering the surface by around 0.5m, up to 100m inland.

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Tipping, R. and Adams, J. 2007. Structure, composition and significance of medieval storm beach ridges at Caerlaverock, Dumfries & Galloway. Scottish Journal of Geology 43, 115-123.

Old Wick: Removing the Joist

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.

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Below Rachel Pickering and Coralie Mills on day one explaining what they have found:

In the second video we see Coralie Mills and her colleague Hamish Darrah attempting to remove the joist from its socket

While in the third video Coralie and Hamish give their initial thoughts on the newly extracted joist:

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All videos courtesy of Rachel Pickering of HES.

Testing time at Castle of Old Wick, Caithness

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?’.

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Castle of Old Wick in its dramatic coastal setting. © Crown Copyright HES

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.

Reconstruction illustration showing how the castle and its surrounding outbuildings may have looked at its height. © Crown Copyright HES.

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.

Interior of Castle of Old Wick showing joist sockets indicating the location of first and second floors. © Historic Environment Scotland.

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.

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Defending Bedforshire – a late starter

In the latest in is “Defending…” series looking at the fortifications in particular counties, Mike Osborne looks at Bedfordshire.

When I wrote Defending Lincolnshire: a military history from the Conquest to the Cold War (The History Press, 2010), I had no idea that ten years on, the series would have grown to cover ten counties with an eleventh almost completed. What I have discovered along the way is that while there exist clear cultural similarities, counties are patently different in so many regards. Some of these differences are obvious: the landscape factors which affect settlement patterns; the geology which dictates building materials and factors such as moated sites; the county’s relationship to important routes and its density of urban or rural settlements; its central or remote position within the nation; its relative vulnerability to invasion; and, above all, its recorded history. Other differences are more subtle and may be governed by local conditions and circumstances: the dominance of particular families or factions; the power struggles of kings, nobles or bishops; the economic effects of trade or farming; fashion and technology; continuity and re-use of defensive locations and the impact of localised, country-wide or international conflict. Taking the wider context of these studies which embrace all forms of fortification and military activity from Iron Age forts to nuclear bunkers, then such differences will only be magnified. 

The motte at Cainhoe (copyright Mike Osborne

Bedfordshire is unusual in that whilst there were Romano-British settlements and an established network of Roman roads: Watling Street, Ermine Street and the Icknield Way, there were, apparently, no Roman forts. Bedford became established only in Saxon/Danish times, owing to its strategic position astride the Great Ouse, and Clapham’s church-tower, on the border of Wessex and the Danelaw may well have served a defensive function. Sadly, despite the public promotion of Danes Camp at Willington and Tempsford as Viking river-side fortresses, they have both been found to be medieval moated sites. Luton only developed after the Norman Conquest becoming the location for two earthwork castles. A ‘royal’ castle was established at Bedford, soon to evolve into a masonry fortress, but the county’s numerous motte castles, notably Cainhoe, Yielden, Risinghoe and Totternhoe, and its fewer ringworks, whilst remaining as structures of earth and timber throughout, nevertheless often occupied dominant sites. Historical factors around conflict saw Bedford erased as a fortification early in its career having undergone two sieges, and most of the other castles would be superseded by more comfortable accommodation. The county was split into an unusually large number of small manors which may account for the over twenty earthwork castles and the 300+ homestead moats- the greatest density of any English county- benefiting from the underlying clay. Bedfordshire’s later medieval castles, Wrest Park, Bletsoe and Ampthill, have disappeared, but remnants of Someries survive to the background sound, in normal times, of Easyjet. Whilst largely insulated against external threats, the county still experienced the effects of conflict during the civil war between Stephen and the Empress and the Wars of the Roses, whilst suffering its share of the universal effects of famine, plague and social disorder. Probably the best-known castle-related event was the siege of Bedford by Henry III in 1224 which resulted in the destruction of the castle but not, in all likelihood, the draconian penalties reputedly enacted against the garrison.

Someries Castle: the gate-house/chapel range of the mid-fifteenth-century brick strong-house of Sir John Wenlock (copyright Mike Osborne)

Were anyone to ask me which of these counties had been the most interesting, given their differences, I should be pushed to answer. From the perspective of fortification, some will share similarities: Essex, Norfolk, and Hampshire as targets for invasion; the Midland counties of Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Leicestershire/Rutland controlling lines of communication from urban centres; Bedfordshire, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire sharing elements of landscape; whilst London has a bit of everything as, I am currently discovering, has Gloucestershire and Bristol. All of them have interesting facets either shared or individual, common or unique. Rob Liddiard, amongst others, has confirmed to me the value of the local focus alongside other approaches, and it is certainly something I will continue to explore.

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Defending Bedfordshire: the military landscape from pre-history to the present (Fonthill Media, 2021) is now available along with other counties.


Featured image: A model of how Bedford Castle may have appeared around the time of the siege of 1224


Recent discoveries at Shrewsbury Castle

With the 2020 excavation report now published, Shrewsbury Castle Excavation Director Dr Nigel Baker looks back at the two years of excavations and what they reveal about this important castle of the Welsh Marches.

Before the excavations in 2019 and 2020 funded by the Castle Studies Trust, Shrewsbury Castle was one of the least well understood major castles of the Welsh Marches. Its visible form is that of a classic motte-and-bailey, with earthen ramparts surmounted by stone curtain walls. However, the archaeological project and associated research has shown that the historical reality is more complex than this.

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First recorded as a consequence of being besieged by local rebels in 1069, many aspects of its recorded history follow a familiar Marches pattern: heavy royal expenditure in the 12th and 13th centuries as a campaign base and in the face of Welsh raiding, followed by decline into obsolescence and ruination in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, arrested temporarily by a return to active service in the English Civil War in the 1640s. Its later history was as a private residence, distinguished by its ‘restoration’ by Thomas Telford in 1786-1790, and finally its return to public life as a council meeting hall in 1925 and as the home of a regimental museum in the 1980s.

First of all, the Norman castle was not built on an empty site. It occupied the end of a ridge that was critical to the defence of the old Saxon borough, and the 2019 excavation demonstrated occupation here in the 10th or early 11th century, on a plateau or low knoll at about 68m AOD, higher than its surroundings, and at one end of the likely cross-peninsula borough defences. At present the archaeological evidence is limited to a single pit and its artefacts, but reading between the lines of the historical record, it is possible that the site was shared by a church dedicated to St Michael and perhaps a hall, maybe that of the pre-Conquest sheriffs.

Plan of Shewsbury Castle as it may have appeared in late 11th / early 12th century copyright Dr Nigel Baker. The black lines indicates probable masonry curtain wall lines, based on the presence of the ‘green slabby rubble’ masonry that appears at various junctures at the bottom of some elevations and seems to be early, meaning potentially pre-13th

The Norman castle of the 1060s wiped out all that had been there before, except the church, which appears in Domesday Book; this also records the loss of 51 tax-paying households when the castle was built. It consisted of a large motte overlooking the river, elevated to a height (80m AOD) equal to that of the royal and episcopal halls within the old borough, with a substantial ditch, discovered in 2019, around its base. West of the motte was a small inner bailey. Extending south was a much larger outer bailey, separated from the English borough further south by a second cross-peninsula ditch and supplemented in the 12th century by earth ramparts around the bailey perimeter. The small size of the inner bailey, in reality perhaps more of a barbican, suggests that the royal hall, documented from 1246 but probably present from the beginning, was on the motte top.

It is not yet clear when the earth and timber defences began to be replaced in stone, but stretches of thin, slabby rubble in the curtain walls and motte wing walls may be indicative of work in the late 12th or early 13th century.

Major changes took place throughout the 13th century, some documented, some suggested by the excavations. The single surviving medieval building, often called the hall, is fairly certainly the camera regis or royal chamber built in 1239-41, a date consistent with the dendrochronological evidence from the building. It may have been constructed as part of a larger rebuilding campaign that saw the west side of the inner bailey expanded westwards by pushing a terrace out over the gradient behind a newly-built ashlar curtain wall. This is one of the conclusions of the 2020 excavation trench through the western rampart, which found medieval tipped strata at a level below that of the natural gravel seen in the interior of the bailey in 2019.

Plan of Shrewsbury Castle in late C13. Copyright Dr Nigel Baker

Meanwhile, the east side of the motte was subject to erosion by the River Severn and the consequent partial collapse of the motte was recorded by an enquiry held in 1255; in 1269-71 a ‘great wooden tower’ fell down and was said to be totally destroyed. The motte top was repaired towards the end of the 13th century with a new wall built across the damaged side in red and white striped masonry. The motte ditch appears to have been infilled, mainly by the deposition of rubbish, and a new castle well, which survives, was dug within it.

As the town grew, the outer bailey was built over. In 1220-c.1250 when the town walls were built, the outer bailey was walled continuously with the rest of the town and no longer separated from it; the tenements that had been established there continued to pay their ground rents to the crown while those outside, further south, paid theirs to the borough.

Two early plans show what had become of the castle by the end of the 16th century. The Burghley Map of Shrewsbury of c.1575 shows the main building unroofed, a smaller building (perhaps St Michael’s) in ruins, and just one roofed building standing in the inner bailey in the area of the surviving well. A sketch plan by the master mason John Smythson of 1627 likewise shows the main building, and most of the curtain walls, in a ruined condition; it also shows a gatehouse of which there is no other evidence.

Restoration came in 1643-44 when the castle was garrisoned by the Royalists, and the borough’s mayoral accounts record expenditure on the main gate and its new barbican, a new postern gate, walls and outworks. The castle was captured for Parliament in February 1645; what appears to be battle-damage can be seen on the woodwork of the main gate and around the openings of the main building but this identification now needs confirmation by battlefield archaeologists. After its capture, the Parliamentarians continued the Royalists’ restoration of the main building, its roof and gallery built with timber felled in the winter of 1647. The castle was finally de-munitioned in 1686 and became a private residence.

Shrewsbury Castle in 18th Century, note on the wall on top of the motte the possible base of windows of a high status building / Great Hall.

Thomas Telford’s ‘restoration’ of the castle in 1786-1790 for Sir William Pulteney was nothing if not brutal. The excavations in the inner bailey have shown that the interior was levelled down, scraped bare, and at least some of the material used to enhance or even create the ‘ramparts’ around the perimeter. Illustrations show that, until 1786, the motte top was still occupied by a 13th-century round tower and the ruins of other, as yet unidentified, buildings. These were all swept away and replaced by Telford’s ‘Laura’s Tower’, a fine, two-storey summerhouse in the Gothick style.

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Richmond Excavation Day 19: Fin

By Excavation Director Jim Brightman of Solstice Heritage

And so the dig is complete. The trenches have been backfilled and re-turfed (except for the bizarre missing section in Trench 4!). The volunteers have all headed home, and the archaeological team have departed to their next jobs and sites. With the benefit of a few days’ distance as I write this, it has been such a wonderful and fulfilling experience.

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 So, what have we learned?

I covered our thoughts on Trench 1 in an earlier post, and the story of Trench 4 was very much about the plaster floor and fragments of medieval pottery showing the presence of a building of some considerable size.

But what of the other two?

William the Conqueror silver penny

It would be easy for Trench 2 to get overshadowed by the spectacular find of the William I silver penny. Whilst this is undoubtedly one of the stars of the project, its archaeological value lies in the date it gives us for the deposits at the bottom of the trench. What we found was a fragmentary clay and stone floor—perhaps not that exciting at first glance. However, it was packed with animal bone, and we are now pretty certain that we have uncovered the remains of a service building, probably a butchery or abattoir, dating to the very start of the Castle’s story. It has been wonderful to open a window into the grimy and tough day-to-day life of the Norman residents, standing in stark contrast to the towering stone walls of the lordly halls nearby.

Trench 3’s flooring

Trench 3 continued to withhold its secrets from us right through to the end of the dig. A well-made stone and cobble floor covered the entire base of the trench. Indeed, based on the geophysical survey responses we only say a small part of a much, much larger area of flooring. The fragmentary base of a stone wall showed that there was something structural associated with it, but almost all our theories were quashed by one aspect of another of the visible archaeological remains. Perhaps the best theory was that it represents a kind of ‘fancy warehouse’. Similar to the great medieval tithe barns, it could be a specific area for the gathering, tallying and storage of specific goods. There is no way we can definitively prove this, unfortunately, but it certainly fits with the remains we could see.

Right at the end of the dig Trench 3 also yielded up to us a handful of fragments of medieval coloured glass. Paired with the broken and twisted sections of window lead that we recovered throughout the dig, we can now be certain of the presence of a building with stained glass windows somewhere in the vicinity of Trench 3—a tantalising hint that will have to wait for a future project!

Returfing a trench

Overall, though, the story has been about the phenomenal support from everyone who came together to make this project such a success. Whether this be the funders (Richmond and District Civic Society, The Castle Studies Trust and Richmondshire District Council as well as local businesses and private individuals), key project partners such as Celebrate Richmond 950 and English Heritage, or the countless volunteers and visitors who have given so generously of their time. We have been honoured to work alongside these people and to taste something of the passion for history that is a fundamental part of Richmond life.

Although we are now catching up on some well-earned rest, thoughts are already turning towards how we might be able to come back to Richmond Castle and uncover more of its secrets in the future.

Feature image courtesy of Anne Stockdale

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Richmond Castle Excavation Day 17: Another Trench! (and some more cameras)

Excavation Director Jim Brightman of Solstice Heritage gives an update from the end of Wednesday 4 August

With things now very firmly heading towards the end of the excavation, we were able to arrange our logistics just right to let us to open a fourth trench on Monday. It was always our hope that we would be able to get to this point, though with the volume of archaeology (and more recent backfill) in our first three trenches, it’s been very much up in the air as to whether we would have time.

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Fortunately, Trench 2 was completed, and we were able to set to de-turfing an area very close to the southern wall of the Castle and around some slightly enigmatic wall footings that had been consolidated and left above ground in the mid-20th century. It is not entirely clear what these walls might represent, and it has given us another bite at potentially locating the medieval chapel which we were hoping might have been in Trench 3.

Although we are only a short way through the topsoil, we have already seen a real mix of finds from all periods of the Castle’s history: bits of glass and pottery potentially from the Victorian and World War I occupation, some lovely pieces of medieval pottery to show we were heading in the right direction and even a bullet casing made in 1974. What that was doing in the Castle, we have no idea!

The real star of Trench 4 (featured image) so far, however, has been the fragmentary remains of a really fine plaster or lime mortar floor—a hint that we may well be within the footprint of a well-appointed building. Hopefully, we still have enough time to get to the bottom of the remains in this new trench!

Jim Brightman with ITV film crew

The other excitement for the start of this week was the visit today by a team from our local ITV news programme. Word has spread quickly about the find of the William the Conqueror penny last week, and it was a lovely opportunity to spread the word a little wider still about the fantastic work that the volunteers have been doing through the course of the dig. For those who missed it (or are in a different ITV area), the full report can be found at this link:


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