Blog 7 Shrewsbury Castle end-of-dig report

This was an excavation of the unexpected. Before the dig began two weeks ago our geophysics survey showed (with complete accuracy as it turned out) a spread of hard material just under the grass directly opposite the castle hall – possibly the remains of demolished buildings. Almost immediately the turf was off it became apparent that the hard material was not rubble but a low ridge of gravel, curving slightly as it headed south towards the main gate. Cut into this road surface (as we took it to be) were round, flat-bottomed Victorian and later flower beds. Excavating through the gravel immediately revealed further, cleaner gravel, that appeared to be of natural/geological origin; further testing demonstrated that all the gravel was natural – the natural/geological top of the hill. It had been levelled, perhaps even bulldozed, in the fairly recent past, possibly in 1925-6 when the castle was restored, and any archaeological layers or building remains above the gravel would have been removed.

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

The principal conclusion of the excavation was that, when the castle was first built by the Normans in or just before 1069, the motte, with its defensive ditch, was enormous, and the inner bailey was tiny – it was little more than an extra layer of fortification wrapped around the approach up to the motte. One cynical commentator on social media remarked ‘military artefacts from a castle ditch?? Who’d have guessed?’ The point is though that Shrewsbury’s castle saw serious action and bloodshed in 1069, 1138, 1215 and 1645 and we’ve never had any objects to represent that history. Now we do. And thanks to the geophysics, we also have a list of other targets that will, one day, further revolutionise the history of our castle and our town.

And so, onwards to post-excavation…! But not without first paying tribute to the truly awe-inspiring work done by the entire team – the staff and students of University Centre Shrewsbury, the volunteers that came to the dig through the County Museums service, the National Trust, and individually. They faced the hottest day of the year, and some of the wettest, and kept on regardless, a truly impressive amount of earth was moved – and put back again. Thanks also to the members of our informal steering committee, Shropshire Museums, and the S.C. Communications guys. Special thanks also to Ian Pritchard, Castle Custodian for services way, way, beyond the call of duty, and to my colleague Dai Williams who kept the machinery going through all the media madness.

But now, it’s back to the quiet life here in Lower Brompton. Unless one of the cats would care to interview me??? Or would that be fake mews?


Shrewsbury Castle 2 015
Busy excavation with motte in background, finds department and displays, and visitors
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Formal shot of excavation, motte ditch in foreground
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The deck-chairs are arranged along the edge of the motte ditch
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Team backfill – the last day! Completely exhausting

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