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Archaeological Dig at Shrewsbury Castle

University Centre Shrewsbury student volunteers and faculty Prof Tim Jenkins, Head of Arts & Humanities and Dr Morn Capper, Lecturer, History and Heritage, are taking part in a historic archaeological dig at Shrewsbury Castle, one of the most important castles along the Anglo-Welsh border. This is the first archaeological dig at the 900 year old castle, offering a rare opportunity for our students to train on a live archaeological site.

Tom Bowen, University Centre Shrewsbury, is keeping a diary on behalf of all volunteers working on the excavation, which we will keep updated here. 

Day 1   

Day one saw us break ground inside the walls of the castle for the first time. Peeling back the turf and slowly removing the top soil we began to uncover various small finds, most of which dating from the 18th century. We were finding an abundance of clay pipes but mixed in were small part of glazed earth ware dating to the 1700’s. After removing some more soil, it has become apparent that there are signs of more interesting and promising things to come. The focus of day two will be on the removal of any remaining soil with small trowels, this will hopefully bring us closer to medieval finds.  

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Dr Morn Capper and volunteers at the Shrewsbury Castle archaeological dig
Dr Morn Capper and volunteers

Day 2

Day two has been spent skimming any remaining top soil with spades. Next the teams worked back across the trench in lines, using trowels and brushes to get down to the first layer of substantial archaeology. Many small finds, such as pottery and large fragments of animal bone were uncovered. We also found oyster shell, a food of the less ‘well off’ in the past, which accompanies the many pieces of clay pipe found the previous day to suggest the presence of more ordinary people.

A tour from Dr Nigel Baker really brought out the centuries of history at the castle. In particular the different stone types, as well as variations in the age and quality of the curtain wall, were pointed out, suggesting phases of Medieval and later rebuilding which were particularly fascinating. Damage caused during the Civil War adds a further layer to the later history of the castle, before its refurbishment by Thomas Telford. In the trench two distinct layers have begun to form and now that the levels have been taken at the end of day two, we will be working our way through to the next layer during day three.

Day 3

Day three of the excavation has seen us move through the lower part of layer two. We have begun to find more artefacts from the 16th and 17th century, but these are mainly mixed pot fragments and glass. Whilst at one end of the trench an obvious surface made up of compacted stone can be seen, at the other end this surface has yet to be seen. Most of the day has seen the team trying to work through down to those layers that can be seen at the opposite end, with little success. During this process very few finds were being discovered, largely discarded animal bone and clay pipe, so although we made good progress in removing these deposits it was beginning to feel slightly disheartening.

Suddenly this all changed when Professor Tim Jenkins identified what seems to be a raven on yet another fragment of glass, and he identified the design as a seal of the Corbet family. The object was part of a bottle, which would possibly have contained wine. Following this find our motivation was restored and we began to remove yet more earth until we uncovered a new and distinct orange layer in the trench that we will investigate tomorrow.

Whilst most of us were in the trench other volunteers have tackled the important job of cleaning the many finds from the previous day. This has revealed the shape and condition of objects but also date stamps on some of the bowls of the clay pipes. Being able to clearly see details of what had already been excavated has been very rewarding and has made them much easier to identify and to understand visually – very useful as we explain our discoveries to public visitors.

Day 4 

Day four of the dig saw the archaeology getting really complicated. At our end of the trench it was mostly a continuation of day three, working down in the hope of getting back to older layers and artefacts. There were good signs early on in the day with the discovery of some of the first late medieval green glazed pottery. However, at one end an unusual context containing plenty of late pottery turned out to be a ditch for a water pipe put in during the 1920’s. It may be that the medieval evidence has been disturbed previously and therefore is present in upper layers, higher than we might have expected. With plenty of information coming in Nigel and Dai have taken levels and we have prepared the trench for proper photographs tomorrow morning.

Today has been a very good day out of the trench. Where levels of interaction with the public have been high all week today has been particularly busy. We have been cleaning finds yesterday and today which have been displayed to the public, sparking many a conversation with the volunteer team all day until the rain came. The glass wine seal has been a huge hit. It has been both satisfying and rewarding for volunteers and members of the public as we have been able to really engage visitors in explaining why we are digging and visitors young and old, from tour groups to language students and families, have been able to learn about the history of the Castle in a visual way.   

Watch a video of lead archaeologist Dr. Nigel Baker explaining more of the day:  

Day 5

Day five began by resolving the deeper trench surrounding the 1920’s water pipe. As we know that what surrounded it must be backfill, it has been a relief to get to the bottom of this layer (number 10), now affectionately known as ‘the BBQ’ for its high levels of animal bone. With this task completed the entire surface of the trench needed to be planned and drawn. We observed as Dai guided Will through the process and then I put this into practice for my own small cut that had been dug through a layer of fill material. I emphasised the importance of accurate measuring as once it has been recorded the level is then removed.

Breaking through the road surface we hope to find artefacts that have not been disturbed by previous work and which might help date the road surface. Sadly we instead uncovered the remains of a small dog, at a level that suggests it is more modern and so possibly the burial of a much loved pet. At the trench end nearest the castle we have reached our seventeenth different context, and we are now working to confirm the relationship between them! Different levels of sand and stone become clearer as volunteers work to strip back the road surface. A sandy level may hint toward the foundation of a possible wall, date unknown.     

Watch a video of Lead Archaeologist, Dr Nigel Baker describing the day’s highlights:

Day 6

After five days of blistering sun when the rain came it was torrential. All the diggers were quite quickly soaked but still in good spirits and determined to finish removing the road surface in hope of finding dating material. New arrivals from Nigel’s experienced band of volunteers were at the forefront, with Gillian, Sue and Alan taking on the brunt of finds-washing as well as joining the excavation with Norman and Andy, while Will and Morn started processing and bagging finds. When even Tim and Dai seemed to consider stopping, the rain finally quit first, just as we made it to 4pm 

Despite the rain we welcomed nearly 600 public visitors to our first Open Day today! Dig team volunteers from University Centre Shrewsbury have worked with lecturer Morn Capper to prepare displays. Students have used collections at Shrewsbury Museum and Shropshire Archives to gather images through time in order to explore the castle’s history, from the Norman Conquest to the Civil War and up to the present day. Displays also explain how maps, historical documents and geophysical survey have come together in planning the excavation. Events, paintings and photographs from the long history of the castle sparked conversation among visitors, while inspection of the finds and tours by Ian from the Regimental Museum have also proved popular.

The Castle Studies Trust, our major sponsors, were greeted by Nigel Baker with a deluxe tour of the surviving castle buildings and structures before inspecting the excavations. The Castle Studies Trust have supported the dig and the geophysics exploration by TIGERGEO. It is also thanks to their help that reports from the geophysics and the excavation will be quickly completed and made available to guide decisions on the future conservation and uses of this Scheduled Ancient Monument. After a long day, most diggers soon headed home to rest up for our second castle open day on Sunday.

Day 7

Read more in The Shropshire Star's coverage of the dig.

Day 8

Day eight of the dig the rain left us and we had an incredibly sunny day with more volunteers arriving and handing over for week two. Everyone has taken a turn interacting with the different areas involved in the dig, making it a day of new experiences, such as excavating in the ditch itself, cleaning and processing finds from layer six. Cleaning finds is essential to identification and preservation. We used a magnifier and microscope photography to view items of particular interest such as the seals on the glass fragment found on day three and the seals on some of our many pipe fragments. We have photographed some of the stamps and we hope to use these images for research to investigate the likely sources and dates for much of the clay pipe.

Nigel is a mine of information and has taken us exploring another of our geophys ‘hotspots’ near the castle well, enabling us to learn more about the history of the castle. We have used this information to help us to interact with the public and explain how and why the excavation project has occurred and what is being investigated.

Day 9

Day nine of the dig proved one of the wettest yet, but the weather didn’t stop the team from getting stuck in and making some more exciting finds.

The northern end of the trench is by now confirmed by Nigel and James to be largely natural glacial deposit. However, on the western side a large human-dug pit has been discovered, which is still being investigated by Olivia and Simon. Here too, plenty of bones have been discovered along with a few pieces of pottery all suggesting the pit was dug around the 12th century.

In the south-centre part of the trench, Merv is working on a post hole and with it, substantial supporting rock padstones have been discovered. This suggests a built structure of some kind with a huge timber post, sunk alongside the stone deposit in the edge of the ditch. Possibly this may be a building of some kind and a fairly sizeable one, judging by the diameter of the post-hole. We hope to find out more tomorrow.

Watch a video of UCS History and Heritage Lecturer Dr Morn Capper explaining some of the finds from the dig:

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