Oakham Castle Community Dig: Some final reflections…

Now that the excavation at Oakham Castle has successfully concluded, the trenches backfilled and we have left site, there is time for some final reflections.

The project has been a fantastic success. Over two-weeks, 50 volunteers took part in the dig and we could not have achieved what we did without their dedication and enthusiasm, especially when the weather took a turn for the worst in the final days of the excavation. So thank you everyone, we really appreciate your efforts and hope you enjoyed yourselves. We certainly did, and we have gathered a lot of new information about the castle.

Project complete, Trench 2 is carefully backfilled to protect the archaeology.

Trench 1 (north trench) – a stable or workshop

It is now clear that the walls in Trench 1, north of the Great Hall, were the southern end of a long narrow building. In places, the walls still stood to waist height, but whilst they were built of stone, construction was crude and the building only had an earth floor. The eastern side of the building also appears to be less well built that the other sides and current thinking is that it was probably one of the many service buildings in the castle, perhaps a stable or workshop facing onto a yard to the east.

The south-west corner of the stone building in Trench 1.

Soil around the building produced large quantities of animal bone, many showing butchery marks, as well as sherds of 12th-14th-century green-glaze tables wares and plainer kitchen wares – all probably waste from the castle’s kitchen located nearby.

Excavation also revealed that the building had gone through a prolonged period of neglect and reuse before it was eventually demolished, including a fire in the ‘derelict’ building which had scorched the stones of the southern wall. This fits the documentary sources which suggest that buildings in the castle were in poor condition by the end of the 14th century, ruined by the early 16th century and demolished at the beginning of the 17th century.

Left, scorching inside the building in Trench 1 is evidence of re-use of the derelict structure. right, a line of four post-holes beneath the building in Trench 1 is evidence of an earlier building on the site.

Exciting evidence found in the last days of the dig now also suggests that there was an earlier timber building beneath this stone building, which could be evidence of the original Norman castle.

Trench 2 (west trench) – the solar & other buildings

West of the Great Hall, in the area purportedly occupied by a detached solar block, excavation in Trench 2 revealed a complicated sequence of buildings with evidence for multiple phases of rebuilding. Our current theory is that the walls first discovered by Time Team are part of two stone buildings constructed against the curtain wall, with one (perhaps the solar) linked to the north aisle of the hall via a pentice (covered) walkway. These earlier buildings appear to date to the castle’s heyday between the 12th and 14th century and could be contemporary with the Great Hall.

The northern end of Trench 2, showing two phases of building. The parallel walls outlined red are the remains of the covered walkway, whilst the stones outlined in blue are a wall and the padstones for a later timber structure.

At a later date, probably in the 15th or 16th century, at least one of these buildings and the walkway was demolished and replaced with a large timber post-built structure which rested on large square padstones. As in Trench 1, evidence suggested that the buildings west of the hall were demolished by the early 17th century.

As yet, not enough evidence has been found to say exactly what these buildings were used for. However, finds of decorated green-glazed table wares, dress pins, an iron knife, high-quality masonry and elaborately decorated glazed ridge-tiles all suggest that use of the earlier buildings in Trench2 was of much higher status than that of the later building and the building in Trench 1. This agrees with the idea that this area of the castle was kept as the private residence of the lord and his family.

Clockwise from top left: sherds of decorated green-glaze table-wares, part of a glazed medieval ridge tile with a decorative crest, two copper-alloy dress pins and an iron knife, all found in Trench 2.

What next?

It is hoped that we will return for a second season next year, meanwhile more information on the project can be accessed here:

https://ulasnews.com/tag/oakham-castle/

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