Dig Oakham Castle 2: Week 1 update

“It’s been a wet week” is perhaps an understatement for the first seven days of excavation at Oakham Castle but fortunately favourable ground conditions and the dedication of our volunteers mean we have lost less than half a day of digging time and half way into the dig we are making some exciting discoveries.
Finds from the dig area north of the Great Hall represent medieval activity in the castle and post-medieval activity after the castle was demolished. Clockwise from top left: a china bird head, lead window came, a tiny decorated copper strap fitting, and sherds of medieval ridge tile and pottery.

The aim this year is to continue building a picture of the buildings first found by Time Team in 2012 and explored further by our first community dig last year. Our first week has mainly focused on the trench north of the Great Hall. Here, last year, we uncovered the southern gable-end of a 13th or 14th-century building that we speculated might be a stable or workshop. It appeared to have been long and narrow with its east side opening onto a large yard area in the north-east quarter of the castle’s inner bailey. Already our understanding of this building has been considerably advanced, and we are far from finished learning its secrets. It is indeed long and narrow as first suspected, approximately 6m wide and over 20m in length. It is built with sturdy mud-bonded stone walls, it has at least one doorway on its east side, and internally it is divided into two large rooms.

Excavation begins in the trench north of the Great Hall. The building here was demolished in the early 17th century. Building rubble is spread across the trench and has to be removed to expose the building itself.

We are also closer to understanding what it was used for. At its north end is a stone platform and two large key-hole shaped stone hearths, each comprising an enclosed circular fire pit and a slightly raised flue or stoke hole. As yet we don’t know what their purpose was but we have started to excavate one and it still has the ash and charcoal left at its base from its final use. This will be invaluable, and we will be sampling it to see if it contains any evidence of what the hearths were being used for. Intriguingly, the platform and hearths appear to be additions to the building rather than original features. As yet we don’t have a date for when this modification occurred but hopefully this will become clearer during week 2. One thing already apparent, however, is that many the stones in the walls inside the building are scorched as if there has been a fire and we are wondering if one of the hearths may have got out of control and burnt the building down. So, a workshop now seems more likely than a stable, perhaps a brewhouse where hearths were needed for both the malting and mashing process.

A stone-lined hearth emerges from the rubble covering the building north of the Great Hall.
Volunteers from the Defence Archaeology Group (DAG) excavate one of the key-hole shaped hearths found in the building north of the Great Hall. The hearth’s flue opens into the building’s northern room. Behind the hearth to the right is a large stone platform which is probably associated with the hearth.

West of the Great Hall work has been slower. This trench is much deeper and it has been safer to keep out of it during the rain. We have begun the initial clean-up and already new evidence for the buildings found last year, possibly the solar block and chapel, is emerging. Read our next update to find out more about these discoveries.

Work begins in the trench west of the Great Hall. The stone pads in the foreground are part of a 15th or 16th-century building first identified last year. The area being excavated at the back of the photo is hoped to be the location of the castle’s 14th-century chapel.

The excavations second week runs from Wednesday 19th – Sunday 23rd June. We’re are on site 9am – 4pm if you want to pop by and see what’s going on. Or come to our special Open Day on Saturday 22 June where we will present some of the findings from the excavation.

If you can’t make it out to the dig, we will be posting regular updates here at ULAS News alongside daily photos on our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/ulasnews/

Until next time…

Mathew Morris (Site Director)

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