2021 Clare Castle Excavations update

Following on from our first update on our excavations at Clare Castle, on behalf of the Clare Castle Country Park Trust, we are making good progress in our three trenches.

Moat trench being excavated by volunteers
Moat trench being excavated by volunteers. The finds are being washed by the volunteers in the tent beyond. If you can spot the stump of a telegraph pole in the foreground – this dates to the railway and not the medieval castle….and it isn’t the mast of a ship burial!

The most involved of the three is Trench 6, which we started in 2019. Here the archaeology is deep and complex, and in the previous season we recorded only the upper layers associated with the final years of the castle. We are now starting to excavate under this demolition debris to investigate the earlier occupation. We have found an alignment of large, deep postholes that probably represent a substantial timber structure – perhaps a building. This area lies next to what was the Late Saxon cemetery, and there appears to have been some encroachment onto it. We can see that the structure was built over a large north/south-aligned ditch that was deliberately infilled and its top packed with a distinctive orange gravelly sand to provide a sound base for this later building. We have extended the trench to try and define the edge of the Late Saxon cemetery that we excavated part of last time – we wonder if that large ditch might have once marked the cemetery boundary?


Clare Castle Trench plan
Glazed tile dating to the 14th century
Glazed tile dating to the 14th century

We are also excavating Trench 10 next to the castle motte to record the edge of the now-infilled moat in this area, and to determine if the large ditch that we think may have formed the cemetery boundary continued into this area. If so, how did it relate to the moat – was it earlier or later? We know that the moat was still an open pond when the Tithe Map was drawn in 1846, and it was filled in when the railway line was built. The upper fill of the moat is made up of clay and chalk but includes a high proportion of building rubble brought in to level the ground for the railway. Underneath this late deposit we have found a dark brown soil, which represents material that accumulated in the moat when it was open and contains plenty of medieval pottery. We are currently digging sections into this soil deposit to see what it contains and what it can tell us about how this area was used during the medieval period. We have also found more pre-Norman burials.

Painted glass dating to the 14th century
Painted glass dating to the 14th century

The third trench, Trench 11 lies in the woods and was started in 2013 when it was excavated by a team led by Carenza Lewis. They identified some material that suggested an important castle building, perhaps a chapel, had been located here. They found some nice painted glass and decorated floor tiles that dated to the 14th century, when Lady Elizabeth de Burgh was in residence at the castle. We have re-excavated the 2013 backfill and are starting to excavate beyond those levels to try to find remains of the building that they suspected was here. So far, we have found layers of demolition rubble that include loose but mortared flints, which must have come from a masonry building, and hundreds of fragments of painted window glass as well as more pieces of glazed floor tiles. The window glass would have been made in small quarries and we can see that the painted patterns included oak leaves and flowers. We have also found the lead cames into which the quarries were set. One of these forms a complete frame for a piece of glass, showing how small some of the quarries were. It is quite surprising that the lead came, which was a valuable resource, had not been collected and melted down for reuse.

Jo Caruth

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