After the disruption of Covid in 2020, we are at last able to plan a third and final season of excavation at Clare Castle in Suffolk, which we hope can take place between mid-September and early October later this year.
In 2018, Clare Castle Country Park Trust received a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to help conserve the remains of the castle and to share its importance with the wider public, including a three-year campaign of community excavations. This year’s work builds on two previous seasons of digging carried out in 2018 and 2019 under the direction of Cotswold Archaeology.
The castle is an early motte and bailey castle built by Richard FitzGilbert in the 11th century, after he had been awarded the land by William the Conqueror following the Norman invasion in 1066. It flourished for 300 years, reaching its zenith during the ownership of Elizabeth de Burgh in the 14th century, after which it went into decline.
In the mid-19th century the Great Eastern Railway company built the Sudbury to Haverhill railway line, cutting right through the outer castle earthworks, after which the castle became overgrown and was lost amongst the railway sidings. Some hint of its hidden history was uncovered during railway construction with the discovery of an early 15th-century gold cross and chain. In the mid-20th century, burials were also uncovered during the building of a new weighbridge but, until 2013, no systematic excavation of the castle had been undertaken and we didn’t know how much had survived. Excavations in 2013 by Access Cambridge Archaeology with Carenza Lewis found that the railway had not destroyed everything and provided tantalising glimpses of the surviving medieval archaeology.
So far, the first two seasons of our excavations have uncovered the remains of a probable stable, a large clay oven (perhaps for baking some of the thousands of loaves of bread that would have been consumed at the castle) and a substantial ditch and bank (possibly from an earlier rampart), which were found in the outer bailey in 2018. Finds recovered date mainly to the 12th to 14th centuries, reflecting the ‘heyday’ of the castle, and include arrowheads, horseshoes, and household items like knives, keys and pottery. A picture of medieval life is emerging, confirming the suggestion from the documentary evidence that the castle’s outer bailey was occupied by huntsmen and their animals, as well as containing the kitchens and industrial areas.
In 2019, excavations in the inner bailey found that the few burials uncovered previously were part of a vast communal cemetery, probably where the occupants of the Saxon town were interred before it came under Norman control (these were normal burials, not evidence of some mass slaughter!). We also found the remains of medieval buildings, and it is these that we are looking forward to investigating this autumn; after such a long break, it is exciting to be able to finally plan the last phase of digging at Clare Castle.
As this is a community project, the work is being carried out by local people from all walks of life, including volunteers, work experience students, local groups and schools. There will be opportunities to share in our discoveries through visits, tours and open days, and to kick-start this season’s work we will be holding a public online lecture on the castle and the results of the excavations so far as part of the Festival of Archaeology on Wednesday 20th July, at 7pm.