Our excavations at Clare Castle in 2018 and 2019, on behalf of the Clare Castle Country Park Trust, recovered an assemblage of finds that help us envisage life at the castle in the medieval period, and also give a glimpse of the character of the settlement that preceded it.
Both seasons of work produced considerable evidence for the use and keeping of horses. There are several examples of small horseshoes with characteristic lobed edges that can be dated to the 12th and 13th centuries (Fig. 1) as well as numerous horseshoe nails, particularly the fiddle key form recognisable by their flat, semi-circular heads. A continued use of horses into the later phases of occupation, and the presence of stables, is attested by the finding of later horseshoe forms on the site.
Horses may have been used for a variety of functions, including hunting. A significant number of iron arrowheads were uncovered; these have been identified as examples of the M7 military arrowhead in use mainly between the 11th to 13th centuries (Fig. 2). A socketed barbed arrowhead, more typical of the type used for hunting game from the 11th century onwards, was also recovered.
The metalwork assemblage also reflects that the medieval residents of Clare Castle were concerned with security. Three iron padlock keys (Fig. 3) were collected, including this fine example of a complete key with looped terminal, tapering stem and laterally set bit. It dates between the 12th and 13th centuries.
More unusual is a finely cast, silver casket key (Fig. 4) suspended from a wire loop, that probably dates to between the 11th and 12th centuries.
Such a key could have been used to secure away valuable pieces of jewelry, such as this delicate gold ring (Fig. 5), or a gilded hairpin also found during the excavations.
There is not much evidence for household or everyday craft objects, although there are two iron objects that may have been woodworking tools and several lead objects that may have been weights or spindle whorls (used in spinning – Fig. 6), and another may have been a fishing-net weight.
Antler working is suggested by a piece of antler which had been cut (Fig. 7).
Personal objects include a set of undecorated copper-alloy tweezers, which would have been part of a hygiene set (Fig. 8).
We were very excited to find the clipped half of hammered silver penny of William I (AD 1072-1074), which would have been minted at about the same time as the castle was being built (Fig. 9).
There are also some intriguing finds that indicate a prosperous pre-Norman settlement. These include part of a folding beam balance of early to mid 11th-century date, which would have been used during commercial transactions and is similar to others found at York, Bulls Wharf in London, and Lund in Sweden. It is finely made and decorated with ring and dot motifs (Fig. 10).
A silver coin of Coenwulf of Mercia, found in 2018, was minted in Canterbury by Ethelmod between AD 796 and 805 (Fig 11). Several pieces from glass vessels recovered in 2019 date to the Middle Saxon period and are broadly contemporary with the coin.
The fragments from glass vessels include two fragments of dark blue/black-coloured glass decorated with a black-and-white twisted glass rod from a glass bowl or beaker (Fig. 12), a cobalt blue piece with a decayed white marvered trail from a polychrome beaker, and a fourth piece which may be from a rare claw beaker. These vessels are associated with high-status Middle Saxon sites such as that excavated at Brandon in north Suffolk. Other evidence for Saxon activity included a fragment of bone comb decorated with a double row of ring and dot motifs (Fig. 13).
You can find out more about the archaeology of Clare Castle, including details of third and final season of excavations that are currently ongoing, at the Clare Castle Country Park website.
Ruth Beveridge & Jo Caruth
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