AD 1300 – Newark: Excavating a medieval castle

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Newark Castle has always been something of a problem. The west front, facing out onto the River Trent, is a magnificent structure, still standing three stories high, well-known to travellers along the Great North Road. But what lay behind it? A major research excavation was carried out using mostly volunteer excavators to investigate the castle.


Newark Castle was founded in the 1130s by Bishop Alexander, of Lincoln, known as “The Magnificent”, but it was largely destroyed in the Civil War, in the 1640s, and little was known of the internal arrangements.

Local archaeologist John Samuels wanted to investigate further, so he raised funds to carry out a major excavation using volunteers. Despite initial opposition from English Heritage, who were at first reluctant to give consent to excavated a scheduled monument, he was eventually able to go ahead.


A Saxon cemetery




The major discovery was of a cemetery that eventually totalled 53 graves. Since there were no grave goods, it was presumable Christian. Although most of the burials were in simple grave cuts, note that some were outlined by stone slabs, e.g. that in the centre. The late Saxon date was later confirmed by radiocarbon dating.

This suggested that although the present castle was founded by Bishop Alexander “the Magnificent” in the 1130’s, there had probably been an earlier Saxon manorial complex on the site.


The discovery of the skeletons provided great publicity for the excavations: the crowds poured in, and during the 4 seasons of 4 – 6 weeks, over 250,000 visitors came to the site. Applications for volunteers greatly exceeded the number of places available, so they had to be limited to periods of not more than 2 weeks at a time. At least 2 guides, drawn form the digging team were on hand each day to explain to visitors what was going on, and because it was possible to undertake finds-processing on-site, visitors were able to observe the whole excavation process .

 This is based on a fuller account in Current Archaeology 156, published in March 1998

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