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Powis Castle East Front Project

The East Front of Powis Castle by Paul Sandby Munn (1817).

Powis Castle, just outside Welshpool and owned by the National Trust, is the magnificant 13th century red sandstone castle of the Welsh Princes of Powys. It was transformed into a lavish and comfortable home in the 16th century and includes the Clive Museum, which contains over 300 items collected from India and the Far East during the 17th to 19th centuries - the largest private collection of its type in the UK.

Powis Castle is perhaps most famous for its terraced garden which affords spectacular views across the Severn Valley and features some wonderful yew topiary, flower borders and statuary, attracting visitors from across the world.

The East Front Project has been initiated by the National Trust with the aim of repairing and conserving the fabric of the East Front of the castle (which actually faces north-east) and its adjacent structures. It is hoped that the project will improve understanding of this part of the castle as well as eventually creating new access and interpretation for the public to enjoy. This area has been closed to the public for many years due to the instability of the structure. The National Trust has launched an appeal to raise funds to carry out the work.

Results of 2002 geophysical survey by ArchaeoPhysica. The four CPAT trenches are overlaid in red.

A geophysical survey of the Old Bowling Green and the High Terrace adjacent to the East Front carried out by ArchaeoPhysica in 2002 identified a number of anomalies which may represent features relating to the layout of the medieval castle.

It is important that the archaeology of the area is investigated so that this can be taken into account as the project develops. It is vital that The National Trust, in restoring the fabric of this nationally important castle, do not inadvertently damage any underlying archaeological remains.

Opportunities to work at sites like Powis Castle do not crop up very often, so CPAT were delighted to be asked to carry out this project.

Working closely with Kathy Laws, archaeologist for the National Trust, members of the CPAT Field Services team will be conducting an archaeological excavation to evaluate the features identified by the geophysical survey over the course of the week beginning 9th March 2015.

As seen on the plan to the left, in Trenches 1 and 2 we are hoping to find evidence for the large medieval ditch which surrounded the castle before the gardens were constructed, in Trench 3 we are looking for the remains of a tower, and in Trench 4 we should find a wall. Three archaeologists have just four days to carry out the excavation.

Each morning the dig diary will be updated as the project progresses, so do check in throughout the week.

Dig Diary

Monday 9th March

Day one saw a rather wet start to our excavations on the old Bowling Green at the East Front of the castle but we have made good progress nonetheless. With the help of David and Neil, two of the Powis Castle gardeners, who de-turfed Trench 3 and 4 on the lawn this morning, we pushed on with Trench 1 and 2 which are located in an area of vegetation at the south-western corner of the green. We are still digging through relatively modern deposits at present in both of these trenches and have yet to come across any sign of the medieval ditch.

Trenches 3 and 4 underway.

Trench 3 is our longest trench, measuring 10m, so we decided to make a start here during the afternoon. So far, we have exposed some stonework which does appear to be structural in the location of the proposed tower.

We have also made very good progress in Trench 4, having exposed what looks like the back edge of the curtain wall and also some unexpected stone work further to the south-east. Heavy rain hindered any good photo opportunities today, but here is an image to give you an idea of where our trenches are located. Menna can be seen at the bottom right corner of the image hard at work in Trench 4 and Kate is busy in the middle of the picture in Trench 3. Trench 1 and 2 are located in the vegetation behind her.

We are looking forward to a drier day tomorrow and promise some better photographs of our findings then.

Today's team - Sophie Watson, Kate Pitt and Menna Bell.

Sophie Watson

Tuesday 10th March

Some of today's finds from Trench 3, including two fragments of decorated floor tile.

After a beautiful, clear day up at the castle today and with the help of Nigel Jones, our Senior Project Archaeologist, we have now completed our work in Trenches 1 and 2 beside the castle. Unfortunately we haven’t found any evidence of a medieval ditch. We have excavated each trench to a depth of around half a meter through deposits of made-up ground and rubble which has been cut through by several ceramic drains. One sherd of 18th century mottled ware pottery was found within Trench 2 today, so it is possible that this material was deposited around that time.

In Trench 3, we have excavated down onto another rubble deposit within which we have two areas of structural stonework towards the south-western end of the trench. This may have formed part of the building/tower that was identified by the geophysics. The surrounding rubble contains fragments of stonework which match that seen in the stone walling so it is likely the rubble is the remains of the demolished building.

The curtain wall and stonework exposed in Trench 4 has been cleaned and photographed, and is now ready to be recorded tomorrow.

Today's team - Nigel Jones, Kate Pitt and Menna Bell.

Sophie Watson

Wednesday 11th March

Kate talking to Kathy Laws about the stonework in Trench 3.

This morning we were visited by Kathy Laws, the National Trust Archaeologist for North Wales. Content with our findings in Trenches 1, 2 and 4, Kathy encouraged today's team of Kate, Menna and Viviana and to concentrate on Trench 3 to further explore the stone walling we have exposed. We want to see if there are any further courses to the walling lower down and excavate through the surrounding rubble to expose a foundation trench for the wall.

Otherwise, in between the showers we have made a start on recording what we have found so far. This involves taking a series of photographs, a written description and also a detailed hand-drawn scaled plan and section of each trench.

We have also surveyed in all of the trenches and we will overlay the results of this survey onto the geophysics plan.

Keeping us company today has been a rather handsome peacock who's been perched in his enclosure in the bushes surrounding Trenches 1 and 2, keeping a watchful eye on progress.

Today's team - Kate Pitt, Menna Bell and Viviana Culshaw.

Sophie Watson

Thursday 12th March

Menna excavating the wall in Trench 3.

Our investigations in Trench 3 have now delivered some exciting results. Our original ‘small’ area of sandstone walling (as seen in yesterday's photo) has now turned into a rather more substantial wall, which measures over 4.40m long and over 1.45m thick. The walls appear to form the inner corner of a building. We have also identified a probable entrance way into the building from the south-east side measuring 1m wide. The walls we have uncovered are surrounded by rubble deposits which contain fragments of mortar and sandstone matching that used in the fabric of the building, suggesting that this surrounding material is all part of this partly-demolished building.

We have excavated the trench to a depth of about 0.75m around the structure and within the deposits at the base of the trench have found pottery dating to the 18th century. However, the walls of the building are still continuing down beyond this depth.

We will be back on site on Friday (hopefully briefly, looking at the weather forecast!) to finish recording the building so we will conclude this dig diary early next week when we have had chance to gather all of the information together back at CPAT HQ in Welshpool. This will include information on the large amount of small finds and pottery from the four days of excavation, as well as drawings and more photographs.

Today's team - Kate Pitt and Menna Bell.

Sophie Watson

Friday 27th March

We can finally report that despite the heavy showers on our final day at Powis Castle, we managed to finish recording in Trench 3. All of the artefacts we discovered during the excavation have now been washed and analysed at our offices in Welshpool and we have reported our findings back to the National Trust. The information will be used to inform the East Front Project with regards safeguarding the buried archaeology during any groundworks as the project progresses.

The evaluation has demonstrated that any surviving medieval deposits relating to the medieval ditch we had hoped to uncover in Trench 1 and 2 are likely to lie at a deeper level than we were able to excavate to. The deposits we uncovered in Trench 1 and 2 were predominantly 19th-20th century. We have been able to confirm that the square anomaly visible on the geophysics in Trench 3 is a stone building, but we cannot be certain as to the exact purpose or date of the building, having only exposed one inner corner of it.

Tile fragment from Trench 3.

Within the rubble surrounding the building we found some fragments of floor tile, two pieces of which match the style of other tiles from the 14th century that have been found at both Montgomery Castle (though originally from Chirbury Priory) and also Strata Marcella Abbey, the site of which lies some 5k to the north-east of the castle.

Tile from Strata Marcella Abbey. The pattern of the Powis Castle tile can be seen in the bottom left corner.

We could assume from the tiles within the demolition rubble of the building that it is 14th century or later. It may be possible that the tiles were taken from Strata Marcella Abbey after the Dissolution in 1536. These are all theories of course and the evidence remains inconclusive. The building is not shown on the earliest known plan of the castle which dates to 1629, or any subsequent plans which is curious. Perhaps it had been demolished by this time.

In Trench 4, the geophysical survey identified a number of ‘linear high-resistance anomalies’ which it was thought could be remains of an earlier medieval curtain wall. We did find a spread of stone rubble in this trench which might explain the anomalies in the geophysics. Again, we did not find any medieval deposits within this trench and the pottery finds have been dated to the 16th/17th-centuries.

We found many other artefacts during the excavation, including iron nails, fragments of clay pipe, window glass, bottle glass, sherds of pottery ranging from the 16th to 20th centuries and a lot of animal bone and oyster shell, which gives us some indication of what the residents of the castle have been eating over the years. They certainly liked their oysters!

Many thanks to all who have been involved in this project. We look forward to seeing how the project progresses.

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