A Knight’s Tale

Fulks Castle LutonOver 90% of archaeology that takes place in the UK happens as a result of a planning condition, meaning that developers have to balance the cost of new construction projects against the potential impact they might have on the historic environment.

Where delicate archaeological remains can no longer be preserved in situ (by modifying, for instance, the position of foundation walls or piles) developers have to pay for archaeologists to dig in advance of their build, analysing and publishing their findings in the public interest.

In what we hope will become a regular series here in the #SiteHut, we’re going to feature what could be called ‘Real-Time’ Team Digs (i.e. Digs that you can follow in ‘Real-Time’, getting the scoop on the latest finds with regular social media updates directly from the archaeologists on site). First up on the #realtimeteam rota is Joe Abrams from Headland Archaeology. Joe and his team have been busy excavating the remains of a castle under the grounds of the University of Bedfordshire in Luton, and we caught up with him find out more about what the team have been finding out about the castle and it’s rather special previous resident.

Hi Joe – why are you digging in Luton?

Well, as you mention, planning conditions mean that developers are required to have archaeologists (in our case, Headland Archaeology, South & East office) involved on certain sites. In this instance, the site on Park Street covers part of the campus where a teaching block used to be until it was recently demolished to make way for a new Library/Learning and Resource Centre. Luton Borough Council have asked for the excavation as a condition of planning consent and the works are being monitored by the Archaeological Officers from Central Bedfordshire Council.

Good stuff – so why dig in this exact spot?

We knew, from historic records, and from previous archaeological digs that this area is the site of a 13th century castle. Fulk de Breauté, an Anglo-Norman knight and favourite of King John, built the castle some time between 1216 and 1221, and we have gleaned some details about it from medieval documents. The castle was surrounded by a moat, the course of which has been picked up a couple of times already and it would have been surprising had it not been present on this site. So, apart from confirming the line of that Moat, this site offered another important possibility; it is located in what we think was the central, southern portion of the Castle perimeter adjacent to modern day Park Street which brings traffic towards the core of the modern town. Putting these ‘ideas’ together, we felt there was a chance of finding an entrance to the Castle within this site. Helping to answer how the Castle was accessed was a key research aim for this investigation.

'Stepped' section showing the full extent of the Fulks Castle Moat

‘Stepped’ section showing the full extent of the Fulks Castle Moat

Sounds like an impressive building – what do you think it looked like?

When we call this a ‘castle’ this may conjure up the wrong impression, some extant castles (Edinburgh, Windsor) have to an extent primed our modern minds with images of what a Castle is. This site was not of that order, though, in its context was definitely impressive. It covered around 2.5ha, surrounded by a Moat 3m deep and 12m wide. The upcast material would have formed a bank of local white chalk again some 2-3m high. Within that huge (in this locality) enclosure would have been living quarters, a great hall, stables and outbuildings. Its early days, but we may well have recovered evidence for a stone built castle; certainly something which would have stood out in this locality. Therefore, we see a mix of timber buildings and stone buildings at the site. To assist with discussion, we have produced a reconstruction; we don’t pretend this is the precise layout or style of build; Ania Sztromwasser used the physical evidence we found on site as an inspiration for this reconstruction (see the main image above).

Archaeologists digging a section through the Castle Moat alongside the 12th Century wooden beam

Archaeologists digging a section through the Castle Moat alongside the 12th/13th Century wooden beam

How does that compare to what you’re finding?

We’re finding archaeological remains surviving 3 meters below the present ground level on the site. The upper part of the castle moat has been truncated by post-medieval and modern activity down to around a metre below modern day ground levels. Finds at this level have been very interesting. There are waterlogged pieces of leather Medieval shoes along with contemporary animal bone, pottery and very rich archaeobotanical samples. More significantly, we have revealed a 5m long Oak beam, interpreted as an in situ bridge timber has been found along with an in situ wooden wattle structure. Damian Goodburn (Ancient Woodwork Specialist) has provisionally dated the timber beam from 1180 to 1250 making it contemporary with the castle. We’ve also found a jeton in the surrounding peat deposit and this should help date the hurdle structure. Both the jeton and the carpentry at the site show signs of French influence, something that we will consider further during analysis of material at the site.

What are the key questions you’re hoping to answer in the rest of the excavation?

We intend to determine the function of the in-situ beam and date its period of use. Just as important are understanding its relationship to the original cut of this Moat, was it put in place prior to the flooding of the Moat? Was it a later addition? How long after the exile of Fulk was this bridge still in use. Many artefacts have been dropped into the Moat from the long vanished bridge and early signs are that it was in use long after his exile. Other investigations of this Moat have revealed a relatively modest assemblage of finds; the richness of our findings is, we feel, evidence that digging directly below a bridge is a great place to get data which tells the story of the whole Moat and by extension the road network immediately around it and the Castle within it.

Fab stuff – how long are you digging for and where do we follow you to find out more?

We are currently working with the demolition contractor and their work is coming to an end. Next the piling investigation takes place to inform construction plans and after that we will attend and investigate as substantive groundworks occur (examples being basements). We have a very supportive and professional relationship with our client and their team of demolition and construction contractors. We will work with them during 2014 to ensure key opportunities to ‘learn more’ are taken wherever impacts to those precious remains are likely. Follolw us on Twitter or Facebook to find out more as we keep these updated with our findings. In my view it will be off-site that many of the breakthroughs in understanding (and the proof for my suggestions above) will be made – or new ideas will replace them as the evidence writes its story of Luton’s little known Knight and his Castle.

Cool – looking forward to hearing more!

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Brendon Wilkins

Written by Brendon Wilkins

Co-founder and Projects Director at DigVentures, Brendon heads up our field and post-ex team. Aside from field archaeology, his specialisms are cheese, tea and writing animatedly about himself in the third person.

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