Archaeologists start digging at Pontefract Castle

Archaeologists are unearthing the castle’s gatehouse and drawbridge pit to find out more about its medieval defences

Pontefract Castle is one of England’s most famous medieval castles, but not everything is known about its history, or how it was built.

As part of the castle’s ongoing restoration, Wakefield Council and Historic England have brought in a team of archaeologists from DigVentures to investigate the recently discovered remains of the castle’s medieval gatehouse and drawbridge pit.

Visitors to the castle will be able to see the gatehouse being unearthed, and learn about the new discoveries being made each day by the archaeologists, with free daily tours will be taking place at 2pm until 3rd November 2019.

The gatehouse would have been designed to repel attackers and protect the castle’s main entrance, making it one of its most important defences.

‘We know that some new defences were added to the gatehouse in the 1300s, but there’s hardly any record of them, or why and how they were made. Over the next few weeks, we hope to find out more about how the medieval castle was fortified, and what the main entrance to the castle would have looked like in the 1300s’ said Chris Casswell from DigVentures.

The excavation has already started to reveal some exciting new clues, including a series of medieval mason’s marks on the base of the gatehouse.

‘Each one is like a signature or tag that identified each mason who carved the blocks that were used to build the castle. The amazing thing is that they match some that were previously found on the castle’s 14th century towers. It suggests that the gatehouse was not only built at the same time as the towers, but quite possibly by the very same team of masons’ said Maiya Pina-Dacier, also from DigVentures.

As well as lots of clay pipes, the team has also found a musket ball and piece of grapeshot that were probably fired during the English Civil War.

Starting out as a small wooden fort in AD 1070, Pontefract Castle was later rebuilt in stone. In the medieval period, new fortifications were added and it was transformed into such a formidable stronghold that when Oliver Cromwell famously attacked, he called it ‘one of the strongest inland garrisons in the kingdom’.

‘This is a rare opportunity to come and see the most important part of one England’s most famous medieval castles being unearthed. It will be the first time anyone has seen the gatehouse and drawbridge pit since the castle was torn down at the end of the English Civil War’ she said.

‘Given that Pontefract was one of the most impressive castles in the country, its gatehouse must have been incredible. We can’t wait to see what new evidence we’ll discover about how it might have looked’ she continued.

‘As we continue to excavate over the next few weeks, we should start to get more evidence from further back in time’ added Casswell.

But visitors don’t just have to watch. As wall as daily tours of the excavation, DigVentures and Wakefield Council are also hosting a season of free hands-on events at the castle, where visitors and local residents can register to take part in the dig, or work with archaeologists in the Finds Room.

Archaeology season at Pontefract Castle runs from 05 October – 03 November 2019.
Free daily tours at 2pm until 03 November 2019 (excluding 31 October). To see what’s on and find out how to join a hands-on event, visit

You can also follow the dig on Twitter and Facebook at #PonteCastleDig

– ENDS –

Notes to Editors

Images can be downloaded here (please credit to DigVentures).

Additional information about Pontefract Castle and the Gatehouse Project:

  • Pontefract Castle is a Scheduled Monument and one of the town’s most identifiable landmarks, but there’s still plenty to learn and explore about its history
  • The earliest record of it dates to 1070, when it was built out of wood a few months after the Norman conquest
  • It was rebuilt in stone, with new fortifications and reinforcements added at several points during the medieval period
  • Following the English Civil War, large parts of the castle were destroyed
  • Now owned by the Duchy of Lancaster and managed by Wakefield Council, several grants from English Heritage, Historic England, local bodies, and the National Lottery Heritage Fund have enabled the castle to receive much needed restoration and care. The overall aims have been to improve the Visitor Centre and to repair and renovate the ruins, so that what’s left of the castle can be enjoyed many years into the future
  • In 2016, archaeologists carrying out conservation work were surprised to discover that a substantial part of the castle’s main gatehouse still survives below ground
  • It is thought that the remains may be the result of a 14th century overhaul to the castle’s gatehouse defences, but other than one illustration dating to 1560, almost nothing else is known about this particular part of the castle’s development
  • DigVentures is running the five-week excavation on behalf of Wakefield Council and Historic England as part of the ongoing conservation project. The aim is to find out more about the redesign of the gatehouse in the 14th century, including what it might have looked like, how much of it remains below the ground, and whether any evidence can be recovered to confirm when this redevelopment might have taken place
  • Alongside the excavation, DigVentures is hosting a season of free, hands-on archaeological events throughout October, so that local residents can take part in the search for more evidence about the redesign of the gatehouse in the 14th century
  • Both adults and children can join the archaeological team, learning how to investigate a nationally important piece of history while also helping to reveal new details about the iconic castle at the heart of their town
  • Public events run from Saturday 05th October – Sunday 3rd November 2019, and event details can be found at com/calendar and

For additional information:

Maiya Pina-Dacier

About DigVentures

DigVentures runs archaeological excavations that anyone take part in, online or in the field. Over the last few years, they have carried out in-depth investigations at a number of the UK’s most iconic sites, including the Bronze Age settlement at Flag Fen, the Anglo-Saxon monastery on Lindisfarne, and one of the earliest Roman settlements ever discovered in East Yorkshire. DigVentures is registered with the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, and runs the UK’s only accredited fieldschool.

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Written by DigVentures

Fascinated by archaeology? DigVentures runs excavations that anyone can be part of. From Roman ruins and medieval castles, to Bronze Age monuments and industrial heritage, you can choose to dig alongside our team, help out in the Finds Room, take an online course, or become a Subscriber for even more ways to enjoy archaeology with our team.

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