This October, over 300 local families and residents joined the excavation in Pontefract, and helped archaeologists to reveal the medieval drawbridge pit that once guarded the entrance to one of England’s biggest castles.

The excavation has revealed that the drawbridge would have been over 3m wide, and that the pit below was at least 6.5m deep. Mason’s marks on some of the stone blocks used for its construction indicate that it was built in the late 1300s.

In its heyday, Pontefract Castle was known as ‘the key to the North’ and ‘the strongest inland garrison in the country. Together, the team of archaeologists and local residents revealed the huge stone structure that would have supported the drawbridge controlling access in and out of the castle.

Families and local residents learning how to excavate medieval castle ruins with DigVentures

The discoveries are also helping to settle some of the controversies around what the castle’s medieval gatehouse may have originally looked like.

From the newly exposed remains, it’s now clear that the gatehouse and drawbridge were angled towards the town, rather than directly south, as had been suggested by historical texts.

The shape of the gatehouse drum towers is also being rethought. Castles with defences built by John of Gaunt (as Pontefract was) aren’t known for having rounded towers, and the famous painting of Pontefract Castle by Alexander Kierincx in 1640 also depicts them as square. However, an architectural survey commissioned by Elizabeth I in 1560 shows rounded towers.

Excavation has revealed a circular tower base, suggesting that of the two illustrations, the earlier one may be more accurate, and that the design of Pontefract Castle may have been even more unique than previously thought.

Bone hairpin or lace-maker’s bobbin 📸 DigVentures

The excavation also confirms that some parts of the gatehouse, which were assumed to have been original, might actually be the handiwork of Victorians who converted the ruins into a pleasure garden in the late 1800s.

During the dig, the team of archaeologists and local families also found plenty of artefacts that are adding new details to the castle’s history.

First, they worked through a Victorian layer, which contained clues such as a cobalt-blue medicine bottle, smoking pipes and tea sets.

The excavation then entered a ‘demolition layer’, full of rubble and artefacts left behind when the castle was torn down at the end of the English Civil War c.1649, including a couple of smoking pipes whose designs suggest that they were made between 1640-1680.

Pierced medieval ship jetton 📸 DigVentures

Below that, the team recovered numerous artefacts from the time of the English Civil War, including musket balls, 17th century pottery, and a set of six curious circular stone discs whose purpose is yet to be established.

By the end of the excavation, the team had started to find even earlier artefacts, including a hairpin or lace-maker’s bobbin, a medieval counting token (known as a jetton) bearing a small ship, and medieval mason’s marks etched into the stone by the masons who built the gatehouse.

The artefacts provide a fascinating glimpse at the lives of the everyday people – the traders, artisans, masons and soldiers – who worked in and around the castle.

The medieval ship jetton, for example, was pierced by someone who clearly thought it pretty enough to use as a button or decorate their clothes with, or perhaps even to thread onto a string and wear as a kind of charm.

The ruins of Pontefract Castle are one of West Yorkshire and Wakefield’s most iconic monuments. Historic England, Wakefield Council and Friends of Pontefract Castle have been working hard in recent years to restore the castle and make it a great place for families to come and visit.

The Hare family enjoying a day of archaeology at Pontefract Castle 📸 DigVentures

“This was a great opportunity for people who are interested in their local history to come and help answer some long-standing questions about one of the biggest castles in England,” said Chris Casswell, Head of Fieldwork at DigVentures.

“It was brilliant to see so many adults and children learning how to do archaeology, helping to unpick mysteries about the past and making some genuinely important discoveries,” he continued.

The recent excavation has been a huge step forward in attracting visitors to the castle, and in making new discoveries about its history.

The next step will be for Wakefield Council and Historic England to decide on how the remains will best be preserved for people to see.

You can read more about the discoveries at digventures.com/pontefract-castle

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Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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