The Dunster Castle Mosaics

Dunster Castle in west Somerset, is one of three Wessex Norman motte and bailey castles now owned by the National Trust. Their 11th century designers all used natural hills. Each was a strategic location but history changed them.. only Dunster has remained a residence through 1000 years.. a grand mansion house, impressive in scale and outline, high above the road into Exmoor.

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1754 painting of Dunster’s dramatic setting on display in the Castle

In south Somerset, Montacute Castle, on St Michael’s Hill , is now only visible as earthworks under trees. It ended its military life in the 12th century when the land was given to Montacute Priory.

Corfe Castle thrived as a royal castle, particularly in the 13th century, but had become old fashioned by Tudor times. Elizabeth I sold Corfe and it became a rich family’s trophy house.. They backed the King (the losing side) and so in 1646 it was made uninhabitable. Now it’s a craggy ruin.

Dunster is different.. It survived the turbulent years of the English Civil War. It progressed.. and was developed during the 18th and 19th centuries.. complete with stables, outbuildings designed parkland, gardens and summerhouses.

And so it was… that last August I took the long and winding road from Taunton to Minehead in search of a Dunster mosaic.

Don’t get me wrong… these are pebble mosaics not Roman ones .. but they are intricate designs, hidden and poorly understood.

The thing about Dunster Tor is that it’s got unstable slopes. The paths and access road, spiraling up the steep hill to the Castle’s front door, keep slipping away.

I arrived at the right time, morning tea-break in the bothy, and then Robin the Head Gardener guided me up the hill with drawing board, camera, notebook and measuring tapes.

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Starting to clear the overgown path below the Castle. 

A busy summer day, many visitors enjoying the sunshine but I was shown down a lost path. Closed because of health and safety. It doesn’t go anywhere now. After about 30m, it stops abruptly at a steep slope, where the old route has tumbled down the hill.

Robin found the spot and pulled some creeper plants which had grown across the abandoned path. There, was a pattern of pebbles set in a hard white mortar.

He wished me well and left me to it ..and that was my home for the day.. shaded by the bushes and tall plants and all around me the voices of happy holiday people walking along other paths. Nearby but out of sight.

The path had been cut into the hillside. On the uphill side, I pulled back the greenery and found the red sandstone blocks of the revetment wall. Where the path met the wall there was a heap of soil and roots. I moved the vegetation… and just above the mosaic surface were fragments of plaster and pieces of brick and slate.

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The pebble mosaic running under the revetment wall.

There were also two blocks of stone joined together and forming an 120 degree angle as though they once formed the corner of a polygonal building. The revetment wall had been built above this corner and the mosaic ran up to it….The archaeological sequence .. first the stone corner, then the pebble floor built against it and then, at a later date, the revetment wall for the path built above them.

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Now it was time to clean back from the wall and reveal the pattern of the white pebbles. It was edged with a curving fan of long, pitched, red-brown stones. Then there were zig-zag patterns of long grey stones among the white pebbles. In the centre of each zig and zag, was a rosette of long stones with a pebble in the middle. Beyond that and further downslope there were interlocking arcs of grey stones dividing up the white pebbles…but then I ran out of path.

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The stone rosettes 

Slabs of the mosaic had  fractured and tipped down slope and then had been covered and resurfaced in the 1970s to repair the path and make it horizontal again.

Really good mortar… it held the pebbles fast as the floor cracked and slipped away down the hill.

By the end of the day I’d uncovered about half the surviving semi-circular design. Originally, it must have been about 5m in diameter but ….how old was it and what period in the Castle’s long history did it belong to?

I’ve been writing up the report and the answers are not easy to find.. definitely 18th or 19th century but surely we can do better than that.

There are two known Dunster mosaics. The other one, on the north side of the castle, was built against the 15th century gatehouse. This floor design is a series of concentric pebble petals and was carefully uncovered and drawn in the 1990s. Robert the excavator concluded that the mortar used in the floor was a kind of ‘Roman’ cement and was therefore at least earlier 19th century in date.

The one I had revealed was on the south side of the Castle and although it had a different design, the mortar and types of stone were similar. There is no reason to doubt that they are contemporary and part of the same period of garden design.

Dunster Castle has such a dramatic scenic profile: it has been drawn, painted and mapped many times since the early 18th century.

Changes usually take place when there is money and the Luttrell family (the owner occupiers of Dunster from the 1404-1976) didn’t always have large amounts of spare money.

In the early 18th century, Dorothy Luttrell had cash to spend and used it to redesign the gardens. A drawing of Dunster in 1735 shows a white building in the area where I drew the mosaic. There is a painting dated 1754 which also shows the building. Is this the building which covered the mosaic. There’s no similar structure for the north pebble floor and the the type of mortar doesn’t work for such an early date. ‘Roman cement’ was invented by James Parker in 1798 and is unlikely to have been used at Dunster until the early 19th century.

18th century

The early 18th century painting at Dunster showing a little white building on the left side of the Castle in the area of the pebble floor.

Henry Fownes Luttrell 1747-1780 had money and lived at Dunster much of the time as did his son John 1780-1816 but the next owners lived mainly in London and the Castle went into decline.  Then, in 1867, George Luttrell inherited and took the place in hand. He commissioned fashionable architect, Anthony Salvin, to design a gothic revamp for the place.

The surviving later 19th century photos maps and plans give no hint that the mosaics were created at this time.

However, they may have been designed and seen for just a few years and any covering pavilion or summer house building may have been a light timber framed structure quickly removed.

My best bet… given the type of mortar …and the occupation history of the Luttrell family, is that the floors were commissioned by John Luttrell before 1816… can’t prove it though.

Unfortunately William Turner’s painting of 1811 shows nothing and neither does the tithe map of 1840. But they were  not created to show garden detail….

1840 Dunster

Dunster’s Tithe Map 1840

so I must hope for a future researcher who one day.. at Taunton.. at a table in the Somerset County Record Office…working through deep pile of papers in the Dunster Archive, will suddenly alight on the conclusive document ….I hope he or she spots it.

 

Stourhead? Where’s Stourton Castle?

In south Wiltshire, on the border with Dorset and Somerset was built a great and ancient house. It lay at the centre of a large estate and was known as Stourton Castle..

but there is a problem…

We don’t know where it is

We have a picture.

An enhanced drawing based on John Aubrey's original sketch.

An enhanced drawing based on John Aubrey’s original sketch.

Drawn from a 1670 sketch by the antiquarian John Aubrey.

The place was massive and must have looked a bit like Lacock Abbey

Lacock Abbey in north Wiltshire. Stourton Castle was arranged around two courtyards like this and would have been of similar scale and outward appearance.

Lacock Abbey in north Wiltshire. Stourton Castle was arranged around two courtyards like this and would have been of similar scale and outward appearance.

but it’s gone.. apparently without trace.

The story of the removal of Stourton Castle and the creation of Stourhead House has a touch of Poldark about it.

The Stourtons (old money Poldark) and the Hoares (new money Warleggan)

The Stourton family had taken their name from the village of Stourton (the farm by the River Stour), a place recorded in Domesday and at least Saxon in origin. The Stourtons claimed that their line went back to a mighty Saxon lord… Botulph.. and William Camden, writing in 1607, saw a ‘monstrous bone’ displayed in Stourton Castle… a leg of their legendary ancestor.

The surviving records trace the family back to the 12th century but the Stourtons only emerge as lords of the manor in the 13th century documents. During the 14th and 15th centuries, the family did very well and built up cash reserves via good marriages and military service in France.

Their manor house blossomed and flourished. Aubrey’s picture shows that it was built around two large courtyards and had a tall tower and shows parapets with military style battlements.

Things fell apart for the Stourtons in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the early 16th century, William Lord Stourton was working for Henry VIII in France and left the care of his estate to his trusted steward William Hartgill…he also looked after Lord Stourton’s  wife Elizabeth.

When Lord Stourton died in 1548, his hot-tempered son Charles inherited the Estate. He rode with a band of henchmen to Kilmington near Stourton and found his mother living at Hartgill’s house. A feud grew up between the men and eventually, in 1557, Lord Stourton kidnapped William and his son John, murdered them and buried their bodies in a cellar within the Castle.

As a catholic, with Queen Mary on the throne, Charles believed that he would get away with the murders. However, William Hartgill had friends and they made sure that the Castle was searched, the bodies found and Lord Stourton arrested. He was convicted and executed in Salisbury. His wife was forced to pay for her husband’s property which had been forfeited to the Crown following his trial. She was also separated from her eldest son John, who was only a child at the time.

The family backed the wrong side in the Civil War. In September 1644, Parliamentarian forces set fire to one of the gates, captured the house, ransacked it and made it untenable.The eldest son John was killed at the battle for Bristol and when the Royalist cause was finally lost, the estates were confiscated and heavy fines were imposed.

The family fortunes continued to decline and by 1686 the impoverished Stourton family had mortgaged their ancestral home and by 1704 it was for sale.

Enter the Hoare family who had made a fortune through banking. In 1720, they purchased the whole estate, demolished the castle and built a new flashy Palladian villa… quite the latest thing. They changed the name to Stourhead. The house at the source of the River Stour.

The Hoare family made sure the transformation was carried out quickly. They paid for a survey of their new property in 1722 and the Estate Map shows the new house completed… Stourton Castle was gone.

The 1722 map shows the new Stourhead House with its garden intruding slightly onto the courtyard of the stables and outbuildings below and to the right. Was this a retained part of the old house?

The 1722 map shows the new Stourhead House with its garden intruding slightly into the top left hand corner of the stable courtyard. The courtyard is below and right of the house. With a large gateway facing south. Was this the outer courtyard of the old house?

Finding the site has been difficult, the normal techniques have proved to be inconclusive and the quest for the Castle has become a great archaeological challenge.

It seemed simple at first. The 1880s 25 inch OS map marks a cross about 100m east of Stourhead House with the legend ‘site of Stourton Castle’ So we geophysed it and the results were very disappointing. Since then, year by year, we have surveyed around the house but nothing has been revealed.

When Meg did her student placement for the National Trust, I asked her to find the Castle and her MA dissertation tracked down the documentary references and descriptions of its chambers and halls and its chapel, which included a decorated tiled floor inlaid with the initials WS for William Stourton. Documents in the record offices of Cornwall, Wiltshire, Somerset and nearby Longleat House were examined. These built up the background: the estate, the farmland, the deer park and hunting lodge, the warren and the warrener’s lodge… bits about the repair of the great house and its approximate location… but nothing to pin it down.

We looked at the fabric of the stone-lined cellars of Stourhead House. Had they built the new house on the old?

The cellars of Stourhead House. Some reused stone but nothing to indicate that these were once the cellars of Stourton Castle.

The cellars of Stourhead House. Some reused stone but nothing to indicate that these were once the cellars of Stourton Castle.

We examined the stableyard to the south. This includes in its walls great chunks of reused? stone and a 16th century? doorway. Was this the remodeled outer courtyard of the Castle?. We dug a trench on its north side, hoping to find medieval walls leading to the inner courtyard.. just 18th century pottery above deep soil.

Our fieldwork in Stourhead Park. Earth resistance meter against the railings and our trench beside the stables courtyard to the left. The Hoare family's 1720s mansion Stourhead House can be seen top right. The site of old Stourton Castle lies somewhere to the right of this picture.

Our fieldwork in Stourhead Park. Earth resistance meter against the railings and our trench beside the stables courtyard to the left. The Hoare family’s 1720s mansion Stourhead House can be seen top right. The site of old Stourton Castle lies somewhere to the right of this picture.

So where is it hiding? A LiDAR laser survey of the parkland ground surface might help or more sensitive geophysics… perhaps ground probing radar. Everything seems to point near the cross marked by Ordnance Survey. A line of pre-Stourhead House chestnut trees are aligned north towards this point where there is a mound in the park. From the east, an old drove-way passes through Drove Lodge and runs as an earthwork into the park.

Our site is most likely to exist where these two alignments meet. Surely the backfilled cellars and extensive robbed out walls lie there or thereabouts.

We’ll keep looking.

Sewage and the Infirmary at Lacock Abbey

Sorry to have to mention this but there has long been a problem with sewage at Lacock Abbey.

Looking north. Lacock's 2008 south park and monastic church resistivity survey in action . Meg and Tony are standing on the church site which became a Tudor garden beneath Fox Talbot's ornate 19th century windows.These windows were built into the monastic church cloister wall. The T junction of paths in the photo can be seen as blue bands on the resistivity plot (next image). The narrower path leads through a door beneath the smaller window into the cloisters.

Looking north. Lacock’s 2008 south park and monastic church resistivity survey in action . Meg and Tony are standing on the church site which became a Tudor garden beneath Fox Talbot’s ornate 19th century windows.These windows were built into the monastic church cloister wall. The T junction of paths in the photo can be seen as blue bands on the resistivity plot (next image). The narrower path leads through a door beneath the smaller window into the cloisters.

We thought it had been sorted out in 1995 (and there was good archaeological recording then) but the River Avon often floods in winter and at such times the system isn’t up to the job. When the Abbey was built in the 13th century…. it was a lovely setting beside the river but to be honest it’s too low lying. The people who built the village on the higher ground knew that. When Ella Countess of Salisbury came to build her nunnery, the locals may have shaken their heads…good meadow land but don’t you know it’s on a flood plain!

Our resistivity plot is full of detail. Top is north and the blue upper edge of the image is the Abbey with other unsurveyable paths and walls as parallel bands of blue. To orientate you to the last photo, the doorway to the left of Meg leading to the cloisters is the narrow vertical blue line top centre. Below this across the broader blue path is a circular feature,once a 17th century cut at its lower edge by the early 18th century garden wall, a very thin blue line with the Tudor garden paths and boundary wall, now under parkland grass visible further down the plot. The old London Road is the wide feature running from right to left across the bottom of the plot. The sewage pipe route ran along right edge of the plot and curved to run along the bottom edge. It was routed to avoid the detail of the Tudor garden and run along the road but found a Tudor culvert and clipped the corner of the garden wall beside the London Road.

Our resistivity plot is full of detail. Top is north and the blue upper edge of the image is the Abbey with other unsurveyable paths and walls as parallel bands of blue. To orientate you to the last photo, the doorway to the left of Meg leading to the cloisters is the narrow vertical blue line top centre. Below this across the broader blue path is a circular feature,once a 17th century fountain cut at its lower edge by the early 18th century garden wall, shown as a very thin blue line with the Tudor garden paths and boundary wall, now under parkland grass visible further down the plot. The old London Road is the wide feature running from right to left across the bottom of the plot. The sewage pipe route ran along the bottom edge skirting the parkland tree(which is the small blue hole in the lower left of the plot) and then curved round to the right to run along the edge of the plot . The trench was routed to avoid the detail of the Tudor garden.

One of the wonderful things about Lacock is that so much of the medieval structure survives. William Sharrington, who got the Abbey after the 1530s Dissolution, didn’t need the great monastic church so he knocked it down but he kept the cloisters and incorporated much of the dining room, dormitory, chapter house etc. in his new grand home.

The start of the pipeline on the east side of the Abbey where the old sewage works were. A medieval carved stone marking the point were the infirmary wall and drain were found.

The start of the pipeline on the east side of the Abbey where the old sewage works were. A medieval carved stone marking the point were the infirmary wall and drain were found.

The infirmary’s gone though. There’s just a passage from the cloisters into the east park with its name on. This was where the sick and the elderly nuns were cared for somewhere near the site of the modern sewage works.

So, in linking the Abbey sewage plant on its east side, to the village on the west, the new trench had to cross the park and follow the east and south sides of the Abbey. This was a minefield of archaeology ..and one does ones best to avoid cutting through it.. but the trench was bound to hit something.

We knew about the infirmary on the east and William Sharrington’s Tudor garden on the south. Both areas had been surveyed using geophysics and using this and all other available evidence Nathan plotted the route. Closer to the Abbey to avoid the Infirmary and swinging further south to skirt the garden.

It was bound to hit something, Lacock’s archaeologists Jane and Tony watched the work as it progressed and halted the excavation when necessary to record everything that came to light.

Lacock from the south west the trench skirting the parkland tree, the corner of the Tudor garden was just clipped by the trench before the pipeline continued round to the east skirting the 18th century bastion wall which separates Abbey and Park.

Lacock from the south west the trench skirting the parkland tree, the corner of the Tudor garden was just clipped by the trench before the pipeline continued round to the east skirting the 18th century bastion wall which separates Abbey and Park.

I visited before backfilling. Holes in the ground…if they can’t be avoided, are great opportunities to see and touch the story of a place and Lacock’s story is a fine one. A morning walk along the trench from the village and then to the south. Quiet along the line of the old London Road and then cutting behind a parkland tree the trench curved towards the east and clipped the very edge of the SE corner of outer Tudor garden courtyard. Nicely built, it gave reality to the ornate plan we had revealed by resisitivity in 2008. Just beyond this, the digger had clipped the lid of a deep 16th century culvert heading south from the Abbey. I turned the corner marked by the stone wall of the early 18th century garden bastion and followed the trench along the east side.

The corner of the Tudor garden exposed on the south side of the Abbey a couple of weeks ago.

The corner of the Tudor garden exposed on the south side of the Abbey a couple of weeks ago.

There were Jane and Tony in the distance, most of the trench had exposed debris… waste picked over and discarded, that Sharrington had spread out across the park and garden during his great alteration from a religious institution to a grand country home.

Tony showed me the infirmary wall, a wide, fine ashlar stone structure. Here there was much medieval pottery, oyster shells and bones from meals that had once been eaten by the monastic community. One metal object was decorated with curving lines inlaid with silver, perhaps a pendant but Jane is looking for comparisons.

A copper alloy decorated 'pendant' found close to the Abbey Infirmary.

A copper alloy decorated ‘pendant’ found close to the Abbey Infirmary.

Beside the wall, there was another stone structure. To lay the pipe, the top stones had to be moved but there was enough space to send a camera down. It was a beautifully made drain… presumably nobody had glimpsed its interior for 700 years.

Photo along the the 13th century monastic drain revealed beside the infirmary. The last person to see this was probably the medieval builder.

Photo along the the 13th century monastic drain revealed beside the infirmary. The last person to see this was probably the medieval builder.

I went on to the Lacock meeting. I was late.. looking down holes Martin they said. Take the opportunity, I encouraged them, it’s a great hole.

Neolithic and Roman Dyrham

It’s a fabulous piece of landscape between Bristol and Bath.

But you can’t really see Dyrham House at the moment it’s covered in scaffolding.

The west side of Dyrham House.Now covered in scaffolding while the roof is repaired. The medieval parish church beside it shows that there has been a house here at least since medieval times.

The west side of Dyrham House.Now covered in scaffolding while the roof is repaired. The medieval parish church beside it shows that there has been a house here at least since medieval times.

You can’t see Neolithic Dyrham either it’s covered in Roman Dyrham… and who’d have thought there was a Roman Dyrham. Paul found it a few years ago but he’s just found something 3000 years older.

The story we tell the visitors is that Dyrham is a great house and garden created by a wealthy man. A key player in William III’s government during the 1690s. That’s the most visible layer in the multiplex of Dyrham but it’s far too obvious and far too simple for the archaeological soul.

I got a text and decided to stop off on the way back from Brean Down. Parked at the top and walked down the bowl of the escarpment to the valley floor passing the scaffolded house to get to the West Garden.

I could see Paul’s trench at the far end and passed below the medieval church tower along the path to see what he had found. The gardeners want to recreate the late 17th century garden beds and the excavation was to find archaeological evidence for their location.

The view west along the access path towards the garden gate and to the left is the site of the excavation. It was dug to find the late 17th century garden beds but found something much older.

The view west along the access path towards the garden gate and to the left is the site of the excavation. It was dug to find the late 17th century garden beds but found something much older. The proposed sites for new garden beds can be seen as mown rectangles.

There wasn’t any really…but in the process Paul found a polished Neolithic axe made from stone brought all the way from south Wales. He also found some worked flint tools of the same date. He placed them on the table beside the trench. We wondered whether the 17th century gardeners had levelled the ground and cut down through the valley deposits reveal a Neolithic feature.

A polished axe made of stone from west Wales. It dates to the Neolithic period and is over 4500 years old.

A polished axe made of stone from south-west Wales. It dates to the Neolithic period and is over 4500 years old.

Things are not necessarily what they first seem. The next find from the feature was a piece of medieval pottery and then other things of various dates turned up..so the gardeners, 320 years ago, had dug up the Neolithic stuff from somewhere up-slope and then it became mixed with later material and dumped down slope to level out the garden terrace.

The gardeners’ redeposited soils were deepest at the south terrace edge. Mainly yellow and orange natural clay but then everything went dark again. There was still archaeology underneath. What could it be?

Then the Roman pottery started popping out of it, oyster shells and chunks of bone with cut and saw marks on, butchered joints of meat.

The pottery and bone from the Roman ditch filling.

The pottery and bone from the Roman ditch filling.

It went down and down.

It is good to imagine the generations who have enjoyed the gardens and then all those who lived here before the gardens. Lots to be discovered.. where are their houses now?

The view back towards the house showing the numbered archaeological layers filling the deep ditch filled with Roman pottery.

The view back towards the house showing the numbered archaeological layers filling the deep ditch filled with Roman pottery.

Industrial beauty

The forge

The forge

I started my digging life on an industrial site near Barnsley in Yorkshire, and my relatives worked in the mills and mines of West Yorkshire, so I have a soft spot for industrial sites from the past.

A while ago I visited one of our small industrial gems in Devon. I had some leather drive-belts to drop off for them to use from a large collection we acquired in order to get the  right sizes for some for our grist (corn and grain) mills.

leather drive belts of all sizes waiting for new homes

Leather drive-belts of all sizes waiting for new homes

The property was Finch Foundry near Okehampton, the last working water-powered forge in England. There are three water wheels powering hammers, shears and blade sharpening stones. This set up lead to the foundry becoming one of the South West’s most successful edge tool factories which, at its peak, produced around 400 edge tools a day, of many designs and types.

One of the waterwheels can be seen through the opening in the wall on the left

One of the waterwheels can be seen through the opening in the wall on the left

When you visit you are met by the smells and the noises of the machines, a taste of what it may have been like to work in this forge. But it is only part of the noise that would have been made, as not all the hammers, shears and grinders are in use during your visit!

Some of the workers and owners of the forge

Some of the workers and the owner of the forge

One of the water powered hammers

The water-powered hammers on the right and large shears on the left

There is also a carpenters’ shed at the forge. As the business grew Finch Bros expanded into providing carts, gates and even coffins. At the property you can see the  large variety of edge tools made at the foundry, along with a display of tools used by the wheelwrights and carpenters and learn about the Finch family. I recommend calling in if you have a spare hour, its not far from the A30, and there is a lovely garden and of course there is tea and cake 🙂

I hope this short video will give a flavour of the site, with all its squeaks, quacks, whooshes and clacks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From sea to land

A winter view of Godolphin House

A winter view of Godolphin House

The out building next to the house

The out building next to the house

It’s amazing what is contained within all the estate and farm buildings the Trust looks after. Often while working on something else you notice other things of interest or the odd and quirky! While working at Godolphin cataloging  archaeological objects found on the estate, we went into one of the out buildings, were some worked stone and architectural pieces of wood are stored.

The upper room of the out building next to the main house was dark and full of portable  objects from small pieces of tile to large lumps of wood. But it was the only fixed object in the room that caught my eye.

Side view of the strange branch and machine

Side view of the strange branch and machine

It is a lovely wooden branch, chosen for the natural curve it had. This was fixed to the ceiling at one end  and the wooden floorboards at the other, and attached to it is a metal machine of some kind. There is a hopper at the top, an arm for a handle and a hole underneath.

The arm for the handle and the hopper at the top

The arm for the handle and the hopper at the top

What could it have been used for?   I needed to ask  Mal (the property development manager) whose family had worked on the estate for generation’s, he is a font of knowledge and sure enough he told us it was an oyster shell crusher!   Oyster shells and other shells were used for many things in the past, to add to clay to help stop pots exploding in the kiln, to add to mortar or help with leveling wall courses, or to help fertilize the land. Oysters have many other interesting facts attached to them especially in an archaeological context, but more of that another time possibly  from a  guest blogger 🙂

closer view of the machine

closer view of the machine

Kingston Lacy South Lawn Day 4: Getting to the bottom of it

The formal garden shown on William Woodward's map of 1773. Traces of the pathways dividing the four lawns can be seen as parch marks and the geophysical survey but the semi-circular feature has not been detected during the surveys

The formal garden shown on William Woodward’s map of 1773. Traces of the pathways dividing the four lawns can be seen as parch marks and the geophysical survey but the semi-circular feature has not been detected during the surveys

We know about William Woodward’s map of 1773 showing the formal garden. This design might have included elements of the garden made for the house when it was first built in the 1660s.

From a plan of Kingston Lacy Park and Garden dated 1849, only 20 years after the obelisk was erected. The lawn is much the same today although the 17th century stable block on the right hand side of Kingston Lacy House was demolished and moved to the left in the 1880s (it's the restaurant now).

From a plan of Kingston Lacy Park and Garden dated 1849, only 20 years after the obelisk was erected. The lawn is much the same today although the 17th century stable block on the right hand side of Kingston Lacy House was demolished and moved to the left in the 1880s (it’s the restaurant now).

The garden was radically changed in the 1820s and it has looked much the same ever since but there are other things here which we can’t explain.

In spring 2013, Andrew, Nigel and I walked across the South Lawn discussing the Kingston Lacy park and garden conservation plan. For many years they had noticed strange brown patterns in the grass during dry weather.

A pencil sketch of the 1773 garden over the present garden with the geophysical survey features drawn onto the plan. The house is at the top of the drawing and the obelisk at the bottom.

A pencil sketch of the 1773 garden over the present garden with the geophysical survey features drawn onto the plan. The house is at the top of the drawing and the obelisk at the bottom.

We decided to try to find out what they were and carry out a geophysical survey of the lawn in July as part of national archaeology festival. We plotted the parch marks, walked up and down with the resistivity and gradiometer survey machines and in 2014 Paul brought the ground probing radar from Bournemouth University and added to the ‘non-invasive’ information.

The resistivity survey plot of the South Lawn. The blue band right of centre is the path and obelisk. Kingston Lacy House lies just beyond the top edge of the survey. The red block of colour marks the position of our trench on the left side of the circular feature picked up on the survey and seen as an earthwork on the ground.

The resistivity survey plot of the South Lawn. The blue band right of centre is the path and obelisk. Kingston Lacy House lies just beyond the top edge of the survey. The red block of colour marks the position of our trench on the left side of the circular feature picked up on the survey and seen as an earthwork on the ground.

The patterns were mapped but they do not correspond with any known garden. Were they really garden features? They seem to blot out the 1773 mapped garden design and are crossed by the 1820s path to the obelisk. There seems to be a very limited time frame to fit this potential design into.

Beyond historical evidence there is only archaeology…so we dug this week’s trench, just a small one in a very large lawn, to test a place which is clear on the geophysics and visible on the ground.

One of our chunks of brick and below it the two fragments of post-medieval pottery we found, typical white ware and blue and white wares of the late 18th to early 19th century. Below them, the black blob is a late prehistoric piece of pottery over 2000 years old.

One of our chunks of brick and below it the two fragments of post-medieval pottery we found, typical white ware and blue and white wares of the late 18th to early 19th century. Below them, the black blob is a late prehistoric piece of pottery over 2000 years old.

We found the lawn soil overlying a surface with lots of black clinker, the odd iron nail and bit of brick. Just a thin skim above a deeper soil but it was always moister towards the obelisk path. That’s where the water stayed during the heavy rain. That’s where the soil was deeper mixed with fragments of lime (was it reused as a garden bed? lime to make the neutral acid soil more alkaline?). The soil overlay a 250mm deep mixed clay deposit filling a curved edge cutting through the natural sand.

The slot across the natural sand and clay filling of the feature. The photo shows the edge of the pond, the soil difference between the clay filling and natural sand is clear.

The slot across the natural sand and clay filling of the feature. The photo shows the edge of the pond, the soil difference between the clay filling and natural sand is clear.

The earthwork on the surface reflects this clay-lined feature which the rain water wouldn’t soak through. So our reasonable interpretation is that this was a pond and part of a garden that we have not found a documentary reference for. None of our maps show it.

So here is a story to fit the evidence. At the end of the 18th century, Kingston Lacy was re-designed by architect Robert Furze Brettingham for the then owner Henry Bankes. A new house deserves a new garden and perhaps this is shown by our geophysics and excavation..except Henry’s son William was given an obelisk from the Island of Philae in Egypt so he persuaded his father to create a garden for this extraordinary possession and the newly designed garden was swept away..

However, such formal gardens indicated by our geophysics, with a small pond like the one we found, would not be at all fashionable c.1800, a more open landscape/picturesque style might be expected so an alternative story is that the pond is earlier than the 18th century brought closer to the surface by the landscaping out of the 18th century garden in the 1820s…If we had found a good date-able piece of pottery or a white tobacco pipe bowl in the pond clay filling we would have been able to provide a more definite date for the feature.

Some of the flint from the  South Lawn. The top grey chunk has been worked but then burnt in a fire. The other flakes also date to the Neolithic or Bronze Age. They probably haven't moved far but were disturbed during 17th-19th century gardening work.

Some of the flint from the South Lawn. The top grey chunk has been worked but then burnt in a fire. The other flakes also date to the Neolithic or Bronze Age. They probably haven’t moved far but were disturbed during 17th-19th century gardening work.

The prehistoric pot fragments and the burnt and flaked flint show that there were people living here long before Ralph Bankes first commissioned Kingston Lacy House in the 1660s, before Henry de Lacy’s medieval manor of the 13th century, before the Saxon royal farm, before the Roman town at Shapwick and even before the Iron Age hillfort of Badbury Rings.

The end of the excavation, the trench backfilled .

The end of the excavation, the trench backfilled .