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.

1754 painting2

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.

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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.

 

Day 12 – the last hurrah

The last day is upon us, Martin is on site at the crack of dawn to get on with recording the trenches, while its quiet. When we get to site he has exposed more of the large stone in the Buckeye tree trench and enlists our help to lift it to see if it is carved. It appears to be shaped and shows signs of  wear from possible foot fall. Martin will look at it in relation to the rest of the trench and surrounding walls, so more later.

When moved the shaping of the stone is clearer. the edge at the top of the picture is smoother and angled down slightly. There is also an area in the bottom right that looks like a square area has been cut out.

When moved the shaping of the stone is clearer. The edge at the top of the picture is smoother and angled down slightly. There is also an area in the bottom right that looks like a square section has been cut out.

A side view of the stone, the sloping edge is on the left

A side view of the stone, the sloping edge is on the left

While everyone else started the task of back-filling the trenches, Carol finished the mosaic trench excavation, and Fay and Rob headed for the bath house trench looking for the floor level.

Back filling comenses

Back-filling commences

The back-filling produced one last find. Max, not to be out done by his Dad, Steve the finder of the key, found this object still found in may shops but more expensive now 🙂

An old Maltesser packet costing 1 shilling/5p so datable to about 1972

An old Maltesers packet costing 1 shilling/5p so datable to about 1972

Fay and Rob came up trumps! The floor of the hypocaust phase of the bath house room we have been excavating was found. The pilae are each sat on a large limestone slab which then sits on a very hard mortar floor. There is often nothing better than finding a good floor surface!

Three pilae with a box flue tile (bottom left of the picture) the lovely hard mortar floor inbetween

Three pilae with a box flue tile (bottom left of the picture) and the lovely hard mortar floor in between

Two other areas were excavated to check the floor carried on at the opposite end of the trench and it did

Two other areas were excavated to check the floor carried on at the opposite end of the trench, which it did

Once Martin had finished his recording of the floor and sections (sides) of the trench it was time to put back all the soil we had just spent two weeks digging out!

Martin taking some levels in the bath house trench

Martin taking some levels in the bath house trench

The spoil heap now you see it....

The spoil heap: now you see it….

....now you don't!

….now you don’t!

It only remains to thank all our wonderful volunteers especially our core team, Rob, Fay, Carol, Alex, Peter and Harry. So until next year its au revoir Chedworth Villa, thank you for making us so welcome and providing the Wows!

And finally .....

And finally …..

Day 8 and 9 – Plaster, plaster everywhere and some iron and mosaic!

Due to technical difficulties it’s a bumper edition of the blog 🙂 Day 8 turned into a day of recording, with walls and sections to draw in some of the smaller trenches and the other trenches that are still being dug, had a lovely clean up for photos. Not a lot of fresh digging was done and that that was involved more plaster and ‘little cubes of loveliness’ aka tesserae.

Lovely colourful wall plaster

Lovely colourful wall plaster

Day 9 was an early start as some filming was being done for a documentary about the National Trust. We also had a small section of turf to start lifting to see if there was any mosaic under the turf next to the main north range corridor. We started with a couple of turfs being removed to see what depth the hoped for mosaic was at. Hurray it was there, large whitish and smaller white tesserae of the border of the main entrance room. It did not survive across the whole piece we did but hopefully we will have time to check a larger area.

The small area of mosaic next to the fresh hold stones of the north range corridor

The small area of mosaic next to the threshold stones of the north range corridor

In the north bath house trench loose tesserae hindered the digging, we ended the day with three seed trays piled high with them. The painted wall plaster is still being found, but with no time to check each piece we are waiting for our finds cleaners to have the eureka! moment when they clean of the mud and a face or animal stares back.

A lump of mortar with the ghost lines of the tesserae that have fallen off and lie in the hole it came from

A lump of mortar with the ghost lines of the tesserae that have fallen off and lie in the hole it came from

We have had our first metal objects from the bath house trench a couple if T shaped and L shaped nails/brackets, there are also very small fragments of probable knife blades as well.

L shaped iron object 'a very fine example of its type' as we say when not very sure of what it is!

L shaped iron object ‘a very fine example of its type’ as we say when not very sure of what it is!

More metal was found in the Nymphaeum in the form of water pipes, there were three next to each other, two iron ones and a lead one. Sadly all look to be 20th century. But tomorrow the guys in the trench will be digging around and down to find if the original roman culvert is under these pipes.

Harry cleaning the pipes so we can record them

Harry cleaning the pipes so we can record them

Carol has been slogging away often on her own in the trench below the Nymphaeum one, just behind the wall of the bath house. She has been looking for walls and may have a new one to record. Her best find today was part of an iImbrex which is the curved tile that sat on the join between tegula, the large clay tiles of the roof.

Carol happy with her large piece of imbrex

Carol happy with her large piece of imbrex

We had a treat for lunch, Sue the historic en-actor set up her roman kitchen and we were able to sample her roman creations from bread salad to sweet toast and something with the fish sauce they fermented called garum all very tasty 🙂

Sue and her yummy tempations

Sue and her yummy temptations

Tune in tomorrow to see if we finally find the floor in the north bath house ….

 

 

 

 

Day 7 – Plaster paradise

Hurray! the sky is blue and a shiny ball is warming the earth, rain hats stay in the bag as sun lotion is applied.  Now. once again the eyes are on the bath house trench and everyone squeezes in the get a taste of the amazing painted wall  plaster feast.

Rob, Fay and Allan trying to dig down but held up by numerous lumps of plaster and loose tesserae

Rob, Fay and Allan trying to dig down but held up by numerous lumps of painted wall plaster and loose tesserae

 

What's in the tray? Painted plaster they cry

What’s in the tray? Painted plaster they cry

A small sample of painted wall plaster

A small sample of painted wall plaster

New possible scenes and designs are being dug up with each scrape, many different colours including greens that maybe trees and bushes. Then Fay finds a piece with a nail hole, it still has the rusty stain of the nail! Was it for a laying out line for a new painting or for building work of some kind? Or ……..?

The possible rural scene

The possible rural scene

The nail hole!

The nail hole!

close-up of the nail hole

close-up of the nail hole

After filling three large finds bags with single loose tesserae, Rob uncovered a large piece of mosaic in the last half hour of the day.

Robs Mosaic

Rob’s Mosaic

We must not forget Pat who has helped with post excavation work on the finds today, everyone is getting joy from the painted plaster and the warmth of the sun.

Lovely Pat cleaning the plaster

Lovely Pat cleaning the plaster

Its that time of year again…. Chedworth

As we gather our tools and oil our joints, ready for this years season of digging at Chedworth, one of our lovely property staff, Nicki, has baked a cake! It features the dig a few years ago when we found the mosaic next to the north bath house. There are even figures of archaeologists, guess who! 🙂

Nicki's wonderful cake

Nicki’s wonderful cake

We start the excavations at Chedworth this year on Monday 15th August for two weeks, so watch out for daily updates or better still pop in and see us.

Chedworth Thoughts on Room 21

The 1963 interpretation of Room 21 uncovered under the turf on the first day.

The 1963 interpretation of Room 21 uncovered under the turf on the first day.

I meant to do this earlier…to follow on swiftly from the last post on 24 and summarise some thoughts on the 2015 discoveries in Room 21. Things crowd in and now I should really be writing about the discoveries at Dyrham ..but to round things off.. I will spend a little more time further north in Gloucestershire concentrating on the north-west corner of Chedworth Roman Villa.

We began with a gravel and tarmac surface with a dimple in the middle which had been excavated in 2000 to reveal a degraded rough late Roman floor of baked clay fragments.. opus signinum. That excavation stopped at its surface but we dug three trenches through it, where it was worn at the east and west edges.

Room 21 looking south along the east wall from trench B to C.

Room 21 looking south along the east wall from trench B to C.

21 is reached by a reconstructed flight of stone steps. The adjacent rooms to the east ..24, 25, 26, once had floors at this level but they have all collapsed. Why has 21 survived?

2013: Sir Ian Richmond's concrete marks the positions of the earlier hot and tepid baths running under room 21. The levels of the baths' mortar floors were similar to that found in trench A this year.

2013: Sir Ian Richmond’s concrete marks the positions of the earlier hot and tepid baths running under room 21. The levels of the baths’ mortar floors were similar to that found in trench A this year. The collapsed floors of rooms 24-26 run off the edge of the photo top right.

We soon found the answer in Trench B but not before encountering several 4th century coins in a clay and mortar layer just below the red floor. One of them may date to the time of the Emperor Valentinian towards the end of the 4th century. In that case our rough red opus signinum floor could date to the last days of the villa. The other coins are earlier 4th century though..

We found that below the coin layer was a deep filling of building rubble. In the 4th century, the decision was made to sweep away the underfloor heating and make a solid floor. This year’s Chedworth experience reminded me of the conservatory excavation at Tyntesfield in 2013. 1500 years after Chedworth, in 1916, the Victorian conservatory was demolished, the metalwork salvaged for the war effort and the polychrome tile floor and cement backing imploded into the heating duct below. A good solid floor to prevent future collapse into a cavity no longer required.

Like Chedworth but 1500 years later. Tyntesfield's Victorian conservatory's dome collapsed after heavy snow in 1916. The metal and glass was salvaged but the polychrome tile floor was imploded into the heating duct beneath and the whole space was filled with the unwanted building remains including the terracotta lions which once decorated the roof-line.

Like Chedworth but 1500 years later. Tyntesfield’s Victorian conservatory’s dome collapsed after heavy snow in 1916. The metal and glass was salvaged but the polychrome tile floor was broken up  into the heating duct beneath and the whole space was filled with the unwanted building remains including the terracotta lions which once decorated the roof-line.

The reason for the infilling is not known at Chedworth but the contents were exciting and include a range of painted plaster designs..some overlapping, showing redecoration of walls and how fashions and tastes changed during the life of the villa.

A large chunk of mosaic from trench B in room 21 and the hoof prints on the top tile from the clay tile and stone structure.

A large chunk of mosaic from trench B in room 21 and the hoof prints on the top tile from the clay tile and stone structure.

The chunks of mosaic contain other clues to lost decorative schemes. Some mosaic fragments seem to have been painted over and others have thin tesserae over a white plaster backing. We wondered whether there had been areas of mosaic on the walls as well as the floor. It is known.. but it would be a rare thing to find in Britain. It is beyond our specialist knowledge and so the contents of the backfilled hypocaust will be sent to experts who can tell us whether or not we are being fanciful.

As we dug down, the pilae that once supported the floor of the earlier heated room emerged from the rubble. They consisted of stacks of thin square tiles but this pilae pattern was interrupted by a structure with a stone core bonded to the east wall of the room and encased by courses of clay tiles, gradually overlapping outwards so that the feature was broader at the top than the bottom.

Trench A looking west. On the last day we could see four tile pilae emerging from the mosaic and painted plaster rubble filling of the hypocaust. The stone core of the feature in the bottom centre of the photo was keyed into the east wall of 21 and later surrounded with a coursed tile edging.

Trench A looking west. On the last day we could see four tile pilae emerging from the mosaic and painted plaster rubble filling of the hypocaust. The stone core of the feature in the bottom centre of the photo was keyed into the east wall of 21 and later surrounded with a coursed tile edging.

This feature was seen just below the late opus signinum floor and perhaps was a foundation to support a piece of structural furniture that once stood within the room. Perhaps it supported a basin or a decorative feature such as a statue. The stone might be a support buttress to strengthen the building but the added tile surround may have been ornamental, perhaps covered with painted plaster designs. Some of the plaster we found was shaped to fit into and around the angles of a room.

On the last day, in the south-east corner of the room (Trench C), we found the west face of the blocked doorway. This can be seen where the ground surface is lower east of Room 21. Sir Ian Richmond, who opened up the door in the 1960s, mentioned steps through the wall but did not dig deep enough to find them. We ran out of time and will have to take another look next year.

Trench C: on the last day we reached the Room 21 blocked doorway. The left (north ) side has two straight joints and suggests that the door was 1m wide and was narrowed to 0.8m at a later date.

Trench C: on the last day we reached the Room 21 blocked doorway. The left (north ) side has two straight joints and suggests that the door was 1m wide and was narrowed to 0.8m at a later date.

We did reach the bottom in our west trench A. We found a flagstone floor at the same level as the floors of the earlier Roman hot and tepid bath which we excavated in 2013, seen running under the south side of Room 21.

Trench A turned out to be 1.4m deep down to a Cotswold stone floor between two dark clay walls. The one on the left had rounded stones above capped by a level mortar cap. Both 'of these 'walls had been cut away to the west (bottom of photo).

Trench A turned out to be 1.4m deep down to a Cotswold stone floor between two dark clay walls. The one on the left had rounded stones above capped by a level mortar cap. Both of these ‘walls’ had been cut away to the west (bottom of photo).

It is hard to understand what we found though as the floor was found 1.4m deep between two vertical walls of dark clay. They survived over 1m high above the stone floor and had been buried under a late Roman sand and rubble filling. Was it a large clay lined drain? It is hard to relate it to anything we know from the earlier baths and we need to go away and look around for comparisons.

Before next year we will find out whether remote sensing would be useful here to get a better plan of what lies beneath Room 21. Ground probing radar might work.

Room 21 has generally been thought to be a changing room for the late Roman baths but it seems a large space just to function as a changing room for the cold plunges to the north and the sauna to the west. The west range baths equivalent is much smaller.

Our discussions on site made us wonder whether this had been one of the last occupied rooms used by the villa family during Chedworth’s deep decline from luxury in the fifth century. We remembered our uncovering of the West Range corridor in 2012 where the mosaic was patched and worn to the north.. as if that was the most used route, the direction the family headed as the villa gradually fell apart around them. Room 21 was a more secure place to occupy with its backfilled solid floor. The decision to backfill 21, preserved for us the decorative plaster detail we have lost from other parts of the villa.

We will go back to 21 in 2016.

There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow – day 10

A bright glow today among the wet stuff, and happy faces most of the time on the dig.

Our lovely little gazebo just before it blew away with a sudden, out of the blue, gust of wind!

Our lovely little gazebo just before it blew away with a sudden, out of the blue, gust of wind!

We welcomed Kerry today and set her to cleaning the layer off the top of the lovely stony surface in the apsidal room. Kerry you did a great job a real natural digger, hope to see you again, enjoy sixth form.

Kerry doing a splendid job

Kerry doing a splendid job

David was put in the plunge pool trench and was later joined by Kate and Harry as the task of finding the bottom became urgent.

David in the plunge pool trying to reach the bottom

David in the plunge pool trying to reach the bottom

A rose between ....... David, Kate and Harry

A rose between ……. David, Kate and Harry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was more painted plaster and some pottery, so hopefully we will get some good idea of the date it was filled in.

Meanwhile back in trench B and C in front of the bath house wondrous things were appearing. Tony found some black burnished pottery from Poole Harbor in Dorset. He had part of the rim which helps date the  pottery by looking at its form/shape, this piece is from the fourth century.

A very happy Tony with his pot

A very happy Tony with his pot

I was able to do a little bit of digging today and had just settled down to clear back an area in the apsidal room when I heard Alice from the other side of the wall say, ‘Nancy I think you will like what I have just found’……WOW!

Alice with the Wow!

Alice with the Wow!

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A closer look at the amazing painted plaster Alice found, what a great pattern and colours

Here as promised are a few of the pieces of painted plaster that Sue has cleaned. Remember the pink and red bit, as you will see in the blog tomorrow an even more amazing piece of plaster found on site today which is really tomorrow.

a very small selection of plaster from the boxes full we have dug up.

a very small selection of plaster from the boxes full we have dug up.

I now must just turn attention on to mosaics, while excavating trench B, that has the strange tile plinth thing in it, Martin found more tiles that turned into pilae! He also found bit of mosaic with a strange wide grout and a lime wash or coating on them.

The strange mosaic

The strange mosaic

There has been thought that it maybe wall mosaic, as it also seems to be bedded on mortar similar to the plaster. Right at the end of the day Martin pulled out a very large piece that will give us more of an idea as to the original design.

A lovely large piece of mosaic

A lovely large piece of mosaic

Keep watching this space as the last full digging day looms, who will reach the bottom in the plunge pool, will we find another floor in the bath house area, and will there be more wonderful finds……….