Caernarfon Castle Dig Reveals More Ancient Secrets
In January 2019, a team of archaeologists from the University of Salford launched a large-scale excavation at Caernarfon Castle, one of Wales’s most famous historical sites. This grand and breathtaking fortress-palace was constructed by King Edward I in 1283, on the western end of the Menai Strait in northern Wales, and stands today as one of the greatest architectural achievements of the Middle Ages.
Working closely with Cadw, the historical preservation association of Wales, the archaeologists were searching for evidence that would reveal more about how the castle site was used in the centuries before Edward took possession. While their final report isn’t due until March, the BBC has reported on a preliminary report on their findings that indicates just how successful this ambitious research project has been.
“Working closely with CADW’s archaeology and conservation teams, we’ve discovered tantalizing evidence of Roman settlers dating back as far as the first century, suggesting that the site of Caernarfon Castle was of huge strategic significance long before a castle was built in 1283,” declared Ian Miller, the director of the University of Salford’s Archaeology Department.
This evidence includes multiple shards of first century AD Roman pottery, along with tiles and animal bones that were apparently deposited at that time.
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Multiple pieces of evidence from first century pottery, plus bones and tiles have been excavated. (Cadw)
It has long been suspected, but never proven, that the Romans had constructed a fort at the Caernarfon Castle site sometime after they completed their conquest of Wales in 78 AD. Finding pottery and other artifacts that can be traced back to that approximate time adds strong confirmatory evidence to this hypothesis.
In addition to these discoveries, the archaeological team also unearthed some foundation stones in the castle’s lightly-explored Lower Ward that may provide evidence for an intriguing hypothesis. Rather than dating to the 13 th or 14 thcenturies, these foundation stones may have been part of a motte-and-bailey fortification installed by the Normans, which would have likely been constructed at the site in the early 12 th century, when the Norman presence under King Henry I reached its deepest advance into Welsh territory.
Motte-and-bailey-style castles were introduced in England and Wales by the Normans shortly after their arrival in 1066. They featured a stone built on top of an elevated mound of earth (a motte), surrounded by a walled courtyard (a bailey) which in turn was enclosed by a deep ditch and a wall or palisade made from iron or wooden spikes.
Arial shot of last year’s excavations at Caernarfon Castle. (Cadw)
If the Normans did indeed install such a fortification at Caernarfon, it would provide further confirmation that Edward chose a site for his castle that had a long history of being used for defensive purposes.
“Excavation is essentially a data-gathering exercise, and our next task will be to analyze all the records we’ve created and closely examine all the artifacts discovered,” Ian Miller explained. “We’re confident that once this analytical work has been completed, we will gain a far greater understanding of the historical development of the site. We may not rewrite the history of Caernarfon Castle, but we will certainly enhance it.”
Caernarfon Castle and the English Occupation of Wales
Caernarfon Castle occupies a strategic site on the coast of Wales. It is perfectly situated to guard against invasions by either land or sea. It is also located directly across the Menai Strait from Anglesey Island, which during Edward’s time and before was a major agricultural center.
In the 13 th century, the Welsh were a proud people who prized their independence. Their fierce and unrelenting resistance to Edward I’s occupying forces motivated the king’s decision to build a string of heavily fortified castles along the northern Wales coastline, from which Welsh attacks could be decisively repelled.
The fortress Edward built at Caernarfon was by far the grandest and most splendid of these castles. He established a town and marketplace at the same spot, fully intending it to be the capital and administrative center of his kingdom in Wales.
Caernarfon Castle was strategically important for any conquest of northern Wales. The person who controlled the Menai Strait was also in control of the region’s food supply. ( Kadpot / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Construction of Edward I’s sprawling complex of majestic stone towers and buildings was not fully completed until 1330, 23 years after the king’s death. For 200 years it functioned as a largely impenetrable fortress that helped England maintain military and political control over a reticent and perpetually rebellious colony, under a succession of kings who like Edward also refused to grant Wales its independence.
The situation changed in 1485, when the first Tudor king (Henry VII) ascended to the throne in England. The Tudors were Welsh, and under their leadership the relationship between England and Wales changed from contentious to peaceful and harmonious.
With its usefulness for defensive purposes rendered obsolete, Caernarfon Castle was soon abandoned and fell into disrepair. Fortunately, it was a sound and sturdy edifice, and largely resistant to the predations of time. When the English government approved funds to support its repair in 1870, the castle was quickly rebuilt and restored to its former splendor, and ongoing preservation efforts have kept it in good condition since that time.
Behold the Wonders of Caernarfon Castle
Caernarfon Castle is one of the most well-known castles in Europe and is now a wildly popular tourist attraction. Unfortunately, it is currently closed as a result of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic—which thankfully didn’t stop the progress of the ambitious Salford University/Cadw survey.
“It is very rare indeed to see an excavation on this scale within a [UNESCO] World Heritage Site, and the results will undoubtedly shed further light on the use and development of the Castle site,” said Ian Halfpenney, the inspector of ancient monuments at Cadw.
“The scale of the work at Caernarfon Castle has provided an unprecedented opportunity to undertake a major excavation within the Lower Ward, and to create a comprehensive digital record via 3D laser scanning of the whole area,” he continued. “We hope this revelation brings even more visitors to the site as soon as it can re-open safely, and highlights that Welsh history is never standing still.”
Archaeologists and preservationists are working hand-in-hand at Caernarfon Castle, and when visitors return there will be much that is new and exciting to explore.
Top image: Caernarfon Castle excavations have released some interesting archaeological evidence. Source: samott / Adobe Stock
By Nathan Falde