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Why Have Centuries-Old Monkey Bones Just Been Found inside Nottingham Castle?

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Once a proud symbol of the British Middle Ages, Nottingham Castle was closed for redevelopment and refurbishment in 2018. In the midst of the excavations, the  BBC reports that archaeologists came across something that was completely out of the blue! During the £30 million (about $42 million) refurbishment, the bones of three monkeys dating back to the Georgian age were discovered. 

Zoologist Marius Illie, from Trent & Peak Archaeology, examining the monkey bones discovered during Nottingham Castle Renovations.  Source: Nottingham Castle Trust

The Nottingham Castle Renovation and Discoveries

A major royal  fortress and occasional royal residence from once upon a time, Nottingham fell into decline and was mostly demolished in 1651 as a result of the  English Civil War . While little remains of the original structure and layout serves as a reminder of the past grandeur of this medieval castle. Closed since the excavations and  renovation began in 2018, the castle is set to reopen to the public on 21 June 2021.

The recent and unexpected discovery was made by Dr. Kris Poole, post-excavation manager at Trent & Peak Archaeology, who also identified the remains. “The monkey bones were mixed in with bones of animals that we would much more commonly expect to find on an archaeological site – cows, sheep, and pigs – and immediately stood out as being unusual,” noted Poole. “Although there are plenty of records of exotic animals being brought into the country in this period, you very rarely find their remains.”

Consultations with experts and analysis of the primate skeletons confirmed that the remains belonged to “a group of monkeys called guenons, which covers approximately 25 different species, mostly from central and western Africa,” explained Poole in  Museums + Heritage Advisor . “These finds are really pleasing and it’s nice to find something that you don’t find every day.”

Excavations in the courtyard during the Nottingham Castle renovation. ( Nottingham Castle Trust )

Unusual Finds During Nottingham Castle Renovations

This was not all that was found, however. The remains of a European crane were added to the list of exotic animal bones. While finding  animals is not uncommon, these discoveries are most generally of domesticated  pets or local animals. The monkeys and the crane came as a very definite surprise. 

Over time the Ducal Palace at  Nottingham was converted into apartments and was home to a series of different characters over its long history. "We basically think at some point people were keeping a menagerie, like a little zoo, in the grounds of the ducal palace when it was turned into apartments,” says Gareth Davies to  BBC, head of archaeology at the York Archaeological Trust, who identified the finds as 18 th century bones. The team is unsure if the bones were originally buried where they were unearthed.

More specifically, these bones were traced to guenon monkeys from central or western Africa. Guenon monkeys are almost exclusively forest  monkeys, and generally are never found outside this habitat. An assessment of their teeth suggested that they died a natural death, and lived till a healthy old age. 

A set of monkey bones discovered during the Nottingham Castle renovations. ( Nottingham Castle Trust )

The Flamboyant Jane Kirkby – The Myth and the Legend

The bones were discovered at the site of a new gallery being constructed alongside the excavation work. The exotic  pets are associated to be those of flamboyant former Nottingham Castle resident,  Jane Kirkby , who was a tenant at the castle from 1791 to until her death in 1825. An unmarried and wealthy heiress, she was treated unkindly by the local Nottingham press who painted a picture of her as peculiar and eccentric. 

Her grand parties at the Ducal Palace and love for pets were both legendary, and this most recent discovery will do nothing to dispel the rumors. “As a great example of a Nottingham rebel, we’re looking forward to representing Miss Kirkby in our visitor experience when the Castle reopens in the summer,” explained Gareth Morgan,  NottinghamCastle’s learning and visitor experience manager in  Museums + Heritage Advisor

Morgan was quick to agree that the find represents “an unusual discovery” for  Nottingham Castle  and corroborated the research work completed by Yvonne Armitage on the life of Jane Kirkby. Armitage’s investigations also revealed Jane Kirkby’s rank and wealth came from her grandfather, who was an illegitimate son of the Earl of Chesterfield. Ms. Armitage also found that there were references within the palace to a “large ape” and a “constant companion,” which the archaeological team believe could have been an allusion to the  monkeys or lap-dogs that she carried around as a symbol of her upper-class status.

Top image: Nottingham Castle. Source:  biiyangkah / Adobe Stock   Inset: A set of monkey bones discovered during the Nottingham Castle renovations. ( Nottingham Castle Trust )

By Sahir Pandey

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