‘Remarkable’ findings of dig to uncover ruins of lost Sheffield Castle – ‘We have around 1,000 years of constant activity’

An archaeological dig at the site of Sheffield's lost castle ended almost a year ago, but it does not mean everything has stopped on this exercise in tracing the city's history – instead specialists have been toiling behind the scenes on an undertaking that has made 'remarkable' discoveries.

Thursday, 26th September 2019, 07:00 am
Updated Saturday, 28th September 2019, 08:23 am
Milica Rajic at the Sheffield Castle dig. Picture: Marie Caley

A two-month excavation programme took place last summer on the vast space cleared when Sheffield city centre's indoor market moved to The Moor in 2015.

Many finds, including medieval pottery, tiles and even an ancient 'ear scoop', were recovered from 11 deep trenches, while boreholes were created to take samples from the earth.

After work finished on the ground, material was sent to experts in ceramics and metal, while soil specimens were dispatched to identify 'things that can't be seen with the naked eye', says project manager Milica Rajic of Wessex Archaeology.

Work is carried out on one of the trenches at the Sheffield Castle dig. Picture: Marie Caley

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"What we have got at the assessment stage is remarkable," says Milica. "We're waiting for the final statements to come back. We've got some of them, and they're fascinating. I'm in love with the site - I'm an archaeologist after all - but I genuinely think they're great."

The dig was paid for through a £786,000 package of 'kickstart funding' from Sheffield Council, which wants to revive the wider Castlegate area by making it more attractive, modern and vibrant, incorporating what is left of the city's medieval past, much of which was lost to industry in the 19th and 20th centuries. Wessex, one of the UK's leading practices, was hired to carry out the investigation.

"We had a set of questions from day one that we tried to answer," says Milica, emphasising that it was not the first time the site had been excavated. In particular, trenches were dug in the 1920s before Castle Market was developed. "We knew we had a large ditch surrounding the inner bailey of the castle. We had the moat, and the inner part of the castle. What we were trying to find out is what was left and how we could add to the picture. What I think we have - and this is what we didn't have before - is the motte and bailey phase of the site."

These were fortifications that stood on top of a raised earthwork, representing the first proper castles to be built in Britain.

"I'm pretty sure we have found evidence of that," says Milica, who explains that a side of one trench was 'blank' and devoid of finds. "But in that blankness and those clays were minuscule particles of charcoal, and it didn't look like something that occurs geologically or naturally."

The castle, where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned for more than a decade, fell during the Civil War when it came under siege from 1,200 Parliamentary troops. This stronghold was preceded by a late 12th century castle, which would have followed the 'motte and bailey' era.

"We can show this natural outcrop on which Sheffield Castle sits has been repeatedly modified and its use changed," says Milica. "I'm not going to say we have an Anglo Saxon phase, but we have scientific dating from a couple of post holes that look like they're marking an entrance in the north west part of the site. They came back as 11th to 13th century."

Tree rings were dated to before the 12th century too.

"There is definitely evidence of earlier activity. This is something that was speculated about in the 20th century," says Milica. "It means we know it's not only one big stone building. We know the site is there and was in use much before this 13th century castle, and much before Mary Queen of Scots. We know the 12th century castle is definitely made of wood, probably re-used from something that stood there before."

This all points in a specific direction, she says. "We can confirm that we have around 1,000 years of constant activity in this particular part of Sheffield."

After the castle was demolished, part of the site became a pleasant bowling green in the 18th century, and an area was used for public speaking and demonstrations.

"Following that we see the expansion of other things - slaughterhouses being built, cutlery, the steel industry, tea merchants on the site and, I suppose, what Sheffield is world-famous for," says Milica.

"It's most certainly a story about ordinary people."

Castlegate's renaissance is gaining momentum. The old Co-op department store is a 'digital tech hub' with a fashionable food hall called Kommune, the Old Town Hall is the focus of a planning application that envisages turning the dilapidated property into hotel rooms, apartments, cafés, bars, shops and workspaces, and there is an ambition to uncover the River Sheaf as part of a new park.

Wessex Archaeology's final report is expected in spring 2020.

"It will look at the scientific evidence, try to be as cool-headed as possible, then make a final call and say 'We think this is what we have and why'," says Milica, whose firm has worked alongside the South Yorkshire Archaeology Service, both Sheffield universities and the Friends of Sheffield Castle.

Her team's efforts, she says, have shown 'dedication - and an awful lot of hard work at some considerable speed'.