July 2017 saw the Centre for Applied Archaeology at the University of Salford return for a second season of excavations at Halton Castle, courtesy of funding by Norton Priory Museum Trust. The aim of this season was to find out more about the context of the two skeletons found in 2015, and to recover further evidence for the large post-building found in the first season. This has meant re-opening the northern trench from 2015 and extending it to the south and west, in the process overlapping with one of the 1985 trenches excavated by the late Robina McNeil.
These two skeletons were discovered within 2m of each other in the outer bailey, but were buried c. 100 to 200 years apart on a roughly east-west alignment. The earlier, male, body was radio-carbon dated to the period 1425-1470. The later, female, body was radio-carbon dated to the period 1520-1665. There’s a useful article in the February 2017 issue of Current Archaeology that summaries what we know about these burials (CA Issue No. 323, pp 50-53), and the earlier skeleton is now on display at Norton Priory Museum: http://nortonpriory.org/
It’s worth emphasising that burials within castles are very rare. There are high status burials at royal castles such as Stirling and Windsor, but these are exceptional. Where such burials do occur, they are usually associated with the later history of the site and its re-use as a prison as at Lincoln and Norwich. Yet the Halton Castle burials fall into neither of these two categories, and at least the earlier of the two burials cannot be associated with the Civil War siege of the castle in 1643.
So have we solved the mystery of these two burials in the 2017 season? In short no, or at least not yet. What we have discovered adds to the puzzle of the nature of the activity taking place in the outer bailey. It’s now clear the medieval levels in the northern part of the outer bailey have been disturbed right across our single trench, but also that we have some pockets of late medieval deposits and probably 16th and 17th century layers.
Thus, we have been finding lots of redeposited medieval pottery, and even a coin: a groat, probably from the reigns of either King John or Henry III. The late medieval pottery includes Tudor Green ware, and an unknown fabric (local?) in green-glazed ware. More significantly we also have pottery wasters. The latter may prove as significant a find as the skeletons in 2015, for pottery making in castles is very rare. So far we don’t have an actual kiln just the distorted pots and bits of kiln fabric hinting as the presence of a kiln. And whilst such a kiln might have been built beyond the castle gate, it seems unlikely that such rubbish would have been brought within the outer bailey.
We have also uncovered more circular post pits to go with those from 2015, and a row of three rectangular rock-cut pits, two of which have produced stratified late-medieval pottery. Quite what these features mean is at the moment unclear. The rectangular pits are clearly not structural but what they were used for remains a mystery. And whilst it’s tempting to suggest that the post-pits might be part of an aisled structure, we’ll have to do a lot more post-excavation analysis to be certain of that. So, Halton Castle remains reluctant to give up its secrets, though it’s clear that the activity in the outer bailey is somewhat unusual and that’s a good argument for coming back for a third season.