No stone unturned as volunteers try to unearth Conisbrough’s history

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THE problem with archaeology is once one questions gets answered, another gets raised.

And in the case of Conisbrough Castle, with its great cylindrical keep, even fairly recent excavations in the 1960s and 1970s have raised more questions than they have answered.

English Heritage volunteers Linda Dawson and Jo Ferris at Conisbrough Castle. Picture Scott Merrylees

English Heritage volunteers Linda Dawson and Jo Ferris at Conisbrough Castle. Picture Scott Merrylees

Half-way through a series of digs which will be completed next year, archeologists are literally trying to get to the bottom of some basic facts about its earliest origins.

The English Heritage and Lottery funded dig is opening four trenches in the hope of finding more about the period when the Normans came and stamped their imposing mark on what may have been a Saxon Great Hall or farmstead.

Last year evidence of a major ditch nearly 2m deep crossing the promontory was discovered.

This year the trench will be reopened, and the team, with 16 volunteers, aged from their 20s to the 70s, doing most of the hard graft, will attempt to determine its purpose and date. They will also be looking for evidence of an early earthen bank pre-dating the stone curtain wall.

Archaeologist John Buglass said: “We are trying to answer questions which were raised back in the 1960s and 1970s and we are looking at them with another 40/50 years hindsight.

“Why did the Normans come to this part of the countryside and build a 27,000 tonne castle just there?

“Was it on a whim? Did a guy fall off a horse blind drunk and say: ‘We will build a castle.’

“Did the Saxons have some kind of regional tribal centre here or was there another reason - did he fall in love with a peasant farmer’s daughter?

“We are curious to find out why did they build this very large unusual tower here and not in Doncaster where there was a big Roman fort whose remains would have still been visible. “Why didn’t they reoccupy that?

“Why did they choose Conisbrough and not Mexborough? Where I am standing at the edge of the castle I can seen five hilltops which are just as good for building a castle. “Why this one?”

Mr Buglass said the discovery of the trench running through the middle of the inner bailey last year had been a “real puzzlement.”

It may have divided stables and workshops from accommodation and the cookhouse and it was also defensive, giving defenders a fall-back position when they came under attack.

This year they will be digging a full section to try and get some pottery to give a clue as to whether it was dug pre or post Conquest.

Another trench in the corner of the inner bailey is looking at what may have been the earliest phase of building at the castle, when a bank was built with a timber palisade on top.

The team has found “nice pink clay” suggesting it had come from elsewhere. “A huge amount of effort has gone into bringing up the clay and building up the structure,” said Mr Buglass.

“It would reflect: ‘We are here, we have taken over.’ It is status; it is all about being in charge,”

Volunteer Pattie Birch, a retired medical researcher, took part in the dig last year and is back again this year.

She said: “People always ask us when Tony Robinson is coming. But we are not looking for treasure, we are trying to work out the sequence of buildings and what various structures represents. (The interest is) just finding out what happened in the past.”

The dig is continuing until next Thursday from 11am to 5pm. This weekend a new trench will be opened outside the visitors’ centre and there will be family activities.