How Sheffield Castle excavation holds key to area's regeneration hopes

A project to discover more about the past of Sheffield's historic but little-known castle holds the key to the regeneration of a major part of the city centre. Chris Burn reports.

Sheffield Castle should have an important place in British history given it was the unwanted home of Mary, Queen of Scots for 14 years where Queen Elizabeth I’s cousin and rival for the throne was kept imprisoned for what would prove to be a third of her life before she was eventually beheaded. But following its demolition by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian forces almost a century later after the English Civil War, the castle became largely forgotten over time, even amongst people living in Sheffield.

But public interest in the castle has been revitalised by this summer by a major archaeological dig to unearth its remains, which has been visited by hundreds of people. With painstaking excavation work by archaeologists, students and volunteers now coming to an end this week, the findings will be analysed and a report drawn up for Sheffield Council, with the authority intending to put the castle at the heart of much-needed regeneration plans for the area which is now known as Castlegate.

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The site on which the castle once stood has had a wide array of different uses over the years, from a bowling green, slaughterhouse, metal work and as the home of Sheffield’s landmark Castle Market since the 1960s. That building was closed in 2013 and demolished two years later after the markets were moved to another area of town. A recent University of Sheffield report on regeneration plans for Castlegate fairly described how it is a “pivotal, but rather rundown, part of the city”.

Milica Rajic, project manager for Wessex Archaeology, on the dig site.Milica Rajic, project manager for Wessex Archaeology, on the dig site.
Milica Rajic, project manager for Wessex Archaeology, on the dig site.

But Sheffield Council bosses believe Castlegate’s reputation as somewhere that has been on the decline since the heydays of Castle Market in the 20th century is already in the process of being changed – with the remains of the castle now having a central role in further transforming its fortunes.

The council’s capital growth fund has provided £786,000 for a project called ‘Castlegate Kickstart’, which

has the excavation work at its heart. A team from Wessex Archaeology, supported by the South Yorkshire Archaeology Service, the University of Sheffield and the Friends of Sheffield Castle, have been working on the site since August, excavating 11 trenches around the site by hand to a depth of 4m.

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Now in their final week, several months of off-site analysis of the finds will now follow with a first report being delivered to the council later this year. This will help inform the future development of the site, with a more detailed analysis of the findings from the site expected next year along with extra details on the wider regeneration plans.

Work is carried out on one of the Trenches at Sheffield Castle Archaeological excavation.Work is carried out on one of the Trenches at Sheffield Castle Archaeological excavation.
Work is carried out on one of the Trenches at Sheffield Castle Archaeological excavation.

Archeologists at the site have now revealed that among the pottery, animal bones and a ‘medieval ear scoop’ that have been unearthed, a potentially even more significant find has been made – the likely existence of raised earthwork called a ‘motte’ which would be the first physical evidence dating the castle back to Norman times, showing there was a wooden structure in place before the stone buildings of later years.

Dinah Saich, from South Yorkshire Archaeology Service, says further scientific tests are needed to confirm the findings. “If it is a precursor to the stone castle, we now understand we would have to say castles rather than castle when referring to this site.”

Milica Rajic, project manager for Wessex, adds: “If it turns out to be what we hope, this is the best discovery on the site.”

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Another unexpected discovery, adds Milica, has been the huge public interest in the project – with more than 17,000 people getting in touch with the team over the course of the dig. “That has been the biggest finding of all. We have had 175 people digging with us, 175 people helping in post-excavation helping us to process the finds and 480 people visit during the open days. There have been over 17,700 emails and questions about the site that we have answered. It has been unprecedented and incredible.”

A Glass object found during the dig at Sheffield Castle.A Glass object found during the dig at Sheffield Castle.
A Glass object found during the dig at Sheffield Castle.

As the trenches are backfilled this week, the next big question is what happens next – a decision in the hands of the council. The Friends of Sheffield Council group hope for further excavation work and the potential formation of some form of museum.

Martin Gorman, chairman of the Friends group, says: “The site tells the history of Sheffield from the very start, it is a fantastic opportunity to tell that story. From our point of view, we would like to excavate the whole site. But we have to recognise income has to be generated in the longer-term.”

He says hundreds of people attended a talk on what has been discovered earlier this month. “It was the culmination of the last five to six years of working with the council and the universities. The overwhelming feeling was we have to got to do something with the remains of the castle, something to tell the story of Sheffield from the very earliest days to the modern era. There are more than enough remains to do it.”

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Simon Ogden, council programme director for Castlegate, says options are still being examined. “As we have always said, the ambition is to bring the site back into use. How we do that is still something we are working through. It is a very big site and there are opportunities to do more than one thing here. It doesn’t have to be all castle or all development.”

He says while the last two months have demonstrated “how much goodwill and public interest exists” towards Sheffield Castle, many people have little idea about its existence. “We did a survey a few years ago and the vast majority of people, even those who lived in Sheffield, didn’t know the castle existed. Some people were quite surprised Sheffield itself even existed in the Middle Ages because it is more associated with industry.”

Ogden says the castle will have a central part in future regeneration work, which aims to capitalise on the area’s history while also supporting the “new economy” through more modern creative and technological industries.

He points to similar successful regeneration projects in places like Manchester’s Northern Quarter and Birmingham’s canalside as potential inspirations, while pointing out changes are already under way. Eighty artists and small businesses have set up in the nearby Exchange Place Studios, while the Castle House building, which once housed Co-op, is to become the new home of the British Games Institute.

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Work is also soon to begin on a ‘Grey to Green’ scheme that will bring trees, plants and flowers to streets around Castlegate as well as pedestrianised zones and improved cycle paths.

Ogden says this mixture of new and old is perfectly demonstrated by a new augmented reality experience developed by the University of Sheffield computer scientists using videogame technology to allow people to see a full virtual model of Sheffield Castle. “That is a great example of how history and heritage and the new economy can actually link up.”

Students help with dig

Archeology students from the University of Sheffield have been helping with the dig.

John Moreland, professor of Medieval Archaeology at the university, says: “It has been a real pleasure to work with Wessex Archaeology on this project which has done so much to broaden and deepen our understanding of the castle site, and to make us appreciate that its heritage is about so much more than the castle – though clearly that is important too! Since most of our students were born and bred in Sheffield, it really mattered to them personally as well.

“We look forward to continuing our collaboration as we seek to use the insights generated by the excavation to inform the future regeneration of the area.”