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Castle Hill Community Dig Blog 1: A bit of background

Hi everyone, welcome to the first blog for the Castle Hill Community Excavation. Over the next couple of weeks we will be posting updates here and on Facebook (www.facebook.com/ulasnews) to keep you up to date with what we are finding. First, a little bit about what we will be doing.

What is happening?

Leicester City Council and University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) are teaming up to run a two-week community dig at Castle Hill in Beaumont Leys. It will be the first archaeological excavation of its kind to take place at this important but enigmatic scheduled ancient monument.

The dig is part of the Story of Parks project, a two-year Heritage Lottery-funded scheme to help collect and celebrate the history of Leicester’s parks through the stories and memories of local people that use them.

storyofparks

What is Castle Hill?

The large rectangular earthwork at Castle Hill has long been the subject of speculation. In the 19th century, antiquaries suggested that it might have a prehistoric or Roman origin and it is described as a ‘supposed encampment’ on early maps. Today it is believed to be a medieval estate centre, most likely the site of a commandry (estate) of the Knights Hospitallers, dating from around 1240 to 1482.

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Knights of the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem

Beaumont lies on the edge of Leicester Forest and in the late 11th and 12th centuries it was held by the earls of Leicester before Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester (c.1208-1265) granted it to the Knights Hospitallers in the mid-13th century.

In the 14th century, the Hospitallers are described as having a house and orchards at Beaumont, as well as both arable and pasture land. These appear to have been kept by a bailiff and a wood keeper who were administered from the Hospitallers’ preceptorary at Old Dalby. In the 15th century a fishpond is also mentioned. The Hospitallers held the site until 1482 when it was exchanged with King Edward IV for the rectory of Boston in Lincolnshire. Records note a pale (fence) surrounding the site, and it was later described as a park but by the mid-16th century it had been turned over to pasture.

The earthwork comprises a sub-rectangular ditched and banked enclosure which may contained the remains of buildings. In all, it measures some c.165m by c.135m, and the bank still stands up to c.1.5m high in places. Outside the enclosure to the north is a fishpond and dam, measuring c.155m by c.75m.

In the 19th and early 20th century the site was used as a sewage treatment site which has potentially caused extensive disturbance to the underlying monument.

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Aerial photograph looking south-west at Castle Hill during its role as a sewage farm.

Today, the site is part of the Castle Hill Country Park maintained by Leicester City Council.

What will we be doing?

Broadly, our aim is to increase our knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the setting, origins and development of Castle Hill and its environs; engage with the local community and widen participation and stimulate interest in the local heritage of the area.

During the two-week dig, volunteers from the local community will be given a fantastic opportunity to develop a wide range of practical and analytical archaeological skills through on-site training and supervision by our archaeologists from ULAS.

Over the fortnight, we plan to open several trenches inside the enclosure in the hope that we can finally discover the date and function of the monument. Is it medieval? Or was 19th century speculation correct and it has a much older origin? Hopefully we will find out!

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The earthworks at Castle Hill, Beaumont Leys (after Hartley 1989) showing the planned areas of investigation.

One of our trench’s will investigate the enclosure’s ditch and bank, looking for evidence of how and when it was first made. We will also be interested in the ditch sediment which might contain important clues to what was going on at the site and what the surround landscape was like in the past. Our other two trenches will look for evidence of activity inside the enclosure. Perhaps we will find the remains of buildings and yard surfaces, or fields, or perhaps we won’t find anything but 19th century sewage works (fingers crossed we don’t find the latter!). One trench will investigate an area of low platforms and mounds near the centre of the site, the other a series of earthworks in the northern half of the enclosure.

Come back for Blog 2 to find out about our first discoveries…

Mathew Morris (ULAS archaeologist)

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