Shakespeare’s Inner Sanctum

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Photo by Amy Murrell

Yesterday I attended the Current Archaeology Live! Conference at The British Museum. Kevin Colls and Will Mitchell of Birmingham Archaeology who are leading our Dig for Shakespeare were doing a presentation about the project. I was on hand in my capacity as Chair of the Academic Advisory Panel for Dig for Shakespeare, and in case there were any Shakespeare related questions.


They spoke of the highly unusual sense of archaeological luxury in being able to focus on one person of global significance, and how the project requires that they keep separate the Shakespearian myths from the man himself.

The presentation was part of a session focussing on the ‘Archaeology of the House’ and it was interesting to notice similar issues – such as the reliability of eye-witness accounts – arising in different contexts from the other two papers (the 1930’s and the late twelfth century!). Collectively we drew a large crowd of around at least a hundred people.

Our knowledge of New Place is small. There is one sketch of it by George Vertue, done in 1737 from memory, years after he’d known it, and after the house had been considerably changed. From this, we assume that New Place had five gables (probably true; the front of the house would have been the same size as five gables-worth of the Shakespeare Hotel, and ran to the length of one burgage plot). Vertue places a central door at the front of the house, presumably this was in a similar position to that on the 1701 reconstruction of New Place (of which there are several independent engravings). Substantial renovation of fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth-century houses was becoming standard practice into the eighteenth century.

Infamously, the whole site was laid waste in 1759, apparently under the direction of Rev. Francis Gastrell. By ironic co-incidence someone’s mobile phone went off immediately this was mentioned: Woody Woodpecker chuckled as New Place was demolished.

In 2010, Birmingham Archaeology excavated most of the front of the site and a back plot. They turned up a mixture of domestic artefacts including bird, deer and cattle bones; purple Midlands’ pottery and Tudor green glaze ware from the late fifteenth to mid-sixteenth centuries; cornices, bricks, and slates; glassware; oyster shells; buttons; home-made seventeenth-century Cribbage pegs; coins; an eighteenth-century fob-seal; a dice, and much more besides. A final report is being finalised as I post this blog.

More importantly, Birmingham Archaeology has challenged the accuracy of James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps’s findings and reports on the excavation he did on part of the site in 1862. Digging where someone else has dug is its own automatic critique on in this case Victorian archaeological practice. The actual layout of New Place now seems quite different from what we thought. Whilst we knew about its courtyard, very little is yet known about the house set back within it, New Place’s ‘inner sanctum’, the house where we believe Shakespeare and his family lived, and where he almost certainly wrote. This is where we want to be able to excavate next.

There is more to discover. Birmingham Archaeology have successfully completed phase one of this truly exciting project which involved 250 volunteers and attracted interest world-wide. Phase two starts on Monday 11 April. Certainly it is my hope that knowing as much as we can about New Place will shed light on how Shakespeare and his family lived there and they kind of people they were.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Barry Harkison

    It is important to publish the findings and any conclusions as soon as possible – finance permitting. A booklet produced fairly quickly will keep the projecr alive in people’s minds.

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