Unearthing Shakespeare – Part 5

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Following the airing of Channel 4’s popular television programme, Time Team on Sunday evening, here is another episode from on the ground.

Interest in the site and home of New Place continued unabated and in 1861, its gardens and barns was acquired by J.O Halliwell-Phillipps, an enthusiastic student of William Shakespeare’s history. He gave the site to The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 1891. Excavations on the site of New Place were undertaken during the years 1862 and 1863 by Halliwell-Phillipps. The main purpose of Halliwell-Phillipps’s excavations was to expose the layout of New Place and recover any significant finds relating to the period of Shakespeare’s occupancy. These antiquarian excavations and subsequent publication (published in 1864) succeeded in identifying some elements of both the 15th and 18th century phases of New However:

“With the exception of a considerable number of bricks, pieces of brickwork, small portions of the foundations, and the ancient quoining of the well, hardly any relics of the old structure have yet been discovered. Three ancient mullions have been found, and there is a bit of leaden piping apparently of considerable antiquity, and also a plate to a lock”.

It seems clear that structural remains of the original New Place were present but perhaps not as important to Halliwell-Phillipps as the relics and personal objects of the previous occupants. It is also clear from Halliwell Phillipps’s site drawings that much of his work concentrated on the structures at the street frontage and much of the site remained unexcavated.

Halliwell-Phillipps wrote a report making reference to the sources available to him in his day and he combined these with his excavation results to produce a comprehensive interpretation of the history of New Place. More emphasis was placed upon the historical sources than the archaeological results and it is often unclear as to the extent and nature of these excavations. After completion of the excavations, brick walls were constructed around the surviving foundations, this was followed by a comprehensive backfilling of the site.

One of the fascinating challenges of ‘Dig for Shakespeare’ has been retracing Haliwell-Phillipps’s work and realising how our knowledge and modern approach to archaeology takes us beyond where he left off…

You can find more images and information about the project here.

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Will Mitchell is Archaeology Supervisor for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and lead archaeologist on 'Dig for Shakespeare.'

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