Unearthing Shakespeare – Part 6

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Towards the back of the New Place plot is a replica Tudor Knot Garden, this is located in the area thought to have been within the back plot (gardens) away from the main New Place structures.

The Knot Garden was constructed by Earnst Law in 1919-20. During this time the original ground levels were reduced by approximately 1m to create the desired level required for this sunken garden. The surrounding walls were constructed (using replica Tudor bricks) and clean topsoil was imported, then the garden was planted. Prior to the excavations of 2010 it was unclear to what extent the archaeology had been affected by the construction of the Knot garden.

One square of the knot garden was excavated, this has now been replanted. A large range of features were identified within this small trench, all of which had a different layout, purpose and date. There were post-holes, rubbish pits, quarry pits, cess- pits, a possible oven, a lime- burning pit and a brick- built storage pit in this area, all dating from the 14th to 19th centuries, the area had been used both for industrial purposes and as a garden area.

The earliest features discovered in this area were a series of post-holes. These were buried beneath layers dating from the 1400-1500 and were therefore cut before this date. One of the post-holes was securely dated to 1300-1400. These post-holes suggest buildings were located in this area at an early period; however they could not be firmly associated with one another.

A series of pits were dated to 1400-1500, these pits did not contain many artefacts but were filled with occasional greenish deposits. These deposits may have once been organic waste typical of those found in cess pits.

Features and artefacts dating from 1500-1700, which could conceivably have belonged to Shakespeare’s descendants, were identified within this trench. An oval pit, the possible oven/ kiln, brick storage pit and possible quarry pit all dated to this extended period.

There was however a general lack of evidence from the period of Shakespeare’s occupancy this is important and it can point to a different usage of this area at this time. The activities that might have taken place may not have left any trace in the archaeological record. This area may have been turned over to cultivation and garden features (planted vegetation) would be especially difficult to identify once removed, especially if there were later developments, as is the case here.

During the excavations by Ernst Law in 1919-20 a previously unknown structure was identified. The ‘walls of a chamber or receptacle ten feet long by six feet broad were discovered at about 2½ feet below the present level of the ground’. The lower part of the brickwork was characteristic of ‘Tudor times; that is, bricks of the size, shape, and quality of those days, laid in the old English bond’. Law suggested that this was ‘probably originally connected with the work of the garden- perhaps a garden midden’. This brick feature was identified in 2011, unfortunately, the contents having been previously removed left its purpose unclear, but the type of bricks used was consistent with a 17th century date. This feature was perhaps a brick storage pit (possibly for grain), or an external latrine.

The existence of all these features proved that the back plots were being used for more than just gardens over an extended period of time. This trench gave us a clearer idea of what could be buried beneath the other squares of the Knot Garden. The area had been used for the cutting of industrial and domestic features continuously since the 1300’s.

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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  • Richroach

    This is absolutely fascinating.  I really like how no unwarranted postulations are being made.  Thanks for this information.  I hope to be able to join in during the summer.

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