The dig at New Place draws to a close
by Laurence McCoy
Of course it would have been amazing to have unearthed a long-lost manuscript of a Shakespeare play – “Hamlet II Horatio’s Revenge”, perhaps, or “Lear, the Wilderness Years”. But that’s not what the archaeological dig at Shakespeare’s house at Stratford-upon-Avon has been about.
The project draws to a close on November 4, after three years of painstaking work at the site of the poet’s final home, New Place. It has been an exciting time, not just for the experts, but for the legion of volunteers who have spent patient hours sifting meticulously through trays of soil for any tiny signs that might be significant. That excitement has not come from surprise discoveries or Tutankhamun moments but from carefully piecing together the details, slowly bringing to life an image of how the world’s greatest playwright might have spent his final years.
“There was an immediate buzz from working on the site of Shakespeare’s house,” says volunteer Tom Reid, who regularly trekked down from Lichfield to take part.
“I can’t claim that I found anything important but that’s not the point of the dig. We were helping to build a picture of life in Shakespeare’s time so every shard of pottery or glass, every splinter of bone, even every dressmaking pin, was a piece in the jigsaw.” The fruits of Tom’s, and the rest of the team’s labours have been put on show by organisers the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and Birmingham Archaeology. And there is still time to see the dig in action and even help sieve some of the spoils before the project is wrapped up.
It’s a fascinating history. New Place was Shakespeare’s Stratford home for the last 18 years of his life, until he died in 1616. Former Lord Mayor of London Hugh Clopton had built this ‘Great House’ on the site in the late 1400s. Shakespeare bought it in 1597 and remodelled it. As the second biggest house in Stratford it was a fitting residence for the established and wealthy playwright William had become.
New Place was demolished in 1759 and now the site is accessed via Nash’s House, named after Thomas Nash, the first husband of Shakespeare’s grandaughter. Today, it is a well-preserved Tudor building, with an imposing frontage onto Chapel Street, and the ground floor is furnished as it would have been in Nash’s day.
Behind Nash’s house lie formal gardens and the buried remains of New Place. The Elizabethan-style Knot Garden was created in 1919, based on gardening books of Shakespeare’s day. In the Great Garden there is an old mulberry tree said to have been planted by Shakespeare himself.
The latest excavations are not the first to have taken place in the search for clues about Shakespeare’s life. In 1861, the site was bought by enthusiast J.O Halliwell-Phillipps, whose explorations identified the foundations of the original house. In 1891 he gave the site to The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which also looks after Nash’s House and the other main Shakespeare heritage sites, Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Hall’s Croft, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and Mary Arden’s Farm.
Will Mitchell, Archaeology Supervisor for the Trust and lead archaeologist on the Dig for Shakespeare project, has been documenting its progress.
“During the first season, back in 2010, we were able to re-expose the foundations identified by Halliwell-Phillipps,” he says.
“We confirmed that Halliwell-Phillipps stopped when he reached the house foundations and did not recognise, or excavate, the more subtle archaeology.
“Features and artefacts dating from 1500-1700, which could conceivably have belonged to Shakespeare and/or his descendants, have been identified.
“The majority of these were identified in the Knot Garden. They included pottery, a rowel spur, a belt mount, cribbage peg and pins. All of these are personal items which suggest the types of clothing being worn, and pastimes being undertaken.”
Trenches dug across the site exposed the remains of the cellar and house foundations, primarily from the 18th century but some surviving from Shakespeare’s house, made up of local Wilmcote limestone. Building materials also confirmed the early house had a high status clay tile roof, sourced from workshops in the Malverns, substantial amounts of Tudor brick and stone floor tiles.
“The range of pottery was both varied and at times high status,” says Will Mitchell. “There were imports from places such as Oxfordshire, Worcestershire and as far away as Germany. The earliest clay pipes found were from the 1650s-1680s period. Buttons, beads, and pins etc, all provided clues to the type of clothing being worn. There was also evidence of various crafts being undertaken such as bone working – offcuts, buttons – and textile working – thimble, pins.”
In 2011 the dig attracted the attention of the BBC’s National Treasures Live and Channel 4’s Time Team. By then it was revealing more about the layout of Shakespeare’s New Place and tantalising links to the man himself.
Several stone foundations confirmed a courtyard and large rubbish pits dug in the late 16th century.
“These pits contained extensive evidence of the personal possessions, status, diet, trade, cottage industries and leisure activities of the occupants of this period,” says Will Mitchell.
“A carved bone knife handle and several lead trade tokens, such as have been found at the site of Elizabethan theatres in London, in particular, provided an immediate link to the occupants of this period.
“Two brick foundations, consistent with the type used in Shakespeare’s day, provided evidence of his renovations. A brick wall, and a small section of brick flooring, possibly the location of an indoor fireplace, was identified in the location believed to be the house at the rear of the plot, Shakespeare’s inner dwelling, never before excavated.
In addition to the Shakespeare finds there was also extensive evidence of archaeology spanning at least 2,000 years. The earliest features identified were storage pits and an occupation layer, dated to the Later Iron Age (400 BC to AD 43).
“These are very well-preserved and prove occupation of Stratford-upon-Avon in this period,” says Will Mitchell. “There are no other recorded examples in Stratford, making these unique. Two residual Roman pottery sherds were also recovered.”
A search that started with Shakespeare ended up going way beyond that. The “real” Shakespeare may still be shrouded in mystery but every stone unturned adds to the fascination of a story that has no ending.
“We all shared common ground on the dig,” says Tom Reid. “An interest in all things Shakesperean and instinctive curiosity about what might turn up. We were creating a timeline from the Stone Age to the Victorian period of one little corner of England.”