Desmond Castle Complex,Newcastle West
Medieval and post-medieval
127900 133680
01E0079 ext.; CO002
Three areas of archaeological works were undertaken under ministerial consent in May 2007, in the medieval Desmond Castle complex at Newcastle West, Co. Limerick. The excavations were undertaken on behalf of the National Monuments section of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, in collaboration with the Office of Public Works (OPW). Conservation works relating to the standing remains of the Great Hall have been taking place over the last several years as part of a wider long-term programme of conservation works associated with the medieval complex of buildings at Newcastle West in state ownership.
Area 1 consisted of an extension to previous excavations in 2006 (Excavations 2006, No. 1298) within the Great Hall, while Area 2 comprised targeted test excavations extending along the interior of the south-eastern corner of the curtain wall. The third area of investigation, Area 3, related to monitoring of OPW groundworks in proximity to Desmond Hall.
Area 1
Apart from two alteration features (discussed below) relating to the wall C.9, no additional features, industrial or otherwise, were revealed in the north-west corner of the hall. The cobbled surface C.8 found in the 2006 excavations extended to the north-west corner.
The removal of the overburden around the wall C.9 revealed that it did not extend to the north exterior wall of the hall, although it may originally have done so. This area of the Great Hall had been severely disturbed and impacted on in the past by post-medieval activity and also by the construction of a house by the estate landowners, the Courtenays. The remains of a fireplace relating to the Courtenay occupation is evidenced by a red-brick pier that can be seen in the west-facing baulk of the remaining overburden. A possible working platform, C.30, was found incorporated into the reduced north extent of the wall C.9. It comprises a deliberate flattened levelled area of masonry measuring 1.5m (east–west) by 1.4m by 0.15m in height. The platform extends to the east beneath the remaining overburden. At the southern extent of the platform another burning feature, C.31, was revealed. This comprised a semicircular setting of small squared limestones, creating a hearth-like space. This was incorporated into the wall C.9 also, but at a slightly higher level of the reduction than the platform. The arc of C.31 is disposed southwards where a setting of cobbles, C.32, abuts it. This cobbled area was teardrop-shaped in plan and extended southwards to the previously revealed flagstone C.18 exposed in 2006. The cobbled surface comprised small sub-rounded limestones and sandstones averaging 0.12m in diameter. The western limit of the cobbles is finished in a straight edge that is flush with the west face of the working platform (C.30), both of which abut the overall cobbled surface C.8. The arc of the burning feature C.31 where it is incorporated into the working platform showed evidence of prolonged exposure to intense heat. An unusual burning pattern was also found on the cobbles C.32. The burning, evidenced by a whitening of the cobbles, was in a perfect oval shape in plan, suggesting that something was burned there in a discrete localised way; i.e. possibly in a container of some kind.
A sondage was excavated through the cobbled surface C.8 to establish whether this was an original floor surface of the Great Hall. Subsoil was found at a depth of 0.34m below the level of the cobbles. C.8 was set in a 0.1m-thick layer of mid-orange/grey silty clay, C.33, with occasional charcoal flecks. This overlay a 0.22m-thick layer of mottled light-grey/orange clayey sandy silt, C.34, with moderate to frequent flecks and chunks of charcoal and occasional small to medium sub-angular limestones. Also present in this matrix were several grey roof slates. Different-sized slates were represented, some of which had perforations, and one complete slate, which is the largest in the range.
Beneath this layer was a thin (0.04m) lens of mid-brownish-orange clay, C.35, with occasional small stones and pebbles. This in turn overlay the natural undisturbed subsoil, C.38, which was a firm light to mid-greyish-orange silty clay with occasional small sub-angular stones.
A substantial wall, C.46, was revealed adjacent to the steps area (C.20) exposed in 2006. This wall was abutting the south wall of the hall and extended for a distance of 0.92m northwards to a disturbed, ragged end. A width of 0.9m was recorded, although this is not a true reflection of the size of the wall as it has been robbed out on its east face and only the internal rubble is exposed in situ there. The wall has survived to a height of 0.4m, representing two courses. It was bonded in a mortar that was identical in colour and description to the large north–south-running C.9 exposed in 2006. The west face of the wall has survived intact and was unrendered.
Beneath the overburden the cobbled surface C.8 was again revealed. A thin row of a single setting of stones set in clay (C.28) extended from the wall C.46, where it was not tied in, and ran westwards until it disappeared beneath the overburden sealed by the steps area. A length of 0.6m was recorded for C.28 (east–west), 0.2m in width and 0.15m in height. It appears that this thin line of stones was placed to delimit another burning area, as the cobbles between it and the south wall of the hall showed evidence of prolonged exposure to intense heat.
The south-west ope of the hall was fully revealed to the southern limit of the south wall. During the 2006 excavations a cobbled surface, C.12, was partially revealed. This was now found to be extending southwards to the south wall of the hall that had been reduced in the destruction of the ope in the past. These cobbles also extended to the west and east sides of the ope and had a final measurement in plan of 2.4m (east–west) by 1.3m. A cast-iron down-pipe was recorded embedded into the cobbles.
A flagged surface represented by a setting of five light-grey slates was revealed within the cobbled surface. The slates, representing a walkway into the hall, were cracked from prolonged use. The subrectangular walkway, which measured 1.38m (north–south) by 0.93m by 0.03m in thickness, appeared to be orientated towards the steps area to the east inside the hall. Immediately south-west of the walkway adjacent to the western side of the outside of the ope an oak timber was exposed in situ. It measured 0.6m by 0.23m by 0.1m and was protruding 0.3m vertically from the ground surface. The timber was originally placed in a hole in the ground and mortar was then packed in around it so that when it was removed during excavation it left a perfect rectangular-shaped post-hole. Several nails are present in the plank, with the heads having been clipped off before deposition. Also found around the top of the mortar surrounding the timber were several pieces of broken red brick, used as packers.
Area 2
A blocked-up opening, possibly a postern gate, was visible in the south-east corner of the curtain wall. This opening was manifest internally by poor crude work of concrete and red brick. However, externally one can see the remains of an arch comprising five voussoirs extending from the left-hand springing stone. Prior to the excavation in this area, the OPW removed the modern concrete and red brick, and temporarily propped the area to make it safe in advance of excavation.
A trench was then excavated by hand to try and reveal if the blocked-up opening was originally a postern gate and at the same time investigate the possibility of medieval structures that may have been present subsurface inside the south-east corner of the curtain wall. The trench extended eastwards from a 19th-century opening in the southern curtain wall in the west and through the possible postern gate opening in the eastern curtain wall. The trench was 6.7m in length by 1.3m and was a maximum 0.7m in depth.
The overburden, C.44, comprised a mid-brown silty clay finished with c. 0.1–0.15m of limestone blinding laid down by the OPW in recent years. The overburden contained occasional limestone rubble and some 18th/19th-century ceramics and bottle glass. Beneath the overburden a 0.1m-thick occupational layer, C.45, was recorded. This layer was quite indurated and contained frequent charcoal flecks and small fragments of coal. Occasional modern pottery was also recorded in this layer. Underlying C.45 was a cobbled surface, C.39, which extended for the entirety of the cutting. Excavations did not extend through this cobbled surface. C.39 is identical to the cobbled surface C.12 recorded at the south-west ope of the Great Hall in both style and the type of stones used and comprised rounded stones, predominantly limestones, averaging 0.05m by 0.05m in plan.
The entire northern baulk of the trench was delimited by a low battered and rendered wall, C.40. The wall was exposed at a depth of just 0.1m beneath the overburden. It terminates abutting the eastern curtain wall but it is not tied in to it. Two narrow investigative sondages were excavated to determine the width of the wall and its relationship to the curtain wall. The first was excavated abutting the eastern curtain wall, and the second at the western limit of the trench. The wall C.40 was found to be a mere 0.33m in maximum thickness. The northern face of the wall did not appear to be finished and looked more like the internal rubble of a larger wall that had been robbed out in the past. The exposed southern face, along the baulk, was finished in a lime and sand render surviving over c. 50% of the face. The wall was bonded in a mid-brown lime and sand mortar with inclusions of fine pebbles throughout. It was slightly battered, with an inclination from south to north.
Excavation work at the blocked-up ope uncovered the remains of a door or gate reveal. It comprised two dressed and punched limestone door heel stones, one at either side, with accompanying, well-worn circular apertures at their surface to facilitate what appears to have been a double gate or door. Directly over the heel stones are the remains of the reveal (0.15m in width). The reveal was later packed and filled with concrete and occasional small limestones. Outside of the reveal a limestone threshold stone was recorded. This stone, which was cracked in two pieces, was a dressed and punched flag 1.16m in length, 0.29m in width and was 0.17m in thickness.
Extending the cutting beyond the threshold stone exterior to the curtain wall was another cobbled surface, C.43, identical in description to the surface recorded within the remainder of the trench. These cobbles were found beneath 0.2m of topsoil and extended at least 0.3m outside the curtain wall, where the cutting ended. Modern interference here was represented by a gap in the cobbles that contained modern rubbish. The eastern limit of the threshold stone was flush with the outside of the eastern curtain wall. The width of the opening at the west face of the eastern curtain wall was 1.2m, tapering to 1m at the door/gate reveal, and it extended again to 1.2m at the east face of the wall.
From the door/gate reveal to the outside of the opening, modern repair to the fabric can be seen in the unrendered limestone rubble construct that is interspersed with occasional red brick. This repair work constitutes 0.6m of the width of the curtain wall, which was recorded as 1.7m in thickness. In contrast, the remainder of the wall is finished in a lime and sand render.
Area 3
Two trenches for hedging beds were excavated. One was located abutting the western boundary wall and one adjacent to the eastern boundary. The trenches were 23m and 22m in length respectively, and were both an average 1m in width and 0.5m in depth. Modern, infilled overburden was recorded in both trenches. Nothing of archaeological significance was revealed in either of the trenches.
The third excavation in this area by the OPW was an electrical ducting trench. This was situated within and abutting the foundations of the 18th-century church located there. The trench extended from the south-west area of the foundations abutting the southern limits of a possible bell tower that once stood there. The trench was 19m in length and was an average 0.9m in width and 0.5m in depth. The southern extent of the battered basal courses for the bell tower and a footing of a short wall extending from the batter to the west gable of the church proper were exposed. The trench was directed eastwards so that it would not impact on the batter but was directed through the west basal limits of the church, which was reduced and repaired after the ducting had been inserted. Modern, infilled overburden was recorded in the trench. Nothing of archaeological significance was revealed in the electrical ducting trench.
Excavations within Area 1, the Great Hall, produced a small assemblage of finds. Sherds of bottle glass, sherds of 19th/20th-century ceramics and clay-pipe stems were retrieved from the overburden C.3. The cobbled surface C.8 produced a small assemblage of 17th/18th-century ceramics including North Devon, Bristol, Staffordshire, Westerwald and Raeren wares and sherds of possible window glass and some clay-pipe stems. Other finds include an amorphous green stone fragment, a non-ferrous partially flattened possible chain-shot (impact result), a non-ferrous metal pin and a Limerick butcher’s token. The token is in a good state of preservation and ‘Halfpenny 1679’ is clearly legible on the reverse side while the word ‘Limerick’ is found on the obverse. The token was found in close proximity to the metal pin.
No definitive medieval artefacts were recovered during the excavations in the Great Hall, Newcastle West. All of the finds reflect post-medieval and early modern activity in the western area of the hall.
A small assemblage of 19th-century ceramics, bottle glass and a corroded iron key were found in the trench excavated in the south-east corner of the curtain wall in Area 2.
No artefacts were found during monitoring of the hedging bed and electrical ducting trenches, Area 3.
Laurence Dunne and Tony Bartlett, Eachtra Archaeological Projects, 3 Lios Na Lohart, Ballyvelly, Tralee, Co. Kerry.

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