The Wisbech Castle community archaeology project was funded by a Your Heritage HLF grant jointly awarded to Cambridgeshire County Council and OA East in 2009. The project was shortlisted (one of only three) for the Best Community Archaeology project in the 2010 British Archaeological Awards.
The aim of the project was to work with local volunteers to investigate the site of the former Wisbech Castle and search for remains of the Bishop of Ely’s palace which once stood at the site in the 14th century. It was also an opportunity to involve local people in an area of known historic importance, increase local participation in heritage and work closely with local schools.
Throughout 2009 local volunteers researched the historic records, helped to survey the site with the aid of Cranfield University (geophysical and GPR) and to record the later buildings and cellars on the site, and were able to create the first map of the Vaults, as they are locally known. The community dig was led by small team of professional archaeologists from OA East.
The call for volunteers was exceptional and it was the first time that demand for volunteer places outstripped places (OA East, formerly CAMARC, has run over 40 community archaeology projects in Cambridgeshire the past 15 years, so this was no mean feat). In the end over 80 volunteers joined the dig in September, which was extended to accommodate the increased numbers of volunteers and ensure that each and every local school could visit the dig and join in. This gained some 840 young people from 15 local schools, and local scout/cub/beaver groups also joined the dig. Free transport for the schools was provided as part of the HLF grant. The dig was also open to the public seven days a week and over 500 people dropped in to see the work.
In addition to visiting the excavation, the dig team kept a video diary on site and school children recorded their experiences on the day. The diggers uploaded daily/weekly blogs, and pictures and updates went onto the Wisbech castle website (also part of the project) and the STARZ schools website for Cambridgeshire schools.
The excavation had a research agenda in addition to involving as much of the local community as possible. The site occupied by the current Wisbech Castle (a regency villa), was built in 1816, but has been the location of other significant buildings for nearly 1000 years. The first building, a Norman castle is thought to have been constructed around 1097. This was replaced by a palace for the Bishops of Ely in 1478, which was then demolished and replaced by Thurloe’s Mansion in 1656. Elements of Thurloe's Mansion survive in the present building as re-used doors, panelling and exterior stone lintels, and the cellars. The aim of this investigation was to find any evidence of the remains of the Bishops’ Palace or other related structures, as little written or documentary evidence remains. It was also a rare opportunity to dig in the historic core of the town and to build on the findings of our investigations across the road at the library site, which revealed evidence of the castle’s early defensive moat.
Volunteers excavated test pits and small trenches across the site and underground too, within the cellars of Thurloe’s Mansion. They discovered remains of the previous buildings, and uncovered remains from the Bishops’ Palace, the castle and even waterlogged remains, which may have pre-dated the Norman castle. The investigation found proof for the first time of the Bishops’ palace, which included walls beneath the vaults of Thurloe’s Mansion upon which this later building had been constructed.
After the project new education resources were produced in consultation with the local schools to encourage and increase local use of the site. There is a new site display board, site leaflet and website.
There is a great tradition of community and public archaeology in Cambridgeshire and similar projects such as this have been held before. However, what has set the Wisbech Castle project apart is that this dig did not involve a society at the start; rather it went to an area where the level participation had not been high and discovered a new audience of very keen people. This manifested itself in the volunteers, without any prompting from the professional archaeologists, going on to establish their own local archaeology society – FenArch. This has been the first time (in Cambridgeshire) that a group of volunteers has established themselves as a result of a community dig. They are going strong (over 50 members) and carrying out local research, keeping contacts with the local professional archaeologists and ensuring that they follow the best practice and standards they learnt at the dig itself.