2011 Archaeological Excavations at Mount Bures

In August 2011 the first official archaeological excavations on Mount Bures motte were carried out, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund as part of the Managing a Masterpiece project. More than 60 members of the public from the local area excavated 40 square metres on the summit of the motte and nine smaller trenches in fields and properties nearby, under the direction of Access Cambridge Archaeology (University of Cambridge) led by Dr Carenza Lewis, well-known from C4’s Time Team.  

Preliminary analysis of the 2011 excavations indicates that the medieval motte (mound) was used as a lookout post: the absence of cut features which could have held the footings of large timber buildings such as a defensive tower or lord’s residence suggests that if there was a timber structure on the motte summit, it must have been small with little or no sub-surface foundations. The scarcity of archaeological finds indicates that the motte was not permanently manned.  The medieval motte may have been built by enlarging a pre-existing burial mound, as Bronze Age (1500-800 BC) pottery was found in excavations nearby. 

The medieval motte appears to have been built as a series of tiered concentric circular layers, which reduced in diameter as it increased in height.  These layers were mostly made up of the sandy gravel sub-soil naturally occurring in the immediate area, which was methodically removed from around the base of the motte to create the deep ditch which surrounds the mound.  The 2011 excavations showed that the loose sandy fabric of the mound was stabilised by building a retaining ring of clay around the mound perimeter and by carefully levelling each load of spoil tipped into this before the next was added.  

Mottes (usually associated with defended enclosures called baileys) were commonly built by lords in England between 1066 and 1154, notably in the wake of the Norman Conquest (1066) and during the Anarchy of King Stephen’s reign (1135-54).  Pottery found in the excavations on Mount Bures motte indicate that it was built in the early/mid 12th century (c. 1100-1150 AD), not immediately after the Norman conquest as has previously been assumed.  During the 1135-54 Anarchy, many short-lived unlicensed castles were built for which no documentary records survive. When Henry II (1154-89) became king, many such castles were demolished or demilitarised as he reasserted royal control over his kingdom.  

The area north, east and west of Mount Bures motte produced no evidence for medieval occupation, while the present village seems mostly to post-date the motte. However, evidence of medieval domestic occupation was found immediately south of the church, where pottery sherds contemporary with those from the motte summit were associated with a large post-hole. This hints at the presence of a medieval manor/church complex (possibly set within a defended bailey, although no evidence has been found for this). The site was isolated within a dispersed landscape and was protected by its 12th century lord in dangerous times by a prominent motte which looked highly defensible while also providing a good strategic lookout post.

Reproduced courtesy of Access Cambridge Archaeology