Berkeley Castle Project

Berkeley Castle Project  2005-2020

by Dr Stuart Prior

A collaboration between Department of Anthropology and Archaeology University of Bristol the Berkeley Castle Charitable Trust and the communities of Berkeley town and Bristol city.

Between 2005 and 2019, every summer Bristol’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology conducted excavations at the Gloucestershire castle, which dates back to the mid-1100s, unearthing more than 1,000 artefacts that shed new light on the long and eventful history of the castle and its landscape.

The project started as idea back in 2003, when in light of proposed development and heritage conservation work in and around the town and castle of Berkeley, Gloucestershire, Elizabeth Halls, the then Castle Director, approached staff at the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Bristol, with the offer of a long-term research project. Elizabeth was keen to see serious academic research carried out on the castle and its environs. The research proposal was readily accepted by the university and the Berkeley Castle Project (BCP) was established.

The project began with an initial visit by the late Prof. Mick Aston, Prof. Mark Horton and Dr Stuart Prior back in 2003, and the first season of fieldwork at the castle was conducted in 2005. This subsequently turned into a 14 year archaeological research project for students from the university, surrounding schools and colleges, and local volunteers of all ages until the final season of excavation by the university in the summer of 2019.

With Berkeley Castle as a locus of the fieldwork, the project was initially established as a joint venture between the Berkeley Castle Charitable Trust and the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Bristol. Then in 2007, following further documentary and cartographic research, the BCP extended its fieldwork into the Edward Jenner Museum Garden, working with the Edward Jenner Museum Board of Trustees, and in 2009, with further fieldwork undertaken in Saint Mary’s churchyard, working with the St Mary’s Berkeley PCC. From the outset the project’s objective was to build up a detailed picture of the history and archaeology of the castle and associated settlement of Berkeley, and the focus for the project was described as ‘Minster, Manor and Town’. The project aimed to achieve its objective by combining the results of detailed archaeological fieldwork with information contained in the castle’s impressive collection of 20,000 historical documents; 6,000 of which related specifically to the medieval period. It was anticipated that the project, on such an important, prestigious and largely undisturbed site, would add to our knowledge and understanding of the early medieval period and subsequent changes in landscape and society with the coming of the Normans, and the erection of a castle on the former Saxon minster site.

Community involvement with the project was showcased nicely in 2016 when some of the finds from the excavation were temporarily placed into the care of local residents who displayed them in the windows of their homes and businesses around the town as part of the Town Museum Project. Beside each display tray, an information poster, created by Bristol students, described the history and significance of the items, all of which were excavated on the castle grounds and cover hundreds of years of Berkeley history, mostly from the early medieval period to the nineteenth century.

Artefacts on display included animal bones, building materials such as decorated floor tiles and roof tiles, pottery storage vessels, glass containers for alcohol and medieval stained glass.  Jewellery and clothing pins could also be seen as well as a number of decorated and undecorated clay pipes, some with distinctively short stems, others very long which usually belonged to members of the upper class. As a result of the community engagement project we won the Current Archaeology Awards ‘Research Project of the Year 2016’.

The most important legacy of the Berkeley Castle Project was that many of the students that participated in the excavations are now employed in Heritage and community sectors. Staff in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, with the experience gained from Berkeley is launching in 2021 a new community collaborative project in Lower Hazel village, close to Alveston, in South Gloucestershire. The Castle on the other hand, managed to boost their visitors’ number and to showcase further its importance for the communities in the wider area.

Read more about the Berkeley Castle Project at: