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Members of the Ulster Archaeological Society have played a leading role in public access excavations at the Castle Ward estate in County Down in 2008 and 2009. The excavations were organised as a joint venture between the National Trust, Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) and the Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork at the Queen’s University of Belfast and timed to coincide with NIEA Archaeology Days events. The aim of the 2008 excavation was to locate the ‘lost’ Queen Ann period mansion house, home of the Ward family in the early eighteenth century before the construction of the present Castle Ward house. This mansion was subsequently demolished and the area substantially landscaped, hiding all visible traces of the building and its whereabouts. No plans or illustrations survived of the mansion and map references were too small to provide accurate location or dimensions. Geophysical survey in 2007 had located some sub-surface features, but years of landscaping had obscured much of the detail.
The first season of excavation in 2008 revealed parts of three parallel walls, aligned east-west and the northern-most of these was thought to be the south cellar wall, with a substantial amount of building rubble still contained in the cellar. Finds included building materials and a variety of ceramics, glassware and metal objects. Of particular interest was a piece of carved oolitic limestone from the Bath area of England, which was interpreted as being part of an ornate fireplace. Eight members of the society took part in the excavations, including the Honorary Secretary, Ken Pullin and past President, Billy Dunlop. Billy was able to introduce many of the volunteer excavators to the correct method of use of the long-tail shovel, a very useful tool on these occasions.
In 2009, work concentrated on trying to establish the dimensions of the original Queen Anne period house, along with later additions, including east and west wings and additional bays. These efforts were rewarded with the discovery of a substantial number of structural features, including parts of the original building and many later additions and modifications. Among the finds were a substantial number of intact mineral water bottles, including one with the stopper in place and half of the contents still present! Another interesting discovery was an intact brick arch, over what appeared to be a brick-built corridor, possibly an underground entrance for servants. A total of 12 members of the society took part in this excavation, representing over 25 per cent of the total number of volunteers present.
These excavations have attracted intense media coverage, including a series of live news broadcasts by the BBC and a range of radio and press articles. In addition, articles about the excavation have been published in Archaeology Ireland and the Lecale Review.
Conway, M. and Murray, E.V. 2008. ‘No previous experience necessary’, Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 22, No. 4, 14-17.
Murray, E.V., Macdonald, P. and Conway, M.G. 2008. ‘Excavations at Castle Ward’, Lecale Review, a journal of Down history, No. 6, 2008, 18-23.