Digging the Dirt on Shakespeare

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New Place by Pat Hughes

Although I wasn’t up precisely with the lark this morning, I probably heard it.


I was due at New Place in time for an interview with BBC Coventry and Warwick. Our Dig for Shakespeare recommences and it was great to see our two lead archaeologists, Kevin Colls and Will Mitchell, from Birmingham Archaeology busily preparing the site to re-open.

Today is the beginning of phase two. The project has already unearthed evidence which is challenging the historic interpretation of how Shakespeare’s house would have looked and how the property was used. At the end of last season we arrived at the foundations of the 1702 renovation of the house, which the Shakespeare scholar Halliwell-Phillipps had uncovered during his dig in 1862. But we remain unclear about the extent of the eighteenth-century renovation. Move towards the back of the current site, and there are already some visible Tudor remains, labelled ‘Shakespeare’s bay-window’ and ‘Shakespeare’s brewhouse’ by Halliwell-Phillipps. The soil around these remains untouched, but not for much longer….

Finds so far include roof tiles, pottery and animal remains which suggest that New Place was at times a high status household, with venison, and salt and fresh water fish supplementing the diet of meat from cows, pigs, sheep, geese and chickens. Shakespeare was a wealthy and famous man by the time of his death in 1616; his daughter Susanna is known to have entertained Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles, at New Place in 1643. It is my hope that the Dig will help us understand more about Shakespeare’s own social status. In purchasing New Place, he was purchasing social cache; Sir Hugh Clopton who built it originally had gone on to become Lord Mayor of London. We might also be able to trace something of Shakespeare’s own renovations of the house (if indeed he made any) when he took up ownership in 1597.

New Place was also a hive of activity; features dating from 1500-1700 include a possible oven or kiln, a brick-built storage pit, and a possible quarry pit, together with evidence of bone working and lace making suggest that the site was used for a wide range of cottage industries and crafts for a long period.

An exhibition of key finds from the first phases of the Dig for Shakespeare are on display to visitors at Nash’s House (the house next door that was owned by the husband of Shakespeare’s granddaughter), together with new artefacts unearthed this year. Visitors to Nash’s House and New Place can also play a hands-on role in helping the archaeologists to sieve through tons of spoil from the excavations.

It is a painstaking and detailed process. But it has to be. Among the fish-bones and oyster shells, there might be any amount of Tudor pottery, glassware, or perhaps something which might give us a revealing sidelight onto how Shakespeare and his family lived there.

New Place is of huge cultural importance, the home of one of the most famous literary commuters of all time. Shakespeare spent his time in Stratford-upon-Avon and London. The Dig is probably our only chance in a lifetime to understand more about Shakespeare’s family home where we believe he wrote some of his greatest work.

Follow the project and find out more at www.digforshakespeare.com

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson

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