Penmaen, Glamorgan. Reconstruction drawing by Alan Sorrell (from "Norman England" by Loyn & Sorrell, Lutterworth Press).
Recent work, however, has emphasised the variety of structures which may be hidden in these deceptively simple-looking earth mounds. In particular, Dr. John Kent's work at South Mimms has raised the daunting possibility that we have completely misunderstood the true nature of these earthworks. The motte at South Mimms was designed to prop up a great timber tower. The sides of the motte were revetted in timber and the summit was mortared over. Entry was through a timber-lined tunnel into the basement of the tower. This was no earth mound crowned with timber: to an observer standing on the outer lip of the ditch, no earthwork would have been visible at all!
A similar moral can be drawn from Mr. Leslie Alcock's excavations at Penmaen. Here was a small ringwork of a type common in South Wales. The excavations revealed the post-holes of a timber tower straddling the entrance. The significance of this is brought home in Alan Sorrell's reconstruction drawing. The most important single feature of the site is of course its great timber gate-house—the ringwork served merely as a bailey. Once again, the present state of the earthworks gives an entirely misleading impression of where the strength of such a site lay.
The third part of the project concerns the Late Saxon background. Ever since Freeman's work in the last century, it has been a basic tenet that the use of private strongholds was a feature of feudal society. The Late Saxon state was not feudal, and therefore the Saxon noble scorned so undemocratic a thing as a private castle. During this last decade, however, this view has been challenged. Significantly, an early 11th century law code lists the qualifications for thegn-hood as being the possession of some 600 acres of land, a private chapel and a burhgeat. A burhgeat presupposes a burh or defended enclosure, and the geat (which was evidently the most imposing part of such a defence) may have been a tower like that at Penmaen. Gate-towers of this sort are becoming increasingly well-known from Continental sites of this period. We may therefore envisage our Saxon thegn as living in a hall surrounded by a stockade or earthwork entered through a gate-house of some sort
— in short, an early form of castle. The problem is to test such a hypothesis by excavation. To this purpose the Institute will complete in 1968 the excavation of Sulgrave in Northamptonshire — a Norman ringwork overlying a great Saxon timber hall of about the year 1000
— and in 1969 will carry out trial excavations at Earls Barton in the same county.
Hasting and York, Sulgrave and Earls Barton, these are the sites the Institute hopes to investigate during the next two years. In the meantime, the Institute has made grants to two sites where excavations were already taking place, so that specific problems might be tackled which were of relevance to the Institute's research theme. These were Bramber in Sussex and Hen Domen in Montgomeryshire. Interim reports on these two sites follow.