The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 108

Issue 108

Sept / Oct 2009



Major slipware kiln site found near Leeds

Roman graves rescued: but cemetery doomed?

Isle of Man house is one of Britain's first

In the press

In Brief & Phase 2


THE BIG DIG: Fetternear
Penelope Dransart reports on the topical issue of MPs claims expenese, at Kettlethorpe Hall

London: the mud of ages
Lorna Richardson reports on the discoveries made by the Thames Discovery Programme community initiative and Nick Booth describes his Foreshore Group training

For the sake of the worms
As we celebrate Charles Darwin, Matthew Law considers one of his less well-known interests that led him to excavate at ancient sites

on the web

Recommended websites
Caroline Wickham-Jones reviews How to get active with archaeology, and John Schofield looks at Flash methods to view the evolution of graffiti


your views and responses, with further Beneath the Sea coverage

book review

We review a new publication about the Vindolanda Roman Fort

CBA Correspondent

Mike Heyworth welcomes new HLF money for training, and highlights the CBA's role


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


THE BIG DIG: Fetternear

The Rt Hon Douglas Hogg, Viscount Hailsham and Conservative member of parliament for Sleaford and North Hykeham, drew public opprobrium for considering the clearing out of the moat at his "second home", a grade 2* listed manor house in Lincolnshire, a "properly allowable item". He should have asked archaeologists to do it. Penelope Dransart reports.

In May 2009 former agriculture minister Douglas Hogg entered the news for his expenses as an MP. Among other things, it transpired, he had claimed for the costs of a gardener, removing moles and bees, a lawnmower and someone to use it, a housekeeper and a piano tuner. But what caught the media's imagination was the Telegraph's revelation that he had thought the taxpayer liable to some £2,200 for "cleaning the moat". This became an epitome of the worst excesses of parliamentary squirearchy, with Hogg dubbed a "grasping Tory grandee" by the Mirror. The "moat clearing MP" (Mail) soon said he would not stand for re-election.

The moat in question is at Kettlethorpe Hall, Lincolnshire, where it takes a meandering circuit round a medieval manor that underwent several phases of development and now has the appearance of a large Victorian house. A Guardian journalist asked the owner of Broughton Castle, Oxfordshire, where a broad moat encompasses an area of about 1.2ha, what such a feature was like to maintain. Lord Saye and Sele, whose family has owned the castle since 1337, said he had to clear the moat of rushes and weeds regularly, and that it was dredged about 35 years ago. He thought the task should be repeated once a century, adding that it kept out rabbits and deer, perhaps people too.

This press interest drew attention to several issues. It indicated the longevity of some medieval moats, and their association with the elite echelons of society. It also highlighted some of the problems of maintaining an earthwork when the house it surrounds continues in use. Moat dredging has the potential to destroy archaeological evidence. I have spent 15 years surveying and excavating a moated site at Fetternear, near Kemnay, Aberdeenshire, with community volunteers and a small dedicated team of supervisors. So how do I respond to this aspect of moat maintenance?

What is a moat?

Moats are not just a medieval European phenomenon. Japanese castles have a moat surrounding a massive stone base, which supports an elegant building. In Cambodia, Angkor Wat is the most impressive of a series of Khmer temples within artificially constructed moated enclosures or ponds, and Angkor Thom is a city enclosed by a moat. The Jinshui moat runs alongside the Tiananmen Gate, Beijing, China, at the entrance to the Imperial City, inside which is the Forbidden City, also surrounded by a broad moat. In Nigeria, Kano City had moats and a city wall and, also in west Africa, the site of Savi, southern Bénin, was equipped with massive, intermittent ditches that did not conform to European notions of defence.

Closer to home, moats have been most extensively studied in England and in the southern counties of Ireland. Some of the main findings on English moated sites were presented in a 1978 CBA Research Report (see endnote), in which a moat was defined as being at least 5m in width, with a flat bottom, partially or entirely encompassing an isolated platform. The bishop's palace at Wells, Somerset, serves as a reminder of the grandeur that moats can achieve.

In south-east Ireland, most moats were found to be between 3m and 7m wide. Hence the embankment, which was often water-filled, enclosed or partially surrounded an artificial island. It encircled a lordly residence or another construction, such as monastic granges, monasteries, hospitals, churches and chapels and, more rarely, windmills. Moated sites were not only constructed in areas that came under Norman control. In Co Roscommon, Gaelic-Irish moated sites are known, such as Cloonfree, which has bivallate earth banks.

As a term, "moat" is related to a particular form of embankment, or motte, the French term being derived from the same root. In Scotland, mottes are not common (they occur most frequently in the south-west), which means that some lands known from charter documents apparently do not have a castle site. It is probable that moated sites were more common than has been reported to date and that they were equally suited to the expression of lordly status as mottes. In other instances, the earthwork platform became engulfed in later masonry developments.

A case in point is the bishop's palace of Spynie (Moray diocese). A portion of the moat was detected in excavation; the excavators suggested that the site originally took the form of a ringwork measuring 45–65m across. Without excavation, moated sites can be surprisingly difficult to detect in the landscape. Fetternear's moat was not visible in aerial photographs, and in the past some medieval sites were classified as Roman camps.


Listed by the Scottish Civic Trust as a country house at risk, the privately-owned site at Fetternear was threatened by cattle, and the rapidly-deteriorating mansion was in dire need of recording. We set up a rescue and research programme in 1995 as part of the Scottish Episcopal Palaces Project. We started with resistivity surveys, which became more extensive as the project developed. Although these surveys were informative, we did not recognise the moat amongst the linear features of high resistance. Later we found that it was filled with rubble.

Col Charles Leslie of Balquhain, a 19th century antiquarian laird of Fetternear, published a family history in 1869 which mentioned "a fosse" surrounding the medieval palace. When we excavated beneath 19th century garden soil, we could trace this feature, and have now detected parts at the north, east and south of the site. It was cut into friable granitic bedrock at the north, but elsewhere it was sunk in alluvial clays and sand. It is about 6m wide, and flat-bottomed where we have excavated cross-sections. On the south side of the site the moat comes to an end. The ground was scarped level in the interior of the enclosed area, probably in post-medieval times, which has reduced the moat's surviving width.

Annotations on a sketch plan and section inserted into a scrapbook of c 1880 which belonged to the Leslie family, now in the National Library of Scotland, describe a length of moat, parallel with the rear wall of the mansion, as being 18 feet wide (5.5m), 9 feet deep (2.75m) and full of rubble and oak planks. The mention of timber accords with the plentiful wood remains which we have excavated. Some planks were found in the fill of more recent pits cut into the moat fill. In 2006, however, we found a section of oak palisade in situ on the inside of a southern arm of the moat. It seems that the bishop's palace in the late 13th and early 14th centuries was surrounded inside the moat by a palisade, which was later replaced by stone walling. On the site's east side, this wall encroached into the moat. Pits were cut in the moat's reduced width and filled with building rubble, amongst which we excavated fragments of high quality pottery.

Fetternear was the summer palace of the medieval bishops of Aberdeen. The bishop spent autumn at the manor of Old Rayne, where excavations in advance of development undertaken in 1991 by the late Ian Shepherd and Moira Greig and in 2008 by Hilary and Charles Murray, have explored part of the surrounding moat. It was 6m wide and 2m deep. Another moated site owned by the bishops of Aberdeen was Castle Maud, in the valley of the river Dee, where the remains of a masonry keep and moat have survived. Castle Maud, which is located in the now drained Moss Maud, and Fetternear share a low-lying situation close to water. It seems that in the 13th century, they both served as a lodge in hunting reserves granted to the bishops of Aberdeen. However, from the late 13th to 16th centuries Fetternear underwent a series of redevelopments. In postmedieval times the site was subjected to episodes of levelling. A towerhouse was constructed, to which a mansion was added in the 17th century and enlarged, on at least two occasions, in the 19th century.

Were moats defensive?

Some authors regard moats to have been ineffective for military defence. Henry Cheyne was bishop of Aberdeen from 1281 to 1329. He had a military career during the English occupation of Scotland in 1296, when Edward I ordered him to garrison Urquhart castle on Loch Ness. Its substantial clay-lined moat measured 9m wide and 2.5m deep; pottery we have excavated at Fetternear suggests that the moat and palisade there were in use during Henry's bishopric. Yet it seems that his summer palace did not serve a military role.

It is possible he knew of a medieval notion, current in western European countries, which encouraged bishops to think of their residences as a spiritual castle. This concept would have had coherence in their role as overseers of the diocese. Castles and moats played an important allegorical role in the 13th century Anglo-Norman poem Château d'Amour of Robert Grosseteste, who became Bishop of Lincoln. His allegorical castle was set on a polished rock outcrop. The rock represented the Virgin Mary's heart, which never yields to evil, and ditches of voluntary poverty surrounded the castle of her body. In a 15th century allegory, the moat represents the Virgin's meekness; it is filled with the tears she shed at her son's crucifixion. In Gavin Dunbar's poem The Palice of Honour (he became Bishop of Dunkeld 1515–1520), a moated castle reminded listeners of the importance of resisting evil and maintaining honour on the journey to Christian salvation.

These allegorical understandings of a moated landscape have specific cultural resonances. In the 13th century, a bishop of Aberdeen worshipped in a chapel dedicated to the Virgin in a manor sited on an island in a small loch called Loch Goul, which is now on the outskirts of Aberdeen. This location resembles the artificial islands at Fetternear, Old Rayne and Castle Maud that probably replaced the Loch Goul residence to enable the 14th and 15th century bishops to conduct visitations to the different parts of the diocese. In other parts of the world different concepts gave symbolic relevance to moats. The excavators of Savi in Bénin discovered that local people associated the deep ditches with Dangbe, a python deity, and that the earthworks were a cosmological expression of both physical and symbolic defence.

There is more to moats than providing an earthwork foundation for an elegant superstructure, and they do more than convey the detritus of occupation which must periodically be dredged. At Fetternear we have found that the medieval inhabitants kept their moat fairly clean; there were more pottery sherds in deposits excavated in the kitchens. Stripped of its silty fill, the alluvial material into which Fetternear's moat is cut is fragile when exposed to the elements. Moats should be cleaned with care.

See Medieval Moated Sites, ed FA Aberg (CBA 1978, available online via the ADS). The author wishes to thank the CBA for Challenge Funding in 2007 and 2008. Penny Dransart is reader in anthropology and archaeology in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Wales Lampeter.

CBA web:

British Archaeology

Jan/Feb 2005
Mar/Apr 2005
May/Jun 2005
Jul/Aug 2005
Sep/Oct 2005
Nov/Dec 2005
Jan/Feb 2006
Mar/Apr 2006
May/Jun 2006
Jul/Aug 2006
Sep/Oct 2006
Nov/Dec 2006
Jan/Feb 2007
Mar/Apr 2007
May/Jun 2007
Jul/Aug 2007
Sep/Oct 2007
Nov/Dec 2007
Jan/Feb 2008
Mar/Apr 2008
May/Jun 2008
Jul/Aug 2008
Sep/Oct 2008
Nov/Dec 2008
Jan/Feb 2009
Mar/Apr 2009
May/Jun 2009
Jul/Aug 2009
Sep/Oct 2009
Nov/Dec 2009
Jan/Feb 2010
Mar/Apr 2010
May/Jun 2010
Jul/Aug 2010
Sep/Oct 2010
Nov/Dec 2010
Jan/Feb 2011
Mar/Apr 2011
May/Jun 2011
Jul/Aug 2011
Sep/Oct 2011
Nov/Dec 2011
Jan/Feb 2012
Mar/Apr 2012

CBA Briefing

Courses & lectures
CBA Network
Grants & awards

CBA homepage