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Excavations at Hampton Court Palace

Date: 04 December 2014

Author: Dan Heale

The Magic Garden Project at Hampton Court Palace has seen hundreds of trenches excavated to place electrical cables, drainage and foundations for the new garden. My job as Assistant Curator involves the excavation and recording of the archaeological remains exposed during the works, which provides a unique opportunity for us to understand how the royal gardens have changed and developed over the past 500 years.

One of the most interesting, bizarre and downright macabre discoveries in the gardens has to be a small grave filled with three carefully placed dogs who are all missing their heads. This discovery highlights one aspect of an archaeologist's work - uncovering historical remains and trying to piece together a narrative from the scarce data on offer. Often there are no written records or maps to fall back on and even when there are, it is difficult to link the archaeological data in the ground with the historic sources.

Skeleton of a dog discovered in excavations for the Magic Garden in 2015.

Image: Skeleton of a dog discovered in excavations for the Magic Garden in 2015. © Historic Royal Palaces

The mystery of the headless dogs prompts several tantalising questions, the most obvious being, where are their heads?! It also raises other questions such as why this was done and by whom. Perhaps their former owner had the heads removed and mounted on a wall as a grim reminder of a once faithful hunting dog? Or should we be checking 19th-century newspaper reports for a mysterious dog serial killer? We may never be certain of their ultimate fate.

While the mystery of the three headless dogs poses interesting questions, the excavation has also revealed evidence of previously unknown structural alterations. The dividing wall between the Tiltyard and the Kitchen Garden is a visually impressive piece of masonry largely constructed between 1690-91. The archaeological excavations have revealed a surprising c.18th-century alteration to the historic wall. A gateway and two circular bollards have been cut into the wall at a 30-degree angle; the inside faces show abrasion marks indicating they had been worn down slightly over a period of time. We think they are an early attempt to protect the gateway piers against damage caused by unwieldy wagons, something we are still trying to guard against today. The bollards were obviously successful, given the damage on them. However, at some point, the tops of the bollards were removed and then buried to allow a succession of gravel paths to be laid.

These discoveries show that archaeology can shed light on undocumented changes to the gardens and their usage, and ultimately add to our collective understanding of the palace and the people who have lived and worked here.

Dan Heale
Assistant Curator of Archaeology

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