Digging up: Lyveden

Volunteer leans in to look at artifacts found in trench dig

Over recent decades a significant amount of archaeological study has been undertaken at Lyveden. From the discovery and uncovering of the moats, spiral mounts and the planting of the orchard, the property has grown in size and historical significance. Lyveden is considered one of the greatest architectural survivals of the Elizabethan period and studies have been done across the property from surveys of historical graffiti on the lodge, to excavation studies in the lower gardens.

Despite extensive archaeological investigation of the earthworks adjacent to the garden lodge at Lyveden, little recent work has been undertaken to understand the remaining garden features around the old manor house at the bottom of the hill. Our knowledge of what Tresham planned for the lower reaches of his gardens is limited to the cryptic clues contained in the Tresham papers such as descriptions of his “ascents” and “shaded arbours”. Aerial photography analysis undertaken in the 1970s also suggested the existence of a series of terraces climbing up the hill from the manor to the orchard. Over the autumn and winter at Lyveden we commissioned a suite of archaeological investigations to get to the bottom of this mystery and discover how much work on the lower gardens at Lyveden had progressed before Tresham’s death in 1605.

See the site map drawn from aerial photos taken in 1972 (PDF / 0.076171875MB) download

Were seven terraces planned at Lyveden? How much survives of Tresham’s landscape in the lower areas of the site?

In September 2017 local archaeologists Iain Soden Heritage opened three evaluation trenches in the grounds around Lyveden Manor. The trenches were opened using a 5.5-ton tracked 360-degree excavator under archaeological control. Each trench was excavated using a flat-bladed ditching bucket, 1.5m in width. The main trench stretched down the hillside from the orchard hedge at Lyveden towards the manor building. This trench was intended to investigate the possible existence of a large rectangular terrace with a central viewing platform at the southern end of the lower garden area (adjacent to the orchard hedge). The trench also enabled the archaeologists to look for evidence of any earth movement further down the slopes possibly indicating the existence of additional terraced features.

Markings are laid out against the site of the unfinished platform
The trench marked out where the platform was dug
Markings are laid out against the site of the unfinished platform


As the layers of topsoil were dug we found archaeological evidence that the viewing platform at the top of the terraces was in existence at the time the work on the garden stopped. On the north side of the cut, was a mid-grey clay deposit which contained many fragments of seventeenth century pottery. This layer also contained a substantial quantity of medieval Lyveden pottery fragments.

The trench plan for the dig during September 2017
The plan of the trench
The trench plan for the dig during September 2017

We know from land maps and aerial photographs that the lower garden was cultivated for agriculture from the 1940s onwards. As with other areas of the site, such as the parterre and labyrinth, it is possible that heavy ploughing may have disturbed and destroyed any archaeological evidence remaining in the earth. To get a clear picture of the landscape contours at Lyveden we also commissioned a LiDAR survey. LiDAR uses light waves and the speed at which they bounce back from an object to generate a detailed 3D map of the ground. It can often pick-up minute changes in ground levels that are not visible to the naked eye or standard photograph. It is therefore frequently used to search for hidden or lost earthworks. If you visited Lyveden over the autumn you may have spotted a light aircraft travelling back and forth over the property gathering the LiDAR data.

The LiDAR data showed that the area surrounding the Manor and lodge was part of an extensive medieval field system, characterised by ridge and furrow earthworks. The trenching in the lower garden corroborated this interpretation digging up flint and rounded pebble inclusions indicative of medieval agriculture, but nothing associated with post-medieval work such as glazed china, clinker and clay tobacco pipe. The LiDAR analysis confirmed the existence of a top viewing platform, but no earthworks further down the slope.

Both the LiDAR and trenching analysis confirm that work had begun on a top terrace in the lower gardens, with evidence that this terrace included plans for an extended viewing platform. There is no evidence of work beginning on any other terraces on the slope stretching down to the manor. Like the lodge, the unexcavated fourth side of the moat, and the western spiral mount in the moated orchard, it seems that the terraces were also incomplete and abandoned after both Thomas and Francis Tresham died.

Digging up Lyveden with volunteer onlookers
Volunteers look on as the archeological dig takes place
Digging up Lyveden with volunteer onlookers


In 2018 an additional ground laser survey will be completed on the landscape around the Manor. This will complete the suite of archaeological investigations and hopefully confirm the evidence provided by the LiDAR and trenching.