2005:821 - ROTHE HOUSE, KILKENNY, Kilkenny

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Kilkenny Site name: ROTHE HOUSE, KILKENNY

Sites and Monuments Record No.: SMR 19:26 Licence number: 05E0598

Author: Cóilín Ó Drisceoil, Kilkenny Archaeology, Threecastles, Co. Kilkenny.

Site type: Renaissance garden

ITM: E 651039m, N 655744m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 52.650485, -7.245708

At the vanguard of the Renaissance engagement with Ireland was Kilkenny, where a remarkable set of political and economic circumstances converged to produce a transformation of the ancient city in the late 16th to early 17th century. The Rothe House mansion in the centre of Kilkenny forms a rare survival from this point in time. Integral in design with the house were its gardens, now long vanished, but which originally occupied the long walled space to the rear of the complex that extended to the city walls. Rothe House Trust and the Rothe House Garden Restoration Project steering required an archaeological appraisal of the site as a component of a proposal to recreate the walled garden in its late 16th-/mid-17th-century form. A report was drawn up that documented the historical and archaeological context for the garden, tracing the development of the plot from the 13th century to the present day. In addition, a programme of test excavations was undertaken in July 2005 to ascertain the potential for the survival of archaeological materials that would aid in the reconstruction of the garden’s topography during the residency of John Rothe Fitzpiers and his son Pierce (1594–1654). While the general layout of the gardens can be reconstructed from the limited historical documents such as the Civil Survey, the John Rothe will and a series of 18th-century property deeds and cartographic sources, many of the specifics require detailed archaeological investigation.
Seven cuttings were opened within the plot: Cuttings 1–7.
Cutting 1, 3.6m by 3.3m by 0.9m deep, was opened to ascertain the nature of the city wall to the rear of the Rothe House plot and to determine if archaeological materials survived buried in the western end of the site. This sector of the site is thought to have contained an orchard, in addition to a series of buildings, including a summerhouse and dovecote. It was anticipated that certain questions that had arisen regarding the nature of the rear wall could be resolved by this cutting. These centred around the confusion that had arisen from depictions of this section of city wall on the early OS maps; the first-edition map marks the defences as being some 4–5m to the west of the rear wall of the plot, while the 1872 map appears to represent it as being city wall. The cutting determined that the inner face of the city wall had been cut back about 1m, leaving the abutments for the wall-walk arcading below ground. In addition, planting holes, which probably related to the orchard, were identified.
Cutting 2, 3.2m by 1.7m by 0.8m deep, was excavated along the line of a lost section of the southern burgage wall of the Rothe House garden. This was carried out to ascertain if fragments of this wall survived buried within the site. The cutting determined that the lower courses of the burgage wall remain beneath the present ground level and that there is a significant drop in ground level between the area outside the wall (south) and inside it.
Cutting 3, 8.18m by 1.6m by 1.5m deep (max.), was excavated east–west across the western sector of the site to determine the level of subsoil in this sector of the site and to ascertain if garden soils and/or associated features were present. At the base of the cutting the clay substratum was encountered and this marks a change from basal gravels encountered in Cuttings 1 and 2. A cobbled surface that lay above the substratum is likely to have formed a yard or pathway, though more of its extent requires exposure before a valid interpretation is arrived at. It is of note that the cobbles were situated directly on top of the substratum, meaning that they must have been laid shortly after any overlying soil horizons were removed (there was no evidence that they were placed in a cut). An overlying sequence of dumped cultivation soils contained finds in abundance, but there was nothing recovered that could pre-date c. 1550. It is known that the city walls of Kilkenny were refortified by Dutch engineers during the Confederate Wars. The large rampart that is shown banked against the rear wall on the Rocque map was probably raised at this time and consequently there is every probability that the cobbled surface was laid on ground that had been scarped in the earlier 17th century during the refortification process. A deep garden soil developed over the yard/path and, to judge by the chronological variety of finds within it, it was in use for an extended period of time.
Cutting 4, 7.2m by 1.55m by 1.5m deep (max.), was excavated at the east end of the site in the area where it is suggested the formal garden was situated. Accordingly, it was important to ascertain first if there were garden soils potentially of contemporary date with the Rothe House complex surviving. It was also essential to determine the relationship between the rear of the third Rothe House and the garden. Documentary accounts suggested the gardens may have led down directly to the rear of the house, which is not the case today: there is currently a north–south dividing wall (which is not marked on the 1758 Rocque map) and a 1.7m step up in level between the rear of the third courtyard and the beginning of the garden plot. It proved not to be possible to excavate a cutting directly at the rear of the third courtyard, as the space is occupied by the ‘OPW shed’, which is currently in use.
To judge by the level of garden soil and substratum within the cutting, it is entirely feasible that the original garden sloped down to the rear of the third house, though further architectural survey of the existing rear (west) wall of the third courtyard is necessary to determine if it is indeed a later addition and did not act originally as a barrier between house and garden. Certainly its absence from the Rocque map would tend to support this suggestion. Cultivation soils containing 17th-century finds were identified in the cutting, as was a large pit that contained a succession of clearly differentiated deposits of slate, mortar and rubble.
Cutting 5, 14.8m by 1.55m by 0.35m deep (max.), was opened to determine if archaeological materials survived within the middle section of the site, the formal gardens of the Rothe House. During the 1970s, this part of the plot was scarped and a large quantity of soil was removed from the site. The positioning of the cutting across the width of the plot was carried out to ascertain if there was any evidence for a pre-existing burgage alignment and to investigate the construction method of the existing wall at the north side of the plot. It was evident that the scarping of the ground in the area of Cutting 5 had reduced the ground level substantially, in the process removing any archaeological materials that may have been located in the area.
As was the case with Cutting 5, the scarping of the ground in the area of Cutting 6, which was 15.4m by 1.5m by 0.3m deep (max.), had reduced the ground level substantially, in the process removing any archaeological materials that may have been located here.
Cutting 7, 7.2m by 1.5m by 0.3m deep (max.), was opened to determine if any archaeological materials survived in the formal garden area of the Tudor mansion. This area had undergone significant disturbance in the last thirty years, principally for the insertion of a concrete slab that now covers the area. A thin deposit of cultivation soil was noted above a linear gulley that represents an earlier property boundary or burgage fence to the present arrangement. This is suggested because of its morphology and its position at right angles to the house complex. In addition, the only finds from it were of late 13th–14th-century date and would thus interleave with it being an earlier property boundary.
In summary, it can be stated, based on the available data, that the Rothe House garden plot was divided into three distinct sectors, namely an orchard that occupied the western half towards the city wall and a formal garden and yard to the east. A summerhouse, dovecote and ‘castle’ are recorded towards the rear of the plot, although their exact locations have not been determined. The positions of two wells are also known in the east. The entire plot was enclosed within a high stone wall that is probably contemporary with the Renaissance house complex. It is intended that further archaeological investigations will occur in late 2006 to build on the results of the preliminary investigations.