Archaeologists Discover Massive 12th Century UK Palace Hidden Within Iron Age Fortress

Using ground-penetrating x-ray technology, archaeologists in southern England have uncovered one of the largest medieval royal palaces ever found. The find, discovered buried underneath an ancient fortress, lay hidden for more than 700 years and apparently dates back to the 12th century.

The Independent carried word of the discovery on Wednesday, noting that the hidden palace was found within the boundaries of an even older archeological treasure, an Iron Age hill fort at Old Sarum in Wiltshire.

The new discovery relied in part on those prehistoric defenses, but time eventually covered both under grass. It is believed that the royal palace archaeologists unearthed dates back to the 12th century and researchers have unearthed dozens of ordinary houses in the find.

12th century palace discovered
An aerial view of the site where archaeologists discovered a massive 12th century palace.

At the center, though, lay a 170-meter long, 65-meter wide complex with three-meter thick walls and a 60-meter long great hall. The palace also contained a “substantial tower and multi-story buildings with upper floors almost certainly supported by substantial columns.”

What was the purpose of the site? The archaeologists believe that it served as a royal palace, possibly constructed by Henry I in the early 12th century, according to Dr. Edward Impey, Director-General of the Royal Armouries.

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Researchers have long known that a medieval city existed at Old Sarum, but this new discovery gives them a remarkably detailed view of how the Normans laid out their settlements.

“Our survey shows where individual buildings are located,” said lead archaeologist Kristian Strutt of the University of Southampton, “and from this we can piece together a detailed picture of the urban plan within the city walls.”

The discovery would not have been possible had it not been for the use of x-ray technology. The researchers took x-ray images of the terrain at the Old Sarum site, only then uncovering the inner palace structures. It was previously believed that the only royal residence on site was a smaller complex on top of the man-made castle mound.

How did the complex come to such ruin? After its completion some time in the 12th century, it served as a “political and diocesan center at Old Sarum” for roughly another 100 years. By the 13th century, though, the powers that be deemed that the Old Sarum site was “too cramped and exposed to the elements” to be tenable. The site was then actually moved two and a half miles to the south, with workers transporting even the masonry of the Norman cathedral and other structures to the newly established city of Salisbury.