Thirty-three test pits were excavated in Clare in 2011, over a four-day period of community excavations carried out as part of the Managing a Masterpiece scheme funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Little prehistoric material was found, with just a single sherd of Bronze Age pottery recovered from CLA/11/27, north of Nethergate Street, although a flint scraper was also found in CLA/11/30, immediately north of Clare Camp. This pit also produced pottery of Romano-British date, which was also found in CLA/11/02, CLA/11/18 and CLA/11/34, all in the south of the present settlement. However, only four sherds were found in total, suggesting that the excavated sites are unlikely to have seen significant settlement in the Roman period. There is then a break in the sequence of recovered pottery until the mid-8th century, with two pits (CLA/11/13 and CLA/11/14) in the centre of the town each producing a small sherd of Ipswich Ware. Although only a limited volume of material was found, in both cases the sherds were recovered from well-stratified levels with no recent disturbance, and the additional fact that these pits are both in the same part of the town (near the present church on the western side of the infilled market), does suggest that this evidence is meaningful and that there is likely to have been some sort of activity here at this time, perhaps a small pre-village nucleus.
A much larger number of pits produced sherds of Thetford Ware, indicating that the settlement was either founded as, or evolved into, a nucleated settlement sometime between the mid 9th and late 11th centuries AD. Domesday Book includes reference to a market, with 43 burgesses (unusually, it also records the church), suggesting that the settlement could be defined as a town by the mid-11th century. The distribution of Thetford Ware clearly shows that the settlement area defined by High Street, Church Street and Market Street was in existence at this time, and it seems probable that the settlement here was laid out with a large regularly-planned market place defined by these three streets at this time. This re-planning probably pre-dates the Norman Conquest, although it is possible that it may have occurred in the last decades of the 11th century, after the Clare holding was granted to Richard Fitz Gilbert following the Norman Conquest. It is clear that this settlement also extended beyond the church/market area, as on two pits on Nethergate Street (CLA/11/17 and CLA/11/27) produced Thetford ware, with the latter in particular yielding twenty-seven sherds weighing nearly 60g in total. It is interesting to note that the Scandinavian street name does seem to be reflected in the date of the pottery recovered.
The pottery evidence clearly indicates that area covered by the settlement expanded in the high medieval period. This seems to have taken the form of a northerly planned extension to the town, with several test pits along Callis Street in particular producing pottery of this date, but little or no earlier material. Callis Street may have been deliberately laid out as a wide thoroughfare to facilitate market trading. This may also have been the period when the earlier market place around the parish church began to be infilled, as the volume of pottery from this area increases at this time. In addition, all three pits to the westerly end of Nethergate Street (another wide street characteristic of market sites) produced significant volumes of pottery dating to 1100-1300 AD. However, it is interesting to note that the eastern end of Nethergate Street is the only part of the town to show a decline in both the volume of pottery and in the number of pits producing pottery at this time. It is inferred that this may be linked to the construction of the castle, first documented in 1090, as this area lies immediately west of the castle site: it is possible that in the late 11th century the area was cleared of pre-existing settlement in order to create an open area for, and/or immediately around, the castle.
Considerably less pottery of late 14th – mid 16th century date was recovered from the test pits at Clare, suggesting significant contraction in settlement and economic activity after the 14th century. In particular, the northern (Callis Street) area seems to see considerable contraction, with this part of the town possibly abandoned. There is also tentative evidence for a southerly shift in the core area around the church/in-filled market place, with several of the pits near the church producing little or no late medieval pottery, while most of those to the south, in the area west of the castle, produced more than in the earlier period. The decline appears clearly to be reversed in the post-medieval period, with nearly all pits producing copious amounts of material of this date.