What does the removal of a historic object mean?

On Sunday 7 July 2020 a statue of Edward Colston in Bristol city centre was toppled and deposited in the harbour. As an archaeologist who specialises in the archaeology of damage and destruction in the Middle Ages, I have sometimes looked to other time periods for parallels to help understand events. One of the constants is that deliberately damaging an object is a highly emotive act, no matter the context, and there often aren’t nuanced conversations about what it means. It has been far easier to discuss it as a historical event rather than something that is happening right now. I have put down some thoughts here about what damage and destruction means in the hope that it adds some context.

Damaging of an object is about more than what the object is

What an object means varies depending on who is looking at it. For many people, a statue may be nothing more than a bit of decoration they pass on the way to work and they have no idea who it represents and no interest in finding out. For others it may be an example of civic pride, especially if it has aesthetic value. For others still it is a reminder of the past – what the past means can be positive or negative. If that history is one of oppression and violence, that reminder can keep it fresh.

Within the specific context of the Colston statue, it was erected in 1895 more than 170 years after Colston died as part of a Victorian reinvention of the city in which Colston was portrayed as a key figure and philanthropist. The Society of Merchant Venturers, which was involved in the slave trade, part funded the statue. In the 1920s concerns were raised about how Colston’s had profited from the slave trade and whether commemoration was appropriate; there have been campaigns since to acknowledge Bristol’s role in the slave trade. From the 1990s in particular, there have been petitions for the statue’s removal, attempts to shape interpretation through plaques, and art installations highlighting Colston’s link to the slave trade. Colston Hall in Bristol is changing its name to distance itself from Colston. How you react to an object or understand it may not be the same way someone else does.

The intention of the people who create an object is not always the meaning it conveys. Take the planned piece of public art near Flint Castle a few years ago. The initial idea was to build an iron ring near the castle, an acknowledgement of the castles built by Edward I (dubbed the ‘iron ring’) to secure the conquest of Wales. However, there was a growing sentiment that this glorified the oppression of the Welsh. While that may not have been the intention of the proposal, it is how it was understood by many people. This understanding wasn’t universal, but it was strong enough to result in a petition which gathered thousands of signatures and the plan was changed. In the US, Confederate monuments have been a focus of public debate as they are “symbols [of] oppression and slavery”.

Damaging an object isn’t always about the person linked to an object themselves but what the item represents. When Louis XVI was beheaded during the French Revolution a statue of a Frankish king was also decapitated. The statue was linked to royal authority and so was treated in a way that mirrored Louis. The statue of Colston was more than just a statue of a man who profited from the slave trade, it was a very public and visible reminder of the slave trade as a whole.

Does dismantling mean erasure?

Looking at online comments about the events in Bristol, I’ve noticed that some people have concerns that Colston is being erased from history, and that the legacy of the slave trade will be forgotten if monuments like this are dismantled.

Memory and interpretation fades and the intention behind a particular structure can be lost. Something can be very public and misunderstood. The act of damaging something can also be very public and preserved in memory. There is a concept from classical studies of ‘damnatio memoriae’ (condemnation of memory) which essentially means removing a public figure’s memorials and references to them on public monuments. It leaves a significant gap, which rather than meaning people forget what happened invites the question of who was this person and why have their monuments been damaged in this way? (Classicist Dr. Virginia Campbell has made a similar point.)

Damaging or removing something does not usually totally destroy it, and the gaps and absences can loudly proclaim that a change has taken place. While the statue of Colston is at the bottom of the Bristol Harbour, the plinth it stood on remains and the international news coverage means it is highly unlikely that this event will be forgotten. The empty plinth creates a new space, perhaps for display. Had an earlier petition to remove the statue succeeded, it would have left a much smaller impression on the memory. The method of removal is also important in how an event is remembered. In an age where everyone carries a camera in their pocket, there will be countless photos and videos of events. The memory of Colston and the slave trade has been brought to the fore rather than erased, and the event has made history and Britain’s role in the slave trade is being discussed more publicly than it has been in decades.

We are not used to the historic environment changing

Heritage professionals in the UK have spent decades protecting our built heritage, creating laws to ensure its preservation, and creating a culture of conservation. There are countless charities and trusts set up to preserve historic buildings, as well as museums which give these structures new life. As a consequence, we are often unprepared for change. An overgrown ruin can inspire awe in some people and sadness in others at its neglect.

When change does happen, especially if it happens suddenly, it is shocking and reinforces the feeling that things need to be preserved. This can make discussions about the appropriateness of monuments very difficult, and people taking the position that something should be dismantled usually start at a disadvantage in that conversation.

Within the UK context, English history has at time had a radically changed built environment.  The English Reformation under Henry VIII led to the closing of many Catholic religious houses, dismantling abbeys, and melting down artworks. In the 17th century the Puritans engaged in their own acts of iconoclasm during the English Civil War, painting over religious paintings and breaking statues. Further back in history, the Peasants’ Revolt targeted the property of particularly unpopular landowners such as John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace. Damaging property has long been a part of English history, and buildings and structures do not exist in isolation from their past.

Damage and destruction is highly emotive

Think of the destructive events you remember most clearly. The tearing down of the Berlin Wall?  The toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein? The fire at the National Museum of Brazil in 2018? The destruction of Palmyra? Those events prompt very strong emotional reactions, ranging from a sense of loss and grief to freedom from oppression. Destructive events are also caused by strong emotions. When Henry III gave orders to demolish (slight) Bedford Castle in 1224 he was furious that someone had ignored his authority.

Damage and destruction is a tool of both oppressor and the oppressed

Historically, it isn’t a tool used by just one group or segment of society. It is used by people with power, and those who feel like they have none. The tools and targets may vary, but damage and destruction can be an expression of victory, despair, desperation, hope. It can subvert authority and power or reinforce it. In general, the understanding of damage and destruction isn’t particularly nuanced. There will be comparisons between the toppling of the Colston statue and pretty much any destructive event you can think of. There is going to be a lot of misunderstanding and people not listening to each other over the Colston statue and what it means.

Information about the statue of a Frankish king’s statue being beheaded came from Patricia Skinner’s Living with Disfigurement in Early Medieval Europe. There’s a preview in Google Books and it’s well worth a read. For anyone who wants to know more about destroyed heritage, you could start with Wikipedia’s list on the subject.

I am an academic working in archaeology and the study of destruction is a growing field. This is an attempt to use that study to understand current events.

How many biographies of classicists does Wikipedia have? December 2019 update

Note: As of November 2020, the Denelezh gender gap analysis tool used to run the stats in this post is offline. Hopefully it will return by the end of the year when I prepare a follow-up.

About this time last year, I prepared a few statistics illustrating Wikipedia’s gender gap in classics and how it has changed, largely due to the efforts of the Women’s Classical Committee. Over 2019, they have continued their excellent work documenting female classicists (broadly construed) through Wikipedia. This year alone they have created or improved 186 biographies. They have transformed their area on Wikipedia and inspired other groups to get involved. They even had a session at the Leeds International Medieval Congress (a Late Antiquity link of course).


A year is a long time online, so it pays to revisit the statistics and see how far we have travelling in 12 months. This comes with the caveat that the number of biographies is one aspect of Wikipedia’s gender imbalance. By design, Wikipedia emulates the real world – all information needs to be drawn from reliable sources so people who are more likely to have coverage are more likely to have Wikipedia articles. Biographies are one way in which the is manifested on Wikipedia, and there are other aspects which are harder to quantify especially on a large scale. As of writing, the article on the history of archaeology mentions 51 men and 0 women. Alice White is the one who spotted that particular imbalance. Amongst the sources used as references, there are 18 men and four women. An improvement on 51-0 but still poor. And the gender imbalance can also be found in how pages are written, so a Wikipedia biography of a woman may mention her family and husband before her career.

The numbers

Last year I tested two approaches to work out how many biographies of classicists there are on Wikipedia: counting articles in categories and querying Wikidata. The latter has the benefit of including more information from other sources, so you can draw on information in the German Wikipedia for example. As such I’ll be focusing on the latter.

As a reminder, Wikidata is an open source database, and for the purpose of this blog post is especially used because it contains information on things in Wikipedia and structures it in a way which can be queried. One of the interesting things is that a person doesn’t need a Wikipedia page to have a Wikidata entry. At some point in the not-to-distant future, everyone who has written a piece in the Journal of Roman Studies could have a Wikidata entry containing information about them and their works. That’s part of a larger project called WikiCite which aims to build an open source bibliography. For us, that means it’s handy because we can look beyond Wikipedia.

The figures that follow are based on information from 2 December 2019 unless stated otherwise. Our starting numbers for entries on classicists in Wikidata are:

TotalMaleFemaleno data

Therefore, in Wikidata 12.9% of people with the occupation of classicists (or a subclass of classicist) are women. This shifts when we look at the number of articles on the English Wikipedia. Let’s also throw in the German and French Wikipedias since they also have a large number of articles.

Language Wikipedia Total number of articles Male Female
English 2,359 1,975 (83.7%) 384 (16.3%)
German 3,295 2,973 (90.2%) 322 (9.8%)
French 977 885 (90.6%) 92 (9.4%)

For context, there are 1,674,919 biographies on the English Wikipedia and 18.14% are about women. Classics is still languishing behind the average for English Wikipedia, but lets refresh our memory of last year’s numbers.

Language Wikipedia Total number of articles Male Female
English (14 Dec 2018) 2,088 1,820 (87.2%) 268 (12.8%)
German (3 Dec 2018) 2,851 2,587 (90.7%) 264 (9.3%)
French (3 Dec 2018) 791 725 (91.7%) 66 (8.3%)

Though I didn’t include French and German in last year’s stats they’re retrievable through the Denelezh gender gap analysis tool. A shift of three-and-half percentage points in English represents a huge amount of work, especially as while the WCC are proactively creating biographies and linking to them throughout Wikipedia, other Wikipedia editors are creating new articles which by the nature of how Wikipedia has grown will tend to be about men. This really stands out when comparing changes over the last year in the English Wikipedia with French and German.

Language Wikipedia Articles created between
14 Dec 2018 and 2 Dec 2019
Male Female
English 271 155 (57.2%) 116 (42.8%)
German 444 386 (86.9%) 58 (13.1%)
French 186 160 (86.0%) 26 (14.0%)

Though more articles overall were created in the German Wikipedia, less than half of the number of biographies on women were created compared to the English Wikipedia. In proportional terms, that means only 13% of new biographies of classicists on the German Wikipedia were about women. That was an improvement on the baseline for 3 December 2018, but only by half a percentage point.


As I’m an archaeologist (and because someone asked me to) last year I also threw out some numbers about classical archaeologists. That particular profession isn’t in the Denelezh tool, so we’re left with running Wikidata query and making a note of the results.

Language WikipediaTotal articlesMaleFemale
English, 14 Dec 2018193156 (80.8%)37 (19.2%)
English, 6 Dec 2019292207 (70.9%)85 (29.1%)

So for new articles created over the past year, there’s been a roughly fifty-fifty split between male and female biographies in this field (48:51). Part of this will represent better information in Wikidata as well as a growing number of articles. For example, Wikidata seems to have a reasonably good idea of how many archaeologists there are in its database, but specialisms aren’t as well covered. In part that’s because there are two ways to note a specialism: noting it as a profession or a field of work. The result is occasionally fragmented data. Therefore, the English Wikipedia has four(!) articles on people whose profession is medieval archaeology (1 male, 3 female) and 34 on people whose field of work is medieval archaeology (22 male, 12 female).

The bottom line

Back in 2016, when the WCC started working on Wikipedia articles, I estimated that 7% of biographies of classicists on the English Wikipedia were about women. Without the WCC’s intervention, it is likely that trend would have continued albeit with the proportion increasing roughly in line with the rest of Wikipedia.

How many biographies of classicists does Wikipedia have?

Ideally, working out how many biographies of classicists there are on Wikipedia would be easy, but as the encyclopaedia is constantly growing it’s not a straightforward question. As well as biographies being added regularly, there is the issue that if you want to ask questions about quantity you need meta data.

There are two possible approaches that I can think of: using Wikipedia’s category system and using Wikidata. This post is to provide a snapshot of how Wikipedia’s biographies of classicists in December 2018 because Wikipedia’s tools don’t currently record historic data of this kind to map trends and changes over time.


The English Wikipedia’s category for classical scholars is a logical place to start. It is intended to cover historians, philologists, archaeologists, antiquarians, and anything else which might fit under the broad umbrella of ‘classicist’. These categories are populated manually, so it relies on people recognising that a person is a classicist and then adding the category.

But Wikipedia’s network of categories means that isn’t too simple. Under ‘Classical scholars’ sits ‘Classical scholars by discipline‎’, and under that is ‘Latinist’. Quite sensible, but that includes ‘Translators from Latin’, which is where things start getting hazier. Alfred the Great translated from Latin, but doesn’t surely doesn’t fit into a wide understanding of what is a classical scholar. Restricting the search to the first two tiers down from ‘classical scholars’ gives a total of 1,336 biographies on the English Wikipedia as of 14 December 2018.1

There is also a category for women classical scholars which, debates aside about whether there should be such a category without a corresponding one for men, makes working out a total much easier. As of 14 December, it stands at 214 biographies, 16.0% of the overall total.

Using Wikidata

Wikidata is a database linked to Wikipedia which distils articles into machine readable facts. It has a lot of other stuff, but to take an example the entry on Hella Eckardt states that she is an archaeologist, a university teacher, specialises in Roman archaeology, and works at the University of Reading.2

Like Wikipedia, the database isn’t complete but growing all the time and in some respects relies on manual intervention. If a person is marked as being a classical scholar (or a subclass) it can be picked up using a query service. This would pick up all classicists, but with a bit of tinkering it’s possible to refine this just to those with articles. On Wikidata, classical scholars include classical archaeologists, papyrologists, classical philologists, Hellenists, and historians of classical antiquity. Oddly, there isn’t a separate field for Romanists, but hopefully they have been classified as classical scholars. Classical philogists include Latinists, but on Wikidata that is not taken to include people who translated Latin – so the likes of Alfred the Great are excluded.

Wikidata has 5,896 entries on classicists (11.2% about women), so we need to work out how many have articles on the English Wikipedia. With the help of Nav Evans and Jason Evans, we’ve been able to work out that as of 14 December there are 2,088 articles about classicists on the English Wikipedia, and 268 (12.8%) are about women. Looking specifically at classical archaeologists, there are 193 biographies on the English Wikipedia, of which 37 (19.1%) are about women. It may be the case that classical archaeologists are not as well mapped as classical scholars, and that people may have been classified into the broader of the two.


The two methods produced different results which reflects the nature of how the two categorisation system have grown. As Wikidata contains information about the whole of Wikimedia, and does not Alfred the Great as a classicist, it is likely to be the more comprehensive of the two. As the Women’s Classical Committee have gone through creating articles, corresponding Wikidata items with information about them have typically also been created.

In 2016, I estimated that 7% of biographies about classicists were about women, using the category method. In the two years since, the Women’s Classical Committee have written or improved more than 200 articles. Considering that the English Wikipedia only has 268 biographies of female classicists this represents a transformative effort.

As Wikimedia’s tools do not provide snapshot data, this is intended to provide a record of the state of Wikimedia’s content on classicists in December 2018 and document the methods for checking progress.


[1] Category search available used the tool Petscan and can be repeated using this link.

[2] As an aside, there’s also bibliographic data so you can there’s a tool which uses that data to build visualisations. You can see how cool it is, and even visualisations for journals, but that’s not the point of this piece.

Discovering Buckton Castle

It’s a great shame that there aren’t more castles around Greater Manchester. There are only ten, and most of them don’t have any above ground remains. My memories of visiting castles with my family are all from beyond Greater Manchester, going to the south where you can find Bodiam, or the north east with Dunstanburgh. To be honest, you wouldn’t plan a day out to visit Manchester Castle – mostly because it’s somewhere underneath Chetham’s School.

You might make a visit to Buckton Castle, but the recent moor fires mean it’s not a good idea right now. On a normal day, if you went up Buckton Hill it would mostly be for the view as the last remaining stones of the castle are buried. On a clear day you can see Beeston Castle in central Cheshire, or at least the hill it’s on.

The University of Manchester Archaeology Unit began digging at Buckton Castle in 2007. That summer’s season of excavations fell between the end of my A-levels and the start of my archaeology and ancient history course at Leicester. With some time on my hands and my own trowel I helped out as one of the volunteer diggers from the South Trafford Archaeology Group.

Part of what made Buckton so interesting to me as an 18-year-old was how little we knew about it. It doesn’t appear in the written record until 1360, when it was already abandoned, so we have to rely on archaeology to work out fundamental like when was the castle built and what happened there. At one point it wasn’t even clear whether it might have been an Iron Age hillfort or Roman outpost (it turned out to be neither). It was exciting to climb the hill up to the site knowing that at the end of the day we might descending with the answers. With so little known about the site, theories and ideas bounced around from trench to trench. It wasn’t quite that simple of course, and after three years of excavations there is a lot we still don’t know about Buckton, but some things stuck out. Though the castle probably wasn’t used for long, it was probably slighted and the gatehouse is one of the earliest in North West England.

Since I was involved in that first season of digging I was attached to the site. I knew a bit about it, so when I had an essay to write on castles in the first year of university I of course mentioned Buckton. I think it was about whether castles were defensive or symbolic (the answer is of course both), so I got to play out a current debate with a site I knew well. When picking a topic for my third-year dissertation I knew I wanted to research something to do with castles, and with some help from Neil Christie and Norman Redhead I settled on the gatehouses of castles in North West England. Of course Buckton featured again.

Buckton Castle

Then of course there’s slighting. I’m not sure how much Buckton being slighted led me to decide it would be a good topic to spend five years researching. It might have contributed, but my recollection is I was struck by how little discussion there was of how castles ended up as ruins. Whether that’s apocryphal or not, Buckton appeared in my thesis.

I was lucky enough to be one of three authors who wrote the book on Buckton Castle, published by the University of Salford’s Centre for Applied Archaeology who took over the dig. I’m proud of that book, but Buckton is still relatively unknown even amongst castle enthusiasts. To help with that, last year I rewrote Wikipedia’s entry on Buckton, which is read by around 300 people a month. It runs on Wikipedia’s front page on 12th July, so go ahead and check it out. You never know where an interest in castles might lead.

Why bother with castle slighting?

Though castle slighting sounds like a pretty narrow subject, it has wide reaching implications. For the study of castles, it helps us understand how these buildings were perceived and treated and extends far beyond the countries I focused my attention on (England, Scotland, and Wales). It also sheds light on how medieval society functioned, and the role of castles within their wider setting. And just as importantly, it has implications far beyond the Middle Ages.

If you come across a slighted castle, there are two things you’ll likely find out: (1) it was probably slighted by Oliver Cromwell and (2) it was done to prevent it being garrisoned by the Royalist enemy. Number (1) has its own issues because it wasn’t just Parliament who slighted castles, that’s just what we have best contemporary documentation for. Number (2) is the simplified narrative you are likely to find around any slighted castle.

Dryslwyn Castle which was slighted by the English in the early 15th century rather than Oliver Cromwell, and may have been a physical act of closure at the end of the Glyndwr rebellion. Photo by James Stringer, licensed CC-BY-NC.

The trope that castles were slighted to prevent your enemy from using them was just one aspect of a much bigger and more complicated picture. Slighting gets to the heart of what made castles important: the combination of status symbol, social meaning, architectural symbolism, and of course military roles. There were many reasons for slighting castles, and they varied based on who was doing the damage and who the owner was – as well as where the castle was and when the slighting was taking place.

Visit one of Edward I’s castles in Wales like Caernarfon and Conwy and you will notice the vast town walls which connect to the castle. Castles and towns were closely linked, and a castle could create its own economy: the people living there would need to buy things and the lord of the castle might establish a market outside the castle so he could tax traders. If this there wasn’t a town there already, it might end up with one growing because of the castle. But what happens to a town’s economy when you remove the castle as a contributor?

In a nutshell, urban archaeology tells us it’s a complicated picture and the castle was one of many factors which could affect a town. It goes beyond economics, and locals reused building stone from a slighted castle. Once slighted, castles were sometimes repaired but when they were abandoned they became one of the best sources for good building stone in an area. That can make the archaeology of the castle complicated as you might find the initial slighting is overlain by destruction layers caused by people popping by the castle to pinch some stone for a new fireplace!

Deliberate destruction is something you find throughout history: from Ancient Egyptians and Romans chiselling away inscriptions or statues of political figures to the 2003 Iraq War when a crowd toppling down a statue of Saddam Hussein become an iconic image of his defeat. As I mentioned in the first in this series of blog posts, slighting is the process of damaging a building to remove its value. Destruction like this is meant to convey a specific meaning. Castles provide a well-researched field in which ideas and theories about destruction can be formed and tested. The approaches developed for castle slighting can be applied to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, prehistory, or even the present day.

Rievaulx Abbey was deliberately damaged after the Pilgrimage of Grace, but it’s rarely referred to as slighting because the term is typically used for fortifications. Photo by Archangel12, licensed CC-BY.

Orford and Pevensey

I’m spending 2018 helping English Heritage with their research. The chances were that if I worked on castles which were slighted, it would be via the English Civil War. It’s nice to beat the odds.

Orford is a fascinating place. The unusually shaped tower stands out more than it would have done originally since the curtain wall was gradually robbed out over the centuries. Orford itself was never slighted, unlike nearby Framlingham Castle. When Henry II founded Orford in 1165 it was his only castle in East Anglia and Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk was the most powerful person in the area.

Orford Castle

Hugh joined Henry’s sons in rebellion in 1173, and after the rebellion failed the earl’s castle at Framlingham was slighted. The work was overseen by Alnoth the Engineer who was also responsible for building Orford. To add an extra layer of intrigue, Orford Castle was built on land confiscated from Thomas Becket, but that’s another story.

In the tower there’s lovely chapel where you can see the remains of decorative plaster, a system of sinks and drains (including one in the basement with traces of red paint), and a prison which can only be accessed from a hatch in the floor of the tower’s entrance.

And then there’s Pevensey where slighting is more than just a tangent. You might recognise it from events such as the Norman Conquest. William landed at Pevensey Bay and then set up a castle in a corner of the Roman fort overlooking the bay. The outer walls are Roman with some medieval modifications, and though the castle was founded by William the Conqueror it was replaced and much of the castle we see on the east side of the fort was built in the 13th century. It was a royal castle for large stretches of its history and the episode that grabs my attention come during the reign of King John.

Pevensey Castle site in a corner of a Roman fort. The walls you can see today surrounded by a moat were built for Peter of Savoy, after King John gave orders to slight the castle in 1215. But were his orders ever followed? Photo by Vicki Burton, CC BY-SA.

In 1216 John was dealing with a rebellion; the barons objected to his rule and had invited the French prince to invade and take the throne. Having seen the French take Normandy from English rule during his reign, John was wary of an invasion and Pevensey was a likely place for the French to land. It would have been very symbolic for the French prince to land in the same place as William to Conqueror and lay claim to the kingdom. John gave orders to dismantle several royal castles along the Sussex coast, including Pevensey.

The interesting bit is it’s not really clear whether this was followed through. Of the standing ruins, the gatehouse may have been built around 1200, but aside from that the Roman walls are mostly intact and the rest of the castle is later than John’s reign. Excavations in the 1850s, 1920s, 1930s, 1960s, and 1990s haven’t found any clear evidence that the castle was slighted so it’s certainly possible that whoever was in charge of carrying out John’s orders decided to ignore them. In any case, the French prince didn’t land on the south coast but the east coast near Ely so John needn’t have bothered.

I’ve had great fun exploring the ruins of both castles and delving into their history. Another interesting aspect is that both were used as prisons. Underneath Orford’s entrance is a basement prison. It was kitted out with a latrine but that’s as far as comforts went with minimal light and no heating. It could only be accessed by a hatch in the ceiling (the floor of the entrance chamber) so was very secure.

Pevensey’s gatehouse (another fun piece of architecture with its D-shaped towers) has two rooms which could be prisons. In the north tower there is a metal grate in the floor which is the only way to access a bottle chamber. Is it an oubliette or a floor safe? The ladder would have been near vertical to access it, making life difficult for either use. Perhaps use as a dungeon is more likely, though the smell would have made the room above unpleasant to say the least.

Pevensey Castle’s gatehouse on a chilly and somewhat damp day in March

Then there’s the basement room in the south tower of the gatehouse. This is accessed by a spiral staircase and there’s a slot for a drawbar on the outside of the door. The old Ministry of Works sign describes it as a dungeon, and as a secure room it could certainly be used as such. We know that the castle was used for holding both high-status and ordinary prisoners so there may have been purpose-built rooms for securing the latter. This would fit the bill, although again there’s no form of waste disposal.

Sadly I’m not great photographer, but if you want to see some decidedly average photos of Pevensey and Orford.

Why use archaeology to understand slighting?

Archaeology and history should go hand-in-hand when trying to understand the past.

In my previous post, I mentioned that when I started researching slighting it was for my dissertation as part of a Masters in history. My undergraduate degree was in ancient history and archaeology and I swapped discipline to see how things worked on the other side of the fence. People should be both archaeologists and historians and don’t think it’s terribly helpful to have a divide between the two. That’s hardly a new or revolutionary take, but there still needs to be more cooperation between the disciplines.

In any case, having spent a year focused mainly on the documentary sources I felt that not only was there untapped potential for the topic of castle slighting but I came to the conclusion that archaeology would be absolutely integral to understanding this phenomenon.

There are a few problems with the contemporary written sources, especially as they they are almost always light on detail and though they may record orders to slight castles and don’t note whether the action was carried out.

In contrast, archaeology offers an opportunity to find out what slighting involved – were there particularly parts of a castle which were targeted, what methods were used, and what this might tell us about the motivation for demolishing a castle. It also gives us a chance to test whether individual orders to slight a castle were ever carried out and find cases of slighting which were missed from the historical  record.

Used together, archaeology and history can reinforce each other but it is important to use them critically. Degannwy was slighted by the Welsh in 1263, and excavations in the 1960s found ample evidence of destruction on the site. Even without the documented history of the site, the sheer scale of the destruction would indicate slighting – it was deliberate, and far more extensive than siege damage would be.

Degannwy Castle straddled two hills. According to written history it was slighted on a few occasions, but later use means archaeologists have only been able to identify the slighting from 1263. Photo by Kevin, CC-BY-NC.

While historical sources can provide a useful framework to relate the archaeology to, they can be too tempting at times. Weston Turville is one of 20 castles which according to contemporary records were slighted by Henry II after the rebellion of 1173–74. So when archaeologists digging there in 1985 found that the ditch around the motte had been deliberately filled in they concluded that this related to Henry II’s order. However, the pottery mixed with the ditch fill dated from the late 11th or early 12th century; this doesn’t mean it is entirely impossible that the fill was a result of Henry II’s orders, but does remind us to keep an open mind and not over-reach in an attempt to match the archaeology with the historical record. At Weston Turville, the ditch may in fact provide evidence of two separate episodes of slighting, one in the late 11th or early 12th century and one which could correspond to 1174, though the pottery recovered from higher in the ditch was harder to date.

There are still many, many sites which have yet to be excavated or where later construction has obscured evidence of slighting, like Edinburgh or Stirling, but by using archaeology complemented by the historical record I was able to build a more interesting picture than had been possible before.

What is castle slighting?

This is the first of a series of posts exploring some key aspects of castle slighting.

Last month I was examined on my thesis, the culmination of years of researching castle slighting. My student record shows that I began my PhD in 2012, but I started thinking about this subject in 2010 towards the end of my undergraduate degree. A post-graduate degree seemed like a fun next step as there were no exams and it would let me research castles even more. Before I had even been accepted onto the course I had decided the topic of my dissertation: castle slighting. One year and 20,000 words just scratched the surface, so eventually I took this topic and developed it into a PhD.

But what is slighting and why have I spent six years researching it?

In short, slighting is the process of damaging a building to remove its value. For castles, this can mean compromising its defensive, social, and administrative uses. It’s also worth thinking about what it isn’t. It’s not damage caused by a siege, or stones stripped away by robbing later on. So when King John’s men undermined a corner of Rochester Castle’s great tower, that was simply the kind of damage caused by a siege. The reason for driving the mine under the tower was to force the defenders to capitulate. When a place was slighted, the damage had a different meaning. But had John knocked down the tower after he captured the castle that would have been slighting.

There are plenty of slighted castles about the place, and some of the most striking ruins have been slighted: Kenilworth, Corfe, and Scarborough to name just three. It’s the kind of thing that grabs the imagination, but the explanation for castle slighting has usually been pretty simple. It was done to prevent an enemy from using a fortification against you. It looked to me like a potentially rich subject that would repay closer scrutiny. With plenty of rebellion and political power plays providing a backdrop for many cases of slighting, I expected it to be fun to research and to have some interesting conclusions come out of it.

Corfe Castle was slighted in the 17th century. The ruins are a lot more glamorous than most of the sites I looked at. Photo by Jim Champion.

So I began my journey into slighting combing through books, journals, and excavation reports. With archaeological interest in castles stretching back to the 19th century – with varying degrees of documentation – there is no shortage of information on the archaeology of castles. Lila Rakoczy examined slighting caused by the English Civil War, but no one had attempted to do the same for the Middle Ages.

Most castles weren’t slighted; if I had to guess, I’d say perhaps 10% met this fate so it made sense to make my study broad. I looked at the whole of the Middle Ages and England, Scotland, and Wales. If you’ve picked up a book on ‘English’ castles you’ll probably notice that it treats Wales as part of England and doesn’t mention Scotland at all. There were different circumstances in each of these countries for the building and use of castles, but I wanted to examine them altogether to see how slighting varied based on context.

The ruin of Kenilworth is one of my favourite castles, and the 17th-century slighting is such an important part of the place’s history. For most castles slighted in the Middle Ages we don’t have majestic ruins as the extra centuries of decay have reduced most sites to buried archaeology. I’m not jealous, honest, because at least I had Bothwell Castle to provide a healthy dose of style. But the architectural skeletons which still stand give an idea of how some slighted sites may have appeared centuries ago.

Get an eyeful of Bothwell Castle, isn’t it fab. Slighted in the 14th century. Photo by Robert Brown.

Archaeology has a huge amount to tell us about how, when, and even why buildings were demolished. This isn’t something restricted to castles, but can be seen throughout history.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting some more thoughts here on slighting, and guiding you through a subject which has fascinated me for years. I hope you find it interesting too!

Buildings have biographies

Every so often I check Google Scholar to see if there are new papers related to castle slighting. The term doesn’t feature very often in titles, so a good check is to see who cites existing works on the topic, which at this stage essentially means Lila Rakoczy’s work, particularly her doctoral thesis.

That’s how I came across Rachel Askew’s article in the European Journal of Archaeology, “Biography and Memory: Sandal Castle and the English Civil War“. This excellent paper discusses Sandal’s role in the conflict and concludes that it was used by Royalists because of its link to Richard III rather than because of strategic or landscape significance. The way a castle’s significance is linked to its owners – its biography as Askew puts it – comes through in the way some were slighted in the Middle Ages.

She delves into the history of the castle to explain its link to royalty, particularly Richard III’s attempted development of the site as a regional centre of administration, and how this contributed to its importance in the English Civil War beyond the (somewhat ailing) strength of its walls.

Askew makes astute use of material culture to show that habitation of the castle was significant as an affront to Parliamentarian sensibilities. Animal bones and artefactual evidence show that the Royalist garrison ate venison, usually reserved for the social elite, and conducted festivities which were likely disapproved of by Parliamentarians.

All this analysis is despite the fact a bulldozer was used to quickly remove the demolition levels in the 1960s and 1970s so that archaeologists could focus on the medieval levels. This leads Askew to an astute observation: this focus on the medieval period is often symptomatic of castle studies, whether looking at a single site or castles as a whole. Most works treat post-medieval activity in less detail. That is certainly the case in my thesis which terminates at c1500. In fairness that was strategic as Lila Rakoczy’s excellent 2007 thesis treated slighting in the English Civil War and I haven’t been able to find much evidence of slighting between then and c1500. That doesn’t entirely excuse me, and when setting out I considered exploring how castles were used after they were slighted which would somewhat have addressed this, but there was plenty of material to discuss before I ever got that far. She makes an interesting point that battlefields sometimes had religious buildings constructed afterwards. I haven’t noticed this in relation to castles slighted in the Middle Ages, but it’s a fascinating avenue of research. Was the religious building meant to memorialise or heal the conflict?

The biographical approach to understanding the castle takes into account its changing uses and how it was perceived over time. In my own research the treatment of castles is closely linked to their most recent owners, but there are some instances where the deeper biography of the place is a factor. One particularly interesting example from the Middle Ages is the destruction of Deganwy in 1263. It has a complex history, changing hands between Welsh and English and with Llywelyn the Great and Henry III both undertaking construction work there. Because of the link to Llywelyn, when the Welsh recaptured the castle in 1263 they could have left it intact. However they instead chose to almost completely level the site because it had become a symbol of English rule. Llywelyn’s role in rebuilding the castle was not forgotten, and a carved head with a crown may have been viewed as representing Llywelyn. This would explain why it was carefully buried instead of damaged like the rest of the castle. Moreover, when Edward I conquered Wales nearly 20 years later instead of rebuilding the castle which was the site of an English defeat and linked to Llywelyn the Great – a figurehead of Welsh identity – he chose to found Conwy on a separate site. The area a mile to the south west was easier to access because it was on low lying ground rather than on top of a hill, and had access to the sea which would have contributed to the decision to use a new site, but the significance of Deganwy’s biography in choosing not to revive it seems clear.

If you have access to the journal, Askew’s paper is an excellent read and well worth the time. I’m glad I’ve finally got round to ticking that off my reading list.

The lead photo is in the public domain and available here. Same for the second photo, available here.

Guest Post: Richard Nevell on the Castle Studies Trust

CeSMA Birmingham

What is the Castle Studies Trust?


A blend of military architecture and domestic use has produced buildings as diverse as Carlisle and Edinburgh, both still used by the British Army, and Bodiam and Stokesay, designed at least partly for show and domesticity. Examining the medieval castle leads to an examination of medieval society.

The Castle Studies Trust was founded in 2012 to fund projects advancing castle studies. This year’s survey at Caus is the first time it has been investigated in-depth by archaeologists. This is despite the fact it is a one of the largest castles in Shropshire.

[Click here for Castle Studies Trust interview with Michael Fradley]

We used the latest survey techniques at Gleaston (Cumbria), using a drone to conduct a photogrammetic survey because the building is too precarious for people to enter. Given the perilous state of the castle, this gives us an invaluable record. The geophysical…

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