Having a blast

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there

— L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between, 1953

It’s perhaps something you don’t need to be reminded of when researching the Middle Ages. Even when reading through old reports of excavations, it’s pretty self-evident. The further back you go, the fewer site plans and section drawings you get. Appendices detailing pottery and smalls finds disappear. Context numbers diminish.

These conspicuous absences give the impression of materials from another age. There is some interesting social history to be found in county archaeology journals from the 1930s where land owners occasionally begin archaeological digs as way to occupy unemployed men in the area.

Prepared as you may be for your visit to a foreign country, there will still be things which catch you off guard. Such as the use of explosives on archaeological digs.

Starting on 19 November 1934, excavations at Bungay Castle gave work to former servicemen who were unemployed at the time. Excavations within the great tower progressed well until they encountered gravel and fallen masonry, “effectively preventing further excavation until they could be removed with explosives.”1

I supposed in an age before JCBs digging through rubble would have been difficult, and presumably the excavators would have taken care not to damage what little remains of Bungay Castle, but the suggestion to use explosives still surprised me. In fact it turned the journal article into a real page turner.

I needed to know whether they ended up blasting their way through history!

Fortunately, the brief report in the Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History the following year informed the reader that it hadn’t been used after all. Having seen the effect explosives had at Corfe Castle, I’m glad they didn’t go through with it!

Bungay Castle. Photo by Martin Pettitt, CC-BY 2.0.

Bungay Castle. Photo by Martin Pettitt, CC-BY 2.0.

1Braun, Hugh (1934). “Some notes on Bungay Castle”Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History Vol. 22. p. 116.

Every castle should have a laser (so you can create a 3D model)

Greater Manchester is not exactly famed for its castles, but of the handful distributed about the county Buckton is by far the most interesting. At the far east of the county, this 12th-century outpost was probably built by the Earl of Chester, an influential and powerful magnate.

Buckton Castle sits on top of a steep hill from which on a clear day you can see all the way to Beeston Castle in Cheshire. This is likely to be just a quirk of the landscape as the archaeological evidence indicates Buckton Castle was never finished, and was in fact pulled down. Whereas Beeston was built in the 1220s, the little available dating evidence for Buckton suggests it was built several decades before then.

All this is covered in more detail in the monograph of the excavations published by the University of Salford’s Centre for Applied Archaeology. The remains of the thick stone walls are buried, so that only lumps and bumps covered in grass remain. Recreation drawings help with that conceptual leap between what you see on the ground and understanding how it would have worked.

The next best thing would be a 3D model showing the remains of the castle in their current form. For me at least, more than a plan or photograph the model helps you appreciate the variations of the ground. Making a video of that model makes it easier for people to engage with, and lets the video maker be the guide. So until someone works out how to embed videos into printed books, the video at the start of this post will have to exist solely online.

I particularly like that video because the ditches and the height of the ramparts really stands out, but this video mapping a photograph of the site onto the model may be more to other people’s tastes.