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.

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