3D models

Recently the charity I’m a trustee of has been publicising one of its projects to produce a 3D model of Holt Castle in the county of Wrexham (or Denbighshire if you go by historic counties). I first visited Holt in 2010 with my dad when I was researching my BA dissertation. It didn’t feature in what I was doing, but we were tracking along Cheshire’s border with Wales and it would have been a wasted opportunity not to visit.

Not much remains today thanks to the work of Parliament in the 17th century. Slighting, but not the right time period for my PhD. That’s why this reconstruction – based on a range of sources including historic plans and inventories – is so important in understanding the site. It really does transform it.

This got me thinking. What other 3D models are available online? A quick search of YouTube produced a few results, but it’s not necessarily easy to tell what lies behind the reconstruction. With recreations there is always a degree of educated guesswork, but the key for the video supported by the Castle Studies Trust was minimising that through exhaustive research.

A few really stood out. The first is of Corfe Castle in Dorset. It’s high on my list of sites to visit for obvious reasons when you watch the video. I really like the way it’s done, contrasting the reconstruction with the present state of the castle and using actual camera footage to create a unique feel. It’s simple and looks plausible. It’s not clear what it’s based on, but the fact that the people behind the video are from the University of Portsmouth bodes well.

Next we have Weoley Castle in the West Midlands. It’s a longer video, and takes you on more of a tour of the castle, closer in style to the Holt video than the Corfe example, but unlike Holt sticks strictly to the exterior. Sadly I don’t know what the creator based the reconstruction on, but it does look good.

Finally, there is Wartenburg in what I assume is Germany. Magelan skupina who produced the reconstruction are a commercial archaeological company and the six-minute video shows how much information goes into the reconstruction and goes inside the building as well. Enjoy!

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Digging Halton Castle Part 1

I had really hoped to be able to take some time off work to volunteer at this dig. Sadly it wasn’t to be. It’s strange to think that the last major excavation of a castle in the North West was five years ago. As if that didn’t make this excavation important enough, Halton is a stone castle which first belonged to the Earls of Chester and then the crown. A 17th-century engraving gives a tantalising idea of how Halton Castle once looked. I’ll be keeping a close eye on the updates to see what the archaeologists turn up!

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The ruins of Halton Castle with the 1738 courthouse on the right. The ruins of Halton Castle with the 1738 courthouse on the right.

The ruins of Halton Castle in Cheshire (SJ 537 820) stand on a prominent hill of red sandstone overlooking the estuary of the River Mersey to the north and west. July 2015 sees the first excavations at this medieval site since 1987. During the 1980s my old colleague and friend Robina McNeil led small-scale excavations in the inner bailey as part of a wider conservation programme across the castle ruins.(1) This work stabilised the castle fabric and highlighted the role of the site as a baronial castle linked with the nearby Norton Priory.

The 1399 gatehouse at Lancaster castle is similar in style to the lost 15th century gatehouse at Halton Castle, Cheshire. The 1399 gatehouse at Lancaster castle is similar in style to the lost 15th century gatehouse at Halton Castle, Cheshire.

The opportunity to excavate castles in North West England is rare, as was noted in 2007 by the authors of the North West Archaeological Regional…

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A bank holiday in Eynsford

Bright sunshine, the first Test cricket of the English summer, and a tense finish as England and New Zealand tussled for the honours. What better way to spend a bank holiday Monday.

I chose to go to Eynsford Castle, a 40-minute train journey from London Victoria. It’s one of English Heritage’s free sites and I figured it wouldn’t be too busy. Best of all in 1312 the owner, William Inge, filed an official complaint that people with a claim to his land had attacked Eynsford Castle and left it damaged. The forecast for Lords cricket ground was overcast so I assumed I’d be able to take some nice photos in Kent.

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Walking from the station to the castle I wondered if I was going in the right direction. The signs for Lullingstone Roman fort were clear enough, but the ones pointing to Eynsford Castle were almost hidden. Once I got to the right place I had to double check I wasn’t trespassing on private land.

It wasn’t downhill all the way, but it did strike me that the castle was quite low in the landscape. This is especially clear when looking from the 12th century kitchens, where the curtain wall has collapsed. The river running through Eynsford is shallow enough that I spotted a few people paddling in what turned out to be glorious weather. Back at the castle, the earthworks of a moat are still visible and a sign beside the bridge to the entrance warns visitors of deep water. The castle is close to the river, and a raised bank  prevents it from flooding. I’ve not yet checked if anyone has come to a verdict on whether the moat was originally wet. It’s so close to the river it seems a waste not to use it, but on a warm fay in late May it is hard to see the amount of water in the river adequately filling the moat. Perhaps it was only meant to be shallow, more of a reflecting pool than an insurmountable barrier.

Inside the impressive flint curtain wall are the remains of the hall, reusing Roman tiles in the fireplace. As you turn left from the entrance there are three openings which the information boards tell you are garderobes. Certainly the one of the far right is a toilet as it has a chute down to the moat, though it does seem a bit odd to have three so close together.

While grey skies helped England at Lord’s I was expecting the same to provide a moody backdrop. As it was the sun burst through and while the sky was a brilliant blue in photos it made it tricky to avoid the buildings appear very dark.

I got to walk round the outside, seeing where part of the wall had collapsed in the 19th century. In the time I was there a few people showed up to wander round the ruins. One group brought a picnic which reminded me of the fatal flaw of my plan. With enough pictures under my belt I decided to call it quits.

Eynsford is a lovely quiet castle, with enough still standing to remind you of its medieval history.

 

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.

Norwich and the art of the recreation

The throne room at Dover Castle. Photo by Richard White, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The throne room at Dover Castle. Photo by Richard White, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

It’s easy to forget that the buildings we take for granted as part of our historic environment would have looked completely different when they were in use. Ancient Athens and Rome were gleaming cities of pristine marble, and castles were austere military structures. But centuries upon centuries of weathering and wear and tear have changed them beyond recognition.

Castles were often whitewashed inside and out, and high status area could be richly equipped with tapestries and decorated furniture. To see how a reconstruction can utterly transform a space, you don’t have to look further than Dover Castle. As English Heritage’s flagship medieval property, they seem keen to keep it fresh and interesting for the 350,000 visitors who pass through its gates every year. The work at Dover cost £2.45 million and took two years to complete (a Time Team special offered insight into the work done there).

So it’s no small feat to recreate the medieval world in glorious technicolour, but that is precisely what Norfolk Museums Service hopes to do at Norwich Castle. In February it was announced that £1 million was coming from central government. The fundraising isn’t over, but that is a sizable step which will allow for a digital reconstruction of the great tower. The intention is to carry out “major restoration work of the 900-year-old castle, including architectural, archaeological, structural and environmental surveys”. It is also hoped that visitor numbers will increase by 100,000 every year, though it isn’t clear what the baseline figure is.

The restored King's Chamber at Dover Castle. Photo by Mark Abel, CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The restored King’s Chamber at Dover Castle. Photo by Mark Abel, CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0.

So what might a restored Norwich Castle look like? A lot of research was done by the English Heritage team behind the Dover Castle project, and might offer a guideline, especially as the emphasis at Norwich will be on the 12th century which is around the time Dover Castle’s great tower was built. Norwich’s keep was built between 1095 and 1100, while Dover’s was built during the reign of Henry II. Like its later counterpart, Norwich’s keep was built by the king of England and both are similarly proportioned: Norwich is 21m tall and measures 29m by 27 at the base, while Dover’s great tower is 25.3m high and about 30m by 30m. So straightaway it looks like some of the research underpinning the Dover project eight years ago will be appropriate at Norwich.

What was striking about Dover is the way the vibrant primary colours of the furniture and tapestries were transformed by the lighting. Under broad daylight, they looked gaudy but in the darker setting of the king’s apartments they suddenly looked much more stately.

It doesn’t matter how many times you are told that these places would have been lived in by the richest of society: it takes a formidable imagination to look at bare walls and try to picture these buildings as they appeared in their heyday. Maybe most of the money set aside for Norwich will go towards repairs and more muted restoration work, but I hope to see something similar to the work at Dover Castle.

An anniversary 800 years in the making

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The heritage skills centre was added as part of the castle’s refurbishment. Photo by Richard Nevell, CC-BY-SA 3.0.

When you have an 800-year anniversary coming up, you can’t claim to be short of time to prepare. That’s why Lincolnshire County Council have spent years planning and implementing the refurbishment of Lincoln Castle. The castle houses one of just four surviving originals of the first time Magna Carta was issued. As such, it can expect a lot of attention in 2015, especially round the anniversary of the charter.

Preparations were announced about this time three years ago. The aims were to repair the curtain walls, create a new display room for Magna Carta and restore the post-medieval prisons. This was all done with an eye towards driving up visitor numbers (it would be interesting to see the starting figure but I can’t find that information).

As it happens, the renovation and building work meant archaeologists were asked to investigate the area and check what the potential impact would be on archaeological deposits. This led to the discovery of a Saxon church, complete with a sarcophagus burial. Even this couldn’t delay the project, which it seems will finish on time.

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The Observatory Tower being renovated in 2013. Photo by Richard Nevell, CC-BY-SA 3.0.

The final stage of the work has seen the castle closed for three-months and it re-opens to the public on Wednesday 1 April.

What I have found most impressive is the planning that has gone into it. From the start, the public has been kept in the loop and artists impressions have helped people understand how the castle will look, especially important when an otherwise impressive site is shrouded in scaffolding and green netting. It was made early on that the castle would be closed for a set period, but that it would be better once reopened. Even while the work was going on, visitors were still allowed in and the usual events took place such the Lincoln Christmas Market and classic car shows. Almost business as usual.

The total cost for this project? £22 million.

View from the battlements: Pennington Castle, Cumbria

In early February I stumbled across news that Google Earth was going to be made freely available, waiving the $400 it had previously cost to subscribe. Before then I had never really paid it much attention, so read up a bit on what you can do with Google Earth. The thing which stuck out was that you can use it to examine the viewshed of a particular point.

When reading about a castle, you typically find that it view is described as ‘impressive’ or words to that effect. Software such as GIS allows you to quantify that statement. GIS software often comes with a hefty licence fee, and while there are free alternatives Google Earth was incredibly simple to use.

The method for creating a viewshed in Google Earth is explained here. As soon as I tracked down this information, I started using it to look at castle sites. The first place I turned to was Pennington on the Furness Peninsula. As I worked at Buckton Castle I become more interested in the ringwork castles of the North West. Pennington struck me as the most interesting, particularly because its history is opaque, it hasn’t been excavated, and the site is has regularly been included on English Heritage’s annual ‘At Risk’ registers.

I have tried to get in touch with the owners of the property with little success, so the viewshed tool offered a small way to learn a bit more about the castle. The area is based on land visible from a point 10m above ground level, assuming there was a tower of some sort. As can be seen below, areas north and west of the castle were hardly visible, while there was a much clearer view to the south and east. This helps understand why the entrance is on the south side of the ringwork, aside from the route of Pennington Beck, a small stream which flows through the area. The south and east is evidently where most of the traffic would have been coming from.

This is a simplistic approach, but complimented by manorial records to and local history could lead to a more in-depth understanding of the area and why the castle was built.

Pennington viewhed

A new future for Leicester Castle

A brick building

The great hall at Leicester was once part of the castle. Photo by Helen Wells, CC-BY 2.0.

On the quiet, Leicestershire has quite a good line in castles. There’s Kirby Muxloe, Ashby-de-la-Zouche, and if you don’t mind 19th-century architecture masquerading as something else Belvoir Castle stands on the site of a Norman fortification. Despite this, not many people know that the city of Leicester has its own castle.

Nestled in the corner of the Roman city near the River Soar, the castle was built in the 11th century. It was held by the Earls of Leicester until 1265 when Simon de Montfort was defeated at the battle of Evesham, and the castle came under royal control. As tends to happen, later urban development has disguised the castle. You wouldn’t know it to look at its reworked exterior, but the great hall dates from the 12th century. In fact when Leicester Castle was slighted in the 1170s after the Earl of Leicester rebelled against Henry II, the hall was left untouched. That’s where my particular interest lies.

It is the great hall, where the Parliament of Bats was held in 1426, that is the subject of some recent news. In a nice piece of historical symmetry, a recent development has the effect of bringing De Montfort back to the castle.

Rather than this being another internment along the lines of Richard III (who will be buried in Leicester in late March), the university bearing the earl’s name has leased the great hall from the city council and will be turning it into a business school.

As recently as 1992 the building was used as a courthouse, but since then it’s struggled to find a use. While I was a first year undergraduate student (back in 2007) at the University of Leicester as part of one of our modules we were split into groups and asked to come up with proposals for ways of using and maintaining Leicester’s historic buildings. My group was given the great hall; I don’t entirely recall what we suggested (probably a museum of some sort) though I do recall that one of our early ideas was to turn it into a venue along the lines of Laser Quest!

There are two highly encouraging aspects of the news. First of all is that the hall will be open to the public. This has been a rarity in the recent past. Secondly, De Montfort University will restore the building, helping to preserve a structure while regularly appears on English Heritage’s At Risk register.

Good news all round.

For more on Leicester Castle Levi Fox’s history of the site, written in the 1940s, is a good place to start.

Long Live the Monograph – archaeology and e-books

In the closing months of 2012 the Centre for Applied Archaeology at the University of Salford published a monograph on the excavations at Buckton Castle. I had been involved with several seasons of the digging there and was fascinated by the site. I wrote about it in a first-year essay, am still writing about it now in my post-graduate research, and in 2012 I was one of three authors of the final volume of the Archaeology of Tameside series. I was delighted to learn that not only was there an e-book, which is important in making the information accessible to a wide audience, but that the first chapter would be free to access. The post summarises the situation nearly two years ago. Progress is slow, and while English Heritage announced at the end of 2014 that they were making PDFs of 84 of their out-of-print monographs there is still a huge amount of information out there which can be difficult or expensive to access if your local library doesn’t have what you need. Digital copies of monographs and journals are integral to helping the spread of information.

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From the 1st May 2013 the Centre for Applied Archaeology at the University of Salford will be offering publications such as this, on Buckton Castle, in e-book form. From the 1st May 2013 the Centre for Applied Archaeology at the University of Salford will be offering publications such as this, on Buckton Castle, in e-book form.

The rise of electronic publication is one of the more striking cultural shifts of the last decade. Supported by better quality screens and new personal data-devices such as smart phones, tablets, and e-book readers it is now normal to see commuters on trams, trains, and buses with their noses in the latest fiction e-book. Most universities have electronic data stores of academic research, whilst e-journals pioneered the introduction of this technology within academia.

Archaeology as a discipline has been slow to take up this technology, beyond the e-journal market and the pressures of the publishing houses. Thus, nearly a decade ago one of the period archaeology societies I have been involved with at a committee level for many years was approached by…

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