Happy Birthday Wikipedia!

#4 on the list really shows how important it is to engage with online media to get the public to share in heritage

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Recently I produced a video putting Wressle Castle in its landscape context. The idea is to briefly illustrate the results of a landscape survey. I’ve put this post together to explain how I created the video with free software.

To start with, here’s the video itself:

It was inspired by a paper in Internet Archaeology “Google Under-the-Earth: Seeing Beneath Stonehenge using Google Earth – a Tool for Public Engagement and the Dissemination of Archaeological Data”. If you don’t want to click that link, it discusses how Google Earth can be used to create a landscape tour, showing features, locations of trench, and including a voice-over.  The purpose is to use Google Earth as an outreach tool.

I started out by establishing what it was I wanted the video to show and to write a script for the voice-over. The video starts out by putting Wressle into the context of northern England, highlighting some notable properties owned by the family who built the castle. It then zooms in to the parish of Wressle, showing key features such as the nearby river and the village. Finally it zooms in again to focus on the area immediately surrounding the castle.

Once I worked out what I wanted to show, the next step was marking it out on Google Earth.  It’s now free to use, and you can plot points and areas, labelling key features or showing the outlines of certain features as you choose. I then recorded the audio track, first on my phone and later using a USB microphone hooked up to my computer with Audacity for better audio quality. Audacity also allows you to edit the sound file. The audio track gave me a framework for the video around which I could base the timings for moving the camera. What I did notice was that as soon as I sat in front of a microphone and tried to read from a piece of paper it was very easy to trip over what I was saying. Rather than trying to do it all in one take, I recorded one or two sentences at a time. It was a bit painstaking, but worked in the end.

Google Earth has a tour function which will move the camera round in a manner you decide. However, as I wanted to sync the video to the audio, I felt I could do it by hand. I created pins on the map for key landmarks mentioned in the audio, and they appeared in the menu on the left. By double clicking on them in the menu, the camera smoothly zoomed in towards them. Check boxes allow you to toggle what appears, so if you want an invisible point which you can zoom to, you can still use the pins. I used the polygon option to create outlines of features such as ponds or gardens. By right clicking and choosing options you could alter the colour or fill of the shape.

To record what I had on my screen I installed Microsoft Expression, a free piece of software which allows you to capture all or part of what you see on your screen as a video. Google Earth has a toolbar on the left-hand side which lists the points you’ve marked. If you double click on one of those, the camera zooms to that point. You can also use the mouse to pan around. With the audio track playing so I got the timings right, I double clicked on the points I wanted the viewer to see and recorded the video.

Microsoft Movie Maker is another piece of free software, but is often installed on Windows computers by default unlike Expression. It allows you to shuffle video and audio about, trim it if you want, make sure they’re synced up, and add in still images in this case to complement the audio.

Altogether, a three-minute video probably took about 10 hours with drafting, re-drafting, recording audio, syncing it to the visuals, getting feedback and adjusting accordingly.

If by this point you’re still reading, I’d love to hear your feedback on the video so feel free to leave a comment below.

How to create a landscape tour

Warwick Castle’s identity issue

It’s five years since I visited Warwick Castle. I spent a long day visiting Kenilworth and Warwick. Kenilworth was my priority, but since I was in the area visiting a friend at the University of Warwick it seemed like a good opportunity to visit Warwick Castle.

The contrast between the two is stark. Whereas Kenilworth is the pride of English Heritage – with high visitor numbers, guided tours, a spectacular great tower, sprawling ruins – Warwick is a business. The cost of entry if near enough £25 for an adult, and that’s if you don’t want to visit the dungeon. But what’s the point of going if you’re not going to at least see the dungeon?

The courtyard at Warwick Castle is a bustling place and there are regulars shows of one sort or another: archery, birds of prey, guided tours, and sometimes jousting. When I visited this was interesting, but not the reason I was there so I skipped by most of it.

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The courtyard at Warwick Castle. Photo by John Mueller, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

By Merlin Group’s estimates, more than £6 million has been spent on repairs, restorations, and maintenance in the space of a decade.

The key difference between Warwick and Kenilworth is encapsulated by what you can take home with you. At the English Heritage property you can buy a lavishly illustrated guidebook with up-to-date interpretations. If you want to read about it at home they have online resources where you can read as much as you like. At Warwick, there was none (or at the very least I somehow missed it).

And that sums it up. Warwick Castle is treated as a theme park rather than a gateway to our history. That much is abundantly clear from Merlin’s other properties which include Thorpe Park and Alton Towers and its own website where they refer to it as such. This is not a universally popular approach, as demonstrated when Merlin Group proposed to build lodges and tents in a protected historic landscape known as Foxes Study. The Warwick Society are leading the opposition to the proposal.

On the one hand, the commercial nature of the property has funded its repairs and restoration. For context English Heritage’s recent budgets have typically set aside £16 million for maintenance spread across a portfolio of 420 sites. The average spending of £600,000 a year at Warwick is a considerable investment. If commercial considerations at Warwick are limited, it is worth considering who else could take the burden of maintenance.

More pressing than money is the fact that this castle is one of the most important in England. Any changes to the castle and its landscape must take that into account. I had more fun going round Kenilworth with its atmospheric ruins, rich historic, and engaging tours. Perhaps not everyone would, but it is certainly possible to enhance a site sensitively. It is also important to consider how much Merlin have contributed to our understanding of the site’s history. Considering there isn’t so much as a guidebook I’m not sure what that contribution is. For English Heritage, guidebooks at the accessible way to frame the most up-to-date work on sites. Merlin have the resources to invest a huge amount in understanding the castle.

But in the end perhaps a castle shouldn’t be a theme park?

Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society

It’s always a delight to see society’s make their publications open access, and hopefully it paves the way for other groups. The decision to upload volumes after ten years strikes me as a sensible approach.

CBA North

Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society

The Archaeology Data Service and the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society have announced the release of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society Transactions archive.

For further details of this are on the ADS website, see http://dx.doi.org/10.5284/1032950  Here you will find all of the Transactions volumes published from 1874 up to 2006, with the years 2007-2014 articles available in abstract form.

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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!

3D models

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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Ex Historia 7

The latest volume of Ex Historia was published today, and is available for free through the University of Exeter’s website. First published in 2009, it is run by post-graduate students at Exeter, and accepts submissions from around the country. The journal is entirely online, which cuts down on costs, but laid out like a print journal like the Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports.

For the last two volumes I have helped out as a subject editor, and it’s been a rewarding process to see the finished work. From my point of view it’s good to read about something other than castles and practice feedback skills. Compared to the amount of time I spend on other work, it doesn’t take very long.

Once the subject editors have given the articles a once over they’re sent of to experts for thorough review. So if you have a research paper you’d like feedback on, or have a book review in mind, I strongly recommend getting in touch with the Ex Historia team when they put out a call for papers latter in the year.

Now go ahead and check the journal out.

The journey of a library book

I’m not the best at returning library books, so I prefer to read in the library whenever possible and only borrow a book if I need to. A few times I’ve ended up with books in my possession longer than I should, and reminder email leave me crestfallen. But what if there was a better way to ask for books back? The Library of the Society of Antiquaries of London may have hit upon the most whimsical solution possible:

Librarians, like shepherds,
Purvey their pastoral care,
And whilst no wolves or leopards
Their dire intent declare,

Through time, and slow detrition,
The grander glories fade;
Books, borrowed for a mission,
Are frequently mislaid.

They are not dead, but sleeping,
The books that Fellows hold,
And some improve with keeping;
Their content turns to gold.

Yet underneath the dirt with
Octavos on those shelves
Which dusters rarely flirt with,
Stray volumes lose themselves.

For ages disregarded
That library book may be,
Whose absence has retarded
A pending Ph.D.

One journal’s single issue
That must have been misplaced –
Alas, how much we miss you!
Your partners go to waste.

Our books are seldom weighted
With marks of ownership;
Not one has yet been fated
To bear the bar-code’s strip.

So seemly is their binding
You’d take them for your own;
Excuse us for reminding,
You have a three-month loan.

You will discern no class-marks
Imprinted on the spines;
We deem such things are crass marks,
Nor do we scourge with fines

The Fellow who produces
A book long overdue;
For volumes have their uses,
And scholars are but few.

Dear Fellows, we importune
You: bring what books you hoard;
Be ours the glad good fortune
To see them all restored.

Why, then you’ll hear us voicing
A loud and cheerful sound;
For great is the rejoicing
When what was lost, is found.

I’m not entirely sure, but I think it was written by Adrian James, the Assistant Librarian. At the very least, it brightened my day and reminded me of a couple of books I need to return (though not to the Society).

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.