Saturday, July 10, 2010

How to ... build a brand-new castle

One of the areas of history I find particularly interesting is known as 'experimental archaeology', or, in more comprehensible terms, trying out historical methods and equipment to see how they really work and what is different to how we thing they work. Aristotelian bending the brain alone has its place, but as anyone who works with their hands will tell you, book learning and theory won't cover all you need to do the job for real.

Large examples of experimental archaeology include the modern replica of an ancient Greek Trireme, Olympias (details here) and the modern recreation of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre (an earlier post on that here). In both cases they are not exact recreations of what they are exploring, but the compromises are (mostly) known and the lessons that have appeared as a result of building a recreation of 'the real thing' have changed our understanding of both Shakespearian theatre and Classical naval warfare - interestingly explaining some aspects of contemporary accounts that puzzled modern scholars and also opening avenues of questions and study previously unconsidered. I'd love to see Olympias in action, but maybe not be a rower (I'm too big to be an ancient Greek, since you ask) but I'm proud to have been a modern 'groundling' on the South Bank.

From the Chateau's website.

One might assume we know all there is to know about building a castle, and a new castle would be the ultimate in follies.

And they are building a castle, in France as the BBC reports:

Deep in the forests of central France, an unusual architectural experiment is half-way to completion, as a team of masons replicates in painstaking detail the construction of an entire medieval castle.

The ­Chateau de Guedelon was started in 1998, after local landowner Michel Guyot wondered whether it would be possible to build a castle from scratch, using only contemporary tools and materials.

What's interesting is what is coming out of the experiment already:

Experts are fascinated by what the experiment can teach about medieval building methods.

One example concerns lime kilns, used for making the mortar. Archaeologists had often wondered why they found traces of two separate kilns at construction sites.

Experience at Guedelon showed that, in a day's work, builders often needed to top up the mortar brought in from the main kiln with small amounts made close at hand. Hence the small second kiln actually inside the castle.

The discolouring of lime-based mortar is another revelation. Within one or two years of being laid, Guedelon's walls are already showing streaks of unsightly white where the lime is leaching.

Archaeologists think this is a clue to why medieval castles were very quickly plastered and painted: it was to hide the mess.


While currently it is being treated as an academically rigorous exercise, it started out as an 'eccentric pipe dream'. Also revealing is the need for a theoretical mediaeval 'owner' to centre the project around, rather than being able to run it as an abstract model. As one of the guides said:

"Funnily enough, we found that even though we knew we were being accurate, somehow the castle lacked soul. So we invented a character - the owner - who would have likes and dislikes, wanting this and not wanting that," says Ms Preston.

So how cool is that? Certainly it would add a je ne sais... mais exactement to studying a castle in school.

The BBC report here, and the official website is here and a Wiki entry here.