Construction of Medieval Roundhouse at Beeston Castle

Tue, May 11th 2021 at 1:30 pm - 2:15 pm

Edwin Wood talks to the club about Experimental Archaeology at Beeston Castle
VOT and report David Fishburne


                                             Roundhouse at Beeston Castle

Hello everyone. Today I am going to talk to you about a recent experimental archaeology project at Beeston Castle. But first, let’s fill in a bit of background. We tend to think of Beeston as a Medieval site, because that is what’s there to see. About 900 years ago this week Ranulf, 6th Earl of Chester, stood on that cliff top, with his surveyor and his Master Mason, discussing how they would cut a trench in the rock just below the crest. This would supply the material to build the fortress and at the same time, form a dry moat to improve the defences. In 1222 work started work on his castle, the remains of which we see today. But these were not the first fortifications at Beeston. If we can wind back more than twice as far: another 21 centuries to about 900 BC, we will find our ancestors hard at work building an earth rampart, half way up the hill, to defend their settlement from hostile neighbours as well as wild animals. Even these busy people were not the first inhabitants of the Crag. There is evidence of human occupation that goes back into pre-history as far again, more than 5,000 years in total, with flint tools from the Neolithic being found on the hill. + 2 350 feet above the Cheshire plain, this sandstone outcrop has, for millenia provided a vantage point, a safe haven, and dry feet in a vast wetland. With views from the Pennines to the Welsh mountains, from the Wrekin to the Mersey, it is little surprise that some of our earliest ancestors chose to make their homes there. Archaeological excavations back in the 1980s, looking for evidence from the Medieval occupation, revealed signs of human occupation of the site from the Messolithic, taking us back more than 6000 years. By the Neolithic people were living, hunting and farming on the sandstone ridge. These flint tools, dating from 3,000 BC, were found at Beeston. Surprise finds included a complete metal working workshop with moulds, crucibles, foundry waste as well as finished bronze tools and weapons. There was a quern stone for grinding grain, and loom weights from the weaving process. 2,000 years later, in the late Bronze Age, there was a settled community of skilled crafts people who were weaving, farming and metal working. These Bronze age settlers built the first earth rampart, which probably had a wooden palisade on top of it. The outer defensive ditch, which can be seen on the line of the green pathway, was dug later, in the Iron Age, and was originally much deeper. The stone walls, built on the Bronze Age ramparts, are Medieval, from the date of Ranulf’s Castle. Ground Penetrating Radar scans of the site revealed 9 circles of post holes, ranging in size from 4 to 9 metres diameter. This indicated a cluster of round houses dating from the late Bronze age, about 900 BC. Located within the protective earthworks, below the Medieval castle, these were the homes and workshops of the people who lived there. To build on this rich history, English Heritage, who own the site, decided to commission the construction of a replica bronze age building. It’s purpose would be to illustrate the pre-historic activity on the site with a substantial visitor attraction, hopefully increasing visitor revenue, and also to enhance the educational resources. The work was led by experienced experimental archaeologist, Luke Winter, with a team of 16 local volunteers. These were mostly retired but included a younger couple who took time out to join the project, and a young graduate, who was rewarded for his volunteering with a paid job on site. To avoid confusion with the Medieval context of the castle it was decided to build in a dis-used stone quarry on the hill. This had provided the stone to build the Victorian Peckforton Castle, so there was no risk of disturbing hidden archaeology. To speed things up the site was cleared by contractors at the end of 2018 before the build team started. Luke Winter was determined to use the build as a research project, to investigate how such structures could have been built originally. To that end, materials were mostly sourced on site, or from other nearby English Heritage properties and we worked using only tools and methods which could have been available at the time. Many activities were carefully timed, measured and recorded, using Bronze tools, before he allowed us steel axes to speed things ools ready ite clearedup. These proved equal to bronze on some tasks but twice as fast on others. No saws or power tools were allowed on site. The first big job was to select and cut to length 14 oak posts, and another 14 oak beams to form the wall plates. We then spent upwards of 3 weeks stripping away all the bark from them. he next task was to cut a 4” diameter at the top of each post, and corresponding mortice holes in each end of each length of wall plate. The wall plates also needed a halving joint cutting at each end so that they would fit snugly when fitted on top of the posts. Again, much of this work was achieved with bronze tools. The heavy oak posts had to be moved into position. Here we are using a trolley. We do know that wheels were in use from 2000 years earlier than this in Europe but, had they not been available on site they would have been substituted by more manpower. reparing bers Bark strippingTo raise the 6 metre long centre posts we constructed an A frame. This was used to reduce the angle of pull as the huge log started to rise from horizontal. After a couple of false starts the first post is finally in position and secured safely, much to the relief of the team. Now it’s just a matter of hard work getting all the posts erected in their correct locations, true to the footprint of the original building. he ra e ready irst ost appy tea We are replicating one of the larger houses with an internal diameter of 8 metres. The next process is to fit the heavy oak wall plates over the tennons at the top of each post. With two wall plates coming together over each post we also needed to check and adjust the halving joints to achieve a snug fit. Now it is a matter of keeping going until we have jointed and fitted all 11 wall plates at the eaves and a triangle of 3 at the top of the building to support the roof. Here we see the finished oak frame, with a ring of wall plates all linked together over the posts, a bit like a bicycle chain, giving the building considerable integral strength. The taller centre posts will support the roof. ak posts going up i ng the wallplates25 larch rafters, cut from the Beeston woodland park, are stripped of bark and raised to form the skeleton of the roof. Each rafter is secured by lashing with Jute rope and firmly fixed with a driven oak peg, top and bottom. No movement there then! 17 rings of flexible hazel laths are tied in with jute twine, forming concentric circles up the roof, ready to support the thatch. The wattle and daub walls are formed by fixing upright posts between the wall plate and another beam at floor level. Wands of flexible hazel are then tightly woven to form a mesh, rather like a hurdle made in situ. The walls are then sealed by pressing a mixture of mud and reed into the wattle, with a team member working from each side, smoothing it as they work. The thatching work starts with a heavy continuous roll of reed tied together, fixed at the eaves The bundles of thatch are secured in place with thin hazel rods, tried down to the laths with jute twine. Note the homemade thatching needles on the right picture, which are used to thread the twine through the reed. Sadly, we had to source the reed for the roof from eastern Europe, as we learned that Norfolk reed is all pre booked by UK thatchers 3 years ahead. Our bronze age builders might well have had water reed available locally. Alternatively, they could have used bracken, nettles or wheat straw to thatch with. We will never know, but I don’t expect they brought it fro Ro ania. The aluminium ladders were an English Heritage concession to health and safety. nd up they goWe needed to make quite a lot of square joinery timber. We became quite proficient at splitting this from round logs using oak wedges, then dressing it square using bronze adzes and axes. The door posts were split, cut and rebated in much the same way. We found the bronze adze particularly good for cutting the rebates. The main doors were made from split and hewn planks with a woven willow infill, which was secured into groves cut on the inside edges of the frame. The hinge is formed by one of the upright timbers being longer, shaped to a dowel which locates into the upper and lower members of the outer frame. The entrance gate to the compound is going to pivot in the same way. This shows the heel stone ready to receive the back end of the gate. Here we see the skeleton of the gate hung within its frame. Note how we have let the shape of the wood dictate the outline of the gate. The finished gate contains no metal of any description. The frame is mortice and tenoned and the riven oak slats are fixed to the gate with oak pegs. We know that our Bronze age people were skilled craftsmen, undoubtedly much more so than we are, but a great deal of their everyday lives is lost to us because much of what they used was organic and has not survived. Anaerobic ground conditions preserved this wooden bowl which was found on the suite of Terminal 5 at Heathrow airport in 2010. It dates from well before the Beeston site and is far from crude. Along side is a replica which I made. There were no plastic carrier bags, Tupperware or aluminium buckets. Several hundred years before the Beeston site was built, Ozti the Ice Man was crossing the Alps with two birch bark containers in his back pack. It would be a surprise if the occupants of birch clad Beeston Crag were not using something similar. Other examples of superb Bronze Age craftsmanship are seen in the furniture in the Egyptian tombs from 3,000 BC, A remarkably designed and engineered wooden wheel from Lubljiana in Slovenia of similar date, and the sea going boat from Dover in 1550 BC.

'What We Do' Main Pages:

Paul Harris Fellowship by Cliff Dochterman RI President, l992-93

more  

General Privacy Statement issued by RIBI

more  

Club Diary July 2019 to June 2020

more  

International Committee

more  

Art and Handwriting Competitions

more  

Environment Plan

more  

Charter and Other Special Anniversaries

more  

Club Bulletins in PDF

more