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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On a Return to the Past

Excavations in the east basement vault of the Great Hall, Montfort (courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

On 29 March 1926, the first workday of the first ever excavation of a crusader castle, William Calver decided that the best location to begin his examination of Montfort was in one of the two still-roofed chambers on the west side of the upper ward. The choice was a practical one: "Our hope in clearing this chamber was to provide a storage place for our working outfit and shelter for our working force."* The choice proved also to be a good one for the motivation it gave to the team with the prospect of important finds. The most remarkable material discoveries of the four-week excavations were made here during the first few days. Calver wrote:

"We made finds of pottery immediately, and within the course of a few days' labor we reached the floor of the chamber and recovered objects of interest, such as arrow points, pottery, small brass objects, two keystones of cruciform shape of the vaulting of the banqueting halls or other principal chambers which had existed above this chamber in which we were at work."

The finds they made were indeed "objects of interest". The two keystones had beautiful carved bosses. A huge one from the Great Hall was too large to carry down from the castle on camel-back, so its decorated boss carved with a cornflower was sawn off and is now on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (the keystone itself remains today lying on the floor of the chamber). The very fine, smaller keystone was decorated with oak leaves. It had fallen from the uppermost storey but had also survived in perfect condition. Other finds included beautiful stone matrices with various heraldic designs, possibly used to prepare decorated metal foil, and various rarely surviving wooden, leather and cloth objects such as a sandal, the sole of a child's felt shoe, pieces of gilded wood possibly from furniture, painted arrow shafts and part of a painted icon, a unique find from an archaeological excavation.

Calver believed that this basement chamber had been a stable or workshop. An identical adjacent chamber to its west could only be partly excavated "...owing to the precarious condition of the wall", and only a single object of importance was recovered from there - a rib stone from the Gothic vaulting of the chamber two storeys above, painted with a fleur-de-lis that was probably part of the Teutonic heraldry that had decorated the ceiling of what may have been the castellan's residence.

Ninety-three years later the adjacent chamber has at last been stabilized and we now have the opportunity to excavate it. As with the chamber that Calver excavated, material from the Great Hall and from the chambers above may have fallen here, and our expectations for making interesting and perhaps important discoveries over the coming four weeks are consequently high. But if there is one thing I have learnt in many years in this profession and in thirteen years of work at this particular castle, it is that archaeology is the art of the unexpected.

2 August 2019

*Calver's unpublished report of June 17, 1926, now in the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. For a discussion of the Metropolitan Museum's expedition see Adrian Boas, "The Metropolitan Museum of Art Expedition to Montfort (1926)", in Adrian J. Boas and Rabei G. Khamisy (eds.), Montfort. History, Early Research and Recent Studies, Leiden and Boston, 2017, pp. 75-92.

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