On Collateral Damage and Great Expectations
Updated: Feb 22, 2019
As a child I once received a beautiful gift from an old lady, a friend who lived nearby and who knew of my delight in nature. It was a paper nautilus, a pure white, fluted shell, actually the floating egg-case of a small octopus, thin indeed as paper, and as fragile as an eggshell. I treasured this gift, but sadly, a gust of wind shattered it into tiny fragments. Sometimes it is only when something of value is lost that we realise its worth, or only when it is threatened with destruction that we consider taking steps to save it.
Underneath Montfort Castle there is a two-storey building which is something of an enigma. Located well outside of the castle's defences, at the bottom of the valley to the north, exposed and vulnerable, its function has never been clear. It has been variously suggested as having served as an infirmary, a chapel and a guesthouse, the latter being the generally preferred choice, though the housing of guests in an undefended and indefensible location is at the least, somewhat remarkable. The ground storey of the building served as a mill, once powered by water from the adjacent stream that was dammed to form a lake. The water was carried by an aqueduct to the back wall of the building where it flowed down chutes to turn the mill wheels. This mill may have been built already in the twelfth century, preceding the construction of the castle, which was begun in the 1220s, but it was during the life of the castle that the storey above the mill was added, and it shares the same elegant Gothic style of architecture. It consists of a hall of three rib-vaulted bays and a tower rising at its western end.
It has long been a dream of mine to excavate this hall, which is today covered with five metres or so of debris - most of the original vaulting, which collapsed in the summer of 1271 when the Mamluks dismantled the castle and the huge ashlars came crashing all the way down the hill, landing on its roof. The problem has been to find the considerable funds needed to construct scaffolding around the entire structure in order to enable it to withstand any instability that removal of the debris would cause. Recently a small section of the facade gave way and the entire structure is under threat of collapse, and it is ironically this damage that brought about an awareness of the urgent need to save this unique building and carry out a serious project of conservation, which, to my delight, necessitates excavations. Consequently the funding has been found, the scaffolding is up, and we will commence work this coming summer.
Unlike the castle on the hill above, which was intentionally dismantled, the destruction of this building appears to have been collateral damage caused by the huge stones of the castle's keep, which crashed down 200 metres and fell on its roof, and that may bode well for the possibility of material finds, as the hall may not have been ransacked prior to its destruction. But, as thirteen years of work on the castle has taught us, the outcome of excavations is always a surprise, always resulting in something quite different from what is expected. That indeed is a considerable part of the charm of my profession.