On Conjecture and Comprehension
Updated: Aug 23, 2019
We have a broken vault, and we have graffiti. We have sardine tins, soft drink bottles from the 70s just beginning to develop a silvery patina. We have plastic bags, bullet casings, rusty nails. We have a great deal of grey dirt. We have a great pile of stone ranging from pebbles and shattered fist-size splinters to large cubes of soft, almost friable limestone; from beautifully cut snow-white ashlars with fine chiselling and neatly incised masons' marks, to huge, roughly-shaped blocks of hard limestone with pockets of flint. And we have bones: leg bones, jaw bones, rib bones, pig bones, goat bones, chicken bones. We have tiny bones the thickness of needles, skulls the size of an apple seed with tiny, perfect sharp teeth - from lizards perhaps. We have beams of wood, so soft and pliable that upon removing the stones above them they crumble into a chocolaty-brown soil. We have cut branches of ancient firewood, soft and spongy. We have some cut window glass, one piece bottle green, but mostly colourless. Our bounty is impressive.
We do not have beautifully carved Gothic keystones. We have no coins (but for one dated 1949), we have no pieces of a medieval icon and we are yet to find painted arrow shafts, a wooden bowl or the felt sole of a child's shoe.* With one week to go on this season I fear that the shiny discovery that will bring us notification in the media will not materialize. But I am by no means disappointed. For what we do have in abundance is acquired knowledge. We have seen events that have been forgotten since they occurred. For seven and a half centuries no one knew that in 1266, during the first siege of Montfort, the Mamluks so heavily bombarded the castle with projectiles that the upper storey of the Western building collapsed and a large portion of the vaulting of the magnificent ceremonial hall below it collapsed as well. With their most splendid building in ruins the garrison shored up the remains with temporary makeshift walls, carried pieces of the fallen masonry down to stack in the still standing basement, perhaps hoping to reuse them in the future when conditions improved. In the final days during the siege of 1271 the brothers used the ruined hall to house their livestock (or to keep butchered carcasses) and on a mezzanine floor in the vault below they stored firewood for the cooking that now took place in the former ceremonial hall. The siege of 1266 changed conditions in the formerly luxurious castle. Possibly most of the upper storeys had been damaged and much of the activities may now have moved down from the beautifully decorated vaults with their carvings, wall paintings and stained-glass windows into the comparatively exiguous service rooms below. Among other things, this season has given us an eye into conditions in a castle under siege.
*These items were among the discoveries made in the adjacent vault in 1926.