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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Locating the Stables

A large part of the appeal of archaeology lies in the fact that one never knows what one is going to uncover. It is perhaps one of the more unpredictable professions. A dentist, going into his clinic in the morning has a fairly good idea of what he is going to encounter in the coming hours. There can be few surprises, one hopes, for the airline pilot when he settles into his seat in the cockpit for a flight from Heathrow to Kennedy. But it is my experience that even when at the commence of a season we have a fair idea of what we expect to find, we are inevitably surprised by the outcome at season's end, indeed, often at the end of each day. We always discover something that we had not anticipated. This has been true of every excavation that I have participated in. Certainly it is the case at Montfort Castle.

In 2014, quite by chance we stumbled on the castle's stable. Stables were an important component in any fortress, notably so in a military order castle where the garrison would include several knights and other mounted warriors, and all the more so in the case of a castle that served as the Teutonic order's principal headquarters, and sometime residence of its top administrators including the Grand Master himself. A number of war horses would be present in any castle, but also sumpters or pack animals, which in the Levant meant not only donkeys and mules, but camels as well. And it was not simply one animal per person. The Templar Rule lists four horses for a knight commander, three mounts for a brother knight and an extra one for a squire, and two horses for brother sergeants with special duties.* That adds up to quite a lot of horses.

Our acquaintance with stables of the crusader period is somewhat limited. Written sources mention them on occasion, and the great Templar stable of Jerusalem, the Stabula Salomonis, is described in some detail (with some obvious exaggeration) by the German pilgrim, John of Wurzburg c. 1160, who recorded "...a wonderful stable of such size that it is able to contain more than two thousand horses or fifteen hundred camels", and by his compatriot, Theoderich, a few years later: "...a wondrous and intricate building resting on piers and containing an endless compilation of arches and vaults, which stable, we declare, according to our reckoning, could take in ten thousand horses with their grooms."** There are, however, only a few stables that have been exposed in archaeological excavations, for example, at Templar Chateau Pelerin ('Atlit) and recently at Hospitaller 'Arsuf (Apollonia).

From the very first season at Montfort we had pondered over the location of the stable. It had not been identified by the 1926 expedition of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, although the location of limited stabling features were observed in the small vestibule between the castle keep and the adjacent domestic building, and in one of the two basement vaults under the Great Hall. These were too limited in size to provide space for more than a few animals and we assumed that the main stable area would be located in the lower ward, as indeed proved to be the case. But in a castle the size of Montfort, and one in such a ruinous and overgrown condition, the precise location would be guesswork and might take years to locate. The only thing we had to go on was the likelihood that they would be positioned adjacent or very near to one of the castle gates.

In our fifth season at Montfort we decided to extend our excavations in an area on one side of a gate on the outer northern wall. It was a space overgrown with small trees and scrub, and the surface, where it could be observed between the rampant growth of sage bushes, was littered with fallen rubble, debris from the collapsed buildings of the upper ward that had been dismantled by Baybars in the aftermath of the siege of 1271. When these buildings had collapsed, the rubble came crashing down on both sides to the north and south, and where it struck the outer fortification walls, it caused sections of them to collapse and fall down the slope. That had been the case it this area, so that, to the east of a section of the outer wall still standing and the above-mentioned gate, a whole part of the massive defencive wall had fallen away. The area we chose to excavate was between the gate and the next section of still standing wall several metres further to the east. No actual construction could be observed here, and at the beginning of the season we were not at all certain that we would find anything of substance. However, by the end of two seasons we had uncovered the remains of a fairly large, elongated structure, and from various components and numerous small finds we were able to securely identify this area as the castle stables.

This flagstone paved originally had a flat roof supported on pillars, arches and wooden beams. There were mangers along the entire length of one side (south) cut into the rising bedrock at an appropriate height for feeding horses. At the far end was what may have been a small walled-in shoeing area, and beyond that, at a slightly higher level was a second, larger structure of similar design that may have been a second stable. Among the numerous small finds identifying the function of this building were tools (an axe, spade, sickle, mortars and pestles), horseshoes, hundreds of horseshoe nails, a harness buckle, spur studs, iron chains, iron rings set into the floor for tethering, and a bell of the type that might be fastened to a pack animal.

* J.M. Upton-Ward, The Rule of the Temple, Woodbridge, 1989, nos. 132, 138, 143.

** John of Wurzburg, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 5, trans. Aubrey Stewart, London 1896, p. 21 and Theoderich, Ibid., p. 31.

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