To an archaeologist, context is everything. Show them a find and because they invariably know what it is from the vast store of broken objects in their head, the question will be “Where did you find it?”. Sometimes however, the relationship between context and object becomes eroded, or even worse, lost completely. The object can sometimes then take on a life of its own, generating a history and archaeology which can hamper its further interpretation or reinterpretation.
Caernarfon Castle (Latitude 53.139370; Longitude -4.2769593) is one of the most famous castles in Wales, and probably Europe (with perhaps a bit of North America and Canada thrown in for good measure). It’s big, bold, brash, iconic and an illustration of the power of the myth that is King Arthur.
The last one? Really?
The history narrative the majority of people know, and more importantly believe in, is that written by the victors. And as a consequence certain phrases assembled from the narrative become part of the stock phrases of description, ‘Edward the First’s Iron Ring of Castles’ is almost always included for example – just type it into a search engine of your choice just to see how ubiquitous it has become.
Over time, the archaeological context between the castle and the town has slowly been eroded, with the excavations within the castle walls being small scale, piecemeal affairs and excavations around the castle walls having to contend with the 19th and 20th development and redevelopment of the Slate Quay (to the south of the castle) and the former medieval quay (to the west of the castle).
The construction of the principal Local Council Administrative Offices (to the north of the castle) during the 1980s and the development of Castle Square, known in Welsh as ‘Y Maes’ – The Field (to the east of the castle), most recently in 2009, have all made for a very different experience for today’s visitor, compared to their medieval predecessor.
Where can we visit then, to gain at least some idea of the original context of the current Caernarfon Castle, and its predecessor, the original Caernarfon motte and bailey Castle?
I lived in Caernarfon for six years, and during this time, part of my PhD research concentrated on the landscape context of the Castle, Town Walls and its hinterland. Which is when I found this view.
I’ve never seen this image published in any of the academic books on the subject, and it gives a very good idea of how the castles (built one on top of each other) could be seen in the wider high status landscape of the associated medieval park.
I identified the park from a combination of aerial photographs, tithe and ordnance survey maps, fieldwork and place name studies. The fieldwork proved to be particularly rewarding, with the pebble-dashed building in the centre left of the image marking the eastern edge of the park boundary and surviving banks and ditches are visible on the northern side. From the point of view of high-status vistors availing themselves of the facilities available in the park, both the Welsh Princes of Gwynedd and the subsequent English Crown enjoyed the same opportunities, if not quite the same view.
What ever you may think of the current Caernarfon Castle, it is certainly an impressive backdrop to a landscape created and managed by the Royalty they deposed. And importantly provides some context for the reasons behind the construction of the Edwardian Castle on the shore of the Menai Straits.