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Archaeological Arrogance?

The A55 expressway across North Wales passes many archaeological and historical sites. Many of them are preserved and respected, either by national bodies or in private ownership. Occasionally they are compromised by the whims of succeeding generations, for example the later road and rail bridges around Conwy Castle, but on the whole those which were deemed of sufficient importance were protected by legislation of one form or another.

One site I am writing about in my PhD thesis has disappeared from the landscape. I pass its former location twice a day as I drive from my house to the office and look up at the jagged hole in the skyline which was once the site of an Iron Age Hillfort.

This jagged hole was created because the solid geology which made up the Hillfort was Limestone, and the Limestone was needed to provide the flux in the blast furnaces for making steel at the nearby steelworks in Shotton, but what of the archaeological and historical significance of this site being removed lorry load by lorry load?

The most recent name for this site is Dinorben (Latitude 53.265522; Longitude -3.545362). The voracious appetite of the steelworks saw an intermittent programme of archaeological excavations from 1912 to 1978, with the result that the understanding of the archaeological context of the Hillfort is now well understood through various publications.

Or is it?

This Hillfort has previous, both archaeological and historical, which has been neglected in the drive to tell one story over another. In 1334, the Hillfort was recorded in ‘The Survey of the Honour of Denbigh’. This is one of the extents which I mentioned in a previous blog post (https://medievalparksgardensanddesignedlandscapes.wordpress.com/2013/06/23/si-longtemps-et-merci-pour-le-poisson/) and which were compiled in the Fourteenth century describing who owed what service to the ‘new’ English Lord of the Manor – who had replaced the Welsh Prince after the Edwardian Conquest of 1282-1283.

The Hillfort is known as ‘Pendinas’ (Top of the City) and is described as a wood of nearly five acres, covered with poor scrub and in the possession of Johannes of Rhuddlan. Whilst ‘Pendinas’ may have been the official name, by the time the archaeologists arrived in the early Twentieth century it was known as ‘Parc y Meirch’ (The Horse Park). The Hillfort defences were reused during the medieval period as the location of a horse stud, and if the horses were ill, then they could avail themselves of a holy well, dedicated to St. Siôr, titular saint of horses.

This narrative however, merited only the briefest of mentions in the archaeological reports produced on the site, and the archaeologists changed the name of the site from ‘Parc y Meirch’ to ‘Dinorben’ – the name of a land division. Quite why the archaeologists felt the need to change the name I’ve yet to fully decipher, but it appears that medieval name and story was known by the archaeologists, but it did not fit with the story they wished to tell.

To compound the issue further the medieval finds, consisting of horse shoes and pottery, were confined to an appendix of the main site report written in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The reason for this confinement may be because the principal archaeologist was a prehistorian, and again, the story was not the one which needed to be told.

Parc y Meirch is a very important site in terms of understanding how a medieval horse stud related to the wider landscape within my PhD study area. The side lining of one interpretation over another because it does not fit your personal archaeological aims can never help the overall understanding of a monument in a landscape, and ensuring that archaeological and historical evidence is presented in a balanced manner will always advance the archaeological agenda, even if you don’t agree with the findings, or even the name of the place you are excavating.

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That’s Amazing!…but can we make the castle look more Medieval…?

The reconstruction of archaeological or historical sites using computer software is something we now take for granted. Flying through a medieval Abbey in amongst the roof timbers or stone vaulting at height, or exploring the crisp lumps and bumps which make up a Bronze Age Barrow cemetery under construction is designed to reconnect us to a past which for one reason or another cannot be experienced through another medium.

The genre has a long history, and its roots can be traced to the matte painters who provided backdrops for feature films. Directors such as Cecil B DeMille made use of this technique to immerse the movie goer into a world which could not be built as a traditional set, but which the camera could traverse to enhance the experience. http://nzpetesmatteshot.blogspot.co.uk/ is a good place to start.

Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) reconstruction techniques are a combination of art and science, and as someone who has been fortunate enough to commission several of these I thought I’d take the time to explain some of the thought processes that go into their creation.

When you buy a guidebook for an archaeological or historical site, you invariably find within its pages a reconstruction drawing. This usually, but not always, depicts the site at the height of its occupational story arc, and will also depict at least some of the buildings as a cut-away, revealing the inside of particular building or buildings. With a CGI reconstruction the same principle applies, but the image is moving and not static.

What do I mean by ‘the height of its occupational story arc’? And who makes the decisions about what to illustrate and why?

The discussion about what to recreate with CGI is usually between the animator and the commissioner. I say ‘usually’ because anyone connected with the commission can offer an opinion / stick their oar in, if they feel their own particular specialism or historical viewpoint is not being envisaged. The CGI reconstruction usually depicts the site at the height of its use – when it presents the view which the site interpretor wants to get across as the most important (the height of the occupational story arc).

Occasionally a different approach is taken, for example depicting the destruction of the site (for example by fire) or a chronological view of the development of the site from beginning to end of its use. So when we are watching, what other things should we look at?

The weather is an important factor in the reconstruction. The reconstruction drawings of Alan Sorrell http://alansorrellproject.org/ are famous for their dramatic skies, and immediately provide a backdrop which focuses our attention on the action occurring beneath them. With CGI you can change the sky as you change the viewpoint, so if you want hardship in your narrative, make the sky darker.

Next time you look at CGI or a reconstruction drawing. Take time to read the narrative that goes with it, and think about how you could tell the story differently. After all, your opinion is as valid as anyone else’s in how you want to see the past interpreted.