Please fund my Cutting Edge PhD Research…

Funding. Apparently even in these times of austerity it is available for cutting edge research…unless of course the people holding the purse strings don’t realise what you are researching is cutting edge.

And that is my problem in a nutshell.

I’m working on a topic which straddles the disciplines of archaeology, history, literature and art. It is also designed to enhance the information about some of the most iconic castles and landscapes which dot North Wales and the borderlands. I’ve written, so far, 122 letters to charities and other bodies asking for financial assistance.

So far, nothing.

All of the letters were speculative, and aimed at organisations I thought either would, should or may have an interest in my research. Attached to the letter I e-mailed was my most recent published article on my research and my CV to show my publication record.

Some e-mails went unanswered, even after three attempts, (once a week to ensure that they were not missed in the volume of other e-mails that might have been arriving in the same inbox). Some replies were perfunctory, stating simply they did not fund individuals, others more generous with encouragement to complete my research in their refusals to assist.

Others provided links to other organisations which they thought might be able to assist, and these were dutifully followed up – although to no avail.

Which all leaves me in an odd situation. I can stand in a room of my peers and relate my research – to which I invariably receive the question “You honestly can’t find funding!”. Which suggests that there is funding out there for this kind of multi-disciplinary work, but that for some reason I’ve yet to find out who controls it.

I’m signed up to restart my PhD this September at Manchester Metropolitan University, and I could of course borrow the money as a Career Development Loan – which is fine in theory – but if money like this is available as a loan – then where is the equivalent grant for researchers in situations like me.

I’m not saying my research is the most worthwhile cause that could be funded, but I’m certain that what I’m working on will have long term repercussions for the discipline as a whole. And if future generations of archaeologists can look at my work and build upon it, I’ve done the best I can.

If you think you can assist or if you think you know someone who can and you pass this on to them. Thank You.


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.


Giant Novelty Roundabout

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.


‘To Begin at the Beginning’…or ‘Has Anyone Seen That Confounded Bridge?’

Lines from Dylan Thomas ‘Under Milk Wood’ and Led Zeppelin ‘The Crunge’. Which probably seem to be an odd way to start a blog on Medieval Parks, Gardens and Designed Landscapes. However, in their own way, they have led to this blog being written. So, I thought I’d attempt to explain why I feel I should blog on this topic (although I am sure other topics will find a place at some point).

My name is Spencer Gavin Smith and I currently work as an archaeologist in the contracts section of the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust, who are based in Bangor, North West Wales.

My blog will be about the research I have been carrying out for my PhD thesis entitled ‘Parks, Gardens and Designed Landscapes of Medieval North Wales and North West Shropshire’. As it is still a work in progress, the blog will highlight why I’m carrying out the research, and how the disciplines of Archaeology, History, Literature and Art all entwine to make this topic so interesting to study.

I’m from the town of Wrexham in North East Wales, (Latitude 53.045083; Longitude -2.9931521). I went to both Welsh Language Primary and Secondary Schools, so I’m comfortable using either language. I chose to read Heritage Conservation at Bournemouth University for my Undergraduate Degree, and during my second year, I was, like most other students at that time of their University lives, casting around for a dissertation.

One day, I was in the University Bookshop and I saw a paperback entitled ‘The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr’, written by someone called R.R. Davies. I’d not done history at GCSE, and at A Level the curriculum I studied covered the 19th and 20th centuries. I was aware of Owain Glyn Dŵr – what school child, and especially one in North East Wales where he came from, couldn’t fail to have heard of him. But beyond a few basic facts I didn’t really know very much at all.

So I bought the book.

And within a few pages I was hooked. Not by any inherent nationalism fuelled by being in a University on the south coast of England but by the beautiful way the book was written. I ‘understood’ for the first time how history can be brought to life by the deft touch of someone who has a mastery of the sources at their fingertips. I curated that book – it became something I involved and devoted my time to in order to try and gain some understanding of a world which occupied the same space as I had growing up, but a very different time.

But, I found there was a problem with the book, and one I wanted to solve.  

Within the chapter on Owain Glyn Dŵr was a small section which dealt with his house, known as Sycharth (which probably translates as Sych ‘Dry’ and (g)arth ‘Courtyard’). According to R.R. Davies there was a contemporary poem which described the house and its surroundings, and the photograph of Sycharth published in the book showed that the site was still there and had not been built upon. In addition to the poem, in 1966 an archaeological excavation report had been published about work on the site.

Which all left me confused. If the poem described the site, and archaeologists had excavated there, why had R.R. Davies written so little?

I had my dissertation topic. Now to start on the research.