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Avengers Assemble…but where?

Obliteration.

A very powerful word. It tends to be used to describe the removal of an item from the landscape – and conflict – where ever it may happen, can provide examples of something that was there at one moment only to have ceased to exist in a recognisable form the next.

If you visit a medieval site today, with manicured lawns and helpful guidebook, the most obvious thing to notice is that there is actually something left to visit. Even with a tumultuous event like the Dissolution of the Monasteries, where the communities were removed and buildings stripped of useful materials, much of the fabric can have survived the 500 or so years since the event, albeit with piles of fallen masonry removed and a gift shop for all the essential purchases.

Valle Crucis Abbey (Latitude 52.988696; Longitude -3.1868157) http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/1/1e/Valle_Crucis_Abbey.JPG
Valle Crucis Abbey (Latitude 52.988696; Longitude -3.1868157)
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/1/1e/Valle_Crucis_Abbey.JPG

Sites composed of earthworks, for example motte and bailey castles, can appear at first glance even more ephemeral. Understanding how each individual lump and bump relates to another does take practice, but an understanding of the typology of different monument types means that even these can be interpreted as the visitor walks around the site.

Earthworks of Tomen y Bala Motte and Bailey Castle (Latitude 52.911565; Longitude -3.5954770)
Earthworks of Tomen y Bala Motte and Bailey Castle (Latitude 52.911565; Longitude -3.5954770)

Some sites however, defy simple interpretation if they have been ‘removed’ from the landscape because of their social, political or cultural importance. During the Croat-Bosnian war in 1993, the 16th century Stari Most bridge over the river Neretva in the City of Mostar, Bosnia (Latitude 43.205425; Longitude 17.483822) was destroyed by Croat forces.

Stari Most bridge over the river Neretva in the City of Mostar, Bosnia (Latitude 43.205425; Longitude 17.483822) prior to destruction.
Stari Most bridge over the river Neretva in the City of Mostar, Bosnia (Latitude 43.205425; Longitude 17.483822) prior to completion of the destruction process.

The removal of the bridge had a twofold purpose. Firstly, access from one side of the river by the inhabitants of Mostar to the other was limited, and secondly the Stari Most bridge was considered one of the most important pieces of Islamic architecture in the Balkans, and designed by Mimar Hayruddin, an apprentice of architect Mimar Sinan. With the cessation of hostilities, reconstruction of the bridge was considered a priority as the destruction was seen as a deliberate removal of cultural property by the Croatian forces. UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) headed up a process which saw the bridge rebuilt and reopened in 2004 http://www.gen-eng.florence.it/starimost/

Here then, we see that cultural pressure can be brought to bear both to destroy and replace an important monument, but what happens when only the first part of the process is carried out?

During the Edwardian Conquest of Wales, part of Edward I’s strategy was to construct a series of castles at strategic points around the North Wales coast. As well as providing places where soldiers could be based in order to react to any Welsh threat, perceived or otherwise, these castles replaced the pre-existing system of llysoedd which served as the administrative centres for the Welsh Princes. The main hall of the llys complex was an important meeting point, and as such Edward had each of them removed, either taking them down and recycling their component parts into other buildings or moving them to be reconstructed within one of the new castles.

Ystumgwern Hall, reconstructed within Harlech Castle (Latitude 52.859926; Longitude -4.1092917). Originally from the Llys at Ystumgwern - location not known but general centre of Ystumgwern at Latitude 52.795159; Longitude -4.1002822.
Ystumgwern Hall, reconstructed within Harlech Castle (Latitude 52.859926; Longitude -4.1092917). Originally from the Llys at Ystumgwern – location not known but general centre of Ystumgwern (Latitude 52.795159; Longitude -4.1002822).

The removal of the hall from the llys complex at Ystumgwern meant that the location was subsequently lost to future generations who might have used the halls as a meeting point at which to assemble and plan a revolt against their new rulers. As archaeologists we can apply a suite of techniques to search for the llys complex and find out more about why these locations were so important, but we cannot replace these buildings in the landscape in the same way the Stari Most bridge has been replaced.

Next week’s blog post will examine the fate of a llys complex and its inhabitants with a very particular story to tell.

Again, thank you for your support through http://www.gofundme.com/medievalgardensandparks – the last fortnight brought another £25 in donations towards my PhD course fees.

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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.