This Project is funded and supported by English Heritage.
Beeston Castle (http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/beeston-castle-and-woodland-park/) sits on the sandstone outcrop of Beeston Tor in Cheshire and is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular medieval sites in England.
This project aims to explore the roots of the prehistoric tor that led to its choice as a site for a medieval fortress.
The surviving medieval castle is located directly over Bronze and Iron Age earthworks and other remains that are currently largely invisible to visitors. It is the development of these Bronze and Iron Age earthworks that influenced the positioning of the Medieval Outer Ward and Gatehouse. The rocky crag of Beeston was clearly a focus for life and metalworking from 2000 BC – AD 40 and this proposal seeks to illuminate this period through the development of a practical construction project.
This concept looks at the potential for building a representative Bronze Age structure to be used as a visitor attraction and as an educational resource. The project is designed to encourage the recruitment of a long-term local volunteer force, the involvement of local schools in a more formalised relationship with the site, and to improve the visitor experience by physically developing the site in line with its specific Prehistoric archaeology.
Beeston Castle has huge potential to explore and develop specific projects that draw directly on its locally available resources. Much of the site is covered by woodland which contains a wide variety of usable tree species. Quarries contain loose rock that could be employed in small scale in reconstruction and experimental projects. The site is large and offers space to create a Prehistoric “Zone” that does not detract from the very obvious Medieval castle remains, or impact negatively on play or picnic areas. The construction of any Prehistoric structure in such an otherwise obviously Medieval setting brings with it certain issues regarding interpretation and public perception. It is imperative that any Prehistoric structure/project is clearly explained in relation to the medieval remains by the use of information boards or preferably guides and facilitators.
The main aims of this project are…
- To create an authentic structure (Bronze Age) that acts as a visitor attraction and an educational resource.
- Improve the visitor understanding of the importance of Beeston Crag throughout Prehistory by focussing on the authentic work of volunteers, using correct and authentic terminology and witnessing processes.
- Suggest areas for future Prehistoric development , including structures that allow the specific technological skills to be showcased and practised.
- To increase visitor numbers and income by initiating an exciting and locally resourced construction project that reflect the methods, materials and techniques that contributed to the development of the site over time.
- Recruit a local volunteer cohort to carry out the construction project. Volunteers will receive training in all aspects of project health and safety, appropriate and researched construction methods, techniques, material gathering and use. Training investment in this volunteer cohort will be at a high level to encourage a long-term involvement in the care, maintenance and improvement of the structure and its surroundings.
- Create formal links and partnerships with local schools to encourage active involvement in various project elements.
Evidence from the Outer Ward at Beeston Castle suggests the existence of 9 roundhouses from the Bronze and Iron Age periods. These structures range in size (wall diameter) from just 4 metres to 9 metres. In my experience, the smaller buildings are too small to be functional as visitor or educational venues where some space and access are required to allow the public to move around safely with enough light to see by. A roundhouse of 7 to 9 metres provides good space for a variety of tasks and allows a variety of doorway options that meet light and safety considerations.
The construction of a single building necessitates its flexibility in use to accommodate the various demands placed on it. A long-term view may be to build several structures that represent aspects of life on Prehistoric Beeston such as “Life”, “Metal”, “Storage” and Education. However, at this early stage, a single building would need to fulfil several objectives under one roof.
A great deal of work needs to be done to present these structures as homes rather than as dusty cold and largely empty spaces. Other material remains from these periods point to sophistication in all areas, high technical skill, use of colour and design – but when it comes to roundhouse interiors, the temptation to present a whitewash approach remains. I feel there is room here to look at other forms of Bronze Age evidence such as stories and non British evidence to really begin to explore what other Bronze Age cultural evidence can hint at.
The construction of a larger roundhouse will give more options for its subsequent use. I suggest that the internal space of this authentic structure be divided (through use rather than physical segregation) to enable each area to be used in the following way…
- Museum/Authentic Exhibit: This portion is finished to a high standard and incorporates as much surviving evidence as possible from contemporaneous structures such as ceramics, basketry, cordage, clothing, fabrics, foods, metalwork, furniture, paint, decoration and flooring. The evidence for these features will necessarily have to come from a range of sources that exceed the limited evidence from Beeston itself. This offers a chance to look at physical evidence from sites such as Must Farm, but also to access evidence from much further afield. The aim of this approach is to fill the space with evidenced objects that really push the public perception of the roundhouse beyond currently accepted notions of sophistication and refinement. This “authentic” portion gives the visitor a real impression of a roundhouse interior as we think it may have looked. This portion also provides a quality setting for visitor photography while providing an appropriate space for living history practitioners to demonstrate during event days. The fitting out of this interior can be achieved in several ways. The accepted view is to commission artefacts that are brought onto site and create a finished exhibit. This has the advantage of presenting a specific collection and obtaining high quality technical pieces. However, in terms of interpretation and visitor experience, the stories behind the manufacture of the artefacts are often lost – kept in the workshops and the minds of the artisans who created them. Another way of achieving a specific collection is for the materials to be purchased or locally gathered by volunteers and transformed into artefacts by a series of workshops that form the focus of event days – or run continuously through the open season. These expansion projects, although requiring some funds for training, gives the visiting public and schools the chance to understand the processes that are required to produce those artefacts. It allows them to get involved in some of the processes and to investigate the experiences and learning curves of the volunteers. It also creates well trained and skillful volunteers who know about the artefacts that are presented to the public, are capable of improving skills and creating more artefacts as and when required. This approach turns the “showcase” round house into a working exhibit with a purpose.
- Workspace: Another portion of the round house interior can be presented as a workspace to allow crafts and skills to be practised and demonstrated to visitors. This space can be simple in its approach – with no clutter or “artefacts” on display, but with roof storage for materials, work benches and stools for volunteer/artisan use. In the case of Beeston and its metalworking heritage, this space would be suitable for hot work such as casting and metal working.
- Public/Schools Observation: This space would provide space for school groups and/or visitors to stand or sit, get good views of the authentic exhibit area or the workshop area. I suggest that this area provides a visual contrast with the other authentic areas and present “just the evidence” for roundhouses at Beeston. This can be achieved by limiting colour use on the walls, dressing the floor in a different way and keeping the interior clear to allow access and limit congestion and bottlenecks. While this provides room for educational sessions and visitor interaction, it also creates a dramatic contrast between what the specific beeston evidence tells us (a purist archaeological approach) versus what we know was going on elsewhere at the same time (a realistic approach).
This project will encourage people to visit the site more often by generating a rolling programme of works that improve the site and therefore the visitor experience.
Beeston Castle has huge potential to develop into an authentic visitor experience that educates, interests and immerses the regular and casual visitor in some of the detail of the the Bronze/Iron age. It sets the castle firmly within its prehistoric landscape and illustrates through practical construction projects how the landscape may have been used and modified long before the eventual construction of the medieval castle. It also illustrates the technical knowledge and craft skills of the those prehistoric people who came to Beeston Tor.
More than that, I think this proposal will create a site that encourages the visitor to explore and discover not only the prehistoric way of life that existed before the castle, but the construction experiences of the project volunteers, their material knowledge and their skill as artisans, which will enable the visiting public to form a deeper empathy for those ancient people who clearly saw Beeston as a highly significant feature in an otherwise flat landscape.
I envisage the visitor experience starting from the carpark with the distant sound of axes felling trees, chisels and mallets shaping wood, and continue through the site, discovering a clearing in the quarry where a simple but traditionally made roundhouse is taking shape. The visitor can linger and see the tools in action, have a go at a simpler task, see a skilled craftsperson perform fine carpentry and ask them questions about the evidence for prehistoric habitation of the tor.
Questions can be asked, methods and techniques viewed and investigated and a picnic can be had over looking the Cheshire plain. Visitors can understand how we choose questions to ask and the processes we follow to achieve and answer, in effect, they can get inside the workings of Heritage and Experimental Archaeology and have a greater appreciation of the complexities we face.