In the Castle Studies Trust’s first year of grant awards it gave a grant to survey Ballintober Castle in County Roscommon, caput of the O’Conors. Project lead Niall Brady explains below how that work has been built on and what has been discovered since.
The Castle Studies Trust grant of 2014 for Ballintober Castle permitted a detailed baseline topographical survey of the 14th-century Anglo-Norman castle, constructed in the early 1300s by Richard de Burgh, earl of Ulster, and taken over by the O’Conor kings of the Connacht before the end of the century, after which it became the caput of the O’Conor Don line and was lived in continuously until the O’Conors abandoned the castle for more suitable accommodation at nearby Clonalis House in the 1700s.
The castle remains a striking ruin in the small village of Ballintober and access to the site is prohibited because of its dilapidation. The 2014 survey feeds into a long-term plan by the O’Conors who retain ownership to rehabilitate the site so that it can be accessible once again and enjoyed. Since 2015, the Castles in Communities research fieldschool has taken a leading role in developing this initiative as a community-engaged anthropological and archaeological Summer fieldschool that sees groups of up to 70 students and staff coming over from America in July, working closely with the O’Conors in Clonalis House and the village represented by the Ballintubber Tidy Towns organization. Additional survey, coupled with geophysical survey, field survey and excavation has made great strides in revealing the complex history of the castle, while a conservation management plan for the castle was completed independently in 2016.
The fieldschool’s work has also extended outside the standing walls of the castle. In reaching eastwards across the present-day village, the project has confirmed the presence of a deserted settlement that would have been integrally related to the castle. In short, Castles in Communities has revealed the deserted manorial village that was associated with the castle and the findings indicate that the medieval settlement footprint was fully twice the size of the present-day village. Excavation within the deserted settlement area is focusing on taking cross-sections across former property plots and the houses within.
Excavation inside the castle has progressed along the east side of the interior, where perimeter walls are lower and there is no risk of destabilizing standing remains. Attention has focused on the corner towers, and the perimeter wall. The southeast corner tower is circular in plan but its interior was robbed-out at some point in the past, leaving only a narrow and thin occupation deposit that retained post-medieval ceramics. The northeast corner tower is rectangular in shape, and excavation revealed a large building joined to the tower and running south from it. That building is late in the construction sequence and is itself joined to an earlier masonry structure that lies inside the walled perimeter. The indications for an early phase of castle building that might pre-date much of the standing perimeter walls is also indicated at the castle entrance, where excavation has begun to reveal two distinct phases of construction.
Like medieval monasteries, castles had gardens. These could be places of rest, play and display as well as productive centres for (some of) the food to supply the castle household while also providing curative or medicinal plants. We know that in the Middle Ages, plants were highly valued for their culinary, fragrant and medicinal properties; and, they were considered to have mental and spiritual benefits. What do we know about the plant-life of the medieval castle and its green spaces?
Surviving architecture indicates that some of these spaces were enclosed with relatively high walls, often surmounted by a parapet or at least crenelated. Excavations tell us something about what plants were at castles but there is no certainty about what was grown in their gardens.1 Seeds can be tricky to identify in the archaeobotanical record from reasons as diverse as poor preservation to sampling issues. Beyond general mentions of gardens, medieval historians have noted references to bowers (arched trellis covered with vines or climbing plants) and possible water features as well as hawthorn hedging, roses and juniper trees.2 Many medieval manuscripts show luxurious images of trellising and water features in a verdant green dreamland (Fig. 1). I am not going to suggest that exact replica sites of mythical gardens existed but perhaps we can use these images as a reference point.
So, we know what gardens might have looked like and some of the things that may have been present. What then, do we know about gardening?3 Certain castles, such as Richmond, have latrines that empty into the garden space suggesting that medieval people were good at composting! (Fig. 2) But what about plant propagation and curation? What plants or flowers were grown? Or how?
Nurseries were established at monasteries across Europe in the later medieval period; one existed in London by at least the late thirteenth-century4 and at Kilmainhaim, Ireland during the early fourteenth century.5 Perhaps they also existed at castles? Some medieval manuscripts show images of plants in pots – isn’t that very interesting? (Fig. 3). So possibly plants in pots, like elite households, were on the move.6 If plants moved with their households what types were selected? Were they transplanted to grow in new locations? While extensive archaeological excavation might be able to answer these questions – what if we look at the evidence in front of us: the modern ecological landscape?
Might the modern landscapes of medieval castles give some clue to plants of the past? The study of relict plants – those that survive from the past – involves the examination of modern landscapes for the presence of plants that may have been deliberately planted and cared for by people in the past. An ecological survey of Welsh castles completed in 1994 by Ann Connolly noted that there were clusters of plants with known medicinal uses present at castle sites but notably absent from suitable surrounding terrain.7 This included wild sage (Salvia verbenaca) at Montgomrery and wild rocket (Reseda luteola), as well as henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) at Rhuddlan. The implication is that these plants were deliberately planted at these sites for their medicinal use.
Pioneering work has been completed on relict plants in from medieval monastic gardens in Norway8 and Iceland.9 Fiona MacGowan, working in Ireland noted the presence of yellow wallflowers (Erysimum cheiri) at the windows of the main focal building at Lea Castle, Co. Laois (2014; Fig 4). These are non-native to Ireland and were thought to be frame the windows and waft in good smells. Relict plant studies, as part of wider analyses, is becoming established as a novel way to gain insights into past communities’ growing or cultivation practices as well as potential medicinal and dietary concerns.
‘Sowing the Seeds of Interdisciplinary Work’, the project funded by the Castle Studies Trust sets out to build on this work, and understand if surviving plants at medieval castles which were possibly planted, grown, cared for and used by medieval people can further inform us of medieval lived experiences in the garden and possibly with gardening. Ecological surveys will be carried out at four geographically distant but culturally similar medieval castles sites with diverse landscapes: Adare. Co. Limerick, Castleroache, Co. Louth, Mocollop Castle, Co Waterford and Castlecarra, Co. Mayo (Figs 4-7).
From the selected sites, only Adare has been subject to archaeological investigation and therefore has an associated archaeobotanical report to be analysed.10 Castlecarra is surrounded by woodland which has the potential to be ancient; it is included in the Lough Mask and Lough Carra Special Area of Conservation (Site code 001774). It will be part of the survey. All four have associated settlements and a variety of religious houses from parish churches to abbeys. At Mocollop and Castle Carra these spaces will also be surveyed owing to their relatively undisturbed surrounding landscapes. They will provide an interesting set of comparative sites.
Working with Dr Fiona MacGowan, an ecologist who has a passion for the medieval, we will carry-out the ecological surveys over the late summer (hopefully). Once compiled the ecological reports will be used to expand our knowledge of what plants may have been used or grown at Irish medieval castles by contextualising the results within appropriate historical and folkloric traditions. These findings will be analysed together with of archaeological, historical and architectural details of the four castles sites. We are sure that the results will demonstrate the potential of relict plants studies to enrich our understanding of the ‘green’ lives of people in the past.
Arvid Åsen 2009
Kristjánsdóttir, Larsson & Arvid Åsen 2014
Dunne 2007; Dunne & Kiely 2013
Åsen, A. P., 2009. Plants of possible monastic
origin, growing in the past or present, at medieval monastery grounds in
Norway, in Plants and Culture: seeds of
the cultural heritage of Europe, eds. J.P. Morel & A.M. Mercuri. Edipuglia Bari: Centro Europeo per i
Beni Culturali Ravello, 227–38.
Caple, C., 2007. Excavations at Dryslwyn Castle 1980-1995. London: Society for Medieval Archaeology.
Dempsey, K. in press. Planting new ideas: a feminist gaze on medieval castles. Chateau Gaillard 29.
Dunne L. 2007. Adare Castle, Raising Bridges and Raising Questions, in From Ringforts to Fortified Houses: Studies on Castles and Other Monuments in Honour of David Sweetman, C. Manning (ed.), Dublin, Wordwell, pp. 155-170.
Harvey, J.H., 1985. The first English garden book: Mayster Jon Gardener’s treatise and its background. Garden History 13, 83–101. https://doi.org/10.2307/1586825
MacGowan, F., 2014. Ecological Report for the area around Lea
Castle, Portarlington, Co. Laois. Unpublished Report.
Reeves-Smyth, T., 1999. Irish Gardens and Gardening Before Cromwell (Barryscourt Lectures
4). Cork: Gandon Editions
Smith, S., 2018. Rills and Romance: Gardens at the Castles of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth and Edward I, in The Medieval and Early Modern Garden in Britain, eds. P. Skinner, & T. Tyres. London & New York: Routledge, 40–55.
Thorstad, A. 2019. The Culture of Castles in Medieval England and Wales. The Boydell Press. Woodbridge.
The results are in, we’ve decided which projects we will be funding for 2020.
But before we get to the announcement, we want to thank all the applicants who proposed projects. It was a difficult decision, with exciting and innovative approaches to a group of fascinating castles. This year marks a milestone for us: we are award £30,000 across the successful projects which is the most we’ve given in a single year.
So without further ado, here are the five projects we will be funding in 2020. We hope you are looking forward to discovering more about them.
The project will develop a reconstruction drawing of the castle, as it would have been in the latter part of the 12th century, founded by William the Conqueror, in the second half of the 11th century.
We will be funding a second year of excavation, following on from 2019, this time to understand the rampart of the inner bailey.
Sowing the Seeds
The aim of the project is to try and understand better everyday life in castles by seeing if there are any surviving plants at four Irish castles that were planted, grown, and cared for by medieval people.
Could the Wirk be a Norse castle? Based on the island of Rousay, this stone tower is situated close to the old parish church and recently discovered Norse Hall. However, no one knows what this tower was used for or even when it was built.
Using various forms of geophysical survey to try and understand the subsurface features for the former caput of the Earls of Northumberland.
Donate regularly for invitation to exclusive site visits
Regular donors will be invited to all exclusive visits to the projects we fund.
Those who are able to donate £500 a year or more (excluding Gift Aid) will also have the opportunity to attend our annual special castle visit to major/privately owned castles. In 2020 this will be at Edinburgh Castle on Saturday 6 June where we will visit parts of the castle not open to the public.
Any new donations by standing order or payroll giving will be matched by a generous supporter for the next two years up to a maximum of £2,000 a year in total.
You can donate regularly via payroll giving or by setting up a standing order. Please return the form to the address on the forms, with the gift aid form if applicable.
deadline for grant applications passed on 30th November. We’re going through
the various projects now. Altogether the 13 projects, coming from England,
Ireland, and Scotland are asking for over £88,000. They cover not only a wide
period of history but also a wide range of topics. In a little more detail,
here are the applications we’ve received:
The main aim is to recover evidence for the base natural topography around the approach to the main gate of the once royal castle, from the area of the medieval village, and explore how this was altered, presented and exploited to create a sense of theatre for visitors to the site.
A geoarchaeological auger survey of the moats that surround this former royal castle and palace of Thomas Becket. The survey aims to answer such questions as what were the moats original profiles, when were the moats filled and how do the two moats compare with each other.
To try and understand the date of the construction of the castle owned by the MacDougall clan through various through buildings and materials analysis including radiocarbon dating and mortar analysis.
Fraoch Eilean, Loch Awe
To try and understand the date of the construction of the former royal castle through various through buildings and materials analysis including radiocarbon dating and mortar analysis.
The aim of the project to continue the work the CST funded in 2019 with excavations and building survey. Further excavations will try and understand the purpose of the structures found in the 2019 excavation season and if they were related to the original great tower.
Holme Pierpont, Nottinghamshire
To build up an understanding of this late medieval great house, never previously researched. The work will include a mixture of desk research, building survey and geophysical survey of the parkland surrounding it. The house is the most complete of the three late medieval brick-built houses in Nottinghamshire.
To develop a reconstruction drawing of the castle as it would have appeared in the second half of the 12th century. Lincoln Castle was founded by William the Conqueror in the late 11th century.
To fund a second year of excavation, this time to understand the rampart of the inner bailey. The geophysical survey carried out in the 2019 suggested there could be remains of buildings there, possibly even a late Saxon church. Shrewsbury was a very important border castle up until the 13th century and frequently used as a base for English raids into Wales.
Sowing the Seeds
The aim of the project is to try and understand better everyday life in castles by seeing if there are any surviving plants at four Irish castles that were planted, grown and cared for by medieval people. The research will involve ecological surveys at each location.
Strongholds of Wessex
The aim of the project is to understand the military organisation of the northern part of Wessex (Wiltshire and West Oxfordshire) from the transition from Saxon to Norman rule between the 9th and 12th centuries. The work will involve documentary research, landscape and place name surveys. Sites examined will include Castle Combe, Cricklade and Silbury Hill.
The Wirk, Orkney
Could the Wirk be a Norse castle? Based on the island of Rousay, this stone tower is situated close to the old parish church and recently discovered Norse Hall. However, no one knows what this tower was used for or even when it was built. The work would involve a geophysical survey of the surrounding area as well as two trial trenches to try and find dating evidence.
Thermal Imaging of Castles
To test how useful thermal imaging could be in understanding castles. The thermal survey using a FLIR camera of two castle facades in different climates. within the UK—Caisteal Uisdein, on the coast of Loch Snizort, and a castle farther south and slightly inland, Castle Rising.
Using various forms of geophysical survey to try and understand the subsurface features for the former caput of the Dukes of Northumberland. The survey will focus on the bailey inside the 12th-century curtain wall as well as the strip of land outside but on the early earthwork castle, the motte and field near the entrance to the castle.
The applications have been sent to our expert assessors who will go over them. And if you want to know more about how the assessment process works, we have a brief summary.
The deadline for grant applications passed on 30th November. We’re going through the various projects now. Altogether the 12 projects, coming from all parts of Britain and one from Ireland, are asking for over £75,000.* They cover not only a wide period of history but also a wide range of topics. In a little more detail, here are the applications we’ve received:
Contributing towards a community excavation at the early Tudor palace commissioned by Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort. According to building accounts the palace was built around three courtyards and was the first brick building in Northamptonshire. The palace was demolished in 1640 and the site has never been excavated before.
Using Ground Penetrating Radar for an investigation of the 15th-century core of the castle – presently under a hardcore car park. This was the original caput of the lords of Forbes. During the 15th century they were amongst the most powerful families in the North-east of Scotland.
Hoghton Tower, Lancashire
This project aims to form an axis of research into Hoghton Tower’s unique physical history. The main focus will be to investigate and advance the knowledge of the pre-1560 site and specifically try to test the hypothesis that the north side building may form part of the ‘original’ Hoghton Tower.
Excavation to establish the form and location of the southern perimeter of the curtain wall of the 15th-century castle known as the Northern Court of which nothing remains above ground from the period. It was one of the most important castles in the north west of England in the late 15th and 16th centuries. The castle was besieged twice in the English Civil War and then slighted. In 2017 we funded analysis of masonry recovered in earlier excavations, which indicated architectural links with Caernarfon Castle.
Laughton en le Morthen, South Yorkshire
Following on from last year’s grant, this project would undertake excavation to investigate features identified during the geophysical survey. The survey suggested that the castle was built over an Anglo-Saxon lordly residence, and the excavation would test whether there is further evidence to corroborate this.
Lewes, East Sussex
This research aims to answer an intriguing question: why does Lewes Castle, East Sussex, have two mottes? Do they represent a highly distinctive architectural statement, or did burial mounds of possible Romano-British or earlier origins influence the form of the 11th century fortification?
Loughmoe, County Tipperary
To produce the first-ever detailed survey and structural history of the building which dates from the 15th and 16th centuries, and to determine using geophysics the extent of the original castle and whether the renaissance part had a precinct, other buildings, and gardens.
Using inferences from previous geophysical surveys to focus on key areas of the lower terraces and bowling green of the castle potentially revealing more about the clandestine political activity of the Somerset family in the late 16th and 17 centuries.
Geophysical survey and excavation concentrating on the inner bailey to in particular examine the tail of the north rampart. Despite being one of the main fortresses on the Welsh border no major excavations have taken place in the bailey. Thus the medieval plan of the enclosure, and the missing domestic ranges that should be there, are completely unknown.
Excavations in this important Welsh border fortress that was in use from just after the conquest to the English Civil War. The aim is to answer some key questions about the castle e.g. the keep’s entrance and final form, to establish the form of the North Tower and along the south side to see if that was where the entrance was.
Funding post-excavation costs of a community archaeology project. The project will be trying to see discover a number of things about this royal castle including if there was a southern entrance into the outer bailey, and what buildings there were along the north east range of the inner bailey.
Wressle, East Yorkshire
A geophysical survey of the area to the south of the castle ruins which had been covered by the previous earthwork survey funded by the CST, to get more information about the various garden structures there, as well as other details regarding the deserted village, moat and fishponds. The 14th century castle was one of the most important castles owned by the Dukes of Northumberland.
The deadline for grant applications passed on 15th December and we’re going through the various projects now. Altogether the 11 projects, coming from all parts of the British Isles and Italy, are asking for over £50,000. They cover a wide period of history and types of research. For a little more detail, here are the applications we’ve received:
Abergavenny Castle, Wales – a geophysical survey of the whole site. The castle was an important baronial site and saw a lot of military action from when it was first built in the 11th century up until it was slighted (partially demolished) in the Civil War.
Bamburgh, England – assess and conserve a large collection of medieval metal work dating from the 8th to the 11th century discovered in the west ward. Bamburgh was a major elite fortress from the early medieval period so the project should help potentially understand how the site changed over the centuries.
Caldicot Castle, Wales – geophysical of the whole scheduled area. Building on the previous resistivity survey in the project will use all three types of survey technique to get the best understanding of any below ground remains of this major baronial site.
Castle Pulverbatch, England – geophysical and photogrammetric surveys of the site, one of the finest examples of a Norman motte-and-bailey castle in Shropshire.
Clifford Castle, England – geophysical survey and excavations to help understand the morphology of one of the earliest castle sites in the UK, and one of the principal castles on the Anglo-Welsh border. Please note this is a privately owned site and not accessible to the general public.
Dinas Bran, Wales – geophysical survey of the most extensive and complete Welsh-built castle to understand what structures lie beneath the surface.
Edinburgh Castle, Scotland – mapping and categorising suspected conflict damage at this iconic castle.
Fotheringhay, England – understanding the morphology of the caput of the honor of Huntingdon and 15th-century palace associated with the House of York and birthplace of Richard III, using ground penetrating radar and small unmanned aircraft. Please note this is a privately owned site and not accessible to the general public.
Lathom House, England – analysis of masonry dating from the late 15th-century castle built by Thomas, Lord Stanley either found via excavations or potential reused in the current building.
Lecce, Italy – to help with the publication of a history of the castle of Lecce which was founded by the Normans.
Lough Key, Ireland – to improve understanding of the medieval MacDermot lordship of Moylurg and its relationship with the Rock of Lough Key.
Every September thousands of historic sites in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are opened. It is a chance to visit some sites which are closed the rest of the year. You can find out more details online. Here are four places to get you started.
Sat on the banks of the River Tay, Broughty Castle in Scotland was built in 1496. It was involved in several sieges including during ‘the Rough Wooing’ and the War of the Three Kingdoms. The castle has been open as a museum since 1969.
Broughty Castle is open from 1pm to 3pm on Sunday 18th September.
Pleshey Castle in England was built by William de Mandeville, one of the richest men in 12th-century England. It was confiscated by the king, slighted, restored, and used for centuries afterwards. The castle was even mentioned in Shakespeare’s Richard II.
The motte-and-bailey castle survives as some impressive earthworks. Excavations were carried out between 1972 and 1981 but never published. In 2015 the Trust funded part of the publication of the work from this important site.
Pleshey Castle is open on Sunday 11th September with tours at 2pm, 3pm, and 4pm. Advanced booking is required.
Built in 1601, Moyry Castle is being included in Northern Ireland’s heritage open days for the first time. Three-stories high and perched on top of a rocky hill the castle has a good view of the surrounding area.
Moyry Castle is open from 9am to 8pm on Saturday 10th and Sunday 11th September and is free to visit.
Constructed in the 13th century, Holt Castle was amongst the fortifications built by the English in north Wales. The red sandstone makes the castle stand out, as does its unusual pentagonal design. It was used by Richard II as a treasure house and slighted after the English Civil War.
You might recognise Holt as one of the very first projects the Trust worked on: Rick Turner and Chris Jones-Jenkins created a reconstruction of the castle as it would have appeared c1495. The 17th century was not kind to the castle, so the reconstruction is worth watching to get an impression of how it looked.
Holt Castle is open from 10am to 4pm on Saturday 17th and Sunday 18th September and is free to visit.
The deadline for grant applications passed on 15th December. We’re going through the various projects now. Altogether the nine projects are asking for £38,000. If you have been following us on social media you will have seen which sites have been proposed. For a little more detail, here are the applications we’ve received:
Pembroke Castle, Wales – a geophysical survey of the wards. The castle was once owned by William Marshall, one of the most famous knights of his time.
Lochore Castle, Scotland – post-excavation analysis of finds. The site was excavated in 2015, but the team need funding for specialist work on their finds.
Lancaster Castle, England (1) – wall penetrating radar of the walls of the castle’s Norman keep. The castle was used as a prison until 2011, so until recently there has been little opportunity for investigation of this sort.
Lancaster Castle, England (2) – creating drawings and 3D models to help present the site to the wider public.
Caus Castle, England – geophysical and photogrammetic survey of the earthworks of this motte and bailey castle. Caus was one of many such castles while can be found in the Marches of the border between England and Wales.
Laughton en le Morthen, England – geophysical survey of the earthworks of a motte and bailey castle. This castle may have been built on top of an earlier Saxon hall.
Wressle Castle, England – an examination of the evidence for the slighting of the castle in the 17th century and comparing it to other slighted castles in Yorkshire.
Codnor Castle, England – create a virtual reality tour of the castle showing how it once would have appeared.
Dunamase, Ireland – remote sensing and landscape survey. Like Pembroke was also owned by William Marshall at one point.
The applications have been sent to our expert assessors who will go over them. In January the blog will have more information on the assessment process, so be sure to visit again.
Every year historic buildings across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales open to the public for free. It is a great excuse to go out and visit some castles. You can find out more details online. Here are four places we find interesting.
A nine-mile drive from Glasgow, Mugdock Castle was built in the 14th century and converted into a mansion about 500 years later. The Grahams who lived there until the 20th century were an influential Scottish family. Visitors can walk round the gardens which were laid out in the Victorian period and the ruins of the castle. Mugdock Castle is open from 10am to 4pm on Saturday 12th and Sunday 13th September.
John de Courcy began building Carrickfergus Castle on the coast in 1177 and more than 800 years on it is one of the best preserved Norman castles in the country. When looking round, try to imagine the gatehouse being twice as tall. It was shortened in the 16th century when the castle was adapted to use cannon. Carrickfergus Castle is open from 10am to 5pm on Saturday 12th and Sunday 13th September.
Dolbadarn Castle was built by Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Gwynedd, in the 13th century. The round tower is typical of Welsh design. Its close link to the Welsh princes meant that when Edward I invaded and built his own castles, timber from Dolbadarn was used to build the castles as Llywelyn’s castle was partially demolished. Dolbadarn Castle is open from 11am to 4pm on Sunday 6th September with tours every hour.
At Guildford Castle you have a royal palace, a great tower possibly built by King Stephen in the 12th century, and gardens. You can climb to the top of tower which sits on top of a mound. There’s a chapel inside with old graffiti. On the outside you can see where an extra floor was built on top of the tower. The castle is open from 10am to 5pm on Saturday 12th September.
County Roscommon’s Ballintober Castle was probably built by Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster, in the early 14th century. It changed hands several times, but from 1381 it was under the control of the O’Conor family. After nearly being attacked in 1642, the castle was abandoned as a residence and the elements have left Ballintober as a ruin. The O’Conor family still own the castle today.
Despite Ballintober’s storied past and impressive ivy-clad remains, archaeologists first investigated the castle in 2008. When Niall Brady applied to the Castle Studies Trust for funding in 2013 the project to survey the castle offered the chance to push forward our understanding of the castle.
Though the castle now lies in ruins, parts of it stand up to 4m high (13ft). Ballintober Castle is rectangular, measuring 73.8m by 80.5m (242ft by 264ft). There is a tower at each corner, and on the east side the entrance is flanked by two further towers. The polygonal corner towers are thought to emulate the design of Edward I’s Caernarfon Castle in Wales. As well as being a military structure, emulating the most powerful of royal castles, Ballintober was a residence. Its comfortable accommodation revealed by the fireplaces marked it as a palace castle.
Ballintober is a ‘keepless castle’ which means it does not have a great tower such as the one seen at Trim Castle (Ireland) or Dover Castle (England). Instead it relied on its outer walls. There are a few castles like Ballintober. Richard de Burgh also built Ballymote as a keepless castles around the same time. Just 18km (11mi) to the south-east is Roscommon, which may have provided the template for Ballintober. It was built decades earlier in 1269 on behalf of Henry III. Ballintober is the largest keepless castle in Ireland, and is more than twice the size of Roscommon despite its royal patronage.
Surveying the ruins
Laser-scanners were used to record the standing structure and as a result we have a 3D point cloud which can be used to create accurate plans, elevations, and views. The survey took three days to complete in the field, followed by considerable time processing and interpreting.
It’s told us a lot about the castle. The south-west tower has a fireplace on the ground floor, and would have once had a fine timber vault. It may have housed a high-status hall. While it’s possible the south-east tower is the oldest as it is the smallest of the corner towers, the north-west tower was substantially redesigned in the 17th century. The arrow slits are wider than those found at Roscommon and Ballymote, and may be wider. This might suggest that comfort was a consideration in their design. There are signs of later adaptation, with gun loops being added to accommodate gunpowder weapons.
The survey also shows that Ballintober Castle is asymmetrical, with the entrance off centre. One possible reason is that the design changed to encompass a larger area or perhaps it stands on an earlier fortification.
An eye to the future
Importantly, the survey paves the way for future work: from July to August this year Foothill College, California, ran a Summer Fieldschool at the Castle. ‘Castles in Communities’ is advertised on the Archaeological Institute of America website. Niall Brady was one of the fieldschool directors. We asked him how the excavations went:
“The CST-funded survey in 2014 was a very important precursor to starting the present work. The 2015 season went well. We focussed on questions associated with tracing missing lengths of the standing walls, rather than looking into the main interior. This was to give us some sense of the site’s stratigraphy, while also tackling obvious questions in a way that wouldn’t open a can of worms we couldn’t close. We also engaged the attention of a conservation engineer, who is now quite excited by what can be possible in future years, vis a vis conservation works on the standing remains.
“For the four weeks on site, the excavation results were good, showing 16th-century and later levels. We only really broke the ground surface in three discrete locations, and so look forward to going deeper and exposing medieval horizons next year. There was massive buy-in from the local community (the landowners and the villagers), who see the great potential that lies in our plans for the castle site and its living community about it.”
The work the Castle Studies Trust is not the end point of a journey, but a crucial stepping stone towards understanding medieval society.
For more information on Ballintober, read the full length report prepared by Niall Brady. Please donate so we can support more projects like the one at Ballintober.