Friday, 30 May 2014

A new lease of life at Conisbrough Castle

Having loaned some items from our collections to a new exhibition, a colleague and I were delighted to be invited to take the short trip across from Lincoln to Doncaster to attend the official opening of the newly re-interpreted Conisbrough Castle this afternoon.

Consibrough Castle is an English Heritage property, and one of those sites that dominates its surroundings both physically and culturally.  I had been to the site before, but about ten years ago, so had forgotten most of the detail about the site and its history.

The new visitor centre (where the obligatory speeches and nibbles were hosted) is very neat and tidy, but most importantly home to the new museum displays telling the story of the site.  The displays are lovely, with a strong visual theme and some great playful use of colour and custom drawn cartoons.  Even the ceramics displays were lively, with mounts displaying them at angles, and even with fake water coming out!  Overall, its a bright and informative display that I'm certain will be very engaging to visitors.  I was most impressed with how the story of the castle had been clearly laid out, with careful removal of much of the fog and confusion that can hamper historic building interpretation.  I'm sure that visitors will appreciate being able to cut to the heart of the story and will take away a clear picture of personalities, the groundbreaking architecture, and the castle's wider historic context.  I also liked the way the building had been used to best effect, such as through interpretation on the inside of the window blinds - a very clever touch!

One highlight of the display is the large cutaway model of the keep, showing the internal floor layout.  As useful as that would be on its own, an additional treat is the video projection cleverly integrated into it, showing little characters carrying out daily tasks inside the keep, as you can see in the images below.

The event continued with a fascinating tour around the site, providing more of the castle's history and a look at the new interpretation inside the keep itself.  When seen close up, the masonry of the keep is awe-inspiring, and few castle keeps can boast such neatly constructed masonry - the walls look as if they were made yesterday.  It was fascinating to learn that the keep was an architectural oddity in its day, and a structure built to be a talking point and a statement of ambition by the owners.  The huge walls of the keep contain four floors, though the basement is something of an unknown entity, accessed via a hole in the floor and containing a well.

Each of the upper three floors contains a large room, around which the thickness of the walls is palpable, and various side rooms and garderobes exist depending on the status of the original inhabitants, and finely carved fireplaces and basins exist on each floor.

A highlight of the new interpretation is the projections on the walls of each floor, featuring an illustrated character from the castle talking about their life.  These are excellently executed and enjoyable features, and even the little hour glass images between 'performances' don't jar with the atmosphere of the rooms.

Finally, the cartoons encountered in the museum display follow through into the site graphics, and continue to provide a lighthearted touch to the interpretation.

And what was the best way to cap of a very enjoyable and educational afternoon?  Why, a very generous and tasty free gift of course!  Sometimes my job is just so difficult...

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Roman Silchester and Reading Museum

On the one hot day we had this Bank Holiday weekend my wife and I headed out on the short trip from Oxford to a Roman site that I'm ashamed to say I'd never managed to get to before - the famous remains of Calleva Atrebatum, otherwise known as Roman Silchester.

The site is best known because, unlike every other major Roman town in Britain, it was entirely abandoned after the Roman period and now exists as a greenfield site, making it one of the best places in the country for the study of Romano-British urban archaeology.  I was happy to discover a wonderful free app produced by the University of Reading before we went.  The GPS mapping it provided, with both modern and Roman map overlays, and succinct and interesting audio commentaries at key points in the town were invaluable for understanding the site on the ground.  I'd heartily recommend it to anyone visiting the site.

The walls are the most obvious remains, and the only things visible above ground, but what walls they are!  Strikingly made with nodules of flint, they still stand to over 4.5m high in places and, particularly on the southern side of the town, offer an impression of Roman defences that perhaps only some of the Saxon Shore forts (such as Burgh Castle) can match in this country.

Roman walls invariably have gates in them too, of course, although sadly no traces of the towers themselves now survive. The format of the gates is interesting, as they were set back into the walls, the walls themselves curving inwards to provide a form of tunnel.  The excellent reconstruction drawings on site demonstrate the system beautifully.

Another famous survival is the amphitheatre, nestled in a small woodland outside of the town, and now separated from it by a country lane.  As with most amphitheatres, the small niches at the sides of the arena are not fully understood, most commonly being interpreted as some form of refuge or holding area for combatants or a shrine to a suitable deity such as Nemesis.

Following our look around the Roman remains, we took the opportunity to have a wander around the wider area, where of course we encountered some lovely scenery and the usual array of local wildlife.

What better way to follow up such a visit then by spending the next day heading across to Reading to see the gallery dedicated to Roman Silchester at Reading Museum?  This was my first visit to Reading Museum and I was very impressed overall.  I'm not going to go into their general displays here (maybe in another post sometime), but they definitely have a love of dioramas, and before I get to the Roman displays I have to show an image of this fantastic reconstruction of the Medieval Abbey and waterfront.

The Roman Silchester gallery looks at the development of the town from its Iron Age origins and the role the town probably played as an important centre of the Atrebates tribe under historically attested rulers such as Eppillus and Tincomarus.  For the Roman town, the focus is on everyday life as told through a number of themed cases such as houses, dress, bathing, religion, the water supply and various trades and industries.  Also of interest is the nature of the excavations over the years, from the Victorian investigations through the University of Reading's ongoing work.

The highlight of the gallery is of course the famous Silchester Eagle, inspiration for Rosemary Sutcliffe's classic novel ' The Eagle of the Ninth'.  I had to laugh whilst in the gallery on overhearing a man say to his young son that he liked the eagle, but was disappointed to find out that it wasn't really the Ninth Legion's standard!  In reality the eagle still had an important role, most likely originally part of an Imperial sculpture, perhaps once stood astride a globe, its now missing wings outstretched.

I mentioned before about the museum's love of dioramas and reconstructions, and the Silchester gallery is no exception.  Most of the displays are brought to life by some form of isometric illustration, colour reconstruction or even a 3D model, and they really help to bring the town to life.  The wonderfully detailed model of the whole town is a worthy centrepiece for the gallery.

Some Roman displays sit outside of the Silchester gallery.  A large glass display of Roman ceramics on a staircase landing is beautifully presented and expertly balances between archaeological interpretation and artistic display.

The large scale tessellated pavements from Silchester are displayed in an atrium - I imagine that due to their size the location pretty much chose itself!  Although geometric rather than figurative, they are attractive survivals.