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Ozark Medieval Fortress, Part 1

Last September, construction began on a medieval-style fortress up in the Ozarks in northern Arkansas, not too far away from Branson, MO. The Ozark Medieval Fortress opened to the public in May of this year. It's a twenty-year project on land donated by a French couple living in Arkansas who had seen a castle being built in France from scratch and suggested to the man whose project it is that one be built in the Ozarks too.

The concept is that the castle is being built using period techniques, from stone cutting to blacksmithing to ropemaking. Workers trained in all these things, to various degrees, work on site, from the quarry about 50 yards away to the walls of the castle itself. Some of their tools really do date to the thirteenth century. One was found during renovations, inside a wall, at yet another castle owned by the guy under whose oversight this all is happening.

The site is perhaps a dozen miles east of US-65 on state highway 14, the first left turn after the Arkansas border when coming down from Branson. The hills rolls dramatically - mountains, technically - full of greenery and lakes in state parks. The parking lot was a couple of acres of white gravel, parked up with a good 15 or so cars. Disabled parking was closer, in amongst the trees, by the air-conditioned, wooden-framed visitor's center.

We started off on the wrong foot, with an overview of medieval history which caused both of us constant mental editing. This is not the site's strength, and was a regular problem with both the person who welcomed us, and the tour guide. The site's consensus seems to be that the Dark Ages were from the Fall of Rome until around the year 1000, after which the High Middle Ages began. Life was simpler then. Women wanting comfortable homes were a major factor in the transition from castles to palaces.

It made me particularly glad that the workers are not in character. I wasn't compulsed to mentally critique them on those grounds. They are recreating techniques, but living in the modern world. To a certain degree, they have to, for legal reasons. Law requires them to wear steel-toed boots on a construction site, for example. Doorways must be three feet wide. Lime cannot be calcinated on site, the way it is in France, due to environmental safety laws; as a result, it smells much better than it might otherwise. Discussions on mediev-l have critiqued the clothing worn on site. It's all approximate, made off-site from patterns sent to them from France, apparently. The fabric is commercially bought still, although eventually the spinners, dyers, and weavers may be able to contribute to more of the clothing. Eventually, they will make tapestries to line the three towers which will be heated. Currently, however, they are two people, not nearly enough for the volume of work neccessary.

It was all better from there on out. It was downright wonderful when we talked to the artisans about their specific work, their projects, and their lives which had led them to full-time employment as builders of a thirteenth-century-style castle. What was particularly exciting about it was how new most of them were to the project. The quarryman had received about a month's training; the stone cutter two or three. From these quick apprenticeships, they are now entrusted with the building of an entire monument.

Staff were eager for knowledge, insight, examples, bibliography, contact with specialists working on their many areas of expertise. They were excited about the structured they were helping to build, the longevity it will likely have with the hard limestone it is made of. We spent hours talking to them. This is the other part of why the building site is so quietly tranquil: it's using medieval techniques, but the workers can all spend lots of time explaining their work to visitors as well as doing it. It's all part of the job.

The struture is remarkably far along, given how recently building started, because they didn't have to do foundations: they're building on bedrock. So walls were three to six feet tall, some up to ten feet. The bases of the towers are all in place, at least one as high as the first lintel on the first completed door. The carpenter and the ropemaker were excited that they'd just finished the first scaffolding that they had made themselves. The lime slakers lugged water from the well to their shade; the well-bucket is secured by a sturdy, bendy branch, sapling or willow.

Some part of the project are slightly odd: there's a catapult facing the castle, as if to attack. Apparently, it was required to represent the enemy against whom the castle is being built. I really wish it were facing the other direction, part of defense instead of attack. They are currently building a trebuchet, because all medieval castles open to the public must have a trebuchet. There is the bailey and tower of an earlier style of castle, done as a small life-size model than anything particularly usable. It was too much effort to bother with a motte, I suppose, given it's built on stone.

They have sheep, whose wool is being carded, spun, dyed, and woven in small amounts. They have a vegetable garden. They have an armorer, who was by far the most knowledgeable person on site, thanks to 20 years medieval recreation combat experience. They have a bread oven. They have a blacksmith, stone cutters, a potter, ropemarkers, carpenters,a basketmaker, and masons. They are doing all their measurements with a thirteen-knot rope, my favorite aspect of the recreation archeology they are doing there.

I think it's a wonderful project. The building of it is likely to be far more interesting than the existence, twenty years from now, of a thirteenth-century style castle in Ozarks. Their historical overviews may be problematic, but where it matters, the staff is engaging, accessible, dedicated, and very much engaged in discovering how to use old techniques they are trained in only just enough.

I recommend it. The $12 admission (plus $1 for the tour) goes toward building costs. I especially recommend it for medievalists and historians of technology: you can help this project with what you know about the subject, the more specifically about medieval building and fabric-working techniques, the better.

Given the nature of the project, it didn't immediately seem as if it was worth approaching the project oversight committee about this, so much as the individuals, the ones hungry for knowledge. They know there's cutting-edge scholarly work being done out there on smelting and medieval scaffolding and tapestry technique and would love to know about it. There seems a certain disconnect within the project: the Ozark staff wishing they could visit the French castle and vice versa to talk with their counterparts, to avoid too much reinventing of the wheel. No matter how much they share, there will always be so much more to discover.

These are people doing recreation archeology on a grand scale with only a crash course to guide them. I think the oversight committee could be doing a great deal more with them. They did say that suggestions from visitors were taken as more compelling than those from staff. But they have community and purpose to make it all worth their while.

I would love to see some of them eventually, say, give presentations on some of what they have learned by doing at Kalamazoo.

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
sollersuk
Aug. 27th, 2010 07:15 am (UTC)
Quick query on the scaffolding (based on all the castles I've looked at in the UK and the few I've seen in France): aren't they leaving put-log holes in the walls?
gillo
Aug. 27th, 2010 12:30 pm (UTC)
This sounds fascinating, though I winced at your summary of mediaeval history, and I'm no scholar, just a mere English teacher.

They are currently building a trebuchet, because all medieval castles open to the public must have a trebuchet.


Oh dear. Kenilworth fails at being a proper castle, then. I think they may have one down the road in Warwick, but that's such a tacky theme park of a place it's easy to forget there's a genuine castle in the mix altogether.

I suppose it would be expensive to send many of these people to Europe, but there's such a wealth of expertise in things like masonry, thatching and reconstruction over here one has to feel it would be worth it. Or even contact a few really serious re-enactment groups to plan a team outing. This place, for example, has a great deal of expertise, at least totally convincing to a laywoman.
jandersoncoats
Aug. 27th, 2010 04:00 pm (UTC)
That's just down the road from my in-laws! If I'm ever in town to visit them, I'm there. It'd be more than worth my twelve bucks, and I'd love to talk to people who are actually doing the stuff I've only read about.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )