Seasonal Archaeology: Dunstanburgh Castle


Dunstanburgh Castle, August 2018

Autumn and spring are two times in the year when I find the sharp and contrasting light of the early morning or late evening particularly striking for looking at archaeological landscapes and monuments. As an archaeologist studying the landscape, and the structures within it, is a vital skill in understanding the relationship of ancient communities to their surroundings. Its also a way of linking the viewer with those past communities, at least in an emotional way.

In the first of what, I hope, will be a long running occasional series of archaeology images, I thought I would pull from my archive some photographs that encapsulate, for me, the emotions, romance, and harshness of the many archaeological monuments I’ve had the fortune to explore. For this first image I’ve chosen a view of Dunstanburgh castle, on the Northumberland coast. This is has been a favourite holiday haunt since I first visited the castle in 2003. The walk from Craster village to the south allows the castle to emerge form the landscape, framed by the shore and sea to the east and the low hills to the west. On wide day with clouds scudding across the sky the sunlight can seem almost like a series of spotlights playing across the castle walls, the shadows alternating in highlight the towers and battlements.

The sum effective can be quite theatrical, which is intriguing since the castle was built by Earl Thomas of Lancaster between 1313 and 1322 as a deliberate statement of his power. Re-using the site of a prehistoric fort the castle had its own harbour to the east and a northern gateway (Lilburn Tower). To the west were built a string of three shallow fresh-water meres which would have given the appearance from the south of a castle on its own island, or perhaps even floating in the air. The great gateway to the south still ahs twin, though ruined, three-storey round towers. From the top of these tall turrets projected at both the southern front and northern rear of the gatehouse. The third floor appears to have contained the main domestic rooms in the castle including a hall and great chamber, which were also accessible from the inner courtyard of the castle.

Impressive as this arrangement is, its the way in which the light constantly changes across the face of the castle walls that has repeatedly attracted me to this site. That and the memories of holiday walks, gusts of wind strong enough to lift you off your feet and the smell of smoking fish carried on the winds from the smokeries at Craster village.


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