Every TCC Member deals with the same dilemma: Do I continue to explore new destinations or return to some of my favorite places? I’m guessing 95 percent of you have already visited some or several parts of France. Similarly I would estimate 95 percent have also visited a European castle. I’m writing this message to encourage everyone to consider visiting a particularly special French castle, one being constructed today using 13th-century techniques.
One of the most unique tourist attractions in Europe today is Château de Guédelon. This is a “new build” of a castle forgoing all modern technology. Workers use only materials and techniques that were available in the 1200s. Workers must use 13th-century hammers to break stones, clay to make tiles, local pigments to color the tiles and wooden wheels to hoist materials to where they are needed. The workers go so far as locating local plants to make the baskets that are used to hoist materials.
This project had its origins with a French entrepreneur, Michel Guyot. In the 1990s, when he was restoring a beautiful château from the 19th century, he found it had been built on the foundation of a medieval castle from an earlier era. This gave him the idea of attempting to build an entirely new structure using the tools of an earlier era. After raising the necessary capital, including 400,000 Euros from the European Union, he had to find a suitable site and chose a specific date from history from which to orient his project. Michel chose an abandoned sandstone quarry to minimize transporting stone to the site. Although this was his primary concern in the site selection, he was fortunate that a nearby forest yielded the wood he needed. Nearby, he also was able to find clay for the tile work, iron ore for smelting, and pigments for painting and tile colorization.
Finally, he needed to choose a precise date that the castle was to have been constructed, so as not to use any technology that wasn’t developed at the time. He chose the year 1228, during the reign of Louis IX, who was known as the builder king. Coincidentally, this was the same era as the castle that is the foundation for the Louvre in Paris. (This stonework can be seen in the lower level of the museum today.)
This entire building process is part of a formal branch of archaeology known as “experimental archaeology.” This formal discipline is devoted to testing theories on ancient building techniques by trying to duplicate the tools and processes used in the period. A good example of experimental archaeology would be Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki expedition across the Pacific Ocean.
A particular benefit of this castle construction is paying dividends in rebuilding the roof of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. After the 2019 fire, there were many experts who said it would be impossible to rebuild the cathedral roof as it had been. They claimed the only feasible way to reconstruct the roof was to use more modern techniques. Fortunately, the builders of Château de Guédelon came forward and convinced Parisian authorities the roof could be rebuilt using the same 13th-century methods.
Hopefully, we can see more samples of this type of experimental archaeology in the future. Already, more than 300,000 tourists have visited the castle and surrounding areas.
Not only are tourists coming to visit the site, some are signing up to assist the crafts people working there. I encourage each of you to consider joining this amazing quest. For more information about the project, visit the Château de Guédelon Web site at https://www.guedelon.fr.