Digging With Sir Lancelot

My name is Przemysław Nocuń and I would like to call myself both archeologist and castellologist. For nine years now I have been privilaged to conduct archaeological excavations at one of the most important monuments of the Middle Ages in Poland.

Ducal tower of Siedlęcin, in Lower Silesia, Poland, displays one of the most complete and important sets of 14th century domestic wall paintings in Central Europe. The paintings are a rarity both for their mixture of secular, religious and didactic themes, and for their leading subject being the legend of Sir Lancelot of the Lake. Today the tower is the only place in the world where the medieval wall paintings depicting Sir Lancelot of the Lake have been preserved in situ. The tower itself is one of the largest and best preserved medieval tower houses in this part of Europe. Initially crenelated, it stands 22 meters high (72 feet) and retains its original medieval configuration. The most siginificant alteration since the fourteenth century is the addition of a roof in the sixteenth century.

The tower’s Great Hall with the unique paintings depicting Sir Lancelot of the Lake and his legendary exploits. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Archaeological excavations in Siedlęcin have been carried out by the Institute of Archaeology of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow since 2008. Initially we cooperated with the Institute of Archaeology of the University of Wrocław, now we alone supervise the annual digs. Together with students and young volunteers from Poland, France and other countries we meet once a year to spend thirty one days of August on exploring and discovering.

During the nine seasons of excavations we have examined the tower itself, as well as its immediate vicinity. We identified the remains of the floorings on the ground floor and determined the location of the partition walls. Similarly, we have unearthed the remains of many structures outside. They begin to reveal the overall picture of the tower which changed intensively from the 14th until the 20th century. Alongside the excavations we conduct the extensive, indepth dendrochronological survey. The massive tie beams are the oldest surviving wooden ceilings in Poland. Dendrochronological examination revealed that the trees used for their construction were cut down in 1313, 1314 and 1315 respectively. The results let us not only determine the age of single beams, but also indicate the respective phases of the expanding process the tower went thorugh. I think we will also receive the final answer to how the surroundings south of the tower developed and changed, with the manor house built in the 16th century and then rebuilt several times until it acquired its present shape, which took place at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. We cannot forget about the moat that initially surrounded the whole site, being today visible only from the north and east, with its sections in the south and west having been revealed by our survey. Additionally, we have discovered a stone bridge and the remains of a teracce with butresses, whose function we will try to determine during the next season of excavations. Conservation works involving the reconstruction of the 16th century causeway demand employing stonemason techniques and materials similar to those applied originally for the building’s construction. The research makes it possible, among other things, to determine the composition of the materials used and techniques employed and try to reconstruct the original shape of the bridge.

By archaeological research we often mean not only excavations themselves, but also looking for other categories of sources. With regard to Siedlęcin, we have managed to find a few eighteen century maps which show the grange situated in the tower’s close vicinity, extensively rebuilt in the 19th century, when it acquired its present form with the long rows of farm buildings. We began exploring the outside of the ruined grange. We succeeded in unearthing the remains of the foundation of some earlier structures and determined how the surroundings must have looked like before any of the building projects had been launched here, where the closeness of the River Bóbr had a visible impact.

There is no typical day for me as this job is so varied, but during present season of the excavations we are going to continue our research based on the oldest preserved depiction of the tower created before the adjacent manor house was erected at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. Last year this invaluable 18th century engraving let us unearth the remains of the gate tower depicted in it, but later replaced by the afore mentioned manor house. Next to the tower itself, the manor house is one of the buildings we explore. Probing equipment installed in differnet places helped determine that it had been built prior to the18th and 19th centuries, only to acquire its present shape at the time. We have discovered  many earlier elements inside such as 14th century perimetric wall. As new technologies develop, we try to employ other methods of archaeological research alongside excavations themselves. We used a 3D scanner to scan the entire building. After converting the point clouds into architectural formats, published the results and have a 3D model of the tower.  The model will help conduct an angular analysis of the entire structure. Other nondestructive methods such as ground-penetrating radar are adopted as well. In 2008 and 2009 similar projects were already carried out here. We were trying to find the remains of the moat then. Unfortunately, the State Agricultural Farm [PGR] activities in the second half of the 20th century such as filling the moat with rubble made it impossible. However, the methods mentioned before continues to develop quickly, new solutions appear and we are going to use them both outside and inside the tower in the upcoming years. We hope they may help determine whether underneath the third floor modern period plasters dating probably from the late 16th century some additional medieval paintings may have been preserved. This can be determined by adopting nondestructive methods as well. Since such discovery was made on the first floor during conservation of the wall plastering conducted in 2007, when a small medieval painting depicting Virgin Mary was uncovered, we know that it is highly plausible.

Thanks to our research we have collected data not only about the tower and manor house themselves, but also about medieval pottery, ceramic and glass vessels, military equipment and medieval coins discovered on the site. We catalogue all the finds. The most interesting objects are later put on display, their stories being told to excite visitors to the tower. Recently we have published our results in a meticulous publication.

 

Przemysław Nocuń: Lecturer in the Department of Archaeology at the Jagiellonian University, Cracow, Poland. Founder of the „Ducal Tower of Siedlęcin” Association. Gained his PhD in Archaeology at the University of Wrocław. Conducted and took part in archaeological excavations at the castles of  Poland, Israel and Jordan. Fascinated with the Middle Ages and castles.