Construction crews in a picturesque forest in the Burgundy region of France are undertaking their own version of time travel. They are working backward to painstakingly build a medieval castle from scratch.
The Guedelon Castle project is being called “the world’s biggest archaeology experiment.” Crews use 13th-century materials and construction techniques, often learning as they go. To make the experience even more authentic, the team of about 50 master builders even don medieval attire as they go about their tasks.
The project started with another castle–at least two, if you want to get right down to it. Castle-lover Michel Guyot had bought the red brick Chateau de Saint-Fargeau –a castle with history that includes Joan of Arc and the French Revolution–and was restoring it. As that work proceeded, he was shocked to learn that, like an absorbed twin, the current brick castle was hiding a smaller stone castle with its walls. The castle had gone through a number of transformations over the decades. Unfortunately, some of them were by fire.
As Guyot read the report on his current castle by architectural and fortification experts he had brought in, one line stood out: “Reconstruction Saint-Fargeau castle would be an amazing project.”
Guyot was hooked on the idea. But if they proceeded, where to put it? It turns out, he didn’t have to look far. The nearby Guedelon forest, about 10 miles away, had all the raw materials they needed: water, timber, earth, sand, clay, and an old rock quarry for the massive blocks of stone they would need.
The work began in 1997. When it is finished sometime in the 2020s, workers will have created an authentic version of a 13th century castle.
Visitor come from near and far to witness the transformation. The castle’s architectural features include curtain walls, great roof timbers, rib-vaulted guardrooms, and ever-evolving murals. The newly constructed castle initially was based on the Saint-Fargeau castle, but the design was later adjusted to reflect other old castles in the area.
The project is more than just an eccentric whim. Its creation also is based on giving back in many ways. One of those ways is through tourism. Guided tours of the castle are offered and a medieval-style restaurant is open to feed them. The site is now a major draw, with annual visits in the hundreds of thousands.
The Guedelon Castle is also a major education enterprise, with tours aimed at groups wanting to learn about medieval times, in particular the working conditions and techniques. And those working there continually expand the knowledge base as they hone their craft through hands-on experimental archaeology. The construction team includes quarrymen, stonemasons, woodcutters, carpenters, and rope makers.
Among the reasons the castle is popular with visitors is that they have face-to-face access with these craftsmen and are welcome to ask about anything related to the work.
Some people want to take a further step and get their own hands dirty. For those who speak French and are in good health, Guedelon Castle offers a variety of working holidays and options. And because the castle is a certified heritage skills training center, that work could be valuable experience for someone wanting to continue to bring the past to life.
The project is ever-evolving. One of the newest additions, the mint, is in the castle courtyard. The goal here is to learn about the making of alloys and minting coins, medieval-style of course.
With at least five years of work still ahead of them, there’s still plenty to see as the castle continues to rise.
In 2018, plans are to hoist more than 250 hand-hewn beams onto the chapel tower and assemble the pepperpot roof timbers. Work will continue on the twin towers of the gatehouse, and masons plan to finish the parapet of the castle’s Pigeon-Loft Tower.
Terri Likens‘ byline has appeared in newspapers around the world through The Associated Press. She has also done work for ABCNews, the BBC, and magazines that include High Country News, American Profile, and Plateau Journal. She lives just east of Nashville, Tenn.