A New Old-School Castle

Or: Undraining the Moat

gueldonThere's a castle under construction in France. Not a Disney-style castle at a theme park. An actual castle using medieval designs, materials, and construction methods.

Guédelon Castle started construction in 1997 and won't be completed until sometime in the 2020s. The designers aim to create an authentic 13th century-style medieval castle.

Oh, and when they say authentic, they mean authentic:

  • They only use local materials.
  • The site for the castle was chosen very carefully, located near an old stone quarry, a pond, and right in the middle of a forest.
  • All of the materials are gathered and hauled to the site using only medieval methods, including horse drawn carts.
  • The construction workers all wear period-appropriate garb, use period-appropriate tools, and use period-appropriate construction methods.
  • They have on-site blacksmiths, stone masons, carpenters, etc.
  • No modern tools are used anywhere. Not even ramps; sorry, Yard Ramp Guy.

The project has created 55 jobs and attracted more than 200 volunteers. On-site professional training is provided to disadvantaged youth, some of whom have earned stone-masonry and other certifications. More than 300,000 tourists a year visit the project, and it is open to schools for educational purposes. The construction has definitely proven itself worthwhile in those regards, but none of those were the original intention.

This is all part of experimental archaeology, which reconstructs and uses ancient tools, structures, and artifacts and allows archaeologists to actually study which methods work best and produce results most like the actual artifacts.

One way they do that is by looking for construction quirks (not the actual scientific term they use). Anyone who uses a lot of tools knows that you'll end up with certain quirks in your project, depending on which tools you use. For example: the same cut will be slightly different with different saws. When you're using tools that aren't mass-produced like ours, those little quirks get magnified even more.

During experimental archaeology, you can look to see if the methods you are using produce quirks like the historical ones.

Experimental archaeologists have produced Iron Age farmsteads and Greek triremes, hauled Stonehenge sized stones, sailed from Peru to Polynesia on a raft (Kon-Tiki), and, of course, built Guédelon Castle. (For a longer list, check out THIS. It's an incredibly productive line of research. And a heck of a lot of fun.

Guédelon Castle is proving to be one of the most productive of these lines of research. We've learned tremendously about castle construction from it. There was actually a companion castle being built in America: the Ozark Medieval Fortress. It ran out of funding and is currently on hiatus. We still need that European vacation to see a castle under construction. With any luck, though, that will change.

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Photo By Ronny Siegel (Château Guedelon) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Go Jump in a Lake

Or: Good Luck Getting There

The most interesting lake in the world is completely inaccessible.

Well, maybe not completely, but close enough for government work. Which, come to think of it, usually isn't that close.

Lake Vostok is located in Antarctica. Bit of a strange place for a lake, I know, but this gets even weirder. Its surface is 500 feet below sea level. Lake Vostok is believed to have species of bacteria that are present nowhere else on the planet. It's also the largest lake in Antarctica, at more than 160 miles long and 30 miles wide.

lvAnd just to make all this interesting, there's a magnetic anomaly in one end of the lake.

Vostok Station, the nearby research facility, recorded the coldest known temperature ever on our planet. The lake has a single island, which no one has ever set foot on. It's also in complete darkness, even during the part of the year when Antarctica gets sunlight. That, of course, is because it's buried under 13,000 feet of ice.

As in: Lake Vostok is buried under a two and a half mile-high glacier.

Clearly impossible, right? Normally, yes, but in this case, the massive weight and compression created by the glacier caused its lowest layer to heat up, melting the ice and forming Lake Vostok. There are more than 500 of these subglacial lakes in Antarctic.

The hunt for life in Lake Vostok has become a major point of interest. Any creepy-crawly thing there would likely have been sealed off for the lake’s entire 15 million-year lifespan. The warm, oxygen rich, and pitch black waters would have created an ecosystem unlike anything else on the planet.

lv1Unfortunately, there are concerns that the antifreeze used to maintain the boreholes through the glacier might contaminate the lake, so scientists are proceeding with extreme caution. While the overwhelming majority of species they have found could quite likely just be contaminants from the surface, they have found at least one previously unknown species that might very well have come from the lake itself.

Mission to Mars? Sure. But Vacation in Vostok: now we’re talking…even though Maggie won’t hear of it.

Hutton’s Geology

James Hutton

James Hutton

Everyone knows about Charles Darwin and Galileo Galilei. They're the closest thing to science rock stars. One battled the Catholic Church at the height of its power and performed experiments involving dropping objects off buildings. The other took a voyage around the world and developed a whole new science. They have fascinating, memorable, and dramatic life stories. They’ve earned rock star status.

Geology has its own Darwin, but he's hardly as well known.

James Hutton was far from an adventurous man. In fact, most of his discoveries came about from exploring the same small area close to where he lived.

Hutton was a Scottish gentleman farmer, commonly known as the Father of Modern Geology. By observing layers of dirt and stone, he was the first to consider that these layers might indicate great age.

Man of Rocks

Man of Rocks

In his day (the mid and late 1700s), most other geologists looked to various theories involving floods to explain the layers. Hutton, though, theorized that the Earth was incredibly hot inside, and that sediment swept into the ocean melted and was pushed upwards. Which wasn't too far from today’s consensus, at least compared to most of his contemporaries.

Part of the reason that Hutton isn't well remembered today is that he was a much worse writer than other prominent geologists of the time. Hutton's book Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation of the Laws observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe was much less readable for the general public. Plus, the title is just less catchy than, say, On the Origin of Species. Much, much less catchy.

Another reason? Rocks just aren't that interesting to most people.

The Lasting Architecture of Vastu Shastra

Indian architecture has one of the longest histories of any architectural school—or, at least, of any architectural philosophy. It's not like any society really ever stops building for a while, so they all have immensely long architectural histories.

Angkor WatIndia, however, has an architectural philosophy called Vastu Shastra. Rather than a rigid design philosophy telling you to do this and then do that, it's more a set of guidelines to help with maximizing space, sunlight, and movement within the space, while adding in Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. This all is characterized by square mandalas, which are very distinctive grid-like shapes.

Many of the greatest architectural achievements in human history were designed according to Vastu Shastra. Angkor Wat in Cambodia was designed according to that plan. (Fun fact: the live action version of “The Jungle Book” from the 1960s was partially filmed at Angkor Wat. Great movie.)

One theory holds that they developed Vastu Shastra as far back as 8,000 years ago; many ancient Indian archaeological sites conform to its design principals. It’s been in continual practice ever since, though it was ignored by a lot of architects during the British rule of India. As soon as the British got the boot, though, Vastu Shastra quickly started regaining its popularity.

Part of the reason Vastu Shastra has remained in use for so long is its flexibility. The design matrix allows for adaptation: with new building materials, in more crowded areas, and in non-square spaces. We’ve seen a major resurgence of Vastu Shastra in modern times—among both architects and homeowners in India—and its concepts are spreading all around the world.

Too often, people look at architecture, comment about how exotic it looks, and then just dismiss it as a novelty. People don't build like that, though. There is a philosophy behind every piece of architecture in history.

The Stingless Bee

I'm not especially knowledgeable about farming. Irrigation? That I know a little bit about. Crops and animal husbandry? Much less. Every now and then, I do run across something really interesting. In this case: the Mayan stingless bee.

a beeThe stingless bees, also known as meliponines, are frequently kept in homes as pets. The Central American varieties bred by the Maya are kept in hollow logs with ceramic caps at either end that can be removed to gather honey. They are still kept this way today, in the same way they have been for countless centuries. The hives are often passed down between generations, and it’s common for hives to last 80 years.

They have more uses than just as pets or to make honey. They're also used for religious purposes. Beekeepers would place the hives near certain hallucinogenic flowers, so that the honey made from them kept some of those properties, which were then turned into a sort of honey wine used in ritual practices. I reckon that there's a lot less falling asleep in church there.

Metalworkers also frequently kept bees in Central America in order to use their wax for lost-wax casting. Lost wax casting involves the creation of a wax model, followed by the creation of a mould and then a hollow wax model, after which the model is covered in a more durable material and filled with molten metal. (Yep: I've got a slightly shaky grasp on it.)

Central America isn't the only center of stingless bee cultivation. Brazil and Australia are also involved.

Unfortunately, the cultivation of stingless bees in Central America has been dropping away in favor of Africanized bees (sometime called killer bees, which is actually inaccurate; you're more likely to be hit by lightning than killed by Africanized bees), who produce much larger amounts of honey. One of the major downsides of this is that Africanized bees neglect a number of local flowers, which results in many local plants not getting fertilized.