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Prof Denys Pringle 


The walls of medieval Ascalon

The overall aim of the project is to undertake a comprehensive analysis of the 5th- to 13th-century fortifications of Ascalon, based on historical research, topographical survey, and examination of the architecture and construction of the surviving remains.

In the Middle Ages, Ascalon – a former city of the Philistines – was a strongly fortified town controlling the coastal sea and land routes between Syria and Egypt. Unlike neighbouring Gaza, its site has lain unoccupied since the mid thirteenth century. The medieval walls that enclose it on the landward side extend in a great arc, almost 2 km in length, built on top of a massive earthwork, which excavation has now confirmed represents the remains of a succession of ramparts of earth, mud-brick and stone, dating from the Middle Bronze and Iron Ages. A sample of burnt organic material taken from near the Jerusalem Gate in 1978 and submitted for radiocarbon dating produced a terminus post quem after calibration of AD 390–530 (at 68% probability), while a preliminary study of the defences undertaken by DP in 1981–3 also indicated that they were the result of a complex structural history extending over several centuries. After the Byzantine period, the principal documented building phases are: Umayyad (685–93); Fatimid (especially 1049–57, 1073–94 and 1150); Crusader (1153– ); Ayyubid (1187); and Crusader (Richard I of England, 1192). In 1241–2, part of the enceinte was incorporated into a castle built by Tibald of Champagne, Hugh of Burgundy and Richard of Cornwall. A feature of the walls’ history, however, is the regularity with which they have been destroyed, most notably by Saladin in 1191, by Saladin and Richard I in 1192, by the later Ayyubids in 1247, by Sultan Baybars in 1270, by Ahmad al-Jazzār at the end of the 18th century, and by Ibrahim Pasha in 1832. As a result, their remains exist today as a series of disarticulated lumps of masonry of differing shapes and sizes, many of them quite plainly not in their original positions.

Since the late 1980s, Ascalon has been the subject of a major American archaeological excavation project, sponsored by the Leon Levy Foundation and based in the Universities of Chicago and Harvard. In 2008, following discussions with Professor Daniel Master, the director of the excavations, and Dr Tracey Hoffman, the editor of the proposed medieval volume, a collaborative project was set up by the Leon Levy Expedition and Cardiff University, aimed at assessing what is known about the walls and defining a clearer research strategy to guide future archaeological work on them. The immediate objectives have been to complete a detailed topographical survey of what remains of the walls, to record all surviving architectural features and masonry types, and to undertake a comprehensive review of the historical sources. These objectives have now all been achieved a draft report has been prepared.

A key difficulty in interpreting the data so far assembled, however, is to relate the fragmentary building remains to specific historically documented episodes of construction. The mortars, however, contain quantities of charcoal and charred plant material, apparently generated when the lime was slaked and hence linked to building episodes. They include short-lived material such as twig fragments, olive stones and grape pips on which radiocarbon measurements could be made. It is therefore proposed in 2012–13 to undertake a programme of radiocarbon dating of carbonized material from the walls. This would proceed by obtaining AMS dates for three single-entity short-life samples from each selected context and to model the results in a Bayesian framework. The samples would be identified by a palaeobotanist. The single-entity samples would preclude the mixing of samples of different ages; the multiple samples would make it possible to identify redeposited fragments; and Bayesian modelling the results, a procedure tried and tested many regions, would enhance precision. Provisional sampling sites have been selected to provide relatively evenly-spaced coverage around the circuit, to exploit the longer observed constructional sequences, and to date individual elements the attribution of which is unclear. An application will be made to the NERC Radiocarbon Facility to undertake the dating of the samples. Statistical interpretation of the results will be carried out by Dr Frances Healy.

It is anticipated that the radiocarbon project will result in the dating of elements of the walls being placed on a firmer footing, thus allowing the history of Ascalon’s defences and the architectural development of its towers and gates to be better understood. It is also hoped that it will contribute to the continuing development of techniques for dating ancient and medieval mortars.

Ramla, c.715-1917

The Ramla Project is a multi-disciplinary project, the aim of which is to investigate the cultural, social, economic and topographical development of the town from its foundation around 715 until 1917. The first stage of the project aims to produce an archaeological assessment of the site as a whole, drawing on contributions from a number of different specialists. The volume will be accompanied by a digitized map showing the location of all recorded sites, monuments and excavations throughout the city.

The project is funded by the Council for British Research in the Levant, and has a value of £8,116.

‘Aqaba Castle

Ayla was occupied by King Baldwin I in 1116-17 and was in Frankish hands until 1170. It was also briefly held by Reynald of Châtillon, lord of Karak, in 1181-3. Although the principal Crusader castle of Ayla that fell to Saladin in 1170 and was subsequently rebuilt by him is now known to have been located on an offshore island (Jazirat Fara‘un) some 15km to the SW, the status of the settlement on the mainland at Aqabat-Ayla (present-day al-‘Aqaba) in this period remains something of a mystery. Excavations by Prof. Donald Whitcomb (Oriental Institute, Chicago) have now shown that the Umayyad and Abbasid walled town (misr) of Ayla was abandoned by c.1100. The Mamluk castle, which lies 1km south of it, however, is usually credited to al-Nasir Muhammad (c.1320), but in its present form dates no earlier than the reign of Sultan Qansawh al-Ghawri (1501-16). The possibility has always been recognized, however, that it may stand on earlier foundations.

Recent restoration of the castle’s walls, partly destroyed by naval bombardments in 1911-12 and 1917, have complicated, rather than simplified, the task of interpreting the standing structure. However, the excavation of some trial trenches by the Jordanian Department of Antiquities in the spring of 1999 suggested that the castle had been built over features dating from the Fatimid period, thus appearing to support the idea of a pre-Mamluk origin for the structure.

A joint Belgian-British campaign of research was therefore begun in October 2000, jointly directed by Dr Johnny De Meulemeester (University of Ghent) and Prof. Denys Pringle, supported by the Division du Patrimoine of the Région Wallonne and the Council for British Research in the Levant.

The principal purposes of the project are:

  • To undertake a complete survey and structural interpretation of the castle’s above-ground remains.
  • To define the chronological sequence of occupation of the site and to recover a sequence of pottery and other artefacts relating to it.
  • To define, as far as possible, the layout of the structure(s) underlying the standing Mamluk remains and their relationship to the Mamluk castle.
  • To assess the reasons why the builders of the castle chose to locate it where they did.

The project is funded by the Division du Patrimoine of the Région Wallonne, Council for British Research in the Levant, Palestine Exploration Fund.

Research Groups

Cardiff Centre for the Crusades

The Cardiff Centre for the Crusades was established in 2000 to encourage and develop Cardiff as a focus for research collaboration, conferences and publications in the field of crusading history. The Centre's interests embrace the history and ideology of the crusading movement, the history and archaeology of the lands conquered by the crusaders, the impact of the crusades on those lands and peoples against which expeditions were directed and from which expeditions were launched, and the history of the Military Orders. All theatres of crusading activity and any crusade from the end of the eleventh century onwards are included.

Centre For Late Antique Religion & Culture (CLARC)

This centre promotes and supports the study of late antique religion and culture from the late Hellenistic Period to the early Middle Ages, also in relation to earlier and later periods, in particular Classical Antiquity and the modern world.