Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The date stone debate

Of all the questions raised by the investigations into 34 Mill Street, the nature of the date stone is one of the most fascinating. For starters, the actual date of the stone was never covered, and the removal of the render simply exposed the full size of the stone so like many townsfolk I've been walking past this for 30 years without noticing. There is also plenty of debate as to whether there are even date marks on the stone or whether people were projecting their own interpretations onto the marks, or whether the marks might be mason's marks and natural indentations. Further doubt as to the stone's authenticity rest on the fact most date stones of this period are inscribed with roman numerals as opposed to the arabic numerals we see on this example.

The date stone in situ in the wall of 34 Mill Street.

Personally, I've always thought the stone has a date on it. I've spoken to so many people that agree (including those who have wandered up to see what I was doing), and one gent who knew of the stone 70 years ago; more on that story later. So there is a consensus the stone shows a date (those with opposing views are invited to state their case in the comments section). However,  a consensus proves nothing so I decided to see if we could find firm evidence that the markings on the stone were a date.

A dinosaur footprint captured by photogrammetry. This is an untextured 3D model.

This is the original footprint, a Eubrontes from the Warner Valley, Utah.
As you might guess, this is way older than our date stone (and possibly better preserved).

How to accomplish this? Well, I've recently become a volunteer research associate with the University of Southampton where I am at present working on techniques that allow the study and interpretation of dinosaur footprints and other trace fossils. One of the methods we use is photogrammetry, a process which entails the taking of overlapping photos which are then analysed by software that generates 3D data, and from that we make accurate models of our subjects which we then use to check the morphology of the print on the computer. I used the same techniques to have a look at our date stone, and here are the results.

The textured 3D model (or mesh). This is generated from several overlapping photographs.

The mesh with the texture removed and a simple 3-point light rig. Without the visual clutter
of the texture we can now see the surface of the stone clearly.

Now the same mesh with low-angle lighting. This is adjustable and allows us to
see we could not see under normal conditions as we can light the stone from any angle.
See the movie below.

The movie above shows a light rotating 360 around the mesh, which enables us to see the details otherwise obscured by shadow. Try stopping the movie and scrubbing along the timeline to take a good look at the stone under the different lighting angles.

False-colour image of the mesh based on elevation. Red = Low, blue =  high.
This clearly shows the numerals on the stone.

The images generated during this analysis show numerals carved into the stone and not mason's marks or natural features created by the bedding plane of the rock or weathering processes. I would suggest that the date says 1400, but the weathering the rock has undergone over the years has damages the surface and the third digit is obscure.

So is the stone authentic? We know the stone has been there since 1915 as John Earle's mentions it in his book The Streets and Houses of Old Macclesfield, and he states the stone says 1400, and this is the earliest mention of it I have found so far. The stone does not appear to have been forgotten between then and now either, and as I mentioned earlier whilst at the site I was approached by an elderly gent who told me that after the second world war he worked as a painter and decorator and was involved in painting the outside of the shop. He said the then owner asked the workers to scratch a little at the numerals to ensure they didn't disappear, which they did using a nail. He emphasised they didn't chisel at the stone, just scratch it. So we now know the stone has been 'retouched' at least once since 1915.

Andrew Ramshall has sent information regarding the stone to English Heritage and we await the results with interest. If the stone was verified as being medieval then it would be of potentially national importance as it would represent a very early example of arabic numerals used in a date stone, plus it might well have a connection with the castle. However, it might be there is no way the stone can be dated with any accuracy and the fact the carving has been touched up might have a bearing (or it might not).

We may never know the stone's true provenance, but it is at the very least a talking point that gets people thinking about the town's pre-industrial heritage, and it's worth preserving for that reason alone.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

34 Mill Street and the castle that wasn't

Macclesfield once had a castle. Well, not a castle exactly, but a fortified manor house of the type the English are fond of calling a castle as it had crenelations, towers and was made of big stones. Macclesfield Castle has become an almost mythical structure, almost completely lost to the ravages of time and the relentless march of development through the ages. Bits of it sit forlornly in the courtyard of the new town hall with weeds growing at their base and moss and algae gradually covering them. You can glimpse them if you squeeze between the lift and a rack of pamphlets put across the window. They're open to the elements, slowly decaying as the memory of their former glory fades from the collective consciousness of the townsfolk. They symbolise the way the town's pre-industrial heritage has been treated over the years; reduced to a half-remembered curiosity that briefly piques the interest in those passing by. At least they're not stuck in a kid's playground as some of our other antiquities are.

The south wall of 34 Mill Street as revealed when the render was removed.

So when I was walking down Mill Street and noticed a stone wall had been revealed on the side of the old Rose's Shoe Shop and the small road leading to Brian Ollier's studio I got pretty excited. Was this part of the castle? Some of the stonework was obviously old and the rest was an intriguing hotch-potch of materials and building phases. Also, my wife Ann-Marie had spotted a larger stone within the wall at the end closer to Mill Street which appeared to have numerals inscribed on it. The week previously during the Barnaby Festival we had been on a walk guided by local historian Matthew Hyde and during the course of our perambulations discovered that part of the curtain wall of the castle is still standing, something I was unaware of even though I'd walked past it hundreds of times.

An extant section of the castle's curtain wall, as pointed out by Matthew Hyde.
How many of the townsfolk know this is here?

I then sent an email out to some family and friends suggesting they contact the local authority to press for the preservation of the wall. Nigel Lea then copied several councillors and the Macclesfield Express in on the email, and things started happening. I received statements of support from several councillors, David Rutley the MP (whom I had copied in on the original email) and was also contacted by Andrew Ramshall, Senior Conservation Officer at Cheshire East.

All this activity culminated with Andrew Ramshall kindly agreeing to meet anyone interested at the site and talk it through, and I'm pleased to say quite a few people gave their time and attended. Archaeologists had decided the wall represented part of a 16th century building that has undergone several phases of alteration and repair. There were several reasons for reaching this conclusion: a map exists showing the layout of the remaining stone walls and 34 Mill Street has been interpreted as not matching any of these, the stonework was not defensive in nature and there was a consensus (not shared by myself and others) that the date stone marks were natural and we were misinterpreting them, seeing numerals that weren't there.

The Macclesfield Express featured an article on the site, written with its usual enthusiasm for a story regardless of the facts and featuring a picture of Andrew and a chap called Ian Dale (who has had nothing to do with the whole thing as far as I'm aware) next to the stone. A follow-up article a couple of weeks later finally mentioned the fact it was a 16th century building not the castle.

So it was decided to record the building to the best of our ability and the council will let it be re-rendered over in order to conserve the stonework, which would degrade rapidly when exposed to the elements (the sad fate for the stones in the courtyard; they are made of the same or similar stone). The 'date stone' would be left uncovered or rendered over, depending on what the powers that be decided. English Heritage is still assessing the evidence at the time of writing. This is a shame in a way, as I've had many conversations with people at the site who have been intrigued to see the wall and have enjoyed speculating about it's relevance to the castle. It costs to conserve and preserve and there is neither the political will or resource to allow us to keep this fantastic old building on show, which is rather depressing (if the builders apply the render with the lack of care they took the old render off then how much damage will be done anyway? How removable will the new render be?).

Is this a date stone I see before me? It depends who you ask, and I think it is and not me
doing the equivalent of seeing Jesus on a piece of toast (there is a name for this: pareidola, a real hazard for ichnologists). To me the question is: Is it authentic? If it is, was it anything to do with the castle?

So what's happened since? Well, the story certainly got people talking and there has been discussion of a heritage trail and other projects designed to bring the town's pre-industrial heritage to the fore, and this could inform debate about the development of the town centre. I sincerely hope this can happen, and will cover how this could work in a future post.

In the meantime, I have been recording the wall using photography and photogrammetry. I couldn't get access via the opticians (only two of the windows actually open), and going up a ladder proved impractical so I took a pair of steps and did my best. I'm still processing the results and will post them as they become available.

These past few weeks have demonstrated there is a real appetite for Macclesfield's history before the industrial revolution changed the face of the town, as it did the rest of the country and the lives of our ancestors that lived through those changes. It's time to bring this rich history to the people of the town, to visitors and indeed, further afield.

Does it matter if it's not the castle? Not a bit. What's interesting is what it actually is, and that is a piece of 16th century architecture still on one of the town's medieval streets. What if the date stone turns out not to be genuine? All that matters is we find out what it is, that in itself is exciting.

However . . .  I still am unsure about the relationship of 34 Mill Street to the castle, as it was standing when the castle was and there will be a relationship between the two. As for the date stone, watch this space; I'll be talking about that. In fact, I intend to post on many of the points discussed in this post.

This should be an interesting journey.