Construction sites are hives of specialized activity, but there’s no particular training needed to ferry 500 lbs of stone several stories to the masons waiting above. All you need is the stamina for a few steep flights and a medieval treadwheel crane or “squirrel cage.”
The technology, which uses simple geometry and human exertion to hoist heavy loads, dates to ancient Roman times.
Retired in the Victorian era, it has been resurrected and is being put to good use on the site of a former sandstone quarry two hours south of Paris, where the castle of an imaginary, low ranking 13th-century nobleman began taking shape in 1997.
There’s no typo in that timeline.
Château de Guédelon is an immersive educational project, an open air experimental archeology lab, and a highly unusual working construction site.
With a project timeline of 35 years, some 40 quarrypeople, stonemasons, woodcutters, carpenters, tilers, blacksmiths, rope makers and carters can expect another ten years on the job.
That’s longer than a medieval construction crew would have taken, but unlike their 21st-century counterparts, they didn’t have to take frequent breaks to explain their labors to the visiting public.
A team of archeologists, art historians and castellologists strive for authenticity, eschewing electricity and any vehicle that doesn’t have hooves.
Research materials include illuminated manuscripts, stained glass windows, financial records, and existing castles.
The 1425-year-old Canterbury Cathedral has a non-reproduction treadmill crane stored in its rafters, as well as a levers and pulleys activity sheet for young visitors that notes that operating a “human treadmill” was both grueling and dangerous:
Philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote that they were “unequalled in the modern annals of legalized torture.”
Good call, then, on the part of Guédelon’s leadership to allow a few anachronisms in the name of safety.
Guédelon’s treadmill cranes, including a double drum model that pivots 360º to deposit loads of up to 1000 lbs wherever the stonemasons have need of them, have been outfitted with brakes. The walkers inside the wooden wheels wear hard hats, as are the overseer and those monitoring the brakes and the cradle holding the stones.
The onsite worker-educators may be garbed in period-appropriate loose-fitting natural fibers, but rest assured that their toes are steel-reinforced.
Château de Guédelon guide Sarah Preston explains the reasoning:
Obviously, we’re not trying to discover how many people were killed or injured in the 13th-century.
Learn more about Château de Guédelon, including how you can arrange a visit, here.
Explore the history of treadmill cranes here.
And see how the Château de Guédelon has housed Ukrainian refugees here.
- Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto. Follow her @AyunHalliday.