Since 2006, an expedition from the University of Haifa has been studying Montfort Castle (Boas 2008; 2012; 2017a; Fig. 1), 22 km to the northeast of ‘Akko and about 300 m asl. The excavation in 2013 continued the work started in the previous year in Area C, along the northern wall of the central wing of the castle. During the 2014 and 2015 seasons, the excavation concentrated in Area B, near the outer fortification, where the stables were identified, a unique discovery in a Crusader castle. During the 2016 season, two areas were excavated: Area D, where the excavation focused on Chamber D in the central domestic building of the upper ward; and Area F, the southern end of the outer southwest fortifications, where the excavation focused on the round tower at their southern end and on an adjacent wall. The 2019 excavation season focused on one of the two basement halls below the castle’s Great Hall, which yielded the most significant finds.
These, as well as other finds, attest to the two Mamluk sieges mentioned in contemporary sources. The first time was in 1266, when the Mamluk sultan Baybars sent two of his generals to attack the castle, apparently as part of a ploy intended to distract the garrison of the Great Templar castle of Safed (Zefat), which was the actual target of the Mamluks, and which indeed fell shortly after the attack on Montfort. Montfort was besieged again in the summer of 1271, when after some major successes in the north, Baybars himself returned to Montfort, took the castle on June 23 and destroyed it, bringing an end to the brief—less than fifty years—but dramatic history of this fortress.
While abundant physical evidence attests to the second siege and the dismantling of the castle, until the current expedition there was no way of knowing whether the first siege of 1266 substantially damaged Montfort, as the records bear no details and make no mention of any damage or of the methods used in attacking the castle.
Area B. The stratigraphy in Area B consists of three main layers: topsoil, containing a combination of natural materials and archaeological finds; a middle layer with the remains of collapsed structures; and the lowest layer, which was the living surface of the stables.
The stables (c. 7.0–7.5 × 18.0 m; Fig. 2) are located very close to the outer gate on the northwestern side of the outer wall (Boas 2012), a very suitable location for stables. The entrance was located adjacent to the gate, against a small booth, apparently a guardhouse. The architectural remains suggest that the stables had a flat roofing, with beams supported by double arches. As the span of this space (7.0–7.5 m) was too broad to be supported by a single beam, two arches allowed joining two beams across the chamber’s width. The two arches were supported in the center by freestanding columns and on the south by springers set on a raised stone platform (Figs. 3, 4). The floor is made up of stone slabs and leveled bedrock (Fig. 3). On the raised platform running the length of the south side of the building was a series of troughs constructed simply of flat stone slabs set on their narrow end at about 1 m above the floor (Fig. 4), a height appropriate for the use of horses.
The small finds include horseshoes, saddling items, an iron spade, a badly corroded axe, numerous arrowheads, and many other objects including coins, pottery, glass, stone mortars and pestles and many animal bones. Some of the finds support the identification of the structure as stables; others testify to the fighting that took place here in the outer ward, probably during the final siege in 1271, when the stables were completely destroyed along with the rest of the castle.
A trapezoid installation of uncertain use was exposed near the eastern wall of the stable (not on plan; Fig. 5). This feature was constructed in the center of the chamber, over the base of the easternmost freestanding pier that had supported the roofing, indicating that it was built after the roof had collapsed. As the installation itself was found buried under the mass of stones that was clearly the result of Baybars’ dismantling of the upper western wing immediately after the fall of Montfort in June 1271, it is possible that the eastern side of the stables was damaged during the first attack by the Mamluks in 1266, and the installation was added between the two sieges.
Area C. Floors covered with destruction remains were uncovered along the northern wall of the central wing of the castle under an accumulation of soil. These remains included two engraved ashlars: one bearing a graffiti depicting a boat alongside various marks, the other bearing two engraved ‘Nine Men Morris’ board games (Fig. 6; Boas 2017b).
The wall (thickness 2.3–2.4 m; Fig. 7) was founded in part in a foundation trench and in part on a bedrock outcrop. It is built of two faces—the inner one better built than the outer one—with a core made of debesh; the outer face is partially coated with course plaster. The wall alters its course in several places, probably to accommodate an uneven bedrock outcrop. Numerous animal bones, mostly of cattle, were found beside the wall’s foundation, on both its sides, probably the remains of the masons’ meals.
Under the foundation were remains that attest to the method by which the castle was dismantled: trenches dug under the walls were filled with wooden beams which were then set on fire, as attested by charred wooden beams found in situ under the wall’s foundation (Fig. 8). This methos, known as ‘undermining’ or ‘sapping’, is depicted in contemporary sources, both Crusader and Islamic. Evidence of dismantling the castle’s walls was found in previous seasons, when excavating the southern wall of the western wing, but it was then attributed to the siege and fall of the castle in June 1271. The finds in Area C indicate that the dismantling of the walls took place following the capture of the castle, and that this was done with great effectiveness, causing the wall to tumble down to its foundation and bringing down with it a large part of the structure.
Area D. The two-story central building was constructed at some point between the 1220s, when the keep was built, and the 1230s or 1240s, when the western administrative building was added. The ground floor level was originally an open hall of twelve groin-vaulted bays supported by large, rectangular piers. At an unknown date, the hall was subdivided by walls: an east–west wall between the six northern and southern bays on the eastern side of the building, and additional walls with broad, arched doorways separating the three bays on either side. Chamber D is the central of the three southern bays in this half of the building. It is located adjacent to the kitchen, which lies to its east (Chamber C, not on plan). Several low, narrow walls further subdivide these chambers. These partition walls, which were added to divide the chambers into smaller units and blocked parts of earlier entrances, represent one of the latest stages in the castle.
Most of the central building was excavated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art Expedition of 1926, but some areas remain to be examined. It was noticed that there was an area adjacent to the central, east–west dividing wall which the excavators of 1926 had not exposed. Our excavation here concentrated in this area, between the central dividing wall and a parallel narrow wall, where we exposed a plastered installation of unknown use with a step (Fig. 9). A stone step (height 0.2 m) divides the installation into two levels at a ratio of 2:3—a lower western level and an upper eastern one. A shallow groove, cut into the top of the step, may have accommodated a wooden partition that divided the two levels of the installation. Two steps exposed on the southern half of the western side suggest that the opening to the installation was located there. Finds on the plaster floor of the installation include metal objects and pottery.
Area F. The main efforts of the 2016 season were devoted to excavating the round tower and an adjacent section of the fortifications located on the outer southwest defenses. The aim was to resolve an outstanding issue with regard to the castle’s outer fortifications, where nothing can be observed today: whether they continued around the south part of the castle and extended back toward the western part of the upper ward, or simply ended at this point, and if so—why. The excavation fully exposed the tower down to its basement floor (Fig. 10). The remains indicate that it had an upper wooden floor supported by wooden beams, and a doorway on its eastern side giving access to the tower from within the fortifications.
The present excavation did not resolve the main research question regarding the course of fortifications—whether they continued beyond this point—although it seems most probable that they indeed extended back up towards the western end of the upper ward. However, it revealed a hitherto unknown outer wall segment, extending east of the tower, which included a gate that at some stage—possibly between 1266 and 1271—was blocked, with a sewage chute subsequently built against it (Figs. 11, 12).
The excavation also uncovered evidence of a failed attempt made by the Mamluks to undermine the tower. The tower was eventually destroyed only when the upper castle was dismantled, and rubble fell down the west slope, destroying the wall, knocking the doorway into the tower and bringing the wooden flooring down into its basement.
Finds from the tower and an adjacent room inside the wall include coins, gaming pieces and a small, portable game board, buckles, arrowheads, nails, metal waste from a forge, large quantities of glass, numerous animal bones, local and imported ceramics and numerous finds from a worked bone industry.
Basement Hall. Two barrel-vaulted basement halls supported what may have been the most luxurious part of the castle: the ceremonial Great Hall directly above them (Boas 2012) and an additional story of luxurious apartments, probably the residential quarters of the castellan and of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order on the rare occasions when he was in the Holy Land.
The two barrel-vaulted halls are the only still standing vaults to survive, other than cisterns, in the castle after its dismantling, although only about one half of the eastern vault and a third of the western one—the vault currently examined—survived. Both were filled with a mass of debris rising up to a height of about seven metres that had fallen from the two upper stories when the castle was dismantled. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Expedition of 1926 excavated the eastern vault while trying unsuccessfully to recover a suit of thirteenth-century chainmail. They nevertheless recovered many important material finds, including some fine architectural sculpture from the Gothic vaulting of the Great Hall and from the apartments above it. They also recovered stained glass from the windows, fragments of wall-painting and of gilded wooden furnishings.
During the 2019 season, about a third of the western vault was excavated down to the floor level. At the northern opening of the vault was a huge carved stone, the top of a half-octagonal pilaster that had fallen from its original position in the middle of the southern wall of the Great Hall. Its top surface, covered with modern graffiti, had long been exposed, but only now was it entirely exposed. The surrounding fallen debris consisted of large ashlars that had fallen from the Great Hall; other stones, cement and plaster rubble; remains of the plaster flooring from the two upper stories; fragments of stones with orange and pale blue paint, remnants of wall paintings; some pieces of stained glass; large unburnt wooden beams, still partly intact but spongy and rapidly deteriorating on exposure, which came from a mezzanine floor in the upper part of the basement vault; large pieces of cut branches, which must have been timber for firewood stored on that floor that collapsed when the upper stories collapsed; great quantities of animal bones, mainly of goat or sheep and pig, apparently from carcasses or livestock kept in the Great Hall, which, after it had been badly damaged in the 1266 siege appears to have been used as a cooking area; and, on the floor, a large quantity of burnt grain and a single, probably Mamluk coin (not yet cleaned or identified).
On the western side of the vaulted hall, towards the north, came the most important discovery. Directly on the floor were stacks of large stone segments, three in each stack, that had once formed the Gothic rib segments of the Great Hall; similar stones were found in the collapsed debris, but here they were stacked carefully on the floor. As they would not have been placed here by the Mamluks, whose only intention in 1271 was to dismantle the castle, they must have been carried down from the ruins of the hall by the German garrison in 1266. They are thus an indication that the damage to the uppermost story from the 1266 siege had been extreme, and much of the vaulting of the ceremonial Great Hall below it had collapsed. It appears that the garrison had stacked the fallen stones in the basement vault with the hope of preserving them for rebuilding, a hope that never materialized as the castle was occupied and destroyed just five years later.
Each of the excavation seasons has added to our knowledge of the architecture of the castle, the daily life of the garrison and of some major events in its history. However, the 2019 finds not only enlighten us regarding the architectural and decorative nature of the upper stories—the vault ribs, the paint, the stained glass, adding to what was already known about the Gothic architecture of these structures—but also give us a visual picture of the two most dramatic events in the castle’s history: the 1266 siege and the dismantling of the castle in 1271. Furthermore, the exploration of the basement hall below the castle’s Great Hall has perhaps added more evidence than any of the previous seasons to the lesser-known event of the two. It provided clear evidence that the siege of 1266 was carried out using stone throwing machines (trebuchets), and that it probably completely destroyed the castellan’s apartments on the uppermost story and caused major destruction of the Great Hall, putting it out of use. The finds have also shown what use was made of the ruined hall during the five years between the siege of 1266 and that of 1271.