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Restoration saves mysterious castle carvings from water damage, revealing new details

Published 29th November 2022
Mystery surrounds the origins of the 15th-century carvings at Carlisle Castle.
Credit: English Heritage
Restoration saves mysterious castle carvings from water damage, revealing new details
Written by Lianne Kolirin, CNN
Conservators working at a castle in northwestern England have managed to rescue some unusual medieval stone carvings that were in danger of being destroyed by the elements.
Built in 1092 by William II, Carlisle Castle was historically the most besieged castle in England, according to conservation charity English Heritage.
The conservation project at Carlisle Castle has been completed.
The conservation project at Carlisle Castle has been completed. Credit: English Heritage
In 1315, Scottish king Robert the Bruce tried to take it, and in 1568 Mary, Queen of Scots was held captive in one of its towers. It featured prominently in the English Civil War and Jacobite troops under Bonnie Prince Charlie fought over it in the 18th century.
The castle's most prominent feature is the keep -- or great tower -- which features a series of mysterious carvings on the second floor.
These carvings depict both real and mythical creatures, including dolphins, horses, boar, salmon, mermaids, a leopard, and St. George and the dragon, as well as religious symbols and more.
Certain details, including the white rose of the house of York and the boar badge of Richard III, date them to sometime in the 1480s.
Historians at English Heritage believe the carvings were the work of amateurs rather than professional craftspeople, and were made with sharp instruments, such as knives.
The images were originally thought to have been carved by prisoners in the tower, but recent research suggests they may have been created by members of the garrison or the household, the organization said.
Built in 1092 by William II, Carlisle Castle was the most besieged castle in England.
Built in 1092 by William II, Carlisle Castle was the most besieged castle in England. Credit: English Heritage
In addition to saving the carvings for posterity, the restoration also revealed previously unseen features, including a deer-hunting scene and the profile of a knight.
English Heritage embarked on the restoration project earlier this year, as heavier rainfall in recent years meant water damage to the castle and the carvings had accelerated.
The team of specialist conservators removed hundreds of years' worth of sediment and water damage from the carvings by hand, without the use of chemicals. One of their main jobs was to remove white crusts of salt using stencils, brushes and scalpels.
Juliet Fellows-Smith, English Heritage's property manager at Carlisle Castle, said in a press statement: "This is the year that marks 900 years since the keep was built in stone and thanks to the hard work of our specialist teams the historic fabric and the intriguing images carved into the walls during the 15th Century, are protected for years to come."