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The Medieval Mystery of the American West

By James Turner

The castle is a structure that often carries a melancholic edge.  Once the nexus points of living networks of political power and authority, they now stand as tattered relics of an all too often misremembered and misconstrued age. Even those that have escaped ruination are more often than not cold and inert, echoing shells stripped bare of the role and associations which gave them import. Not so with Excalibur Castle, Las Vegas.

Fittingly for a castle named so evocatively after the regalia of a once and future King, Excalibur has found new relevance and purpose in a modern era. A fascinating fusion of ancient grandeur and modern luxury, this former manifestation of unassailable military dominance has been transformed into a monument to those most modern of all vices excess and aspiration.

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When gentleman adventurer Sir Theobald Igneous Vegas discovered the Las Vegas valley in 1893, Excalibur was there waiting for him its proud battlements and elegantly fluted towers rising out of the Mojave dust. Tragically much of the castle’s early history is entirely lost to us as are the surely extraordinary circumstances which led to the construction of an Arthurian-inspired 15th-century European castle under the blazing sun of the American West. The castle’s origins are with the noted exception of those covered by the National Treasure franchise, the greatest mystery of American history. Hampered by the complete absence of surviving written records pertaining to Excalibur and a series of inconclusive often contradictory archaeological surveys it seems that the riddle of the castle’s origins is unlikely to be solved soon. That being said, recent scholarly thought is coming around to the opinion that Excalibur’s baffling location might in some way be linked to the nearby ruins of a roman palatial complex. Time travel or magic are two other popular hypotheses. What seems certain is that should the truth, whatever it may be, ever be uncovered it would surely have a profound impact upon the way in which we think about the Middle Ages.

Photo by Clément Bardot / Wikimedia Commons

Despite the castle’s remarkable, almost pristine, condition it was overlooked in the initial swell of entrepreneurial expansion in the rapidly booming city. Contemporary investors and real estate speculators felt that while undoubtedly impressive in both scope and beauty the archaic nature of the structure precluded the installation of the infrastructure necessary for their purposes. For decades the venerable fortification languished in the heart of the now thriving Las Vegas, just another esoteric landmark in a city heaving with the remarkable, the bizarre, and the titillating.

Due to the side effects of extensive construction nearby and vandalism by several would be fortune seekers, the Castle quickly began to deteriorate with the west side outer wall suffering a partial collapse. Rescue finally came in the form of MGM Resorts International who in 1985 bought the castle from the Vegas Family Estate and immediately embarked upon the most comprehensive and ambitious restoration project of its kind. Immense care and expense went into the castle’s resurrection which was carried out under the watchful supervision of a team of historians well-versed in medieval military architecture and directed by a Milanese master mason who specialised in traditional stone working techniques.

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Architecturally Excalibur is unconventional to say the least. Indeed some aspects of its profile are practically unique. Beautifully clad in cool white stone, Excalibur Castle is a creature of sumptuous inviting curves. Rounded walls and towers betray strong Italian and French influences in its design and firmly date the castle to the dawn of the 15th century. The castle’s outer walls while carved with unerring almost robotic precision are, considering its scale, unusually small – more perspective-bending backdrop than military structure. The castle also features an uncommon proliferation of distinctively peaked and behatted towers. The unusual concentration, perhaps a deliberate testament to the skill and resources of the Castle’s creators and patron, a boast enshrined in mortar and stone.

Interestingly, the design of these towers bears an uncanny resemblance to the magnificent fairy-tale castle Neuschwanstein and other building projects constructed in the 19th century by the romance-addled Ludwig II of Bavaria. The last of the castle’s distinctive features is by far the most unusual; two great rectangular towers that eclipse the rest of the structure in both height and volume. The purpose of these great warren-like structures is completely unknown although the skill and daring needed to raise them with medieval technology and construction techniques are truly mindboggling.

Excalibur Castle is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a rather gaudy package. Perhaps as with several of the most difficult, strange, or simply irreconcilable aspects of the Middle Ages it’s best just not to think too hard and have fun with it.

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James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.

Click here to read more from James

Top Image: Photo by Jean-Marc Astesana / Wikimedia Commons

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