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Construction work on Kuressaare prince-bishop's castle reveals hidden emergency well

The reconstruction of the ground floor of the Kuressaare prince-bishop's castle has been completed and the medieval castle now has an elevator. During the renovation, a previously hidden emergency well from the 14th century was discovered in a castle wall.

If the old master builders who built Kuressaare's bishop's castle centuries ago could return to view their work today, they would probably be surprised. Many wooden doors are now transparent and open automatically. Holographic lions can now be seen in the lion's cave and a contemporary elevator is installed to transport visitors through the walls.

Restoration work began in the Kuressaare Konventhaus cellar in autumn 2022 and continued until early 2024. Saaremaa Museum Foundation, which manages the Kuressaare castle, commissioned the restoration work. The last restoration project was completed in 1985 and its aim was the restoration of the entire Konventhaus, but now the lower level of the Konventhaus was modernized for visitor access.

The first level of the stronghold has now been converted into a contemporary museum: "For the first time in the museum's history, the goal was to enable greater accessibility for people with limited mobility," Olari Vainokivi, the director of the foundation, said.

Although the fortress has stood for centuries, its secrets still amaze historians. For example, before this round of renovations, no one knew that there was a well hidden inside one of the castle walls.

"It's a completely authentic medieval thing, and we had no idea it existed. We don't know of a well like this anywhere else, built completely inside a wall. /.../ This water is very clear, real Saaremaa water," said Tõnu Sepp, project manager of the Saaremaa Museum.

One likely interpretation suggests that the emergency well was concealed with the sole purpose of activating it during an ambush, rather than using it routinely. A different take suggests that the well could have functioned as a vital resource for the builders of the castle. The well is still traceable on medieval designs of the fortification, but disappears completely by the 17th and 18th centuries.

These magnificent castle walls might surprise future historians as well, as over four kilometers of electrical wiring were now hidden in the basement walls during the renovation.

The first fieldwork was conducted in the castle over a hundred years ago between 1904–1912, intensifying in the 1960s and 1970s in connection with the restoration works. The building archaeological surveys conducted from 2010 to 2014 were an extensive continuation of this work.

Christian crusaders took Saaremaa in 1227. The prince-bishop of Saare-Lääne ruled most of the island, although the Brothers of the Sword (later the Livonian Teutonic Order) took some of the land as well. The Saare-Lääne Prince-Bishopric was founded in 1228 from Western Estonia, with Haapsalu as its capital from 1265. The Order's Saaremaa headquarters was Pöide Castle, established in the 13th century. After its mid-14th-century devastation, the Order built a new major stronghold at Maasi.

Kuressaare's stone fortress was likely built in the late 1320s. A fortified harbor site may have existed before the prince-bishop's castle was built. The construction plans changed when the islands' last major insurrection (the St. George's Night Uprising, 1343–1345) was suppressed. The Konventhaus building was built in the second half of the 14th century.

Unlike many other Estonian medieval castles, Kuressaare was spared from serious damage at the time of the Livonian War (1558–1583).

In the autumn of 2022, a hidden walled-up door opening was discovered in the cellar of Sturvolt tower during restoration work. The shaft and vault, providing clean water, were composed of dolomite blocks and were built together with the tower, most likely in the second quarter of the 14th century.

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Editor: Merili Nael, Kristina Kersa

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