Bryn Eryr Farm - How to become an Iron Age Carpenter
As Steve said in his last blog posted in December, we’ve started work on growing the thatch for our new Iron Age farm. Alongside this work we’ve also been giving a lot of thought to the objects that will go inside the houses. Far from being primitive, these replica objects will reflect the high level of knowledge and skill possessed by people who lived in Bryn Eryr over 2000 years ago. One of the first tasks is to furnish the round houses with all those essential objects that no self-respecting Iron Age household could do without, such as plates, bowls, utensils, buckets , storage containers, shelves, barrels, weaving looms, beds, just to name a few.
In this period all these items were made from wood, but we have a problem, wood deteriorates quickly in the ground so objects made from this material rarely survive. However, we think we can find out more about the wooden objects they would have had by studying the carpentry tools available at this time. These were made from iron and because of this have survived in greater abundance. Ancient iron-work is often much underrated as it doesn’t look very attractive, but when trying to recreate everyday life the information domestic ironwork objects can provide is invaluable.
The first stage of making the replicas was to search the archaeological collections for any original Iron Age carpentry tools. Much to my delight we had quite a lot of material and could virtually recreate a whole tool kit from examples found throughout Wales. Our Bryn Eryr tool kit will therefore consist of an axe, adze-hammer, gouge, chisels, files, drill bits and numerous wedges from small to large. Timber in the Iron Age was divided up by splitting with wedges rather than cutting with a saw. Saws did exist, but were small, similar to modern pruning saws today.
An Iron Age household would be equipped with a wide range of tools for a variety of purposes. Some of these objects appear strange to us today, but others are quite familiar. A 2,000 year old chisel found in the Roman fort of Brecon Gaer and a gouge from the Hill Fort at Castell Henllys wouldn’t look out of place in a carpenter’s tool kit today.
Once our tool kit had been compiled from the examples in the collection, the next step was to make working replicas that could be used by our craftspeople to recreate the objects for Bryn Eryr.
Careful conservation of the original tools had preserved some of the original surfaces. Marks on these surfaces enabled our blacksmith 2000 years later to work out how they were made and reproduce the replicas as accurately as possible. The replicas are recreated in wrought iron like the originals, which is much softer than the steel used today, so it will be interesting to see how these tools perform? Will we be able to produce a decent cutting edge, how quickly will this edge dull and how often will it need to be sharpened?
Making the tool heads is only half the story, these tools can’t be used without handles! None of the originals survive and from the shape of some tools we just can’t pop modern handles on them. We know our tools once had wooden handles, because in some cases the deteriorating iron around the socket had made a cast of the wood surface before the handle disappeared. Using a combination of this information and some surviving material from elsewhere, plus the expertise of our own carpenters and estate workers, we managed to reproduce handles to complete the tools.
Now all we have to do is see if they work! More importantly have we still got the expertise to use these tools properly? Hopefully by using them we’ll gain an insight into the skill of our Iron Age carpenters. I’m sure they would be laughing themselves silly if they could see our efforts today, but we have to start somewhere!
So, how did our tools perform? Its early days, but everyone including our craftspeople are impressed. They appear to be performing well, we even managed to split a large piece of timber with our wedges. It probably explains why so many of these wedges end up in our collection, they tend to get lost inside the timber during splitting and fall to the ground where they are difficult to spot!
We hope to undertake more experimental work to assess the performance of these tools, so keep watching this space, but in the mean time we have to crack on, there’s the contents of a roundhouse to make!
Starting work on our new Celtic Village
As many regular visitors to St Fagans will know, our much-loved Celtic Village was closed earlier in the year. Twenty years seems to be about the normal life-span for reconstructed Iron Age roundhouses – the timbers decay and they begin to get a bit wobbly after that. To replace it we're going to be building a new reconstruction based on a 2,000 year old Iron Age farmstead on Anglesey called Bryn Eryr, and just recently we reached a really exciting milestone along the way.
The Bryn Eryr roundhouses consisted of two buildings built side-by-side. Their walls were made of packed clay (probably mixed with grit and straw, like Wales's traditional clom-built houses) and the roofs were thatched. We've had a lot of discussions about what we should use to thatch them. Naturally the roofs of the original buildings haven't survived, but we do know that its Iron Age owners had access to spelt – an early form of wheat – because charred grains were found at the site. From there the argument goes, if they were harvesting spelt grains to make their bread they also had their hands-on a useful thatching material, spelt straw.
So, we thought, St Fagans is surrounded by farm land, we've got an excellent farming team, and lots of enthusiasm, why not try to grow a crop of spelt ourselves and see whether we can thatch our next Iron Age farmstead with it?
There are a lot of uncertainties involved in this, many things can go wrong between the idea and the harvesting but St Fagans is part of an EU collaboration which encourages just this kind of experimental research. So thanks to the OpenArch project, with its Culture programme funding, and a lot of advice from experts in the field (apologies for the pun), we've decided to give it a go.
A few months ago we ploughed 3.4 hectares (8.4 acres) just outside the main museum site. This looks like an enormous area when you're stood beside it, but we're told this is what we need in order to produce enough straw to thatch two large roundhouses.
With the ploughing done, our Learning Team organised an opportunity for school groups to come out and see what we were up to. This was followed by the museum's archaeologists bringing together a team of volunteers who walked the area in search of any artefacts that may have been turned up by the plough. The finds from this have yet to be analysed but already we can see that the area had been visited by prehistoric hunter-gatherers, a 13th-century traveller who lost some loose change, and many other more recent people.
And then it rained, and rained and rained. Our spelt seed arrived and was placed in a barn, and still it rained. I was beginning to get very worried. It's all very well having a plan to grow a crop of Iron Age wheat, but that's not going to happen if the seed stays in sacks. Then a few weeks the weather cleared up, the ground dried sufficiently and we finally got a chance to plant.
Then we waited… Would anything happen? Had we left it too late? Would frosts / rain / snow put a stop to our plans? Happily not! Last week we found the first seeds had germinated. I’m going out to the field again today to check on its progress. Will the shoots be showing? Have we got the spacing of the seed right? Will the rabbits leave it alone? Will it grow tall? I feel like an expectant father all over again.
Conserving some newly found Roman cremation urns and their contents
One item currently residing in the archaeological conservation laboratory is something that looks like a pot, but isn’t! It’s solid and actually made of soil that contains the cremated remains of a Roman who once lived at the Roman fort of Isca, now the town of Caerleon. This was contained inside a pot, but the vessel was cracked and broken so the pieces fell away leaving it's contents intact, held together by the dry clay soil.
Wherever you dig in Caerleon you often find the Romans have been there before you. So, not surprisingly, when digging the foundations of a garage a cremation urn was unearthed. The pot and contents was carefully excavated and brought back to the conservation lab at the National Museum of wales in Cardiff for examination and treatment.
Once the soil had been removed from the outside it became clear the pot was seriously damaged. In damp ground this relatively low fired pottery becomes quite soft and therefore easily misshapen by the pressure of the soil around it. The building work above had squashed our pot forcing the rim and shoulders down inside it, while the sides had begun to bulge out and split like the segments of an orange. It was only the soil around the pot that was keeping it together, so as the soil was carefully removed in the lab, pieces of the pot (in archaeology referred to as pot sherds) started to fall away leaving a complete pot-shaped core of soil still containing the cremation. It even had a cast of the interior surface, including the ridges created by the potter’s fingers formed when the clay was being turned on the wheel.
Once the pot was fully dismantled and cleaned, all 105 pieces were put back together again, some areas were missing and hadn’t survived, but enough was retrieved to recreate the original shape. The pot was a bit reluctant at first to return to its original form because it had become misshape in the ground, but with gentle persuasion and patience it was successfully reconstructed, this did take a few days though.
The surface of the pot was also very powdery and every time it was moved or picked up it left a patch of orange powder behind. To stop further loss the pot had to be treated with a very dilute adhesive to help consolidate the surface, allowing it to be handled safely again.
When new the pot may not have looked orange, but white! There is evidence to suggest cremation vessels may have been coated on the outside in a white clay slip. The surface of our pot was too damaged unfortunately to say if that was the case here.
Was the pot an everyday storage jar selected to contain the cremated bones or was it made especially for the purpose? This question still intrigues archaeologists today, in the case of our pot the rim was badly damaged, but what survived was not the plain rim normally expected on domestic pottery, but a slightly indented, impractical frilly edge which might suggest it was especially made for the purpose. More evidence is required before we can be sure though.
The next stage is to excavate the soil block and retrieve the cremated bone and see if any objects were placed in the pot with the remains.
Archaeology Discovery Day
Tuesday 29th October saw many staff from Archaeology & Numismatics take over the Main Hall in National Museum Cardiff for our special half-term Discovery Day. We were overwhelmed with the positive response from all who visited us.
We wanted to give you an idea of a little of the vast range of work we do and see some hidden gems from our collections, which you might not otherwise get a chance to experience.
A special treat was one of our conservators, Penny Hill, working on a large Roman pot from the recent Caerleon excavations by Cardiff University. Normally the conservation work has to take place in a lab in our basement, but she managed to get this wonderful item upstairs for you to see the work being done on it. It was too fragile to be fully excavated in the field, so it was carefully lifted, mud and all, and brought to us. Penny was gently scraping off the centuries of dirt to reveal the pot and its contents of bone.
We’re not usually so lucky as to have a pot so intact. Usually they are broken into numerous pieces, with eroded edges and not all present. It’s like putting together a jigsaw, without the picture, lots of missing pieces, and with the existing pieces the wrong shape. Louise Mumford is also a conservator and brought along some replica pots to demonstrate how she works her magic on them. Our visitors learnt how to look for matching edges and assemble the pots. They also had advice on sticking back together their own broken treasures.
Siân, Jody, Mary, Julie and Alice led art activities based on pieces in our collection. Siân Iles’ specialism is medieval pottery, and she brought out some lovely examples of medieval tiles from our stores. Our visitors were able to see the wonderful designs on them, and how they built up across a floor to form a larger pattern. They then coloured in their own section of a “floor tile” on paper, to form part of a larger pattern which we displayed and added to throughout the day.
Jody Deacon works with prehistoric artefacts, and Mary Davis is a conservator with a particular interest in the analysis of materials, especially Iron Age and Bronze Age metals. They brought out some designs from Iron Age coins, and talked about how they were decorate with the symbols and patterns which meant something to the people of the time. Our visitors used multi-coloured scratch card to make their own beautiful designs.
Julie Taylor does the admin for the section, and Alice Forward is with us for a year on a Community Archaeology placement. Julie is a textile artist in her spare time, and is interested in the memory of places. An archaeological excavation can be like digging up the ghosts of the past – a small trace of someone, a stain in the ground, an unclear, faint picture. Julie and Alice helped the visitors to make “ghost pictures” – the visitors chose an object from our Origins gallery to draw on acetate, which was then transferred to light-sensitive fabric, making an ephemeral image of what you had seen. We have a few pieces which were left behind, so if you see yours here and want it back, do call to collect it.
Del Elliott can normally be found helping you to use the Clore Discovery Gallery or as a Museum Assistant in the general exhibitions. He also volunteers with our handling collection in the Origins gallery. He used a model of the “Celtic Warrior Grave” to talk to the public about the burial traditions of the Iron Age, the artefacts found in the grave and how they have changed over time.
Evan Chapman works with our Roman archaeology, and also looks after the image archive in the department. Some of our earliest photographs only now exist on glass-plate negatives; extremely fragile and difficult for anyone to use. The Museum has received a grant from the Esmée Fairbairn foundation to enable us to digitise some of these negatives, and Evan brought along a wonderful presentation of old photographs of excavations in Cardiff Castle, Llanmelin Hillfort and Segontium, also an archive of Early Christian Monuments from Glamorgan.
Last but not least, Jackie Chadwick and Tony Daly are the A&N illustrators. Photographs are a very useful record, but often a great deal of detail exists in the artefacts which simply cannot be picked up by the lens. Jackie and Tony have produced some incredible drawings, showing such things as the subtle marks left in the manufacturing process and the texture of an item. They also play a large part in the interpretation of a site or object, by illustrating how a site may have looked or an object used, based on the complex archaeological evidence. The visitors could chat to them about the process, see some of their work, and have a go at making their own illustrations.
We could not have done the day without our fabulous volunteers. Kym, Luke and Ciaran generously gave up their time and worked so hard with us to run the activities. A huge thank you to all of you!
The day was a bit of a swan-song for the Origins gallery – the gallery will close in February next year and the collection prepared for the new displays planned for St Fagans National History Museum. Archaeology & Numismatics is now part of the larger History and Archaeology Department, and the new displays are intended to cover the prehistory and history of Wales at a single site.
Archaeology will still have a strong programme of events in this new structure – look out in the What’s On guide for our regular series of lunchtime talks and Behind The Scenes tours. Another Discovery Day is on the cards during the CBA’s Festival of British Archaeology next July, and we are planning a one-day conference for next autumn; dates to be confirmed.
If you want to volunteer with us, you can get in touch with the Museum’s volunteer co-ordinator Ffion Davies.
We’d love to hear your thoughts – what did you think of the day, what would you like to see at the next one, what can we do better? Just comment below.
Bye for now
Return of the Vikings? 8th September
In the past week finds processing started in earnest, as stratified deposits were by then being dug across most of the site. In the first two weeks keeping on top of the objects coming from the site had only been a part time job: listing and packing the individual metal, pottery and glass finds that had been turning up. With the serious digging of stratified deposits, however, animal bone worth keeping for further study, started to emerge in considerable quantity. The midden (spread of dumped rubbish) in the main trench (Trench AG) was also being systematically sampled, producing tubs of soil needing processing.
The animal bone and the soil samples form the two main strands of the finds processing going on site. The animal bone needs washing and drying before it can be bagged up for future study: when it will hopefully give insights into the diet and farming methods of the inhabitants of the site.
The soil samples are processed in a flotation tank. A sample, held in a fine mesh, has water pumped up through it from below while being agitated and broken up by the hands of the operator. The flow of the water carries off light, organic, components (charcoal, grain, seeds and other plant remains), which is collected in a very fine mesh sieve. Meanwhile the bulk of the soil drops through the mesh into the bottom of the tank leaving the coarse residue of the sample in the mesh. This is mostly small fragments of stone but will hopefully also contain small animal and fish bones that would not otherwise get found. Both the material floated off and the coarse residues are then left to dry and bagged up for later sorting.
Return of the Vikings? 5th September
The teams in our three trenches have made excellent progress. In the main trench (AG), the full width of the stone enclosure wall has been revealed, and today we were able to identify a buried ground surface beneath (pre-dating) the wall, as well as upcast from the cutting of the early medieval ditch. In the north-east of the trench, a gully has been identified which formed one side of a small enclosure within the walls. This appears to have been a drip gully and drainage ditch around a timber building.
We have decided to extend our small square trench (AH) in the light of the human remains found a few days ago. This trench was sited to establish whether further burials existed in this part of the site, and the discovery promises to add significantly to our understanding of this episode of the site’s history. The crouched burial identified so far has only been partially uncovered (top of skull and femur), but it is clear that these articulated bones represent an addition to the small group of five bodies buried outside the defensive wall of the site during the second half of the tenth century.
In our narrow slit trench (AI) on the north-east side of the early medieval enclosure, the team has defined the edges on the inner and outer edges of the two defensive ditches, and a possible prehistoric feature at one end.
One of the more significant finds made so far is the hoop and decorated terminal of a copper-alloy penannular brooch. This is reminiscent of one found in the ninth- century Trewhiddle hoard. The midden deposits within trench AG continue to produce copious quantities of animal bone (important for our understanding of husbandry and diet), as well as ironwork.
Return of the Vikings? 3rd September
After two weeks of hard work by all the team to remove ploughsoil, and backfill from previous years’ excavation, the archaeological remains are finally being examined in detail.
Today, one discovery brought the entire site to a halt, bringing everyone to gather around one of the smaller exploratory trenches opened last week. Following clearing rubble from the upper fill of the enclosure ditch, the longbone of a burial was found on the western side of the enclosure ditch. It is hoped that this exciting discovery will provide more information relating to a group of five skeletons previously found immediately to the south during the excavation seasons of 1998 and 1999.
Weather conditions on site are currently excellent for the detection of archaeological features. This is exemplified by the discovery of a several archaeological features within an area previously excavated in 1998 at the east end of the main trench. Some of these features were previously known from the earlier season, but remained unexcavated because of a lack of time.
Elsewhere in the main trench, the team has uncovered more of the enclosure wall defining the western boundary of the site, and have also begun the excavation of a slot through the enclosure ditch adjacent to that wall. Exploratory slots placed through midden deposits at the east end of the trench are finding animal bones in large quantities, which will provide valuable dietary information about the inhabitants of the site.
These tantalising glimpses into the archaeology of the site are getting everyone very excited, and we look forwards to seeing what new discoveries await us during the next two weeks.
Tudur Burke Davies
Return of the Vikings? Friday 31st August
Today started very pleasantly with sun and light winds, although became overcast by lunchtime, but thankfully still dry. The muddy remains of the deluges of previous days are now largely cleared away from site surfaces and we are down to midden layers across most of the main trench. The trench has now been allotted various sample areas to provide detailed insights into the midden layers, which are getting blacker as we go down through them. The main enclosure ditch where it crosses through this trench has been cross-sectioned, with a grey charcoal-flecked soil filling its upper layer. At the other end of the trench, not far from the spring and pool at the centre of the enclosure, the location of a single, important human burial found deep under the midden in a previous season (2001) is being explored and the backfill of the old trench above it is being removed.
Two smaller trenches are revealing details of the enclosure defences and ditches. One on the western side shows an interesting stepped profile to the ditch, almost as if those digging it were progressively deepening it as it crossed over the limestone scarp. Another long, narrow trench on the north-eastern side of the enclosure was started two days ago to test a possible double-ditch type anomaly which was noticed on the geophysics. This has proved to be correct, with two ditches crossing this trench. Work is now under way to establish their depth and extent, and hopefully to clarify whether one is earlier than the other.
Today is my last day on site as I am only able to supervise for the first half of the four week excavation season. It has been an extremely enjoyable and nostalgic return for me to dig on a favourite site with old friends, having been part of the site team here in the 1996-99 seasons. The weather this time has been less than brilliant, but we have had quite a few nice days amidst the rainy ones, and the forecast is now good. The student team (from Cardiff and Bangor universities) is excellent, at least as good as any we have had in previous seasons. I strongly suspect the most interesting discoveries of this season will now occur in the next two weeks! I will be watching this blog with interest.
Return of the Vikings? Week One
RETURN TO LLANBEDRGOCH (WEEK ONE)
The unexpected discovery in 2001 of an intramural burial within the early medieval enclosed settlement at Llanbedrgoch raised a new series of questions about the site, its occupants, their activities and their relationships with other regions.
We returned to the site a week ago, and the last eight days have focused on setting out the new areas of excavation, removing ploughsoil, monitoring weather forecasts and adjusting the daily tasks to make the best of at times trying conditions. The team of students includes volunteers from Bangor and Cardiff, and one from Toronto (Canada). Yesterday we were joined by some local, experienced, volunteers from Gwynedd and Anglesey. They have all been outstanding, and the early medieval archaeology of the site is already being transformed. Excavation is an ongoing process, and if you follow us over the next three weeks, the team will provide you with personal insights into the excavation.
Even though the research design has clearly stated objectives, the work often reveals evidence of a completely different nature. Our return this year was in fact the result of such an unexpected discovery and its implications. The burial from inside the enclosure (Burial 6) was not revealed in plan through specific searching for inhumations, or the recognition of subtle changes in soil colour or character, but by the decision to cut a narrow trench through the early medieval ‘black earth’ midden material in the south-western area of the site in order to reveal the midden sequence and facilitate section drawing and sampling.
In spite of the profound silence of the individual in this grave and those discovered in 1998-99, they continue since their discovery to help us answer in increasing detail a range of fundamental historical questions:
How did the people of Llanbedrgoch and north-west Wales, who had contact with Anglo-Saxons, Irish and Scandinavians, respond to such peoples?
How does the archaeological evidence for the politics and economy of early medieval Wales compare to that provided by other sources?
Were the daily lives of people at Llanbedrgoch during the sixth and seventh centuries different from those in the ninth and tenth centuries?
What types of diet and health did they enjoy?
How did Christianity affect their lives and burial practices?
We have already begun to answer some of these questions – one of the first artefacts to be found last week in the ploughsoil was a lead necklace pendant in the form of a cross – slightly larger than one found in an earlier season of excavation at the site.
This site continues to amaze, surprise and inspire – follow us if you can.
Return of the Vikings?
After a gap of more than a decade, a team of archaeologists has returned to excavate at Llanbedrgoch, Anglesey. You can read more about previous seasons at this Viking-Age settlement here http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/archaeology/vikings/
Mark Redknap and his team made an exciting discovery towards the end of the 2001 season - evidence that there might be an early medieval cemetery on the site. Are they right? Finds are appearing already, but what can they tell us? Watch this space to find out more!
Mark is joined this season by
Evan Chapman (Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales)
David Griffiths (University of Oxford)
Tudur Davies (University of Sheffield)
Brian Milton, an experienced archaeologist from Cornwall who has spent many seasons at Llanbedrgoch
Archie Gillespie, one of the two metal detectors who originally found the site and who is a dab hand with the archaeological trowel too.
Students from Cardiff, Bangor and Toronto Universities, and other volunteers.
Hopefully you'll get to hear more about them as the dig progresses over the next 3 weeks.