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.