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Over the Easter Holiday, we held an activity called ‘Through the Keyhole’ at St Fagans. The idea is for members of the Learning Department to be out in the historic buildings interpreting and discussing the buildings or objects, drawing attention to its history or history closely associated with them. During the week there will be 3 blogs by 3 members of staff that took part in this event.

I left it a bit last minute to decide which Building to use. With this in mind, I decided to go for a building I already know a bit about, Gwalia Stores. I hold formal sessions (with school groups) here so have background knowledge and an idea of the kind of activities I could do, and a costume good to go!

I raided the photo archive and took copies of the building in its original location, and some fresh coffee and coffee beans to weigh and highlight the coffee grinder, but also to bring back some smells to the shop. When open originally, the smells would have hit you as you walked in; dried fruit, teas, tea, coffee, cheese, meats and all sorts of items for sale.

One of the photos that prompted the biggest reaction was the photo of Gorwyl House overlooking Ogmore Vale. It was the house William Llywelyn built for his family when they’d made enough from the shop to move out from above it. The contrast is quite striking between the ‘mansion’ as it was locally called and the rest of the valley’s terraced houses, and its position on the hill mirrors he high social status of the Llywelyn family at the height of Gwalia Stores’ success.

I enjoyed being in the shop and getting the chance to tell its absorbing history, which mirrors that of the Valleys themselves. It was great to talk and imagine how different an experience a weekly shop would have been 100 years ago, how much more social especially.

The staff would also have trained as apprentices for years and would have been a well-respected role, and the shops really were a centre point in the community. There was much reminiscing by visitors, and some even came from Ogmore Vale and remembered the shop in its original location. One lady commented on the gap that’s still there in Ogmore Vale opposite the railway station, after discussing and looking back on the history of the shop, losing these shops and the experience of going there has left gaps in communities all over Wales.

The next blog will be up soon, discussing the event in one of the other historic buildings.

Our 13th century Royal hall is moving forward at quite a pace. At the minute work focusses on the window reveals of the smaller of the two structures, currently known as ‘Building B’. This building could have been the Royal bed chamber (for other contemporary examples feature a chamber and hall within close proximity to each other), but equally it could have been the kitchen, (which would also have been in close proximity to the hall, for who would want to feast on cold food?).

The window reveals are typically Romanesque in style. They are very narrow on the outside, but widen considerably on the inside, in order to maximise the light coming through. The reason for their narrowness is two-fold: small windows are more easily defended and hence were a common feature of more fortified structures such as castles; secondly, as glass for glazing was not always available their size was kept to a minimum in order to reduce the amount of cold air coming in. They will be capped by a level stone lintel, but likewise they could have been capped with an arch – as both methods were common at this time. Wooden shutters will be installed and closed at night, so that visiting schoolchildren will be warm when sleeping over.

Off-site work has begun on saw-milling oak boughs into timber for the roof trusses. Getting a long square-edged timber out of a log takes some considerable skill. The large band-saw can only cut straight lines, therefore the log has to be positioned correctly before every pass. It has to be adjusted up and down, as well as from side to side, because one cut at the wrong angle would negatively impact the following cuts, and render the timber unusable.

Back in February, I blogged about Brinley Rhys Edmunds – a teenager from Barry who was killed in action during the First World War. If you recall, he signed-up when he was under the legal recruitment age, re-enlisted soon after his 18th birthday, but lost his life in battle on 5 September 1918.

In recent weeks – thanks to a well-known genealogy website – I have been corresponding with two of Brinley’s descendants in the United States – one in Seattle, the other in Pennsylvania. As a curator, it’s always a thrill to reunite families with objects once owned by their ancestors. Better still if they in turn provide additional information for our records.

I was so pleased to receive from Brinley’s American relatives a scanned copy of this beautiful photograph of the Edmunds family in about 1905. The photograph shows six year old Brinley (seated) with his elder brother, William, in matching sailor suits, together with their parents, Evan and Christine. I’ve been researching Brinley and his family on-and-off for a number of years. It’s amazing to finally put faces to their names.

Here at St Fagans, we have several objects in the collection associated with Brinley’s wartime experiences, some of which will be on display in our redeveloped galleries in 2017. In addition to the pincushionnext of kin plaque and postcard I mentioned last time, we also have his campaign medals in the collection. The British War Medal and Victory Medal were awarded to him posthumously and sent in an envelope marked ‘On His Majesty’s Service’ to his father in about 1919-20.

He is wearing the medals in the portrait shown here which is currently being prepared for photography by Ruth James, Social History Conservator. The portrait was commissioned by Brinley’s parents after his death and was bequeathed to the Museum in 1989 by Eunice Edmunds, his younger sister. We will be using this image, along with the newly-discovered family photograph in America, in the new displays. Contemporary military voices and experiences will also be included in the gallery interpretation. I’ll be focussing on our exciting co-curation programme with the Armed Forces Community Covenant Grant Scheme in the next instalment of this blog.

 

 

 

The days before Friday 20th March, had staff in the Department of Natural Sciences watching the weather forecast with great attention.  Friday 20th March 2015 was a really special day as we had the opportunity in Cardiff, weather permitting, to see a partial eclipse of the Sun. This does not happen very often, the next one won’t be until 12th August 2026. 

On the Thursday we had a great start to the celebration by hosting an evening of talks on eclipses at the Museum. These were given by Dr Chris North, Dr Rhodri Evans, Dr Mark Hannam, astronomers and physicists from Cardiff University; and we all felt much better informed as to what we knew about the sun, why an eclipse was occurring, and what eclipses tell us about gravity. Equally important was a talk by Jenni Millard, an undergraduate student but experienced astronomer, on how to view the sun safely. Having listened intently the audience were issued with free solar eclipse viewing glasses.

Friday morning and we were in luck, a perfect sunny morning and all that worry about the weather had paid off!  By 8.00 a few people had already arrived outside the Museum, by 8.20 there were many more. At 8.22 we saw the first contact of the eclipse. For a short while the sun was almost obscured by the trees in the Gorsedd Gardens, but not for long. With colleagues from Cardiff University and the Institute of Physics we provided a range of methods to view the eclipse safely. These included a solar telescope that provided the greatest detail of the sun’s surface, pinhole viewers, ranging from boxes and tubes to simple card and paper, solar viewing boxes, colanders and eclipse glasses. Most visitors had noted the warnings about safe eye protection, only a few needed reminding that two pairs of sunglasses wouldn’t do the job!

Over the 126 minutes of the eclipse from first contact of the moon until we saw the entire sun once again, over 1000 people viewed the eclipse on the Museum steps with the viewing glasses provided. In total we estimate that over this period nearly 2000 people joined the event. At one point the queue disappeared round the corner of the Museum into Park Place almost to the University! However this was a great event with a fantastic atmosphere of participation and patient queuing.

For more astronomy linked events please see Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales What’s On pages, next one is on 18th April, and for education resources check out the Museum’s partnership Down2Earth Project web site

For more information on our Eclipse 2015 activities see our Storify Story.

I have just begun my fourth week as Principal Curator of Historic Buildings, here at St. Fagans, and this is my first blog post. My background is in archaeology, and more specifically, experimental archaeology.

This type of archaeological investigation tests the theories that have grown out of excavated archaeological evidence. Essentially we try and build something that would leave the same evidence as discovered, if excavated in the future. This challenges our assumptions and raises new questions.

Iron Age Roundhouses

In my time I have built four roundhouses based on the archaeology of Iron Age homes. As the excavated archaeology in many cases is less than 30cm in depth, everything above ground is conjecture derived from the surviving evidence. As you may imagine, trying to figure out the structural details of buildings that haven’t been seen in 2,000 is a challenging yet satisfying task. Therefore, it gives me great pleasure to be part of St. Fagans latest experimental projects – the construction of an Iron Age farmhouse based on evidence from Bryn Eryr in Anglesey, and Llys Llywelyn, a medieval Royal Court based on evidence from Llys Rhosyr, again in Angelsey.

As I write the thatching of the farmhouse is underway, and it won’t be long until the building is watertight. This will be a blessed relief, as the prolonged rain this winter has prevented the buildings 1.8m-thick clay walls from drying as quickly as hoped. Yes, the walls are of solid clay – unlike most excavated roundhouses which had wattle and daub or stone walls. Although such buildings were not uncommon, this is the first reconstruction of this kind of under-represented roundhouse.

A Medieval Prince's Court

The two buildings of Llys Llywelyn have reached chest height, and the Museum’s stonemasons are about to start on the window reveals. The court was discovered in Anglesey and excavated between 1992 and 1996. The surviving masonry stands no more than 1m in height. Therefore, like the farmhouse, this too is a replica based on excavated evidence.

Written records from the period, such as ‘Brut y Tywysogion’ state clearly that there was a Royal Hall at this location, and frequented by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth during the first half of the 13th century. What we do not know for certain, however, is what it looked like. This knowledge comes from the comparative analysis of surviving Royal halls built during the same period, as seen at Conwy castle and the Bishop’s Palace in St. Davids.

As I plan to write regular blog posts to keep you informed of the latest developments, I will also aim to re-cap the work that has already been achieved so that you have a clearer understanding of these remarkable buildings, and our attempts at bringing it back to life.