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Two great days at St Fagans

Mari Gordon, 25 July 2009

Festival of British Archaeology 2009

It’s been a busy two days at the Festival. Yesterday started badly with torrential rain, but by midday the clouds cleared and St Fagans filled up with visitors.

It was the first day of the Magic Flute event in which Gareth Riseborough began a project to make replicas of a medieval and a possible Neolithic flute, both found in Wales. The original medieval flute was made from the foreleg of a large deer, and Gareth has sourced the correct bone for the project. He set up shop in the smaller of the roundhouses in the Celtic Village, and much of the morning was spent trimming down the bone, and answering a near continuous stream of questions from interested visitors.

Sally Pointer, manager of the museum’s Glanely Gallery, worked alongside him demonstrating natural dyeing techniques and proving that people in the past wore clothes which were just as colourful as we have today. The grand finale of her demonstrations was the magical transformation that occurs when woad-dyed wool is removed from the dye pot, turning blue before your eyes. Fabulous.

In the roundhouse next door Ian Daniel, interpreter in the Celtic Village, ran wall painting workshops. Tired of the house’s plain white walls, Ian had decided to enlist the public’s help in transforming them with Celtic designs drawn from a portfolio compiled by museum conservator and Iron Age art specialist Mary Davis. By the end of the day dozens of children had covered every spare inch of white wall with an amazing array of designs – all painted with natural pigments.

There was so much going on in the village that I didn’t have a chance to get over to St Teilo’s Church where another team was running painting workshops of a different kind. But I made up for it with a few trips over there today to catch up on what was going on.

The painting activity proved extremely popular, with some children staying for over an hour while they created designs and learnt how these would have been transferred onto the walls of the church. Meanwhile for the adults there was the chance to hear museum conservator and pigment expert Penny Hill explain how medieval craftsmen had produced the original paintings at St Teilo's, and the lengths to which the museum has gone to ensure our reproductions are faithful to their work.

A highlight of the day for me was the chance to see Tillerman Beads at work producing Iron Age glass beads in their tent outside the Celtic Village. This was a real eye-opener and a good deal of time was spent in awe of Mike Poole as he created one amazing design after another. The crowds loved it too, with Su Poole providing expert commentary on the work, and explaining the history of glass beads using the incredible selection she had on display.

Tomorrow, Tillerman Beads continue their demonstrations, Gareth and Sally are back with their magic flute and dyeing events, Ian continues to enlist the support of budding artists to paint the inside of his roundhouse, and the team in the church will be back with more talks and painting workshops. Enough to ensure a good day out for all.

The walls of Ian's roundhouse after a day's painting.

Some great Iron Age designs, some fascinating interpretations.
Painting workshop
Painting workshops in St Teilo's Church.
Tillerman Beads
A crowd gathers at Mike and Su Poole begin another glass bead demonstration.
Tillerman Bead workshop
Andrew Murphy, blacksmith at St Fagans, tries his hand at making a glass bead.

Unsurprisingly, his first efforts were brilliant successes.
Talk in St Teilo's Church
Another group enjoying an expert talk in St Teilo's Church.
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Pottery sorting workshops

Steve Burrow, 23 July 2009

Festival of British Archaeology 2009

Sian, who ran yesterday's pottery sorting workshop at National Museum Cardiff, sent me a photograph of some of the joining sherds they found among the mass of material from the Llandaff Cathedral School excavations (see earlier post for background).

They may not look like much, but by reconstructing these broken pots it's possible to work out what type of vessel they were once part of, what that vessel might have been used for, and sometimes when the pot was made. So, important stuff.

And how did we find these joining pieces from among the many hundred sherd jigsaw puzzle that came from the excavation?  We enlisted the help of dozens of sharp-eyed museum visitors who were willing to spend some time, sorting, grouping, and fitting pieces together.

For visitors it was an interesting way to pass some time, for us it was an opportunity to make sense of the finds from an important site.

Joining sherds from the Llandaff Cathedral School excavations.
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Festival of British Archaeology 2009

On Tuesday, Andrew Murphy, blacksmith at St Fagans continued the challenge to make a replica of an early medieval bell, begun by Tim Young earlier in the week. While Tim, had worked on brazing the body of the bell, Andrew worked on the handle. This is a loop which passes into the bell so it can be held from the top, while the bell’s clapper hangs from a hook inside.


Andrew had several attempts at replicating the shape of the original bell’s handle over the course of the day, with each attempt getting closer to the form we were after, and the event was enjoyed by the public throughout the day.

Andrew at work
Andrew at work on the bell's handle.

In the foreground you can see one of the earlier bell attempts, and to its right, a sheet or wrought iron cut to shape. This sheet will form the body of another bell later on in the series of experiments.
Bell handle
A partly finished bell handle, and a rod, ready to be worked into shape.
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Animations in a roundhouse

Ian Daniel, 21 July 2009

 

Visitors have flocked to the Celtic Village over the last couple of days to join with us in celebrating the Festival of British Archaeology. For me so far there have been several highlights. On Sunday people found shelter from the rain in the stone roundhouse, where in the dark the artist Sean Harris projected his animation film Dadeni onto the earth beaten floor. People are used to experiencing animations on TV, computers or in a cinema. Such an experience proved moving, eerie and played upon the senses. The moving images evoked past mythologies. You almost felt as if you had gathered with the ancestors around a warm fire and cauldron to share their stories, safe from the rain.

 

Tim Young and his team built a forge outside the Village. Their experiments in recreating the lost art of making Early Christian handbells drew the crowd. Tim felt, ‘It was a successful weekend. We were trying to understand the technique not to produce a finished product. If we were going to do this for ten day's solid we'd be getting it right completely by the end. As it is we've cracked how to do the hearth - that's great, I like it - but we need to build on it.’

 

Mark Rednapp, from the archaeology department here, was with them. I asked him about his thoughts, ‘The wonderful thing about experimental archaeology is that you leap from one idea to the next, one experiment to the next. Many things have passed through my mind: the skill needed to judge the temperature and timing, the amount of manual labour involved in keeping the bellows going, which remind us of early medieval slavery, but also of the apprenticeships learning from an early age by experience.’

 

The Festival continues until 2nd of August. Come and join my workshops ‘Colouring the past’ in the Celtic Village this weekend, the 25th and 26th of July.

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Piecing together the past

Chris Owen, 21 July 2009

Festival of British Archaeology 2009

Today’s events at National Museum Cardiff were Shadow Puppetry and Pottery Sorting.

I won’t write too much about the Shadow Puppet workshops because I covered these in a previous post – suffice it to say that they continued to be hugely popular with children, a fact demonstrated by the quantity of cut up paper and bits and bobs left behind when the crowds finally cleared.

The Pottery Sorting was a new thing though. Here, visitors were helping museum staff with the real business of archaeology. Back in 2002, an excavation was carried out at Llandaff Cathedral School in Cardiff and a very large quantity of 13th and 14th-century pottery was found. This was all brought back to the museum and staff have slowly been sorting it out. But there are only so many hours in a day and this is an awful lot of pottery so, as part of last year’s National Archaeology Week, we asked the public to help us make sense of it all. The event was so popular – and we still had so much pottery left over – that we ran it again this year.

So, with the help of about a hundred children and adults, Sian and Louise from the museum’s archaeology department spent today sorting the broken pottery into different types: glazed and unglazed, rims, bases and decorated pieces.

It proved to be a surprisingly addictive activity, with one girl staying to help out for over an hour, and a visiting Californian potter finding herself drawn into the challenge of grouping the sherds, and trying to track down elusive joins between pieces. Sadly, no joining pieces were found but, as Sian said: “there’s always tomorrow”.

And tomorrow the team will be joined by Mark Redknap, the museum’s medievalist who will be helping to make sense of it all.

Pottery sorting in the main hall
Pottery sorting and shadow puppetry in the main hall of National Museum Cardiff.

I took this photograph at the end of the day when things were quietening down. At its busiest you couldn't have squeezed another person around the tables.

Helping with pottery sorting
Many hands make light work.

Just one of the dozens of people who took time out their day to help us sort the pottery.
More pottery sorting
Not just an event for children...

People of all ages lent their support during the course of the day.