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.
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!
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.
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.
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.