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For the last five years, St Fagans National History Museum has been a partner in the EU Culture-funded project, OpenArch.

OpenArch is an exciting project which aims to raises standards of management, interpretation and visitor interaction in those open-air museums that focus on Europe’s early history – archaeological open-air museums (AOAMs) as they have become known. AOAMs can be found right across Europe, bringing to life everything from Stone Age campsites to Iron Age farms, Roman forts and medieval towns. Their great strength is in the way in which they present their stories, often through detailed reconstructions and live interpretation.

The partners in this project are:

 

Archaeological-Ecological Centre Albersdorf, Germany

Archeon, Netherlands

C.I. De Calafell, Catalonia

EXARC, Netherlands

Exeter University, UK

Fotevikens Museum, Sweden

Hunebedcentrum, Netherlands

Kierikki Stone Age Village, Finland

Parco Archeologico e Museo all’aperto della Terramara di Montale, Italy

Viminacium, Serbia

 

And, of course, St Fagans National History Museum.

 

The project itself consists of three main strands: conferences and workshops, staff exchanges and activities.

Bronze Age house, Modena

OpenArch meeting in a reconstructed Bronze Age house in Modena, Italy

Almost all the partners have hosted conferences related to the main area they are covering in the project: management practices, visitor interaction, craft work, scientific studies and communication, among others. Many of these have attracted large audiences and all have been stimulating opportunities to share new ideas.

Staff exchanges have also been a key method of strengthening links between the partner organisations, with practitioners spending time working in one another’s institutions to help share best practice.

The activities that partners have undertaken have, of course, been very varied. For example, visitor surveys have been undertaken to help us understand how well we are serving the public, and scientific studies have been carried out to learn more about how life was lived in the past and how this can be shown to the public.

 

What has St Fagans done?

St Fagans has benefited tremendously from the project. Over the course of the last five years, around twenty members of staff from all parts of the museum have had the opportunity to see how their colleagues in other museums go about their work. It’s been a chance to share what we do well, and learn from others. On one exchange visit, staff from our Events team were able to see how public activities were organised by our partners at Archeon in the Netherlands. On another, our Iron Age learning facilitator helped out on an Iron Age themed event in Calafell, Spain. The experience has certainly given us a better appreciation of the benefits of European working and has helped us to develop further ideas for collaborative working with European partners.

Throughout the project we have been using the experience we’ve gained in OpenArch to improve the quality of the new Iron Age farmhouses which we’ve been building. For example, we learnt from the very high standards of interior display demonstrated by our colleagues in Modena in Italy and adopted their standards in the choice of display items; while the work of the Hunebedcentrum in the Netherlands helped in suggesting ways that we could improve our building maintenance programmes. Along the way we’ve shared what we’ve learnt and how we’ve applied it in presentations at conferences run by the partners.

Perhaps the high point of our involvement in the project was the conference that we ran in May 2015. We used this to focus the project on issues relating to the management of archaeological open-air museums, and over three days we looked at issues both theoretical and practical in the company of a very distinguished selection of speakers from across Europe.

 

Alongside the conference we ran a craft festival as a major public event – the first of its kind to be held at St Fagans in many years. Over the course of a packed day, we hosted around 50 craftspeople from across Wales and the UK, including colleagues from our partner museums who were with us on staff exchange. Together they put on a great show, demonstrating everything from metalworking to pot-making, leatherwork, painting, food preparation and lots more. Over 5,000 visitors came to visit and feedback was excellent.

More information about our involvement in OpenArch can be found on the project website: openarch.eu.

Bryn Eryr roundhouses

The OpenArch partners meeting outside Bryn Eryr, our new roundhouses in May 2015.

Lecturer in Cathays Park

Mark Winter from the Ancient Technology Centre giving an inspiring talk on his organisation's child-centred philosophy, May 2015.

Werner Pfeifer, prehistoric craft specialist

Werner Pfiefer from the Archaeological-Ecological Centre Albersdorf demonstrating prehistoric crafts at the St Fagans craft festival in May 2015.

The OpenArch project is funded by an EU Culture grant.
This experiment has been made possible by the OpenArch project - a 5 year collaboration between 11 partners to improve standards in archaeological open-air museums.

 

Why are we concerned with boxes whose lids don’t close properly?

This is not just curators and conservators being pernickety; we really do have very good reasons to make sure that every closed box stays shut.

Museum collections contain a lot of valuable things that are easily perishable. Swords are made to be tough, but - believe it or not - even swords are not indestructible.

Iron rusts when it gets wet. Iron also rusts because of moisture in the atmosphere. Other metals can corrode in much the same way. If we are not careful we would end up with merely a bag of rust!

Therefore, we store all manner of sensitive objects (including cannonballs!) in what we call “micro-environments”. While many of our stores and galleries are air-conditioned, the humidity in the air is often too high to prevent these delicate objects from rusting.

Micro-environments are boxes or plastic pouches that contain one or several objects, plus a chemical that regulates the humidity within the box or pouch. This chemical is silica gel – if you have ever bought an electrical item the packaging probably contained a little sachet saying “Do not eat!”. The little granules in this sachet are silica gel. It is very widely used to keep things dry. Including in museums.

Once we have packaged our objects with silica gel we do not want moisture from the atmosphere to get into the box; that’s why we make sure the box closes properly. Only then will the objects be safe and dry, and ready for display or study.

To read more about our collections care work, go to our Preventive Conservation blog.

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.

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!