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.
In the past week finds processing started in earnest, as stratified deposits were by then being dug across most of the site. In the first two weeks keeping on top of the objects coming from the site had only been a part time job: listing and packing the individual metal, pottery and glass finds that had been turning up. With the serious digging of stratified deposits, however, animal bone worth keeping for further study, started to emerge in considerable quantity. The midden (spread of dumped rubbish) in the main trench (Trench AG) was also being systematically sampled, producing tubs of soil needing processing.
The animal bone and the soil samples form the two main strands of the finds processing going on site. The animal bone needs washing and drying before it can be bagged up for future study: when it will hopefully give insights into the diet and farming methods of the inhabitants of the site.
The soil samples are processed in a flotation tank. A sample, held in a fine mesh, has water pumped up through it from below while being agitated and broken up by the hands of the operator. The flow of the water carries off light, organic, components (charcoal, grain, seeds and other plant remains), which is collected in a very fine mesh sieve. Meanwhile the bulk of the soil drops through the mesh into the bottom of the tank leaving the coarse residue of the sample in the mesh. This is mostly small fragments of stone but will hopefully also contain small animal and fish bones that would not otherwise get found. Both the material floated off and the coarse residues are then left to dry and bagged up for later sorting.
The teams in our three trenches have made excellent progress. In the main trench (AG), the full width of the stone enclosure wall has been revealed, and today we were able to identify a buried ground surface beneath (pre-dating) the wall, as well as upcast from the cutting of the early medieval ditch. In the north-east of the trench, a gully has been identified which formed one side of a small enclosure within the walls. This appears to have been a drip gully and drainage ditch around a timber building.
We have decided to extend our small square trench (AH) in the light of the human remains found a few days ago. This trench was sited to establish whether further burials existed in this part of the site, and the discovery promises to add significantly to our understanding of this episode of the site’s history. The crouched burial identified so far has only been partially uncovered (top of skull and femur), but it is clear that these articulated bones represent an addition to the small group of five bodies buried outside the defensive wall of the site during the second half of the tenth century.
In our narrow slit trench (AI) on the north-east side of the early medieval enclosure, the team has defined the edges on the inner and outer edges of the two defensive ditches, and a possible prehistoric feature at one end.
One of the more significant finds made so far is the hoop and decorated terminal of a copper-alloy penannular brooch. This is reminiscent of one found in the ninth- century Trewhiddle hoard. The midden deposits within trench AG continue to produce copious quantities of animal bone (important for our understanding of husbandry and diet), as well as ironwork.