A lot of progress has been made since my last blog post. The thatching has been completed and the final stages of landscaping are underway. An earthen bank has been built around the two roundhouses, replicating the formidable defences of the original site at Bryn Eryr Farm in Anglesey. A turf-roofed shelter has been built behind the houses, which is to be used as an outdoor workshop as well as an additional educational facility. Its walls are of clom (a mixture of clay, subsoil and aggregate) just like the roundhouses, but its turf roof represents another roofing material arguably as old as thatching itself. A cobbled surface has been created outside the front of the roundhouses, again, reminiscent of the original site.
Recently, my work has focussed on furnishing the interior of the houses. The larger of the two houses will remain fairly empty (other than a hearth and a wooden bench that circumnavigates its inner perimeter) so that it can be used as a classroom and demonstration area. The smaller house has been dressed to display Iron Age life. Within are some of the furnishings expected of any Iron Age house: a hearth for warmth, a bed for sleeping, a loom for weaving clothing and blankets – along with wooden chests to store them in, and a cauldron for cooking food. Nearly all of the items on display are based on period examples that have managed to survive 2000 years of time. For instance, the cauldron is a replica of a well-preserved copper and iron cooking pot from Llyn Cerrig Bach – only 25km away from the Bryn Eryr site. The iron fire-dogs are simplified replicas of the Capel Garmon fire-dog which was discovered not far away in Denbighshire. The wooden bowls are replicas of those found at the Breiddin hillfort in Montgomeryshire, and the quern stones (for grinding corn into flour) are replicas of ones found within the Bryn Eryr roundhouses themselves. We have a full wood-working tool-kit based on examples from hillforts such as Tre’r Ceiri and Castell Henllys. Even the blankets on the bed have been faithfully copied from surviving scraps of textile.
Now that the house has been faithfully dressed with period furnishings, we can use the space to demonstrate what life was like within a roundhouse. Furthermore, with the aid of craftspeople, re-enactors and volunteers, we can contribute to a deeper understanding of life in the Iron Age, and help turn this house into a home.
We have almost 50 historic buildings here at St Fagans, and most of us staff here have clear favourites. I find I have more than one categories of favourites - the one with my favourite story, the house I’d most like to live in today, and so on. For a spotlight tour I needed to consider all this, pick my favourites, and take visitors on a tour of my chosen buildings.
After thinking, and changing my mind a few times, I made a decision. I chose the Tollhouse with its connections to rich and fascinating political and social history, Nantwallter which has a great story attached, and Llainfadyn which is originally from Rhostryfan, not far from where I grew up in North Wales. I also noticed that they seemed to be linked, and not only by their period of interpretation.
Nantwallter is built from clom, a mix of clay, straw and fine aggregate packed in layers. As the house was being dismantled, a piece of newspaper was found. On the paper was an advert for a ship called the Halton Castle which was to sail on the 25th of April to Patagonia, y ‘wladdychfa Gymreig’, to establish a Welsh settlement in Argentina in 1865. This ship didn’t sail, however the more famous Mimosa sailed instead. It’s an amazing thing to come across. I can’t help wondering if this scrap of paper took them away for a moment to faraway lands, from their lives in West Wales, before they filled the gap in the wall.
Next stop was Llainfadyn, a quarry man’s house from Rhostryfan on the edge of Snowdonia. This was a chance to talk about the quarries and bring North Wales down to St Fagans. There are also plenty of great slate features and furniture inside. I’d recently been walking near where the house is from originally, so I showed some photos of the area, and wondered maybe if that was the view the quarry worker would have seen. The family who lived there later emigrated to America to work in the quarries of Vermont as the industry in Wales began to wane towards the end of the 19th Century.
The Tollhouse from Aberystwyth represents a turbulent past, and is a chance to tell the story of inequality and tension in the 1840s. Farmers had to pay extortionate tolls several times on a single journey. This was too much on top of tax and rent, and the tithe to a church they didn’t belong to so tension mounted, and Rebecca and her rioters attacked tollhouses such as this. Workhouses were also attacked, and the gap grew between the landed gentry and the farmers. Being inside made you think of the keepers of the tollhouses, and where might they stand. The leaders of these riots were punished severely, some being transported to Australia.
What stirred my imagination, was seeing the familiar stories and histories, settings and daily lives of the people and circumstances attached to them, when looking closer, being catapulted into the big picture, and the other side of the world. The story of the farmers linking in with social injustices of the 19th century, and the political activism and reform tied with it. But also, the contrast between the familiar homes from familiar parts of Wales, that have far reaching connections with countries and continents all over the world. Did they keep a little piece of ‘home’, this familiar ‘home’ now represented at St Fagans, with them – on the shores of their new worlds at the journey’s end?
Studies of Bronze Age Egyptian weapons and warfare tend concentrate on metal weapons and ignore the part played by flint. Flint is not considered as attractive as copper or gold and in a milieu which is impressed by technological progress, metal is still considered superior. However, at least until the Early New Kingdom (c. the time of Tutankhamun or 1300 BC) there is strong evidence that flint weapons were standard military issue and far from being a primitive technology they were a natural choice for both utilitarian and ideological reasons.
Despite the fact that many hundreds of artefacts were found in a possible armoury in an Egyptian fort sited in Nubia (modern Sudan) and the fact that contemporary artefacts are known from sites in Egypt, flint found on Egyptian sites is often explained away as either foreign or intrusive to New Kingdom contexts. However, in many instances flint is a good choice for weapon manufacture, particularly where a quick and ‘dirty’ fight is envisaged. Flint is sharper, arguably cheaper and often more deadly than metal. Warfare and flint also had an ideological importance, it is the ideal weapon of the sun-god Re and perfect for destroying the enemies of Egypt. I concur that metal was a component of warfare, but make a plea for the role of lithics.
Cardiff Bay Beach/Traeth Bae Caerdydd wasn’t the only taste of the sea for people visiting Cardiff yesterday. Museum Scientists brought the seashore to museum visitors in one of our Natural Science family workshops. These drop-in sessions aim to give visitors a taste of the wildlife that you can find on your doorstep, in woodland, on meadows…or in this case on the seashore.
More than 140 visitors looked down microscopes at seaweed, found out where on the shore different animals like to live, and sorted through many kinds of molluscs (such as top shells, periwinkles, slipper limpets, whelks, limpets, mussels), sea worms, starfish and sea urchins from the museum’s collections. Few people could resist popping the ‘bubble-wrap seaweed’ (Bladder Wrack) or counting the air bladders on the Egg Wrack to see how old it was. They found out which seaweed is used to make laverbread and which is used in their ice-cream!
With over 870 miles of stunning coastline, Wales is a great place to explore the seashore. We hope that some of our visitors can get outside and discover some of the animals and plants for themselves.