Bryn Eryr Farm - How to become an Iron Age Carpenter
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!