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kim biddulph

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February 2018

Excavating the site of a replica Iron Age roundhouse

IMG_2463In July 2017 I ran a small excavation for families at the Chiltern Open Air Museum. We debated where it would be safe and interesting to open a trench and decided on the site of the first replica Iron Age roundhouse that was built at the museum at the end of the 1970s. The current version is a 21st century construction, and the house platform for the first is clearly visible next to it.

34I was lucky that there were extensive photographs (those old square slightly brown-tinged 1970s style – see right) of the original build which helped to prepare the families for what we might find including the remains of a turf wall and some big post-holes. What is also really useful is having some of the original builders of the house still working at the museum, though they couldn’t remember whether we would find a cobble or rammed chalk floor, as have been used in the new roundhouse.

 

IMG_2481A small trench was opened over the area where I thought the turf wall might have been, and I hope to hit at least one post-hole, and over a lump that would be inside the house. We found a wooden post under the surface, not big enough to be an abandoned post from the house, and the lump was a small dump of flint cobbles – which also housed an ant’s nest to was abandoned immediately. John Hyde-Trutch, the buildings manager at the museum, remembered leaving a heap of flint cobbles behind after the dismantling of the old house, and that a fence was built along the line of the old turf wall – the source of the wooden post.

IMG_2433Dating evidence for the house was found in the interior, in the form of a twenty pence piece from 1994 and a Stella Artois bottle cap! A broken pencil and pencil lead that refitted, and a stray plastic gemstone also gave us an idea that the house might have been used for educational and family activities.

Parents often asked if the ground had been seeded with objects, which it hadn’t. Children and adults alike loved being able to do ‘proper’ archaeology, and everyone thought the finds were very funny. The Aylesbury Young Archaeologist’s Club helped out on one weekend day as well (very useful as my co-leader Vicky Guy is a field archaeologist). The best bit for a lot of children was reinstating the site, which was done in record time with their help!

It was such a success that I’m running it again year in the first week of the summer holidays from 23rd to 27th July, despite the lack of the Festival of Archaeology this year. It will run for more days (five instead of three), with higher numbers of participants and a larger trench. There’ll be a small charge this year to cover costs and hopefully make it sustainable. It will be on the site of the old house again, and, this year, I want to see if we can find some post-holes and maybe the site of the hearth.

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Open Day at the Rollright Stones

IMG_1611On August bank holiday in 2017 I was privileged to be asked to be a Neolithic woman at the Rollright Stones in Warwickshire. The Rollright Stones are made up of several monuments that may have been erected over several hundred years in the Neolithic and potentially early Bronze Age too. There is a stone circle, the remains of the stone chamber of a long barrow, also known as the Whispering Knights, and a lone standing stone, the King stone, which is now across the road from the rest. There is a wonderful legend about the stones about the king being tricked by a witch and his whole host being turned to stone.

It was a hot day so I tried to keep to the shade, and enjoyed showing people how to boil water using hot stone technology, demonstrating back-strap weaving with nettle fibre and a little bit of flint-knapping. Children and their families also tried out grinding grain on a flat quern and making pots.

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A sword is a sword is a sword – right?

Wrong.

IMG_0461I’ve been practising HEMA (historic European martial arts) for a couple of years now (i.e. not very long) and have tried my hand at sword and buckler, longsword (that’s me with a nylon longsword on the right) and backsword. All of these types of swordplay have manuals from about 1300 AD onwards to help us work out what people were doing with them at the time they were used. Of course, their use would have varied depending on whether they were used in judicial fights, duels or by soldiers in an army. What I hadn’t fully realised until recently was that each sword demands slightly different play partly because they all have different defences for the hands.

As you reach out to lay a blow or thrust on your opponent, your hands are the nearest target for your opponent to hit. With the sword and buckler that small metal shield is there mainly to protect this outstretched hand. With longsword, the protection comes in the form of quillons, as well as how you play with the sword in contact with your opponents for most of the time. With a backsword, which is played one-handed, there is more of a swept hilt that provides a little more protection for that hand, but not against thrusts, which is because it’s more of a slashing weapon.

Recently (like in the last two weeks) we have started to play with round shields in the Viking or Anglo-Saxon style. While there are no manuals for this period there are hints in sources and body mechanics to go on, and the capabilities of the weapons themselves (Roland Warzecha’s YouTube channel has useful tips – see embedded video below). Swords of this time do not have very prominent quillons or crossguards, and one of the main threats is therefore sliding down the sword to snipe at the hands. Only by being in constant motion and reacting to the feeling of your opponent’s blade and shield on yours can you hope to control their blade and not get hit. Every now and then something clicks for me when playing with swords and this was one moment. I have to admit it was after being hit on both thumbs that it came to me!

I would very much like to try out similar techniques with prehistoric swords, which also have very little crossguard, and the round or oval leather or wood shields of which only a few have been found. Bronze Age swords were generally much shorter than later iron swords because they were cast, not hammered. Bronze cools and hardens very quickly so there was a limit to the length of the sword that could be made (thanks to Brett Thorn of Bucks County Museum for that insight). Because of the size, did they have to be played out in longpoint, thereby making the hands more of a target? Or, like in the Anglo-Saxon and Viking period would the shield be the primary weapon? Something to find out.

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Going further back in time to middle Bronze Age rapiers (nothing at all like later rapiers) they are actually tangless swords. Because of this they could not make a lateral cutting motion, but had to be thrusting weapons. Perhaps this meant that hands were not such a target, but this is something to play with. This is a good description of these earlier swords and the development of swords up to Viking times. There is so much more fun to be had with swords!

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