Friday, 16 August 2013

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Burning the Circle

Burning the Circle is both the name given to the weekend-long experiemental archaeology event at Brodick Castle, and a description of the final event.  On the Sunday night the post circle was set alight.

The idea behind this was partly to be able to discover things like how easy/difficult it was to set the circle alight, how long the posts would burn for, would they burn right away, etc - and perhaps in a few years the site can be excavated to see what kind of evidence is left behind to show that there was ever a post circle there. But it was also to see the effect on the people who witnessed the burning.

Both from talking to archaeologists in Orkney and elsewhere, and from witnessing this event, it seems clear that the act of putting up and burning down these circles were almost as important, if not more so, than any ceremonial use they were put to when they were standing. This is also tru for erecting some of the famous stone circles, such as the Ring of Brodgar. When you see the rock cut ditch around it, as well as realise where the stones have come from, it's obvious that erecting it was something special in itself and would have taken possibly many decades, or generations, to do. The post circle was the same - it seemed as if burning it was harder work than erecting it in the first place, and certainly had a huge impact on those who witnessed it. I'd say that the burning would live on in the fok memory for an awful lot longer than witnessing its erection would do.

The whole event was extremely well organised, if poorly attended - disappointingly so as far as I was concerned. My 2nd criticism (I mentioned the first, the lack of advertising for the event, in an earlier post) was the health and safety gone mad bit of them doing a health and safety briefing at the start of the burning event including telling us where to "assemble" in the event of the fire getting out of control. Em ... this was an event in the middle of an open field. If the fires got so fierce they asked us to evacuate the area we'd simply get into the car and go home, rather than hang about a building near the car park. It's not as if there was a head count anyway!! So the heath-and-safety-gone-mad type briefing seemed a little over-the-top, to say the least. But I guess that's one of the things they had to do to be allowed to run a public event like this.

Anyway, the organisation really was fantastic, right down to the trail of (battery operated) candles running from the ranger centre right up the path to the post circle up in a field abov the bronze age roundhouse. At the start of the event we were given a short talk about why it was taking place, which helped set the scene, especially for those people (if there were any) who hadn't been at the daytime events.

Then the circle was set alight...

Another quick 'health and safety moment' as the fire resistant gloves are donned...

Watching the posts burn was quite mesmerising...

... and the haunting sound of the horn drifting across the circle and across towards Brodick added to the sense of occasion.

I could have watched the fires burn all night...

The central post had a head craved onto it, by local carver Marvin Elliott (in a kayaking link, for my kayaking readers, he's the person who carved the Corrie Seal, seen here in Douglas Wilcox's excellent blog.)

Sadly, time was ticking on and we decided to leave the circle burning fiercely below Goatfell...

... and head off along to Brodick to see how well it could be seen across the bay.

We were amazed at how clearly it could be seen, to the left if the floodlit castle.

We then stopped at the top of the Lamlash hill, about 3 miles away from the burning circle, and it could still be much more clearly seen in person than in the photo.

Here it is, again to the left of the floodlit Castle, photographed from about 3 miles away.

It just shows that an event like this could have an impact across a large area in broze age times. It could clearly be seen - and no doubt  if there had been music and dancing that would have been heard across a large distance, especially on a clear night.

The next day, from the ferry, I photographed what could be seen of the circle. It looked like a lot was still standing and it made me very aware of the amount of work which must go into burning a monument like this down completely, so that the posts are gone and all that remains is burnt remains for archaeologists to dig up centruies, or millenia, later...

Overall, this was an absolutely fantastic event and I hope I'm lucky enough to get the chance to participate in something like this again in the future.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Beer and bronze swords

At the experimental archaeology event at Brodick Castle there was some bronze age brewing, organised by the Arran Brewery.  The beer was surprisingly tasty, and very sweet.

Some of the oldest evidence of brewing (bronze age brewing anyway) was found on Machrie Moor, so it was very appropriate that they were brewing bronze age beer on Arran.

 Busy brewers.

There were a variety of ingredients being used. All local if I remember right.

This was juniper leaves & berries and rose petals I think. Add ...

... stir well...

... and leave to brew.

The mixture was then left to ferment in tubs set into the ground. Of course in the bronze age it would have been pots made for the purpose, which is what they used in this event for the actual brewing on the fire. But the plastic troughs were obviously easier for the purpose!  They think that in the bronze age everyone - men, women and children - would have drunk beer and the yeasty frothy topping would have kept the beer clean. It would be scraped across and a drinking vessel or jug dipped in, the beer served and then the yeasty frothy topping would keep the beer clean and 'fresh' until it was needed.
There was also bronze age metalwork and we saw a sword being made.
 "Here's one I made earlier."

I liked the mixture of ancient technology with the modern temperature gauge!
Lifting the crucible out of the fire...

... pouring the molten bronze into the mould...

... until it was full to the brim.

If you can't find a modern-day screwdriver, then use a bronze-age replica sword!

Opening the mould...

... and removing the hot sword.


After it was cooled, it was carefully passed around. It was incredibly sharp!

Amazing stuff.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Life in the Bronze Age

The event was centred around the recently built bronze age roundhouse at Brodick Castle.

There were archaeologists inside the roundhouse, making what I guess was what I made at guides years ago - damper ( an early form of unleavened bread)...

... and telling tales of life in the bronze age - and medicines from then.

The roundhouse is fantastic, it must have been a great experience working on building it with the NTS rangers.

Outside there was pot making. The potter was very interesting to talk to;  he's also making replica pots for the new Stonehenge visitor centre. Sadly I didn't make notes and have forgotten a lot of what he said about the timings for firing the pots beside a fire like this.


I do remember him telling me about some of the experimental archaeology he's done though. He left some broken pots lying outside in his garden for 2 years. It was a great illustration of how quickly archaeological remains can be lost if they don't have some sort of protection.

After the first winter the pots had been broken by pots into smaller pieces, but were still recognisable and could presumably still be rebuilt by archaeologists (a bit like a jigsaw). During the 2nd year insects moved in to the layers in the weathered pots and started making their homes there.The weathering continues and frost plays its part in continuing to weather and break up the pots.  Then of course, birds spot the insects and start moving about the broken, and increasingly small, pieces of pottery in search of a tasty meal. He said that after 2 years all that was really left was 'dust' and the odd small piece of pot. Amazing! So in what is really an incredibly short time archaeologically speaking there could be no evidence remaining of what was originally there.

That's an experiement I'd love to repeat with a class at school, if I could find the right context - and (much harder) a place where the pots wouldn't be disturbed by humans!

I'd also love to recreate the burnt mound experimental archaeology with pupils, but doubt I'd be allowed to.  As for the brewing...

In the 'small world' way that things often work, it was someone from Orkney who was running the burnt mount archaeology part of the event.

This was a chance to experiment with the type and size of stone (though a lot will be known about that from what's found in burnt mounds) as well as how long the stones would need to be heated for, how often they could be heated before cracking and how fast the water would boil, how many stones it would need, etc. The first task they had to think about was how to seal the water tank - I think it was a local clay that was used.

The stones were heated for a couple of hours in the fire and then moved down to the tank...

... where they were pushed over the edge ...

... and landed with a splash.

It was incredible (to me anyway) how fast the water boiled, it certainly didn't take all of the stones which had been heated to make the water come to the boil within minutes.

Then it was time to boil an egg for lunch...

An unexpected (or less planned for anyway) part of this experiment was trying to work out how to get the boiled egg back out, not least because some of them vanished in amongst the stones in the boiling water! A short while later, and the egg holder was born! Made out of reeds I think.