Bronze is back

22nd June 2001 at 01:00
John Stringer visits a Cornish village where children can sample a surprisingly sophisticated lifestyle from 3,000 years ago.

On the other side of a level-crossing near Truro in Cornwall lies a Celtic village. Schoolchildren can spend a day here, experiencing the lifestyle of the Bronze Age.

They will go home exhausted and grubby, but with a good idea of the way people lived 3,000 years ago - lives richer and more sophisticated than many would have believed.

Cornwall was as heavily populated then as it is now; and the level of technology gave people a degree of luxury.

Jacqui Wood is an experimental archaeologist who believes that the only way to understand how a historical artefact worked is by making it with identical materials and using it in the original way. In her reconstructed village, the inhabitants sleep under conical roofs, on platforms that are warmed by a central fire. Blinds cover the windows and furs keep the sleepers warm.

Jacqui sited the village on the south-facing bank of a bend in a stream. This would be the sort of place, she thought, that would have been attractive to the people of the Middle Bronze Age, so she built her village there to test her theory.

She is keen to show children what life was really like 3,000 years ago, and to answer their questions - "How did they live?" "What did they eat?" "What did the children do?" Judging by the evidence, girls and boys followed their individual interests, with little concern about doing "girl" or "boy" things.

Some of her experiments reveal that people then were extremely knowledgeable. She wondered, for example, why they always dug their wells outside when surely it would be more convenient to have the water supply in the house. So she tried it. For the first season, the water was clean and sweet. But when she lifted the lid for the second season, the water was teeming with mosquito larvae.

Such real-life tests reveal a great deal about the past, Jacqui feels. Try something, and you'll find the reasons why our ancestors behaved as they did. That's what experimental archaeology is about.

For details of school visits, e-mail:jacq.m.wood@mcmail.com

CERAMIC BURNER

Junctus - a kind of rush - makes a good candle when peeled of its green outer casing and dipped in fat or beeswax. The fat-soaked spaghetti-like pith can be stored and burned with an intense flame when directed through a bowl with a hole in the base. A perforated ceramic bowl like this can be used to hold the burning pith. The flame that rises from the base is fierce but can be controlled with a slate, so it can be focused for metalworking.

CELTIC ROUNDHOUSE

The steep pitch of the reconstructed roundhouse roofs allows the rain to run off faster than the usual design of thatch sloping at 45 degrees. The roof construction can then be thinner, so that smoke can filter through more easily.

A GRASS HAT

Nobody knew how a hat mght have been constructed from marram grass; all attempts to make one with steel needles failed - the needles cut the grass. Using a flint saw and a borer, Jacqui made a needle from lamb bone; sewing the hat was then a simple task.

CHEESE BASKET

Butter and cheese must be strained during production, and woven mint or bog myrtle stems make an ideal basket. Both are aromatic, too - flavouring the cheese and keeping flies away.

ICE MAN'S CLOTHES

Ice Man is the name given to a 5,000-year-old mummified body that was found embedded in ice in the Alps. The "mummy" is now exhibited at the Bolzano Museum in Italy.

Reconstructing his clothes with materials similar to those originally used, Jacqui made shoes with bearskin soles and a drawstring top. When the shoes were stuffed with grasses, she found they were warm and practical - ideal for walking on snow.

The Ice Man's cloak could be recreated using several overlapping layers of grass, held together with twisted string made from the bark of the small-leafed lime tree. Jacqui used bramble stems - she knocked the spines off with a slate and peeled the stems to make a translucent fibre that could be plaited into strong string. Nettles can also be used. Peeling off the bark gives a strong fibre that can be treated with wood ash and clay. This makes a good fishing net.

THE BRONZE AGE

Bronze is a metal alloy made from copper and between one-tenth and one-third tin. First made in the Near East 6,000 years ago, it replaced stone for making tools and weapons. Bronze was so successful that it was widely used until replaced by iron, around 800 years BCE. It is still used for sculpture and some coins.

The smelting of bronze changed society, leading to the first European civilisations, the growth of urban life in China and the spread of international trade.

In 1834, the importance of bronze in the development of civilisation was recognised by the Danish archaeologist Christian Jorgensen Thomsen, who divided early periods of human history into the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. The Bronze Age was also marked by widespread use of the wheel and the development of sailing ships.

THINGS TO DO

* Early people would have made use of dyes and paints from local materials. Children can make pictures using charcoal, coloured earth and plant juices.

* Introduce the class to an older artefact that is likely to be new to them - a clothes airer or a hand-mincer, for instance. Discuss what it is made from, how it might be used, what it might have been intended for. Try it out with the class. What happens to a wet rag left over an airer? What happens to a slice of bread put through a mincer? What do you learn by making and using such artefacts?

* Try some of the techniques described in this article - making a string from plaited stems, for example. How easy is it? How useful is your product for its intended purpose?


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