Timeless technology

26th May 2006 at 01:00
At Cranborne Chase, pupils go back in time to learn the ancient arts of felt-making and working a forge. Sarah Scally reports

"What can you do with stinging nettles?" Luke Winter, the manager at the Ancient Technology Centre, explains how versatile nettles can be. "Romans could boil the nettles to make dye for their tunics, they could peel the fibres from the stalks to make string but, best of all," he pops a leaf in his mouth, "they can be eaten." The group watches in horror as he munches, explaining that the leaf tastes a bit like spinach.

The group from Upton Junior School walk the short distance along a track before reaching a bridge. Only then do they see what looks like an iron-age village. They gaze around in wonder as they cross, avoiding the Soay sheep grazing. The Centre is situated in Cranborne Chase, an area of great archaeological importance. It consists of reconstructions of buildings made from local materials throughout history. There are eight in total, including a Celtic roundhouse, a Roman forge and the main attraction, the Earthouse, modelled on Neolithic woodhenges and Iron Age roundhouses.

Luke runs the day-to-day operation of the centre, from planning the buildings to running days like today. All the buildings have been built with the help of more than 80,000 pupils and volunteers and the centre specialises in exploring how people lived in the past. Staff take the experience so seriously that, on completion of the Celtic roundhouse, Luke and 14 others lived there for eight days to see what the building and surrounds were like in use.

"Today," Luke explains "you are all going to be my workers and I have lots of jobs for you." He has two teaching staff, Anthony and Simon, who will take children to complete various tasks. Anthony's group learn felt-making.

They are taught the whole process from getting the wool from the sheep to using dyes to brighten the felt. They have a science lesson to show how the wool fibres mat together when rubbed with hot water and soap. The session is very hands-on and all the children get involved in rubbing the sheep's wool and deciding the design to go on the felt.

Luke is working with his group in the Roman smithy, a timber-framed building based on archaeological evidence from Londinium (London). As the children are kitted out in leather aprons, goggles and gloves, Luke gets the forge going. One of the children, Rachel, pumps the bellows while Luke explains how a blacksmith would have worked. In front of the forge is a statue of Vulcan, the god of fire. "The Romans took their gods very seriously and each forge would have had a statue like this."

Each pupil has a turn at working the bellows and hammering the metal on the anvil. "For two years an apprentice would pump the bellows and watch the blacksmith to learn the job," says Luke. The children find this incredible as they are hot and bothered after a couple of minutes.

As the children swap tasks, Luke and his staff have quick demonstrations for them to watch and try. They learn how to make rope from lime tree bark, about the usefulness of flint as a sharp tool and are taught a little about animal rearing.

The final task is to grind flour in the Neolithic building, under Simon's watchful eye. Each child pummels with stones to get the flour out of the wheat. There is one rotary quern, made of two huge stones resting on top of each other which are spun round using a wooden handle. Working in pairs each child has a go. "This was my favourite bit," says Chloe, "it was hard work but fun" and they all agree that it's a lot easier nowadays to buy bread from a supermarket.

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