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Katherine Ambry Linhein Muller is a graduate student at Monmouth Univeristy in the Master's program for Anthropology. She is an experimental archaeologist exploring the evolution of metal technology. Experimental archaeology is a theoretical and methodological approach to understanding the past through recreating lifeways and material culture. Her current projects exploring the evolution of blacksmithing. Past research included exploring prehistoric and historic foodways and stonetool technology.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Once Upon a Fairy Tale

Along with the new pages on my blog, I decided to do one on folklore and fairy tales since they have always been an interest of mine. Fairy tales and folk traditions can inform us about cultural traditions in the past and can reveal changing cultural aspects. The first series on this page will be about blacksmiths.  Perhaps, I'll put do several posts about Little Red Riding Hood which was the subject of my undergraduate research. So read and enjoy.  The next time you hear a tale, it might cause you to reflect a little deeper on the meaning behind these stories.  

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Study in Living History

For about a year now I've taken a little break from looking for excuses to eat and call it research.  Instead I've taken to studying living history.  The reason for this change of study is two fold.  One reason is that I've been working at a living history museum, The Historic Village at Allaire, as a blacksmith.  The Historic Village is a 19th century industrial town located in what is now Farmingdale, New Jersey. The second reason revolves around the fact that my Master's degree research is on how history is presented to the public at living history.

To keep my blog a little bit organized, I've created two new pages for posts on separate topics.  One is on the research I am doing on living history, Smoke and Fire Forgery. The second page is dedicated to my fun topic of research-Food for Thought.  I hope anyone reading enjoys the new thoughts.   

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Iron Age Life: Experimental Archaeology in Denmark

Iron age life: Ethnographic Archaeology

Lethra, the Iron Age Village at Lejre, Land of Legends in Denmark.

Day One

“Really?” I asked again. 
“Really, really. We’re going to smelt some iron.” Kim said with that thick European way of speaking English; it sounds almost British as it hangs on his tongue.  His laugh and smile are on the edge of mocking, but I find that I never mind.  Kim is our wizard, troldmand in Danish, our guide to a moment in the past. A waking dream of the past, since the men and women of the Danish Iron Age would not spend the morning bumbling about, adding the final touches to their leather shoes before being put into costume.  But for a moment I want you to picture Kim as I remember him that morning.  Dressed in black, he has gathered us around him like children at story time to tell us the history of Denmark’s Iron Age.  His salt-and-peppered beard is braided into one small braid in the front of a face prone to laughs and smiles.  Akin to wizards he has smoke billowing about his face more often than not as he smokes ‘Finnish Leaf,’ as he calls the cigarettes tucked away in his costume.              

I cannot begin to express my surprise when Kim told us we would be smelting iron.  There was also a fair bit of guilt.  A few of the other students were interested in blacksmithing but I knew this was happening because of me.  Several months previous during a meeting with Dr. Bill Schindler in his overcrowded office on what was probably a damp winter’s day, we had discussed what I wanted to do in the course that summer.  The program in question was a three week course entitled “Interpreting the Past,” run by Washington College of Chestertown, Maryland.  The class was designed educate students on how the past was interpreted by museums and presented to the public.  The class would range across the Middle Atlantic States and their main museums and culminate in a ten day program at Sagnlandet Lejre, Denmark’s premier living history and experimental archaeology education center.  I had graduated from Washington College the previous spring in 2011 and my enrollment in the course made me the odd man out.  Dr. Schindler doing his part as the gracious mentor wanted to guarantee that I would get the most out of the experience.  At the time I was just formulating the idea of conducting research into the history of iron production.  “I knew that the University of Copenhagen had done some work with iron smelting experiments at Lejre and if it would not be too great of a trouble I would like to speak to the experimenter.”  Dr. Schindler said he would see what he could do.  I had never dared to hope that many months later in July at Lejre we would be offered the opportunity to work iron, let alone produce it.  To say I was surprised might be a small understatement.  It was not until the second day of constructing the furnace that I accepted that it was happening.

The remains of a bloomery furnace, previously used for smelting iron.

On this our first day into the Iron Age village we had to wait a terribly long time before we could get into costume and go down to the village.  The reason for the delay was concerning the costuming of half of our group.  I suppose this would be a good time to talk about our group.  There were eight students in their late teens and early twenties: four men and four women including myself.  We had two instructors: Bill Schindler and Jack Cressan, who when Dr. Schindler was a student was his flint-knapping instructor.  In total there were ten of us, all with at least a working knowledge of anthropology and archaeology.  So the delay in costuming arose from the size in our party, particularly in dressing the men.  

Lejre was hosting a Viking Market, a gathering of people akin to our Renaissance Faires.  Costumed merchants camp out for a week and sell their wares which they may produce themselves or buy already made.  As tents rose expanding the Viking Village, we were permitted to wonder the stalls and pass the time.  Many of us gawked and lusted after knives and drinking horns, trade beads, and brooches.  We could see the other families disappear up the back stairs of the Multihouse, a large building sporting showers, toilets and at least four kitchens that for the past five days had been the main hub of our existence.  The other families would come down bedecked in Iron Age clothes and pack their modern life away in wooden safe boxes and disappear down to the Lethra, the Iron Age village. 
 At last, it was our turn-first the women and then the men.  The other three girls and I followed the lithe blonde up metal stairs into a loft lined with racks of clothing.  “What you are about to wear is going to be the most expensive thing you will ever wear.” Natalia said with a smile and a secret threat.  What we really heard was, “Hi archaeologists! Wear these outfits which will cost more than your wedding dresses, go live for a week in the Iron Age to smelt iron, and oh, by the way, don’t get dirty.”  We all agreed to do our best.  As Natalia handed out our clothes she displayed a dizzying array of archaeological and weaving facts. 
The group from Washington College and our guide, finally in costume.

“First there were the underdresses.  Like all of the clothes we would be wearing these were made of wool.   Most of clothes are drawn from archaeological remains found in long barrow burials or on bog bodies.  Bog bodies are human remains that were placed in a water logged location after death and preserved because of the anaerobic environment.  There is evidence of linen cloth found between the fat rolls of one particularly obese female bog body.  But generally they would have worn wool, don’t worry the itching will stop before you know it.  Please don’t wear this without underwear under it.”  The yellow-white wool underdresses were long sleeved and did itch a bit.  They reminded me of night gowns my grandmother wore or the kind Wendy wore in my copy of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.  I wonder if this is what Wendy and her brothers felt before they were taken to Never Neverland.  A tingling of excitement and fear, but a foolish fright, for really there was nothing to fear.  All of us Wendies giggle and twirl awaiting the next array of garments.  The thrill of playing dress-up again after so many years has returned to us.  Each girl eyes the rack of dresses wondering which will be her prize.  There are blues, reds, greens, and browns.  Dresses and skirts hang side by side.  There are pattered belts and ribbons for our hair.   

“Blue was the color of wealth.” Natalia says handing out two bright blue dresses that are reminiscent of Roman ceramic vessels.  They are long dresses with the bit of fabric folded over in the front and back, perfect for throwing over your head, as the girls gaily discovered the hood.  Blue dye is derived from a plant that has to be fermented in urine.  Emptying the chamber pot first thing the morning will lead to the strongest blue.  “The square or diamond style of weaving was also a mark of wealth.” A brown shirt and green skirt gets handed out to another in our group.   “Yours is a hound’s tooth style weaving.  Anything in green is typically woven in this style. It was the fashion forward style during the Iron Age.  So you’re ready for the catwalk.  This,” Natalia says, handing me a simple moss green dress, “is called a tubular dress.  You have a little bit of wealth, see your strings at the shoulder are blue and so is that patch.” I’m glad it’s not entirely blue.  Being petite my greatest worry while trying on clothes is that it pools on the floor, but the dress stops right at the ankles.  As the dress goes over my head, I cannot help but begin to craft a story for myself.   It races to develop a persona for this past life I’m about to don. 

 There has to be a reason for why I don’t have children at my age.  In most farming societies, women begin to have children young.  This most likely would be true in the past.  Infertility would be a bad choice since we are going into an iron smelting project.  Based on the observation by Peter Schmidt and others fertility seems to be a large preoccupation for these groups.  Perhaps I’m widowed and not yet remarried.  Before I get very far in those musings there are belts that go twice round the waist before being tied, shawls handed out, hair ribbons given, and paperwork to sign.  The paperwork is for when we check out in a few days, so they will know we have not stolen anything.  We descend the stairs and around the corner to pack our modern clothes and lives away in the wooden box.  We turn and pose for the men before they are ushered up the stairs by our wizard.  Natalia takes pictures of us on the lawn as we wait for the men to come back.  They return dashing as ever, cloaks pinned or thrown over their shoulders, playing at being run-way models and remembering they too once liked to dress up.

After a few quick snaps of the camera, we were on our way down to the Iron Age village.  We carried baskets of dishes and cooking equipment.  After a stop at the ‘well’, a water spigot where we fill our cloth buckets, it’s off to the village.  Lethra, the Iron Age village, rests between two hills along a marshy lake.  The hills around the cluster of houses are used for grazing sheep and goats.  Gates and fences keep the animals contained near but not in of Lethra.  A trail leads to the village, twisting between a few marshy pieces of ground and up to a counterweight gate at the edge of the town.  The gate creaked open and closed greeting us.  The other families were already moving about the cluster of houses and communal fire making lunch, canoeing on the lake, or meeting the other families.  We were shown to our home for the next few nights, ‘the long house’. The general design of the building was drawn from archaeological remains from Jutland, another island that makes up the country of Denmark.  We had seen this house several times during our various explorations throughout Lejre, but this was the first time we looked at it knowing it was ours.  We received instructions on fire prevention and the appropriate actions to take in case of fire.  Then we went to work.   

The blacksmith shop on the Iron Age village.

At the edge of Lethra, the Iron Age village, between the palisade wall but within the livestock fence, was the blacksmith shop.  Amongst the long grasses old bloomery furnace stacks peeked out.  The land sloped slightly down to the edge of the lake bordered by cattails and water grasses.  These old bloomery furnaces were the remains of past experiments.  Behind each furnace was a trough for the slag to flow.  The uphill side of the furnace was broken down to allow the bloom to be removed.  These were our future.

Kim gave out instructions on how to set about the work.  This was his thirteenth-no twelfth (thirteen being unlucky)-smelt he had taken part in. He had a good feeling about this group and this smelt; it was going to work out well.  A smelt started with building the furnace. We had to dig a pear shaped pit about a foot deep and 18 inches wide.  It had to have a flat bottom.  It had to be place on a sloping part of the hill with a slag trough leading away down the hill. We also had to gather materials for constructing the furnace stack: grass or hay and clay.  The clay would come from a pit near the bake ovens behind our house outside the palisade but within the goat fence.  Silently, we broke into two groups. 
The hay gathered to temper the clay.

Four of us set about clearing the area of tall grass with a sickle, revealing old troughs, branches, and large piles of bog ore lying about and tripping us up.  The cut grass was piled up about the base of an old furnace.  Grass and hay would be the temper added to the clay allowing us to build one meter high furnace stack.  The hay came from grass previously cut and lain out to dry.  We picked a spot along the hill near the water’s edge to build our furnace.  With tools modeled on those used during the Iron Age, we struggled to dig.  The tools were wooden paddles, a long pole with a metal spoon-like end, and another long pole with a metal crescent.  These were used to loosen the soil which we dug out with our hands.  Sparks flew when metal struck flint nodules that clogged the soil.  As the other group dug the clay from the pit, it was loaded onto a slab of rubber made into a sled with rope handle.  Down the dirt trail it would come, up and over the bumps of the old trough, and down to the water’s edge.  Again and again that sledge would come bringing with it clay and gossip from the village.  We laughed and joked as the pile of clay grew and our pear-shaped hole expanded.  By the evening, everything was ready for us to begin building the furnace the next day.

The pear shaped base of our bloomery.

The other families had been busy throughout the day as well.  When we arrived at the communal fire, dinner was hot and ready for us.  There was paté, whole roasted chicken, bread, and salad.  We ate and chatted with the other families; many of them were here for their second or third time.  It was their usual family vacation for a week during the summer.  Some of us went down to the sacrificial bog after dinner to ask the older spirits for personal favors.  The bog is located in the woods that surround the village and separates it from the Stone Age settlement.  This bog is modeled after those excavated in Jutland and other districts of Denmark.  Weapons, pots, fertility sculptures, horse skins, and animal skulls are placed in the water made bright green by duckweed.  Similar artifacts have been found in bogs throughout Northern Europe; this bog has never been excavated, who knows what lies beneath the surface?  The bog is silent at night and calming during the day.  Near the entrance to the bog is an elm tree whose branches have grown into a circle.  Legend holds that if you can crawl through the hole, any illness will be cured.  That night our friends from the first half of our trip during the Stone Age experimental archaeology conference were in the bog to say farewell.  There was singing and storytelling.  Sacrifices were personal, a way to ask for favors and a way to say thank you.  After our visit to the bog, many of us sat late into the night around the communal fire sharing stories about our life far away and distant in time beyond the hills of Lejre.  In the distance, the folk festival at the nearby town of Roskilde echoes in the hills.   

The sacrificial bog.
During our first night we were cramped and uncomfortable.  Four people tucked the short way on a lofted bunk.  On the second night, we decided to be smart and sleep feet to feet instead of side by side.  If you have ever seen the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we were the grandparents, two of us on each side with all of our feet meeting in the middle.  The bunk, being placed at the far end of the long house, was right at shin level and left many bruised memories in the gloom.  The bunk was lined with straw and then covered with skins.  There were blankets to sleep on and under along with our shawls and cloaks.  On the couple of cold nights we would inch closer to each other for warmth.

The inside of our long house from my bed in the back.  On either side of the room, around the hearth, are bunks.  The stable is the door beyond the hearth.