Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Fire (2/2)

Fire (2/2) - The Experiments

While the archaeology provides evidence for the use of firesteels, and there is linguistic evidence for the continued use of friction-fire in the Migration Period and Viking Age, there is little archaeological information to aid reconstruction of the full fire-lighting process which likely required a range of specially prepared materials, allowing cool sparks to be nursed to roaring flames.

To fill these gaps in knowledge it is necessary to experiment with techniques and materials that would have been locally available at the time, taking inspiration from modern bushcraft techniques and, importantly, other cultures from similar ecoregions (with similar materials available) which have maintained traditional firelighting skills that may be similar to those used by our ancestors.    

Our investigation into the fire-making process is ongoing, and we do not claim to be experts with respect to such techniques. However, we have attempted a number of experiments with locally available materials, informed by available information on modern bushcraft fire-lighting, and the techniques employed by other traditional cultures. It is worthwhile discussing the feasibility of many of the materials traditionally used, in terms of their availability or value in a rural Migration-Age West- European context, and their effectiveness when prepared using the technology available at the time.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Fire (1 /2)

Fire  (1/2)

Fire has played a hugely important role in the lives of human beings since prehistory. Though the importance of fires for providing essential warmth, and facilitating cooking is both obvious and difficult to overstate, the almost ubiquitous social practice of gathering around a fire was likely crucial to the forming of social bonds within early communities.   As anyone who has wild-camped, or spent a dark night in a reconstructed hall will tell you, the dancing flames of a hearth fire often have the miraculous effect of  banishing discomfort, creating wellbeing, and bringing people together.
Yet fire can also turn against us; burn, kill, or swallow homes and settlements whole. Fire is an essential yet treacherous friend, and, for this reason, our relationship with fire has always been a complicated one.

Given the importance of fires for life, and community, and taking into account its treacherous nature, the study of historic cultures' relationships with fire is particularly fascinating. How did our ancestors view fire? How did they make it? And to what extent did they understand the mechanisms which underpin this essential tool?

In this series we examine the techniques likely used by the Anglo-Saxons and "Vikings" to make fire and the evidence for them, and discuss snippets of mythology pertaining to fire which give us glimpses of these cultures' understanding. We, further, present some findings from our own experiments with historic fire-making using widely available, forage-able materials.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Review of the New Vic 'Hoard' Festival

Review:  "Unearthed" and "The Gift" at the New Vic Theatre's 'Hoard' Festival

Over the past few months we have been excited to follow the development of the Hoard festival at Staffordshire’s New Vic Theatre; a national-theatre and Arts Council funded project which began with a modest aim to tell the story of the famous Staffordshire Hoard and has since snowballed into the most ambitious project the theater has undertaken to date.

The festival has grown to include four stage plays ‘in the round’, a pair of studio-plays, a series of table-plays designed to entertain visitors in the theatre’s atrium and bar areas, and ‘400 pieces’; an unusual project involving volunteers and taking the drama out into the community.

During the later stages of development of the festival, the Thegns have been involved, in a small way, in advising the props, costume and set-design teams, helping the team develop a ‘look’ and ‘feel’ for those plays set at the time of the Hoard based on material-culture represented in archaeology from the time. We were highly honoured to be given front-row seats for the press-night during launch-week for the first set of plays; ‘Unearthed’ by Theresa Heskins, and ‘The Gift’ by Jemma Kennedy, and as the team had been keen not to spoil or leak any of the content of these plays to us save for the technical details, it is fair to say we sat down in the impressive theatre-in-the-round, feet quite literally on the stage, unsure of what to expect…

Friday, 6 March 2015

In Defense of Non-Combat Living History

Opinion: In defense of Non-Combat Living History

Please note that the commentary herein is the opinion of an individual contributor and does not necessary represent the collective opinion or position held by the Thegns of Mercia organisation. 

On a recent  weekend (February 2015) we had the pleasure of visiting the famous Jorvik Viking Festival in York; a unique annual event which brings together diverse groups of reenactors, living-historians, craftspeople, traders and members of the public from across Britain and elsewhere, all united by an interest in the early Medieval period.  Jorvik, in particular, is a very 'social' event providing an opportunity for like-minded but geographically dispersed people within what could be called the 'Dark-Age reenactment community' to meet and socialize. 
Such gatherings are usually very good natured but, inevitably, one of the common topics of discussion is the relative accuracy, legitimacy or validity of different groups' approaches. Such comparisons offer valuable opportunities for groups to learn from each other and, as long as those involved remain fair-minded and accepting of constructive criticism, are arguably good for all involved.

It was interesting this year that, in conversation with various participants, a common topic of discussion was the legitimacy/validity (or lack thereof) of  non-combat living history (as regards the Viking Age or Early Medieval period). In truth I found it somewhat bewildering to see many reenactors challenge the legitimacy of groups which don't focus on, or participate in combat, given that, for my part, I had thought the value of such groups and their contributions were self evident. I was all the more surprised to hear from a number of my colleagues, in subsequent discussion, that they had encountered fellow living historians who had expressed this view. 
The challenge can be divided into two: first, that non-combat living historians somehow lack legitimacy or validity, and second, more specifically, that 'living historians' playing the role of warriors, who do not themselves participate in combat reenactment, lack legitimacy or validity. 

Arguably, such challenges are most easily rebutted by pointing out that it is up to clients to decide what is legitimate. Non-combat groups do not struggle to find meaningful work. 
Nevertheless, as a relatively well-fed, 5ft9 pain-averse living historian with little interest in physical violence, I thought I might use this soapbox to speak up for my kind.