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Photo report about the building of an Iron Age farm (Eindhoven 2005)

Prehistoric skills

Prehistoric (wo)men had many skills en solutions for everyday-problems. The purpose of this report is to share this knowledge with everybody who is interested.


Building: how to split thin wood for a wattling wall
Building: how to wattle a wall of a farm
Building: how to close the wattled wall with loam
Cooking: how to bake a salmon in an open fire
How to make tar from birchwood

These skills were practised during the building of a Late Iron Age farm (see photo) in the Historic Open Air Museum in Eindhoven, May 2005.

Building: how to split thin wood for a wattling wall

Goal: to make wide, flexible willow stakes for a wattling wall

Material: flexible willow branches without side-branches and leafs, but which may be thick, an axe or cleaver, maybe a chisel, a chopping-block. Willow branches become flexible when they have been lying in water for 1 or 2 nights. But not for weeks because then they will rot. Work with 2 or 3 persons.

Method: Start by making an indentation in the broad part of the branch, but chop vertically, not horizontally! Continue chopping, until the fingers can be placed between the parts.
Then place the branch between 2 thick vertical poles, like the standing beams of a house, until the split end of the branch is just  visible. Pull with some kind of 'rocking' force at the thickest split part until you hear some cracking sound and the brancj splits further. The 2nd person just holds the other end of the splitted branch but doesn't pull.
Turn the branch 180when the split tends to go in the direction of the pulling person, towards the side of the branch and pull again on the thickest part.
It's not a disaster when the branch breaks partially; it still is usable. It is also possible to "lead" the split with an axe or a chisel.
It is also possible, and maybe faster, to split the whole branch with an axe.

The splitted branch can sometimes be devided into 4 pieces which then gives 4 stakes out of one branch.

Watch out for: splinters in your hands, a wrong use of the axe and cleaver, pinched fingers.


Building: how to wattle a wall of a farm

Goal: to make a solid and smooth wall which can hold loam on both sides.

Material: Use flexible willow stakes, that are possibly split into 2 or 4, a cleaver, an axe,a strong pole of about 10 cm diameter.

Method: The flexible willow stakes should be wattled between the poles of a wall. The thick ends must be placed alternating from the left and from the right. THe wattling can continue when the stake brakes but holds. When the stake sticks out too much, the axe can chop off a piece. When the stake is too long, it can be shortened.
Sometimes the wattling is too hard because the willow branch is too thick. Someone with a strong pole can widen the space between the beams a little bit to ease the work.

Watch out for: Wrong use of axe and cleaver, splinters, pinched fingers.


Building: how to close the wattled wall with loam

Goal: To make a solid, isolating wall for a farm.

Material: Loam (some kind of sandy clay), baskets with short straws, jars with water, leader flaps.

Method: After wattling the wall (see above), it should be covered with loam, mixed with straw. Remove hard pieces out of the loam. The loam may contain small pieces of clay.
put some water through the loam and mix it with some straw. Mixing can be done by stamping the loam on leader flaps. The result should be balls that don't fall apart but neither stick to ones hands.
Press the ball between the wattled willow stakes. Work from the inside as well as from the outside of the wall. It's not bad if the work on a wall hasn't finished in one day; just moisten the dried loam a little bit. Make sure that the loam layers are not too thick.
Finish the wall by placing slightly wetter loam on the loam/straw mixture. Rub over the uneven parts until they are smoother.
When the finishing has been too wet or when the layers are too thick, cracks appear during the drying process. Cracks can be closed by gently rubbing and pressing on them.

Watch out for: pieces of wall that suddenly fall down, sharp objects in the loam, hands that become too dry because the loam dries out the skin.



Cooking: how to bake a salmon in an open fire

Goal: To eat a delicious salmon.

Material: A cleaned salmon or 2 pieces of salmon fillet, moist loam, large sorrel leafs, lemon balm, sage, salt, a big fire, thin willow branches or willow bark, a leader flap, a wooden stick and a ceramic plate.

Method: Make a big fire, make about 6 large "slices" of loam, wash the hands, place the large sorrel leafs on a ceramic plate, place the salmon on them. put the lemon balm or sage and salt in/on the salmon, wrap the salmon in the sorrel leafs, put the thin willow branches or willow bark around the leafs and put the loam around the packet. Let the loam dry a bit at the fire so the packet is easy to handle.
Then place the "loam salmon" in the fire and place wood around it. Make sure that there is also fire underneath the packet. Leave the packet in the fire until the loam has been burning red.
Take the packet out of the fire with the stick and let it cool of a bit. Break the packet on an edge with the stick, take the salmon out and place it on the ceramic plate. Take loam off the salmon when necessary. The sorrel leafs can't be consumed!

Watch out for: burns, poisonous smoke, too raw salmon (bake it on hot stones if necessary)

How to make tar from birchwood

Goal: To win tar, which can be used as glue, as a medicine, and as a method to make leather water-proof.

Material: Birch bark, 2 jars: 1 small and 1 large with cover and also with small holes in the bottom, loam or clay which has been mixed with lots of sand, wood, a shovel.

Method: Take the thin bark of the birch, place it in the large jar. Dig a round pit of about 2 m.diameter and about 1,50 m. deep.
Bury the small jar in the bottom of the pit so that only the rim is visible.
Place a large jar on its top with the cover closed. Cover both jars with the loam or the clay (as far as they are visible). 
Let them dry about a half day. Make a small fire around them to dry the loam/clay, gradually enlarge the fire. Let it burn about 2 hours, then let it cool off. 
Let it all cool about 1 day. Remove the loam/clay carefully and open the top jar, which is probably empty.
Take the large jar of the smaller one and note that there is about 400 ml. (about 1/2 kg) tar in it. This tar can after heating, for example, be placed on leather shoe soles (see photo) to protect them against water. Medicinal use is possible, according to the specialist (an archaeologist). The glacierman had attached his arrowheads to the arrows with tar.

Watch out for: burns and poisonous smoke



May 2005

Preparation to cast bronze (1): A small pit has been digged and covered with stones

Preparation to cast bronze (2): 3 bellows lie towards the pit and will be covered with clay or loam. The center of the pit contains a small crucible. The nozzle of the right bellows is made of wet, red clay. The clay had to dry first (ideally: 2 weeks), such that the casting was delayed.

Largely copper, Bronze Age ornaments, made by the archaeologists of Biskupin.

Various objects, made by the archaeologists of Biskupin, such as Roman oil lamps (below left).

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