Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales

Home

The Bishop’s Palace at Hereford was once a very grand hall, and as it was built in 1180, offers a rare glimpse at the constructional techniques of the period. Last week, my colleagues and I visited the Palace to see the one giant arched-brace that survives, hidden in the attic.

One of St. Fagans’ latest building projects is the reconstruction of a medieval Royal hall from Rhosyr, near Newborough in Anglesey. This hall was significant because it was one of 22 in Gwynedd owned by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn ‘the Great’) during the beginning of the 13th century. At the time Princes were peripatetic and would visit each hall in turn, in order to attend to the administrative needs of that region. As this hall now only stands as a ruin, very little evidence survived of its timber-framed roof, and a considerable amount of research has been undertaken in order to provide a representative design for the reconstruction. One potential ‘post-pad’, and areas of differential stone paving was enough evidence to suggest the existence of two rows of timber posts within the great hall at Rhosyr. These divided the space along its length, forming a central ‘knave’ and an ‘aisle’ on either side. Rows of tall timber posts like these need to be braced together to ensure their rigidity, and hence the reason for our visit to Hereford. The curved arch is almost as impressive today as it must have been when it was built. We plan on replicating this framing technique by joining our posts with similar, if smaller, arched-braces. Together they will form strong ‘arcades’ on which our roof rafters can rest.

The 1168 work was finished to a very high standard, as you can see from the ornately carved capitals and the studding along the upper edge of the brace. The timber is also of some note, as today such large diameters are only to be found in the dreams of woodworkers. For instance, each half of the brace is made from a single long curving trunk, which would be an exceptionally rare find these days. Also, the circular column near the base of the arch has been carved from, and is still attached to, the same trunk as the square post it backs on to - which called for a very wide tree.  A point of note, however, is that although the standard of workmanship is high, its design is somewhat frowned upon. In his book ‘English Historic Carpentry’ (1980) Cecil A. Hewett wrote ‘This is poor carpentry’… ‘The Hereford example is wrought to a high standard, but this quality is expressed only in the skilled cutting of the timber and the degree of ‘fit’ achieved. As illustrated, the jointing is weak and hardly deserves to be called such..’

Although described as ‘bad carpentry’ The Bishop’s Palace has stood for 835 years. Having returned from Hereford, my challenge is to replicate this design for use in our own hall, where 17 of these semi-circular arched braces are required to support Llys Rhosyr’s thatched roof, albeit at a reduced scale. The inclusion of a pair of hidden tennons at the top of the arch will successfully raise the standard of the jointing while crucially, maintaining the look of the original brace.

For the last five years, St Fagans National History Museum has been a partner in the EU Culture-funded project, OpenArch.

OpenArch is an exciting project which aims to raises standards of management, interpretation and visitor interaction in those open-air museums that focus on Europe’s early history – archaeological open-air museums (AOAMs) as they have become known. AOAMs can be found right across Europe, bringing to life everything from Stone Age campsites to Iron Age farms, Roman forts and medieval towns. Their great strength is in the way in which they present their stories, often through detailed reconstructions and live interpretation.

The partners in this project are:

 

Archaeological-Ecological Centre Albersdorf, Germany

Archeon, Netherlands

C.I. De Calafell, Catalonia

EXARC, Netherlands

Exeter University, UK

Fotevikens Museum, Sweden

Hunebedcentrum, Netherlands

Kierikki Stone Age Village, Finland

Parco Archeologico e Museo all’aperto della Terramara di Montale, Italy

Viminacium, Serbia

 

And, of course, St Fagans National History Museum.

 

The project itself consists of three main strands: conferences and workshops, staff exchanges and activities.

Bronze Age house, Modena

OpenArch meeting in a reconstructed Bronze Age house in Modena, Italy

Almost all the partners have hosted conferences related to the main area they are covering in the project: management practices, visitor interaction, craft work, scientific studies and communication, among others. Many of these have attracted large audiences and all have been stimulating opportunities to share new ideas.

Staff exchanges have also been a key method of strengthening links between the partner organisations, with practitioners spending time working in one another’s institutions to help share best practice.

The activities that partners have undertaken have, of course, been very varied. For example, visitor surveys have been undertaken to help us understand how well we are serving the public, and scientific studies have been carried out to learn more about how life was lived in the past and how this can be shown to the public.

 

What has St Fagans done?

St Fagans has benefited tremendously from the project. Over the course of the last five years, around twenty members of staff from all parts of the museum have had the opportunity to see how their colleagues in other museums go about their work. It’s been a chance to share what we do well, and learn from others. On one exchange visit, staff from our Events team were able to see how public activities were organised by our partners at Archeon in the Netherlands. On another, our Iron Age learning facilitator helped out on an Iron Age themed event in Calafell, Spain. The experience has certainly given us a better appreciation of the benefits of European working and has helped us to develop further ideas for collaborative working with European partners.

Throughout the project we have been using the experience we’ve gained in OpenArch to improve the quality of the new Iron Age farmhouses which we’ve been building. For example, we learnt from the very high standards of interior display demonstrated by our colleagues in Modena in Italy and adopted their standards in the choice of display items; while the work of the Hunebedcentrum in the Netherlands helped in suggesting ways that we could improve our building maintenance programmes. Along the way we’ve shared what we’ve learnt and how we’ve applied it in presentations at conferences run by the partners.

Perhaps the high point of our involvement in the project was the conference that we ran in May 2015. We used this to focus the project on issues relating to the management of archaeological open-air museums, and over three days we looked at issues both theoretical and practical in the company of a very distinguished selection of speakers from across Europe.

 

Alongside the conference we ran a craft festival as a major public event – the first of its kind to be held at St Fagans in many years. Over the course of a packed day, we hosted around 50 craftspeople from across Wales and the UK, including colleagues from our partner museums who were with us on staff exchange. Together they put on a great show, demonstrating everything from metalworking to pot-making, leatherwork, painting, food preparation and lots more. Over 5,000 visitors came to visit and feedback was excellent.

More information about our involvement in OpenArch can be found on the project website: openarch.eu.

Bryn Eryr roundhouses

The OpenArch partners meeting outside Bryn Eryr, our new roundhouses in May 2015.

Lecturer in Cathays Park

Mark Winter from the Ancient Technology Centre giving an inspiring talk on his organisation's child-centred philosophy, May 2015.

Werner Pfeifer, prehistoric craft specialist

Werner Pfiefer from the Archaeological-Ecological Centre Albersdorf demonstrating prehistoric crafts at the St Fagans craft festival in May 2015.

The OpenArch project is funded by an EU Culture grant.
This experiment has been made possible by the OpenArch project - a 5 year collaboration between 11 partners to improve standards in archaeological open-air museums.

 

Why are we concerned with boxes whose lids don’t close properly?

This is not just curators and conservators being pernickety; we really do have very good reasons to make sure that every closed box stays shut.

Museum collections contain a lot of valuable things that are easily perishable. Swords are made to be tough, but - believe it or not - even swords are not indestructible.

Iron rusts when it gets wet. Iron also rusts because of moisture in the atmosphere. Other metals can corrode in much the same way. If we are not careful we would end up with merely a bag of rust!

Therefore, we store all manner of sensitive objects (including cannonballs!) in what we call “micro-environments”. While many of our stores and galleries are air-conditioned, the humidity in the air is often too high to prevent these delicate objects from rusting.

Micro-environments are boxes or plastic pouches that contain one or several objects, plus a chemical that regulates the humidity within the box or pouch. This chemical is silica gel – if you have ever bought an electrical item the packaging probably contained a little sachet saying “Do not eat!”. The little granules in this sachet are silica gel. It is very widely used to keep things dry. Including in museums.

Once we have packaged our objects with silica gel we do not want moisture from the atmosphere to get into the box; that’s why we make sure the box closes properly. Only then will the objects be safe and dry, and ready for display or study.

To read more about our collections care work, go to our Preventive Conservation blog.

Our 13th century Royal hall is moving forward at quite a pace. At the minute work focusses on the window reveals of the smaller of the two structures, currently known as ‘Building B’. This building could have been the Royal bed chamber (for other contemporary examples feature a chamber and hall within close proximity to each other), but equally it could have been the kitchen, (which would also have been in close proximity to the hall, for who would want to feast on cold food?).

The window reveals are typically Romanesque in style. They are very narrow on the outside, but widen considerably on the inside, in order to maximise the light coming through. The reason for their narrowness is two-fold: small windows are more easily defended and hence were a common feature of more fortified structures such as castles; secondly, as glass for glazing was not always available their size was kept to a minimum in order to reduce the amount of cold air coming in. They will be capped by a level stone lintel, but likewise they could have been capped with an arch – as both methods were common at this time. Wooden shutters will be installed and closed at night, so that visiting schoolchildren will be warm when sleeping over.

Off-site work has begun on saw-milling oak boughs into timber for the roof trusses. Getting a long square-edged timber out of a log takes some considerable skill. The large band-saw can only cut straight lines, therefore the log has to be positioned correctly before every pass. It has to be adjusted up and down, as well as from side to side, because one cut at the wrong angle would negatively impact the following cuts, and render the timber unusable.

I have just begun my fourth week as Principal Curator of Historic Buildings, here at St. Fagans, and this is my first blog post. My background is in archaeology, and more specifically, experimental archaeology.

This type of archaeological investigation tests the theories that have grown out of excavated archaeological evidence. Essentially we try and build something that would leave the same evidence as discovered, if excavated in the future. This challenges our assumptions and raises new questions.

Iron Age Roundhouses

In my time I have built four roundhouses based on the archaeology of Iron Age homes. As the excavated archaeology in many cases is less than 30cm in depth, everything above ground is conjecture derived from the surviving evidence. As you may imagine, trying to figure out the structural details of buildings that haven’t been seen in 2,000 is a challenging yet satisfying task. Therefore, it gives me great pleasure to be part of St. Fagans latest experimental projects – the construction of an Iron Age farmhouse based on evidence from Bryn Eryr in Anglesey, and Llys Llywelyn, a medieval Royal Court based on evidence from Llys Rhosyr, again in Angelsey.

As I write the thatching of the farmhouse is underway, and it won’t be long until the building is watertight. This will be a blessed relief, as the prolonged rain this winter has prevented the buildings 1.8m-thick clay walls from drying as quickly as hoped. Yes, the walls are of solid clay – unlike most excavated roundhouses which had wattle and daub or stone walls. Although such buildings were not uncommon, this is the first reconstruction of this kind of under-represented roundhouse.

A Medieval Prince's Court

The two buildings of Llys Llywelyn have reached chest height, and the Museum’s stonemasons are about to start on the window reveals. The court was discovered in Anglesey and excavated between 1992 and 1996. The surviving masonry stands no more than 1m in height. Therefore, like the farmhouse, this too is a replica based on excavated evidence.

Written records from the period, such as ‘Brut y Tywysogion’ state clearly that there was a Royal Hall at this location, and frequented by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth during the first half of the 13th century. What we do not know for certain, however, is what it looked like. This knowledge comes from the comparative analysis of surviving Royal halls built during the same period, as seen at Conwy castle and the Bishop’s Palace in St. Davids.

As I plan to write regular blog posts to keep you informed of the latest developments, I will also aim to re-cap the work that has already been achieved so that you have a clearer understanding of these remarkable buildings, and our attempts at bringing it back to life.