August 1st – 5th, 2019
Cass: Experience and Experiments
Our group spent four days at the Scottish Crannog Centre’s “Celts are Coming” festival which celebrated all things Iron Age. The banks of Loch Tay were littered with diverse craftspeople, tradespeople, and community outreach volunteers from all over the world. It brought together all types of talented individuals, from leather workers, to stonemasons, to artists, to Iron Age culinary specialists, to us archaeologists, and more. The aim of our group’s presence at this excellent event was to introduce archaeology to visiting members of the public and to help raise awareness (and funds!) about the Centre’s effort to move to a new, larger site across the loch. It also served as a much-needed retreat from the modern world for a few days.
But perhaps most importantly, at least to many of us archaeologists and archaeology
students, was the ability to engage with the experimental side of our profession. We often study the theories and artefacts in a rather detached manner, and rarely do we get to experience or understand the process behind artefacts and past lifestyles. This festival allowed us to venture into the experimental archaeology side, an experience of which I know I will always cherish. Many of us participated in workshops ranging from Iron Age cooking to silver casting to tablet weaving, and the following posts will introduce students’ experiences with this hands-on learning approach and the wider festival experience in general. Even more than the workshops were the intense atmospheric feelings of being sent back in time 2,500 years ago. These states of mind were fostered by the reconstructed Crannog sitting on Loch Tay’s moody bank, the moss-covered dugout boats and coracles lining the shore, and all of us dressed in ‘quintessential’ Iron Age garb to enhance the “living history” aspect to the festival. We came away from the festival richer in knowledge and emotional connection to this often-under-celebrated time period and its past inhabitants.
Stuart: Let’s do the Time Warp
If you haven’t visited the Crannog Centre, then it’s hard to put into words the feeling of being there. Sitting in the fading light of the sun as the waves lap slowly against the shore and looking at the world through the eyes of someone perched upon the same rock in 550BC is a wholly unique feeling unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. A view of the Crannog which harks back to a simpler time, before the incessant buzz of social media, the aggressive rumble of roadside traffic, and the impossibly bizarre political landscapes. It was a true escape from reality which only amplified the more time we spent there. Returning to the modernity of Dunfermline felt alien by the time we left the Centre – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
For me, the Crannog Centre was less a place and more of an experience, and one which I won’t soon forget. The sound of pan flutes chasing the birds through the trees, hammer blows from the black smith echoing across the calm waters of the loch, and laughter mixing with the pleasant scent of stews and cheeses made with traditional techniques wafting over make for some incredibly special moments. By far the most memorable however, was the look on people’s faces, enthused about archaeology.
“Community” has a double-page spread in my dictionary because of how important I think it is – especially in relation to archaeology. After all, what is the purpose of archaeology if not to deliver what we learn to the public? The staff at the Crannog Centre asked us to run a dig box to give people a very basic introduction to archaeology as a discipline. After very (very, very) carefully planting a selection of horse bones, pottery, and loom weights among other things into the compost, we invited people to come give it a try. Seeing the look on a child’s face as they carefully uncover a horse vertebra or listen intently as you explain that, when it comes down to it, archaeology is about going through people’s bins really does make the stress of starting fires for breakfast or trying not to crash your very unstable log boat all the more worthwhile.
If you haven’t visited the Crannog Centre then you must, even for just a few hours. There really is nothing like it short of a time machine.
Annika: Sheep, Smoke, and Sweat
Despite the pervasive smell of sheep, smoke, and sweat, and many sleepless nights in a wet field, the weekend I spent at the Crannog center was one of the best weekends of my life. When we arrived, we sat under the woodworking tent, eating greasy chips, trying on Iron Age costumes, and coming up with historical personas for ourselves.
We thought about the people who might have formed the Crannog community in the iron age – fisher-women and farmers, spiritual leaders, and blacksmiths, to name a few. The next morning the Crannog village was bustling with activity as all the demonstrators prepared for the visitors to arrive. We braided each other’s hair, painted “Celtic” symbols on our faces, and went over our imaginary backstories. I was Myfanwy, a spiritual community leader who lived in the Crannog. Stuart was a farmer who came down from Caithness after his home was flooded. Cass was Aife, an archer who protected the Crannog community.
Our stories became more elaborate and ridiculous as the weekend went on. We joked about them, but I really did feel like an Iron Age woman that weekend. Marie the weaver taught me how to spin yarn from raw wool and I spent the weekend with my spinning in hand. I had three balls of yarn by the end and was still spinning on the bus back. Stuart and Rob played endless rounds of the ancient Roman dice game called Legion and made their own set to take back to Dunfermline.
On Friday night we all slept in the Crannog. It was warm enough when the fire was still
burning, but I was sleeping in one of the stables and woke up around dawn from the cold. I wrapped myself in my cloak and stood outside on the causeway to watch the sunrise. I could hear the birds and the water lapping against the piles, and see the mist lifting from the loch. Our Iron Age ancestors, I reflected, would have heard and seen much the same things every morning. After a while, I returned to my stable in the Crannog and burrowed down under the bracken, wool, and animal hides. It struck me that Aife, or Mfanwy, would probably have more to tell me about the world than I would have to tell her; she could spin, and weave, and fish, and make a meal from what grew in the wild. There is a common misconception that people in the past were unintelligent, but I believe that we could learn a great deal from studying their lives. Besides how to spin a good yarn, I learned the importance of having empathy with the past that we study.
Ryan: The unending torture that is not living in a Crannog
Volunteering at the Crannog centre has changed my life and many others for the better; however, staying just one night in the Crannog itself has ruined everything for me. Just knowing that I may never spend one more night there haunts me and chills me to the very core of my soul.
I have never known an environment more comfortable and inviting. The scent of bracken, wool, smoke, and the warmth of the hearth alongside the setting of a recreated Iron Age settlement nested on the banks of Loch Tay was a step back in time.
Joanna: A Personal Development
I admit that during the days leading up to our visit to the Crannog centre, I had mixed feelings about it: on the one hand, I was very excited to see the site and enjoy the festival; on the other hand, the prospect of having to volunteer with children filled me with dread.
I should probably insert a disclaimer here: I don’t hate children. I have labelled myself as
‘bad with children’ and as a result I get anxious around them and do my best to avoid them if at all possible. Well, at the Crannog centre it just wasn’t possible! Although the ‘Celts are Coming’ festival was aimed at all ages, it was primarily a great way to introduce children to the world of archaeology. On top of that, our area was mostly comprised of a dig box for kids to try their hand at digging, an illustration stand, and a pottery stand – all perfect activities for children. So, there was really no way out for me – I had to suck it up and pretend to care about Peppa Pig, or whatever it is that the youth are into these days.
The first day went slightly better than expected. I spent some time at the dig box with a little boy, and we got on relatively well. He seemed to like me, at least. However, throughout the whole thing I was feeling quite uncomfortable and out of my element; and by the time he left, I was drained and needed some time to recover before I could face interacting with anyone under the age of 16.
Luckily, that level of anxiety is not sustainable. Despite myself, over the next few days I started to relax around the children I was working with. I taught a little girl how to draw eyes, and with another girl we discussed her crush on Mike from Stranger Things while playing with the dig box. Generally, the conversation seemed to flow more naturally, and I even started to enjoy my time with them.
On our last day at the Crannog centre, I was helping to run the pottery stand and, as I have zero pottery skills myself, all I could do was sit there and chat with the kids as they played with the clay. This turned out to be a good thing, because we were able to talk about other things they were interested in. Two of them in particular were very excited to talk to me about their creative projects – one was a budding writer, the other extremely skilled with clay – and I was so impressed by them that we ended up chatting for quite some time and we had a wonderful time together. They even gave me their pottery creations – a dog named Persephone and a snake named Aurora – and instructed me to keep them forever, which I happily agreed to. Eventually they had to leave for a tour, but they both came back before leaving the site to give me a hug and say goodbye. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed talking to them, and how special it felt to know that I had given them as great an experience as they had given me.
I am probably still not going to go out of my way to be around children; walking down the street, I’ll probably keep pointing out dogs instead of babies. However, I can say with confidence that because of our visit to the Crannog centre, I don’t feel the need to do everything in my power to avoid children anymore. This visit gave me the opportunity to confront my fear and explore a skillset I hadn’t realised I had, and for that I am very grateful.
Gordon: A Blast from the Past and a Phenomenal Experience
The location of the Crannog Centre really added to our weekend experience. Loch Tay is not only a scenic and tranquil area, but the combination of water and tree-covered hillsides really helped visitors feel that it would have been a practical and pleasant area to live in during the Iron Age. One can immediately see how the environment would work to make living there viable, with the proximity of timber for fuel and wood- working, and water for drinking and transportation. Many of us felt that the place was special, and that was even before we’d had the privilege of visiting the Crannog itself and overnighting there. The visiting crafts people and resident team made the place come alive and allowed us to better reflect on and respect those who lived and worked the area in the past. Ben Lawers prominent in the distance over Loch Tay added to the feeling that the area was special, as did exploring a little beyond Kenmore and to Acharn with its atmospheric walk through woodland to the waterfall.
Seeing the place so buzzing and dynamic that weekend really shows the value of a centre that can bring history to life. It would be great to have that on a more expansive, permanent basis, and so I welcome the plans to have an enlarged site where there is more space on the far shore of the loch, just beyond Kenmore. It would allow more of the public to experience and appreciate the area and its history, as well as the skills of craft folk past and present. There is definite potential for both tourism and education and it could also be a great opportunity to support rural crafts, not to mention training more people in these skills. There is currently no other place like this in Scotland or with a Crannog elsewhere in Britain. I hope that the Scottish Government and public will support the Crannog Centre’s development plans and truly create a living museum and national centre of excellence. Then others could truly enjoy the experience, as we surely did.
Nikki: Weaving a Memory from Cotton Thread
On Monday of the Celts are Coming festival I took part in a tablet weaving workshop with the incomparable Marie Henderson! Tablet weaving (or card weaving as it’s sometimes known), is a technique where the material is threaded through cards with holes. The result of this threading is the creation of the warp, the shed for the weft material to be passed through, and the unique pattern of the finished product.
As this was my first time weaving, I was given cardboard tablets and mercerized cotton to use. Mercerized cotton is a type of thread that has been given a series of hydroxide/acid baths increasing its lustre and making it easier to work with; conversely, materials like wool often stick to each other forcing you to adjust them with each pass of the weft. For the first of my two attempts, Marie had already gone through the tedious task of preparing the cards for me. One side of the cotton threads were knotted and tied to a post, and the other end was looped through a belt around my hips, in between myself and the post were the cards (which I believe totaled 18). I was then handed a shuttle which was wrapped with cotton thread that matched the colour on the outside edge of the pattern, this would be my weft. The holes in the cards are placed in such a way that each card had two threads running from the top and two threads running from the bottom which meet at the edge of the weave and form a triangle called the shed. It’s through the shed that I would pass my shuttle and weft leaving a little bit of slack. After running the shuttle through, the entire stack of cards in the center is rotated either toward or away from oneself. This action twists the material and creates a new shed for the next row of the weft. However, before passing the weft through, I would tamp down the previous row with the edge of my shuttle, making the weave tight and pull through the extra portion of slack I had left behind to create a clean and straight edge. For this particular pattern, I would continue to rotate the cards in one direction until the back twist became such that I would have to begin rotating in the other direction and reverse the pattern. I would then continue doing this for the entire length of the piece… easy, right?
For my second piece, I was first shown how to thread the cards based on a premade pattern. Because the cards we were working with had four holes, the corresponding patterns were then gridded 4 by the width of the pattern, which is essentially however many cards you can comfortably rotate with your hands, in this case only 12. To thread the cards, we wrapped our cotton thread in a figure 8 around the handles of two clamps at either side of the table in the order that the colours would appear in the pattern. This is a rather tedious process, as each time the colour in the pattern would change the old colour would need to be cut and the new one tied to it. After creating our figure 8 of material, the apex where they crossed each other was secured and one end of the loop tied off and placed under a weighty object to keep the design from shifting as we carded. This looping method ensures that all of the threads are in the appropriate order of colour, so you don’t get confused when carding long and complicated patterns. After this rigamarole, I was again strapped to my post and began weaving our new pattern!
Unlike the first where I would rotate in one direction until I couldn’t anymore, this second pattern required me to rotate first 5 times in one direction, and then reverse the pattern 5 times in the other direction. This, along with the placement of the threads through the cards, created a diamond pattern while also allowing the finished product to look smooth without a jarring break in the pattern. I know that I make this sound like a complicated process, but in actuality, it was SO relaxing and straightforward once you got into the groove. Not only had I completed two separate gorgeous weavings; at the end of the day, I had also picked up a new addiction and made a lifelong friend in Marie!
Sarah & Jenny: Iron Age Food
We attended an amazing workshop at the Scottish Crannog Centre with Caroline from Pario Gallico Historical Food and Crafts. Using only the implements and raw ingredients available in the Iron Age and cooking over hot coals, we created some absolutely delicious dishes. The first thing we made was cheese. This was done by warming milk in a pot in the embers and adding malt vinegar until it turned into curds and whey. We then strained it through a piece of fine cloth. We halved the cheese and made a sweet one with honey, nuts and cherries, and a savoury one with wild garlic. Mmmmm, Iron Age cheese!
For the main course we chopped vegetables (parsnip, turnip, kale and cabbage) and pork with Iron Age knives and threw them in a cauldron over the fire with some water and lentils. While this was stewing, we went foraging for peas (to throw in the stew) and raspberries (for dessert).
Then we learned the easy way to whip up some handmade butter. Literally handmade. A small amount of cream was added to a small bowl and with our fingers we stirred for a few minutes until it magically turned into beautiful butter. The warmth of our hands under the bowl and in the cream speeds up the process. The BBC Travel Show presenter who was filming the festival came while we were making the butter and joined in, so keep an eye out over the next few weeks, maybe we will make an appearance?!
With the buttermilk that separated from the butter, added to flour, honey and salt, we made dough. Each of us chose whatever ingredients we wanted to add for flavour and we cooked them in a pan over the hot coals to make flat bread. Our favourite was poppy seeds and cheese, loaded with the fresh butter! Wild garlic with butter was also a great choice. The bread was ready in time to eat with the hearty stew. We learnt that Iron Age food was in no way bland or boring, as is often imagined.
We finished the day with a warm custard pudding and fresh berries, and then washed up Iron Age style using scrubbing brushes and salt. It was overall a very educational and enjoyable day and was well worth it. If you get the chance to do a workshop with Caroline, we highly recommend you do it.
Jo: Elvis is Still King (of the Crannog)
Every day at the Scottish Crannog Centre is an amazing experience, but to have the chance to be involved in running activities for the Iron Age festival was both an honour and a privilege. Surrounded by the sights, smells, and sounds of the ancients becomes a total immersive experience which transported me back to a simpler time and allowed me to reconnect with the landscape of my ancestors.
We were all warmly welcomed by the staff and our fellow volunteers, forming new friendships and rekindling old ones, I quickly felt like part of the Crannog community. There were many firsts for me, sitting in the fire pit cooking eggs and bacon for twenty is an experience not to be forgotten, as is carving my very first spoon. Learning carving techniques from some of the very best craftspeople was both inspirational and humbling. Hopefully there will be many more spoons to follow, I may even branch out to make other items when I’ve learned how to not cut myself in the process.
The star of the show, however, must go to Elvis the goose. The adopted father of a flock of ducklings, waddling around the centre as their chief protector made me smile every time I saw him. Words can’t really express how amazing the whole experience was and I cannot thank everyone enough for their kindness over the weekend. It is something which must be experienced to be truly appreciated and I highly recommend everyone visit at least once.
Rob: We are Legion
I feel that others have perfectly captured the collective experience that is the Scottish Crannog Centre. I must agree that the Crannog Centre is certainly more of an experience than a place and is absolutely something that needs to be experienced by everyone! In order to avoid repetition, I will instead speak of something that particularly captured both my attention and imagination: the Roman dice game, Legion.
As a returning volunteer to the centre’s annual Celts are Coming festival, I had a reasonable expectation of the event and its fantastic community. However, in true Crannog Centre fashion, there is always a new learning experience with every visit. In this instance I was drawn to the simplicity of Legion, which coupled with the atmosphere created by the other demonstrators producing an Iron Age village which is as close to the original than I ever thought possible, meant for a truly memorable visit.
The game is played using 6 dice, which obviously display Roman numerals rather than the traditional dots. Points are accrued by making certain combinations and I have been told it is a “less forgiving Yahtzee.” The idea was for us to play a number of games and invite the public to join in. This seemed to be a popular activity for visitors of all ages, even after they were handed a brutal defeat at my hands! However, the Legion fun did not end at closing time as the game proved so popular amongst the students that we soon had high score boards and I have returned to Dunfermline with my notepad full of Legion scores. As well as my very own set of Legion dice which I carved on the beach overlooking the Crannog.
My time at the Crannog Centre amounted to so much more than Legion, although I feel the simplicity and enjoyment is a great analogy of my Crannog experience. It was definitely surprising for me that I enjoyed the simplicity of this ancient game; last year, being a mobile phone addict, I was slightly apprehensive to be transported back to more simpler times. It is a testament to both the game of Legion and to my broader Crannog experience that I lost my phone for nearly 48 hours of my trip and didn’t really care!
Stephanie: Hnefatafl is Life
One of the most fascinating stations at the Crannog Centre was the one focused on Iron Age games. The most popular game on the table (besides Legion) was Hnefatafl. Technically it is not an Iron Age game as it dates to the Viking Age, but this does not detract from the everyone’s enjoyment of the game. It is a strategy game which involves one player attempting to get their king piece to one of the four corners of the board and the other player attempting to capture the king. Although it takes a moment to get used to once you are invested it is difficult to stop playing.
Hnefatafl is part of a larger family of games called Tafl games which were played throughout northern Europe until the 12th century when they were replaced by chess. All of the games within this family were strategy games where the aim was to capture the other players pieces. It is believed that this family of games may have been based on ludus latrunculorum. This was a Roman game which also involved two payers attempting to capture each other’s pieces. Although the exact rules are unknown it is generally believed to be a war game. The first mention of ludus latrunculorum is found in the tenth book by Varro titled De Lingua Latina. Previous to this, other strategy games involving two teams were recorded by Greek writer Julius Pollux in Onomasticon. Plato wrote in Phaedrus about strategy games called seega which originated in Egypt.
It was interesting to learn about the history of strategy games and enjoy a game which, thousands of years ago, people who are different to us also enjoyed. Although none of us have many things in common with the Vikings, we have this thread in the form of Hnefatafl which connects us all. One of the joys of strategy games like this one is that they are timeless and can provide an rather strong connection to the past. So, every time you enjoy the thrill of chess take a moment to think about the past Viking, Roman, Greek, and Egyptian game players who are all part of the story.
Josie: A Peaceful Venture
For me, the whole weekend was an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience. I got to sleep in a Crannog, I met some insanely talented people, and I got to learn more about a period of history that I am passionate about. However, besides waking up in a Crannog, the best experience for me happened towards the end of the third day.
On the third day, Gordon had gone on a walk, coming back with a story of a trail that led to a waterfall. Of course, this led some of us to want to see this waterfall for ourselves, so when the work day had ended and we were free to explore, four of us set up the road to the next village, where we had been told the trail started.
The walk to the village was fairly straightforward, simply following the road until we saw the sign indicating the way to the waterfall. However, we were not expecting the trek to be so uphill and steep. Stopping to catch our breath a couple of times, we were starting to wonder whether it would be worth it to carry on. The fact that we knew we were so close along with the pictures that Gordon had shown us persuaded us to keep on going though, as we knew something amazing would be waiting for us. This ended up being the right decision.
The first indicator that we were getting close was a sign for a ‘squatters cave’ which we followed. Going through the cave, which turned out to be more of a tunnel, we came out onto a balcony of sorts. Here we got our first look at the waterfall. Even though there was still some space between us and the waterfall, the sight really was amazing, especially when you stopped and listened to the sound it was making. When we realized that we could get even closer, we set off again on the trail.
From this point the trail was leading us through more of a forest, furthering my opinion that Scotland has some of the best scenery that I have ever experienced. This was again only amplified when we finally reached the waterfall, especially as there was a wooden bridge running over the top that led us to see both sides, along with all the pools and caverns bellow us. The fact that something so beautiful had been created by nature, and that it was simply a 40 minute walk from the Crannog Centre where we were staying, almost blows my mind, reminding me that nature can create the most beautiful structures, and that so many people will have experienced this waterfall before us.
When we crossed the bridge, we decided to stop and sit for a while before heading back. Listening to the water trickling below and seeing the greenery around us gave this spot an almost magical feel. Mixed with witnessing the mist rolling off Loch Tay around the Crannog in the mornings, I was constantly reminded during this weekend of the fairytales I heard as a child, and I can appreciate how our ancient ancestors believed in the gods and goddesses in nature.
Being more of an introverted person, this weekend had given me more social interaction than I would normally be comfortable with, and I was beginning to feel slightly drained. This walk gave me a chance to sit in a secluded area with spectacular surroundings. Even though there were three other people on the walk with me I was still able to feel a bit more like myself again. I know if I am ever stressed out, I can think about this walk and I will remember just how amazing this world can be, and that – like the waterfall itself- sometimes chaos is needed in order to create a sense of calm.
The Crannog Centre is built on memories and experience; not just the memories of those living in the past, but the people here and now forging new memories at this unforgettable place. It is clear from the memories written above that our experience over the last four days will truly last us a lifetime. It brought us all closer together and allowed us to cross over into the Iron Age for a little while – truly an archaeologist’s dream. We want to extend our sincere thanks and appreciation the hard-working staff at the Crannog Centre who made the weekend truly unforgettable. Thank you for looking after us and letting us help showcase the wonder that is the Crannog Centre and the “Celts are Coming” festival. We hope that our presence at the festival inspired the next generation of archaeologists. Go forth and dig.
~ Pittencrief Field School 2019 students and staff