It’s bigger on the inside than it appears from outside, and it lets you travel back in time, like Dr. Who’s Tardis. That was my first thought when I ducked through the low entrance into the high-ceilinged space of the reconstructed Bryn Eryr roundhouses at St. Fagans open air history museum.
I’ve been wanting to visit St. Fagans for quite a while, and I finally managed to extend a trip south to spend the day there. It is a wonderful place for anyone with an interest in the past. You can wander through historic buildings, brought here and rebuilt from all over Wales, experiencing the way people lived, worked and worshipped through time.
The most recently rebuilt house is also the oldest. Bryn Eryr is a reconstruction of what archaeologists think an Iron Age house would have looked like. It is based on the excavation of a farmstead on Anglesey, at Bryn Eryr farm, which lies halfway between Menai Bridge and Pentraeth, just off the A5025. Between 1985 and 1987 the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust excavated a site on the farm where early archaeologists had noted the faint rectangular outline of an enclosure wall and found pieces of Roman pottery in what was otherwise a flat and unremarkable field.
The excavation revealed the walls of two roundhouses, built right next to each other, as well as pits, post holes, grinding stones and animal bones. It appears that the site initially had one roundhouse, built in the Earlier Iron Age (about 800-400 BC), with the walls made of clay quarried from the pits. It was partially enclosed by a wooden fence.
A second phase of building occurred in the Middle Iron Age (400-100 BC), when the defensive rectangular bank and ditch was built around the settlement. A second somewhat smaller roundhouse was built right next to the original one, most likely with a passage between them, much as a modern bungalow might have an extension built to accommodate a growing family.
The reconstruction at St. Fagans represents the houses as they were during this period. Excavations of the original site also uncovered a third roundhouse, somewhat separate from the other two, where numerous pieces of Roman pottery were found. These have been dated to the 2nd-4th century AD, thus showing that this site was occupied for over 1000 years.
Although archaeological excavation can tell you about the walls of these ancient houses, it doesn’t tell you much about how the roof was built, nor how it was furnished. Particularly, there was much puzzlement about how the roof was constructed once the second roundhouse had been added.
A single round house would have a conical roof, but what about two? Did it have some type of roof that spanned both circular areas? Or did it just have two conical roofs next to each other? In the later case there would be a risk of rainwater draining off both roofs between the two houses, which could water-log that area and damage the walls. In the end it was decided to reconstruct this with two conical roofs with a lower ridged roof over the passageway between the two.
The next question was what to use to do the thatching and how to construct it. Some earlier roundhouse reconstructions have used straw from the same varieties of wheat that are used today by thatchers. But these varieties didn’t exist back in the Iron Age, so wouldn’t be authentic. The original excavation of the site turned up spelt as the main grain used by the occupants, so it makes sense that the straw from that would have been used for the thatch. A field near St. Fagans was planted with spelt, which was then used to thatch the houses.
Once the roofing was complete the interior needed to be fitted out to show how it might have appeared when occupied. This again involves a lot of conjecture, as the Bryn Eryr archaeological excavation didn’t give much evidence as to what the furniture and contents might have looked like. However, artefacts from other similar aged sites from elsewhere around Wales and Britain, many of which are housed in the National Museum of Wales collections, can act as templates for producing replicas to be displayed in the roundhouses.
The centrepiece of the smaller roundhouse is the fireplace with a fine bronze cauldron hanging over it. It is similar to one found at Llyn Cerrig Bach, near Valley on Anglesey and was made by Hector Cole.
The shelves along the walls contain wood bowls, modelled on ones found in Wales and Somerset and made by Robin Wood, plus various tools that have been found in Iron Age and Roman era sites in North Wales and produced by the St. Fagans blacksmith, Andrew Murphy. Baskets, leather bags and even a child’s doll join these objects.
St Fagan’s previously had a Celtic Village, built in the 1990s, that Bryn Eryr has replaced. An excellent article about lessons learned from that exhibition and how that informed the decisions about how to reconstruct Bryn Eryr can be found at the Exarc (Experimental Archaeology) Journal site. An archive of tweets and photos of the building of Bryn Eryr can be seen on Sara Huws’ site.
In addition to this new feature, St. Fagan’s has an ambitious building program going on, with not one but two new visitor centres being erected. Another new feature being developed is Llys Llywelyn, a medieval Prince’s court, based on Llywelyn ap Iorwerth and Llywelyn ap Grufydd’s court at Llys Rhosyr, near Newborough, Anglesey. I was only able to get a tantalising glimpse of it through the construction site fences, but I look forward to seeing it when I next visit St. Fagans.