Amgueddfa Blog: Wythnos Archaeoleg Genedlaethol 2008

In 2002, during building work at the Cathedral School, Llandaff, archaeologist Dr Tim Young discovered thousands of pieces of 14th century pottery in a deep ditch near the Bishop's Castle  The pottery is what's known as "wasters", pots that for various reasons have failed to make the grade and been thrown away after emerging from the kiln, which would have been nearby.

The result is one of the biggest medieval jigsaws in Wales, fragments of green-glazed jugs, earthenware cooking pots and ridge tiles with crests like coxcombs, all mixed up and waiting to be sorted so that they can tell their tale.  And sort them we did, for two days during NAtional Archaeology Week, on big tables in the main hall at National Museum, Cardiff: boxes of pottery, rows of foam-lined red plastic trays, staff from the Department of Archaeology & Numismatics and a constant stream of willing volunteers of all ages, patiently sorting the sherds; first separating the glazed and unglazed pieces, then hunting through the trays to find the bits of decoration, the fragments of rims and bases and handles which might just join together and allow us to learn something more about this extraordinary collection of pottery. Looking for pieces that fitted together was the best bit, a reward after some serious sorting!

The workforce was wonderfully varied - students from the School of Modern Teaching in Kostalin, Poland, a British family from Sweden, another family from Ireland, a very young Norwegian boy who sorted a whole tray with the most astonishing concentration, local people pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to a local project, foreign visitors pleased to be handling a bit of Welsh history, parents, children, grandparents, grandchildren and even the occasional passing member of staff (no-one can resist a puzzle!).



Some of the jug bases have an edging made with a thumb or finger, and sisters Vi Watts and Joan Coslett thought that it looked just like a pie-crust; they tried their thumbs for size (a perfect fit!), and liked the thought that theirs were the first thumbs that had rested there since the thumb of a potter in the 1300s.



Three school students on work experience deserve special mention - Charlie John from Cathays High, Sian Davies from Llanishen High and Emily Durbin from Stanwell. They were a great help, many thanks to you all!

And at the end of two days, was there a proud row of complete pots, testament to all this hard work? Sadly, no. What would be a perfectly feasible task with the fragments of two or three pots mixed together becomes a very different prospect with the fragments of two or three hundred, all very similar. Although some joins were found, there will need to be further meticulous work behind the scenes before jugs, cooking pots and tiles rise again . If you can't wait for that, you can see two complete Vale Ware jugs in the Medieval section of the Origins Gallery!

But at the end of two days, six huge boxes, all full to the top with neatly labelled bags - a fantastic effort. Many thanks to everyone who helped!


Over at St Fagans National History Museum, blacksmith Andrew Murphy and Celtic Village interpreter Ian Daniel, helped by Heulwen Thomas, set out to produce an iron object from ore. Can they really get the sword from the stone (or even a small pocket knife?)

Ian takes up the story:

Saturday: With the threat of rain looming, we started early to make the most of a dry spell; hoping the weather would remain kind we started on the base of the blomery. The day before, we had moved all of the tools and the great bellows to the village so we could concentrate on the construction.

 The building took most of the day, using a mud, hay and sand mix over a lightly-woven greenwood frame. By four o'clock, we had completed the structure, and lit a fire inside to speed the drying process; for the rest of the day, we fed the fire and hoped that it wouldn't rain too heavily in the night


Sunday: The day of the smelt, and today we had some extra help from Hywel, Phillip and Craig, all of them museum assistants. The weather promised to be much better, which helped the outer wall of the bloomery to dry naturally. After lighting the fire, we got to work breaking up the heamatite ore into smaller pieces; all of us shared the job, with one person always working the bellows.

Soon it was time to add the charcoal, then we built up the iron ore and charcoal in layers until it was full. Then it was mainly bellows work, and patching up the bloomery walls as they began to crack, which funnily enough, is a good sign!

After four hours of bellows work, Andy checked the base of the bloomery by opening up the entrance of the tapping arch to see if any slag had formed, and tapped it to see if it had become molten. Soon, we extracted some of the slag and a large bloom of glowing iron, which we cooled in water


After it cooled down, we examined it, and there seemed to be a strong possibility that we had produced Iron - I must admit, it was a very proud moment for me to have taken part in this, and everyone seemed pleased at the result.

 When it had cooled enough, we were able to show it to the visitors, whose interest had been growing throughout the day. Many of them came back more than once to see our progress, which was nice.

So all in all, a very successful day!

More from Ian:

Monday: Following yesterday's success, we created a new bloom. The bloomery was acting differently today, possibly due to the difference in humidity, and the fact that it had dried out more. Again it was a success, although the bloom separated into three pieces. Today I was able to combine my work with school parties with the iron smelting, giving the children a chance to see how the iron objects in the Celtic Village were made. Andrew was able to work one of the smaller blooms into pieces of iron


Every year, National Archaeology Week is co-ordinated by the Council for British Archaeology, an educational charity working throughout the UK to involve people in archaeology and to promote the appreciation and care of the historic environment for the benefit of present and future generations. There are events all over England and Wales, and some in Northern Ireland and Scotland, and there is a full list on their website at

This is what the CBA says about the event:

"National Archaeology Week is your unique chance to discover and explore the archaeological heritage of the United Kingdom. During this nine day event, which will run from 12th-20th July, you can take part in excavation open days, hands-on activities, family fun days, guided tours, exhibitions, lectures, ancient art and craft workshops and much, much more".

This year, we have events in all of those categories at National Museum Wales, and if you can't get to any of them, hopefully you can get a flavour of them through this blog.

And if you were there, and want to know what happened after you left, this is your chance to find out!

Did the bloomery actually produce any iron? Did we manage to reconstruct any medieval pots?

Read on....


National Archaeology Week 2008 is under way at National Museum Wales, and at three NMW sites, visitors have been getting arty like cave-dwellers, writing like Romans, helping to sort out a medieval pottery's rejects and witnessing the technology that put the Iron into the Iron Age.

And all in the first five days!

At National Museum Cardiff, families joined Ken Brassil and  Bethan Jones for Cave Art workshops.


"The cave art weekend was a great success. The visitors became their very own cave men and women for the weekend, exploring the new Origins gallery, studying traditional cave paintings and the animals before stepping back through time in to our Evolution of Wales exhibition, where they were able to experience what life may have been like in a damp dark cave....

The families sketched the animals found around that time before heading back to the present to create their art from the sketches they'd made. The children were able to use and experience similar materials to those their ancestors would have used: stone, wood and even bones. I think using the bones to draw with was everyone's favourite, especially mine!

 A really fun-packed weekend. I was very impressed with the amount of sculpture made as well as drawings. Good job every one, including the parents and grandparents, for getting stuck in!"


"National Archaeology Week kicked off in Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Cardiff with the latest take on Ice Age art created by seriously enthusiastic families of South Walians and super visitors from Quebec City too.

We explored the Palaeolithic zone of the new archaeology galleries and sought out the robotic mammoths in the Evolution of Wales Gallery as catalysts for making clay figures ... to take home.

The mini figures we created made up for the (almost total) absence of Ice Age art from Wales....Mini mammoths were the most popular creation. Some of the seniors modelled hybrid rhino-mammoths, even a cold loving turtle. One family brought their teddy bear mascot to keep company with our museum specimen bear-skull from Tian Shan, China!

If the participants had decided not to take their animals home, then we would need to add two new cases to our new archaeology gallery to accommodate Ice Age Art: Class of 2008 .... Congratulations to you artist-archaeologists....