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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Iron Smelt at Vinland

As regular readers know, one of the primary features of the recent DARC presentation at L'Anse aux Meadows NHSC was an iron smelt. Iron was first smelted by the Norse there about 1000 AD, and this demonstration smelt was based on the archaeology of the site, tempered by our own experience. The team started working up to this presentation with a series of four earlier experiments, research starting early in 2009.
The assembled team, after the smelt.
L to R : Darrell / Dave / Mark / Richard / (Paul standing in for missing Jake)
Front : Ken / Jessica

This is the equipment set up, seen the evening before the smelt.
Work took place inside the reconstructed 'Furnace Hut', set inside the Encampment compound.
The interior size, like the historic location, is roughly 2.5 metres wide by about three metres deep.

The results. The larger bloom broke up into four smaller fragments during the initial consolidation.
Total weight : 2.8 kg (This image roughly life size)

This is an image of the working area the morning after the smelt.
A careful comparison will be made to match this debris field with what what actually found in the archaeological remains.

In a nut shell, our results parallelled what the archaeologists estimate the Norse did originally:

local bog ore
DARC Dirt 2 analog
Amount18 kg estimated
20 kg
Yield3 kg estimated
2.8 kg
Charcoal?? - local softwoods
35.5 kg hardwood
Time??6 hours total

I was extremely pleased with the overall progress of the smelt. At the very least, this marks only the second time in 1000 years that bloomery iron was produced in Vinland!

The larger bloom fragment was spark tested with an angle grinder. The result looked like a low carbon iron (red to dull orange with little feather).
Mark Pilgrim took the smaller dense fragment (640 gm) and reduced it down to a working block. Result was about 440 gm (so roughly 30 % loss to bar). He did report he had a lot of trouble with the bar cracking while he was working it. My first guess would be brittleness due to phosphorus - but with an analog used as ore, there should have been no phosphorus available. (??? Needs smarter heads than mine!)

Neil pointed out the error on the bloom photo - with incorrectly added decimal points. All in full grams!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

How I Spent My Summer Vacation - Planning Demo Food at LAM

(Okay, not really…but close.)

There’s a whole lot of pre-amble and follow-up that should accompany this, but being linearly- challenged as I am, it will wander along in its own chaotic way.

* * * *

Since mid-2008, there had been some discussions about having DARC (Dark Ages Re-Creation Company, ) go out to L’Anse aux Meadows, Nfld, to do a presentation at the historic site. 2010 is the 50th anniversary of the site, and it was decided that a series of special events would occur throughout the season, and we were invited there in August of this year for ten days.

Conversations with Dr. Birgitta Wallace, the site archaeologist, suggested a scenario of a boat going from Iceland to Greenland, getting off course, and ending up joining up temporarily with the crews already at L’Anse aux Meadows / LeifsbuĆ°ir. This meant we spent the year and a half fine-tuning and adjusting our gear to fit more specifically into a defined timeframe and locale, than we normally worry about.
It also meant I needed to start looking into foodstuffs of Iceland, circa 1000 AD.

Until this point, I’ve mostly done as others have done, accumulated a larger list of foods appropriate to the Viking Age, and the entire Norse world. Even that range of information is limiting. I’d had no idea beforehand how much more restricted a list of Icelandic foodstuffs would be!

I started by searching out as much info as I could, and it wasn’t till I began that I realized just how unspecific the usual sources were. Or how much overlap. Or how vague. Even in the current world of the internet, which at least opens up some new vistas, it appears to either be a case of ‘neat thing if it were actually written up/translated/available’, or ‘gee, same source quoted over and over again’. It was even scary to find odd vague things that I’ve said myself somewhere, usually in the dim dark past, were popping up as reasons why someone else believed something to be true! Ack!

(I suppose that’s one of the reasons why I’m so slow to ever make a statement or publish something; knowing I don’t have every fact available, and worrying that the next new bit of info will make whatever I just said obsolete.)

On the other hand, I am always truly thankful to anyone who, at the very least, talks out loud about his or her experiments. It’s that combined, if remote, brainstorming that can sometimes open a door…

I did turn to a friendly archaeologist who has done a fair bit of work in Iceland, and picked his brains more than just a bit. That’s about when the slim list of ingredients started to become an almost non-existent list! It seems that there’s not much by way of indigenous foodstuffs in Iceland. No land mammals, no fruits other than a few berries. So, fish, sea mammals and sea birds, blueberry and crowberry, and mushrooms.

The geography doesn’t allow for natural basins of salt, the temperature is too chill for evaporation, and there was quickly a shortage of fuel, which made other methods of salt production impractical. That would mean that methods of preservation would be reduced to drying or pickling in whey, with only minimal brining, or smoking, more by luck than by intent.

Arable land was used for growing fodder for herd beasts, and less for crops. Some grains were grown, though likely used in the production of beer. Certainly, I’m told there was no evidence of bread-making tools, querns or baking plates, until later. And dentition records imply no sugars in the diet until the post-Medieval period. (And no honeybees so no honey; even less possible sugar in the diet.) Apparently this sort of dentition evidence is peculiar to Iceland.

While this suggests a diet consisting of dairy products and meat and fish, which is not necessarily a meagre diet, it also wasn’t a good basis for pre-packing.
I needed us to be relatively self-sufficient. I’d had an offer from friends to provide us with some local availabilities information, but I assumed (correctly) that there’d be less than no time to go search for foodstuffs once we were there. I put some feelers out with other members of the team to keep their eyes open for some other sources of seaweed/dulse, and they also came across some other cheese and dried meat on their routes to the Northern Peninsula.
But primarily I needed to prep what I could ahead of time, sticking as closely as I could to what would have been likely foodstuffs.

Back in 1996, in the original demonstration of the interpretive program, there had been several other factors in play, which made it simpler.
- There were fewer of us. 4 interpreters from Ontario, and 4 local volunteers.
- There was less information easily available, so working with appropriate technology and avoiding modern ingredients was far simpler than trying to use only locale-specific ingredients.
- I had easy access to the staff kitchen at the visitors center, for clean up and storage. (This year the visitors’ center was still under reconstruction.)
- Water was more easily accessible. (I know this has to be a lie, since we carried drinking water from the VC in 1996, same as we’d started this year, and the VC hasn’t moved, neither had the reconstructed buildings. So perhaps it’s the intervention of 14 years? Not to mention that we needed water for 16 this time around…)
- There were fewer visitors in 1996. (Now it was always a goal that attendance would increase, and I think it’s a credit to the interpretive program that this has happened, but it meant that this time they really weren’t many non-public moments to attend to mundane basics of food prep.)
- In 1996 the fires we used were all real wood fires. Since then, because of smoke problems, the buildings have been fitted out with propane fires. This year I was alternatively cooking outside on the gate yard fire pit (which was far less pitlike, and could have used a bit of tweaking) or in the blacksmith’s house on his charcoal work fire.
- In 1996, it was still the heyday of public involvement in foodways programs. I was able to make flatbreads and share them out. A few very interested patrons could stay for a bowl of soup… Nowadays, when the public aren’t allowed to sample, I end up feeling somewhat inhospitable if I’m spending too much time paying close attention to food they’re only allowed to look at. And that could just be me and my feelings.

But I did want to find a way to simplify the process of feeding the team, while incorporating it into the overall aim of the program.

My plan was to prepack ‘Viking Cup-o-soup’ packets, so that each day we really only had to sort out the day's allotment of bits, and go. It was not a bad idea, and it really kept daily prep to a minimum.
It wasn't, perhaps, as much fun, or as much a ‘demonstration’ as chopping things up in front of visitors, and discussing ingredients as you go, but starting at 10am, after the visitors' day had already begun, and the difficulties involved in fetching water for clean up, as well as trying to not show too many modern foodstuffs, made it the wiser course

I'd ended up compromising on a list of foods. I'm sure the Norse at LAM would have been eating a lot of fresh fish or meat from sea mammals. And while, in the long run, our hosts graciously brought us a number of treats, I didn't want to rely on that possibility. So I'd planned our soups to use salted, dried fish, or dried beef. And because I wanted that to stretch a little further, I had also dried some onions and vegetables, and added seaweed and grains into the mix.
I also dried several roasts of meat into jerky, and made flatbreads (even if evidence of grain usage in Iceland is sketchy). After some experiments, I had decided to take along a number of blister packed cheeses which I brined as days went on, to more resemble young fresh cheese. (The new interpretation at LAM allows for some herd beasts off foraging...)

Once again, probably catering to our modern sensibilities, rather than those of the Norse, I attempted to make each soup packet very slightly different. (In 1996, these thoughts hadn’t even crossed my mind. I had dried fish to go in the soup, and all of the same ingredients each day. Variety occurred when the Parks Canada staff offered me a different ingredient. We had caribou one day, seal another. But beyond that, it was fish, fish, and fish.)
But I’m guessing that cooking for larger groups of people over the years, in an atmosphere of catering to needs and tastes, has made me awkwardly hyper-conscious, especially in a setting where alternatives are few and far between!

So, in preparation for the adventure I continued my regular drying of mushrooms, (I’ve been drying mushrooms for years, after having discovered how easy it is, and how useful they are) and to these I added onion, leek, and chive. Since every spring I harvest wild leeks, this year I also dried those in anticipation of the trip.

Because I could find mention of wild parsnip and wild carrot in some of the nearby countries, I decided to boldly risk the inclusion of their domestic counterparts, though I shredded and dried them, and overall it was a fairly minor ingredient. The inclusion of seaweed was a given, both for a useful green, and for its salt content and iodine.
I pondered a while about the inclusion of grains, since the archaeological evidence suggests they did not make up much of the Icelandic diet. But some kind of flatbread filled a gap in a lunch, where I couldn’t necessarily guarantee more dairy or meat, and grains in a soup make it heartier. It also seemed a more likely way of cooking a few grains, if there wasn’t evidence of flour-making or baking tools. I did try to limit myself to whole kernels of less modern grains.

In the flatbreads that I made ahead, or each morning, I was also using oat, barley, and spelt flours, with just a small bit of whole wheat to bulk it out. They were made using just flour, water, and a little salt; except for the ones I made our last day that used up some leftover blueberries!

Overall, except for the need to feed a large group of people at a specific time, when they had tasks that kept them busy at their own stations, or possibly trying to cater to some less-experienced or adventurous tastes, and the requirement that it all be packed along with us for the days it took to drive to Newfoundland, and the ten days of the presentation, I think it wasn’t an outrageously incorrect menu.
Certainly it worked, and none of us appear to have starved. I didn’t get the opportunity to play around with any of the experiments I’d had faint ideas of, or look into some of the local ingredients I’d been interested in, but then there’s often more I want to try that just doesn’t fit into the time allowed. I’ll just have to treat this as a starting point, and explore further.

- vandy
[crossposted from Dagda's Cauldron]

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Iron at Vinland - Northern Pen's view

From 'The Northern Pen'
Published on August 30th, 2010
(full text on their web site)

by Emma Graney

Ancient technique revived at L'Anse aux Meadows


Ken 'Grettr Blackhands' Cook explains the workings of L'Anse aux Meadows' second bog iron smelt in 1000 years.

Last weekend L’Anse aux Meadows was filled with the sound of vikings singing and chanting, punctuated by the hissing spit of freshly smelt iron and the clang of hammers beating the red-hot bloom.

Donned in traditional viking attire, re-enactors from Ontario and site interpreters from Parks Canada spent a sweaty day’s work layering charcoal upon raw iron ore inside a hand-built furnace and pumping the bellows to transform 20 kilograms of iron ore into almost three kilograms of iron.

Using a technique lost almost 800 years ago the group re-created a bog iron smelt — just the second to take place at L’Anse aux Meadows in 1000 years.

“I came a long way to make iron here,” said Ken Cook, otherwise known as Grettr Blackhands, his bushy beard only partially obscuring the huge grin spreading over his face.

“When we were doing it we were all floating on air. It was pretty exciting.”

The all-day activity was arranged in conjunction with the Dark Ages Re-Creation Company (DARC) as part of L’Anse aux Meadows’ 50th anniversary.

Darrell Markewitz, an artisan blacksmith and founding member of DARC, developed the training for the viking re-enactors at L’Anse aux Meadows and Norstead, and was instrumental in organizing this year’s demonstration.

“The problem with viking history is that it’s so far beyond people’s experience,” he explained last week.

“We’re talking about things that happened a thousand years ago — people have nothing to relate that to because it’s just so different. The easiest way to help them understand what objects were used for and what vikings were about is to use living history exhibits and this is a prime example of that.

“When you look at these demonstrations they put archaeological items in context and they create this multi-faceted learning that everyone can get into. It doesn’t matter if you have regular visitors, people with learning or physical disabilities, it doesn’t matter what language people speak, all class of visitors benefit and go away knowing a whole lot more.”

Preparation for the 10-day demonstration at L’Anse aux Meadows was no mean feat.

For 18 months members of DARC re-created Vinland viking gear to the smallest detail, including replacing the wooden handles of their knives with antler to ensure they were geographically appropriate and developing viking characters that fitted with the time period.

“We’re not playing high kings here, or warriors, because they’re not the people who were here at Vinland,” he said.

“All of our costuming, our instruments — we fine-tuned everything so that it aligned with what we know from archaeology, from history.

“The 50th anniversary is an important time and we were quite excited when we got the chance to do this so we made a serious effort to do a good job.”

The bog smelt wasn’t the only thing on show at the 10-day living history exhibit.

Working with the L’Anse aux Meadows site supervisor Loretta Decker, the group formulated a list of activities and elements of the viking village to recreate for visitors.

“Of course history is a huge part of it all — making sure everything is just as it was back then — but we also had experimental archaeology with things like glass bead making,” Mr Markewitz explained.

“No one ever made glass beads at Vinland, but it was part of the wider Norse culture so we recreated an old technique so people could see how they came about.

“Doing that shows the bigger picture, helps put activities into context, shows more skills, helps develop the skills of the Parks Canada site interpreters who’re here to learn, and by doing all that it creates a better experience for every person who visits the site.”

Other activities included pewter casting in stone molds, wood turning and weaving.

“The public, I think, were extremely happy with their experience and the Parks Canada interpreters got to learn so much, which they can hopefully develop and use at the site next summer,” Mr Markewitz said.

“We got to recognize the faces and some people who planned to stay an hour or two ended staying the whole day — one couple came back three days in a row.

“That’s the value of this, of living history. People learn, they’re interested and they enjoy it.”


This article is copied from the Northern Pen web site - text and image by Emma Graney.


Steve sent this link - to a version of the article published on the Newfoundland Telegraph. Same text, but different (actual smelting) images.