The Taste of the Past
The activities of our remote ancestors are recreated at the Days of Living Archaeology
I find it so hard and am so unwilling to return from the times before Christ to the twenty-first century,” says Aleksiejus Luchtanas, a professor of archaeology.
He has had to make the adjustment many times. Once a year, in early July, together with his family and colleagues, he becomes a participant, or rather a living exhibit, in an experimental archaeology festival in Kernavė.
On these days, this little town close to Vilnius is full of curious people from all over Lithuania who are eager to see, experience and try the everyday life and crafts of our remote ancestors.
The process is more important than the result
This summer the State Cultural Reserve of Kernavė hosted the Days of Living Archaeology for the sixth time. The festival presents prehistoric crafts, including the making of ancient ceramics, flint, amber and neolithic amulets, and spinning and weaving. It also presents crafts from the early Middle Ages, such as jewellery, minting and weaponry.
All the crafts from which the tools or products dug up during archaeological excavations at Kernavė have found their way into the exhibition of the reserve’s museum, are practised at the festival.
Participants must keep to one condition. Only natural materials and replica tools may be used. During the festival, the production process is demonstrated by reenacted methods. Thus, the process in this case is more important than the result.
“The reserve serves as a natural setting,” says Saulius Vadišis, director of the reserve. “The findings are underground, and here they come alive, are used, and anybody can try them out.
“We see that incidental objects do not crop up, since everything must be based on research and museum work.”
“We first got the idea to organise an archaeological festival in Kernavė in 1998, after a visit to Biskupin in Poland,” says Jonas Vitkūnas, head of the Public Relations and Education Programmes Department at the reserve.
“We were invited to demonstrate some old crafts at an established festival that had already been going on for a long time and had a wide range of participants from all over Europe.”
Before that only a few craftspeople in Lithuania knew about experimental archaeology. Somebody was interested in and had tried to make Damascus steel out of bog iron ore. Somebody else had applied ancient methods in making and firing ceramics.
The Kernavė reserve, having combed various museums, gathered a group of inquisitive minds and organised an inspection of the folk museum in Rumšiškės. It was like a dress rehearsal before leaving for Biskupin. The general picture was quite serious.
The core that had formed for the presentation at Biskupin started to grow like a snowball. Staff at the Kernavė reserve caught from each other the idea of recreating the production processes of their archaeological findings.
“In Biskupin we decided that a festival like this should be held in Lithuania too, and that there would be no shortage of participants and spectators,” Vadišis recalls.
He was right. The following year, the Days of Living Archaeology in Kernavė were a hit. Entire families flooded the village to look at and to try ancient crafts.
Participants could not hide their joy at their new roles and the opportunity to share their practical and theoretical knowledge, while the organisers marvelled at the huge numbers of people and the genuinely ancient atmosphere.
The figures point to the future development of the festival. There were only 27 participants in the first in 1999. This year, there were more than 200. The long lines of cars jamming the roads to Kernavė during these days are also a good indicator of its success.
Every year the festival features some new ideas, and the archaeological excavations carried out at Kernavė supply the material for them. Each year growing numbers of guests from abroad are invited to participate.
“This year we had visitors from all the neighbouring countries,” says Vitkūnas. “A festival like this is also a cultural exchange. It’s interesting to compare the cultural links between our museum materials.
“For instance, not long ago a stylus was found in Kernavė. This year the Belarusians from Breslau, lands that were once a part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, demonstrated the process of writing on a wax tablet.”
In recent years, the organisers have been attempting to concentrate individual crafts in a separate yard – a bone carver, furrier, or a resident of Kernavė from a particular period – with all the aspects of everyday life that existed then.
“We started with separate crafts,” says Vadišis. “Now we are trying to recreate archaeological culture.”
This is how Bavarian and Krivich yards came to be at the festival this year. Craftspeople from Munich and Breslau brought them. The latter demonstrated the ritual striking of fire, the production of ceramics, cooking, woodcarving, and other crafts.
“Next year there will also be a Prussian yard. Museum workers from Kaliningrad will demonstrate the production of sashes, metal casting, the production of weapons and a method of amber processing that differs from ours. Many have expressed their desire to take part in the festival.
“The main selection criterion is professionalism. We require that the process not only be demonstrated but also explained. Besides, it has to correspond to the time that is being recreated in Kernavė, from the Stone Age to the fourteenth century.
“We have recreated many crafts ourselves. But if anybody suggests something more interesting, or involving more technological wizardry, we will definitely invite them to the Days of Living Archaeology.”
The festival probably gained in popularity due to the opportunity presented to people to find out things and try them out themselves.
Another rare opportunity is that of surfing across different periods. Having observed how fire was made in the Stone Age, you can compare how the process was carried out several thousand years later by rubbing two sticks together. Having seen how prehistoric man made his stone axe, you can immediately compare it to the weapons of medieval warriors.
“We are glad that our efforts to aim at maximum authenticity were appreciated,” says Vadišis.
Apart from compliments from the organisers of similar festivals in other European countries, it manifested itself in a concrete fact. The festival in Kernavė became a member of Exarc, the European Exchange on Archaeological Research and Communication.
“I still think that the roots of the festival go much deeper,” says Vitkūnas, who organised the festivals.
“If we go back in time, we should return to 1979, when archaeological excavations in Kernavė began. Later we founded the museum.
“Educational activities followed. These include archaeological fieldwork for schoolchildren, coordinated with their curriculum.”
A time machine
“It’s significant that this movement has spread and that people need it. It means our efforts have not been wasted,” says Aleksiejus Luchtanas, whose 25 years of activities in Kernavė go back to the very beginning. He started his first archaeological excavations there as a student.
“This year we managed to find not only the ancient spirit, mood and atmosphere, but also the smells,” jokes the professor, as he remembers the siege at this year’s festival, which had over 10,000 visitors a day.
“Since it rained on the first days, we had to save the site from being trampled down. Our helpers brought and laid down straw and hay to make it dryer. The smell of rotting grass, mixed with the smoke of a bonfire and boiling tar, created a really medieval atmosphere.”
Luchtanas always rejoices at the opportunity to return to the distant past. Although he can touch thousand-year-old things every day, to him participation in the Days of Living Archaeology is a special pleasure. Along with his wife and children, he lives in a Bronze Age camp where the cooking of the period is demonstrated.
His students, who every summer take part in field trips, are invaluable helpers at the festival, organisers and potential researchers in archaeology. Those who tried it will confirm that an archaeological expedition is an unforgettable experience; and for some it soon becomes a way of life.
“In order to understand the past better, archaeologists simply have to experiment. Old techniques are forgotten and cannot be recreated without trials,” he says.
Archaeology as a science is based not on experiment but on recreation, on the basis of records, either historical or material. An archaeological record helps us to understand better information which lies in an ancient object.
The science of archaeology is much like forensic science. Using scientific knowledge, the whole is recreated from remains, sometimes from tiny pieces. Sometimes it is a thousand-year-old household utensil, sometimes a complete production process.
“Experimental archaeology is concerned with two issues,” says Luchtanas. “First, it helps a specialist to recreate a forgotten process and to understand his or her finding.
“But also, an archaeological experiment has an educational role, because it is intended for the public. The very title, living archaeology, shows that it is not the study of shards of pots in display cabinets, but the recreation of a living process.
“It’s an opportunity, even if short-lived, to return to the childhood of humanity. For me, this feeling is very special. As if you take your place in a time machine and find yourself in a distant environment.”
Although experimental archaeology is a hobby for all the participants in the festival (they all have professions, jobs and live in the present), the occupation connects people unusually strongly, like a kinship. A few participants say that they live from festival to festival.
“These festivals are very important to me, and not only because you meet people who think along the same lines.
They exist all over Europe,” says Luchtanas.
“But also because we are united by the same feeling of working towards the same goal, that we have common interests.”
Kinship and a sixth sense
“Dexterity and knowledge are not enough to resurrect archaeology,” says Daiva Luchtanienė, president of the Pajauta Club of experimental archaeology. “For that, a feeling for history, or a sixth sense, is necessary.
“Pajauta is not only the name of the valley that gave its name to our club. It is also a feeling, without which a member of our club would be blind and deaf.”
At present, the club has 41 members, who practise 25 crafts. Among them are museum curators, archaeologists, restorers, pharmacists and people from other walks of life, from all over Lithuania. The club activities demand much of their free time, but members of the families of many also take part.
“We wanted to call the club ‘Kinsfolk’ because that’s how we all live and feel,” says Luchtanienė.
“Practically all our children take part from an early age, some even from the cradle. The ancient clothes and footwear that they wear at festivals pass from family to family.”
The people of Kernavė and Pajauta have already reserved their places at European festivals. They represent Baltic culture. This is how the club members organise their time: this month, Biskupin; next month, the Viking festival in Volin and the festival of the Siege of Malbork, all in Poland.
“Our festival in Kernavė is oriented towards the recreation of crafts, while those in Poland and Germany are more towards military skills,” says Luchtanienė.
“At those festivals we recreate the environment that formed around medieval castles, and show Baltic crafts and the way of life.”
The Luchtanas family recreate ancient cooking. Depending on the period, not only the clothes and utensils but also the methods and spices change. They consider Jacqui Wood of the Celtic Village in Cornwall in England their teacher. She established an open-air museum of the early Iron Age and recreated Celtic cuisine.
“We met her on our first trip to Biskupin,” recalls Luchtanas. “We liked the idea that from the remains of food found we can recreate the eating habits of the time. People find it interesting and unusual to mill grain with a stone, to bake a cake on a hot stone, and then to eat it.”
In order to recreate ancient ways of cooking, the Luchtanas family made paleontological tests, the chemical analysis of human bones of the period, which showed the achievements of agriculture of the time and what sorts of food prevailed.
Another way to recreate ancient cuisine includes experimentation and logic, as well as analogies with other countries.
“We do not demonstrate Stone Age cuisine at festivals, for reasons of hygiene,” says Luchtanienė. “Usually, we show recipes from the Bronze Age.
“We roast a seasoned goat kid on a fire, and cook various soups and porridges in ceramic pots on an open fire, spicing them with juniper berries and wild garlic. We also fry meat and bake primitive bread on stones.
“The cooking methods that we show must be quick, so that a person not only sees the process but can also try the taste.”
Shirts made of nettles do not exist only in fairy tales. Besides, they do not sting. They are soft, like real silk. Our ancestors used to spin yarn not only from flax and wool, but also from cannabis, linden and willow bast.
The first spindles found in Lithuania were made of clay, sandstone or amber, and are dated two or three thousand years before Christ. A detail of a spindle found in Kernavė was a key for the museum worker Dalia Grigonienė to help recreate a popular craft among local women.
“This prehistoric way of spinning is very clever,” she says. “While spinning, you can still watch over the pots and pans, look after the children, and chat with your neighbour outside.”
For her the activity resembles more meditation than hard work.
“The spinning wheel, which appeared much later, fixed a woman to one place and made her look at the yarn all the time. It is true, though, that working with an old spindle was much slower.”
No literature on the ancient way of obtaining nettle fibre has survived to our days. Therefore, in order to spin nettle yarn, Grigonienė had to use her imagination and a lot of patience.
“Dried nettles broke, and didn’t have any fibre,” she recalls.
“I tried soaking them and rotting them for a couple of weeks, as you do with flax. I thought the family would drive me out of the house, because the black fermenting mass gave off such a terrible stench.
“But this way I achieved a result. The fibre separated from the stems and looked like wool. When dried and thrashed, it became as soft as silk.
“Later I found a simpler way that might have been used in ancient times. I simply allowed nature to do all the work. The previous year’s nettles were soaked by the rain, they spent the winter under snow, and were combed by the winds and dried by the sun. All I had to do was to thrash them, and the yarn was ready.”
She has demonstrated ancient spinning methods since the first Days of Living Archaeology. At present, her 11-year-old daughter manages to do it perfectly. She not only demonstrates the process but can also speak about it and answer questions from inquisitive spectators.
Grigonienė only appears in order to conduct a spinning contest for children. She says she has worked out all the secrets of this craft and does not want to go through it again. She has lost her heart to something else.
A shoe that speaks volumes
After Grigonienė’s colleague, the archaeologist Dalia Vaičiūnienė, found a piece of leather during excavations, they both had to work a lot to reconstruct the whole object, a woman’s shoe from the 13th or the 14th century.
There was even more speculation when two pieces of a child’s shoe were found. It could have been something totally different, a pouch, for instance. All the more so that shoes of this shape had not been found in Lithuania before.
In general, shoes very seldom survive, because usable pieces of a worn shoe would be used for mending other things. Leather does not survive the passage of time. Drawings of similar examples found in Minsk and Riga helped to work out what sort of shoe it could have been.
“I still remember how the shivers ran down our spines when we started to match the lace holes of the two pieces. The first matched; the second did, too.”
Grigonienė made shoes based on the restored model, and gave them to her neighbour’s five-year-old daughter to wear.
“After some time, the new shoe, just like its prototype, creased at the front, and its heel shifted under the sole.”
Since then, both women have been involved in the restoration of ancient footwear. One carries out historical archaeological research, the other replicates the design. The museum displays recreated leather footwear of three types that was worn by residents of Kernavė: soft-sole leather shoes made of a single piece of leather and decorated, and two kinds of boots with a sole. The child’s shoe with a lining that was found during excavations must have been made for a child of a noble family, because children would usually wear soft-sole shoes that would last longer.
Fashions and the models of shoes also point to the fact that Lithuania was not an isolated country. Shoes of similar design were worn all over Europe.
The craftspeople at Kernavė supply each other with everything. Experimental archaeology reproduces a tiny model of communal barter. The women adorn themselves with copies of jewels made by jewellers. Blacksmiths recreate ancient tools. Weavers make fabric for clothes for everybody, and everyone wears ancient shoes and boots.
“Experimental archaeology has refuted the erroneous idea that our ancestors were primitive and did not care for beauty,” says Grigonienė.
“I’m a classic example of how contact with experimental archaeology changes one’s attitude to the past, to history, and even to one’s view of life.”
Lilies on birch bark
It was an obvious gift from time, the preservation until today of pieces of work on birch bark dating from the 13th and 14th centuries, and of patterns stamped on them, passing the stamp itself into the hands of archaeologists.
“Lithuanians, like the Scandinavians, Slavs and other nations, whose forests abounded in birch, used the bark for making household articles,” says Gražina Vadišienė, a restorer from the Kernavė Museum.
“It was used to make various vessels and small buckets, which local craftsmen would decorate lavishly with relief patterns.”
During excavations, fragments of birch bark with eight different patterns have been found. The stamp for one pattern, a small square etched on horn, showed very clearly how the tools for producing the other seven patterns could be restored.
A number of incisions on the back of the stamp suggested that a handle had been attached there. After making a pattern on a horn plate, she fixed a handle to it.
The stamp had been recreated, but how was it to be applied? Should it be heated, moistened or soaked?
A search for craftsmen versed in bark processing techniques began. They turned out to live in Mažeikiai, a long way from Kernavė.
The production of 18th and 19th-century items made from birch bark based on the techniques of the Indians and other peoples and exhibited at a local folklore museum had already been studied by the museum curators Raimonda and Vytautas Ramanauskas.
However, they had not seen bark decorated with patterns. After many joint but failed experiments, they tried simply hitting the handle with a hammer with a lot of force. The pattern became deeply imprinted on the soft surface of the bark.
“Only a horn stamp can leave an impression without damaging the thin surface of the bark. Iron would tear it,” says Vadišienė.
“Making stamps requires the thick antlers of a healthy elk.
Unfortunately, these are extremely rare in Lithuania, and the inside of most shed antlers is usually thin and porous.
“All the patterns found on birch bark are such that their replication gives a continuous intermingling design,” she says. “These are stylised suns, hearts, leaves and lilies, patterns common to other Europeans of the time as well.”
Are we the last?
The Ramanauskas too feel the shortage of authentic material. They say that the supply of birch bark, which is becoming more complicated each year, may seize up altogether, as the bark of thick trees has recently become uneven, rough and very hard to make things from. It is much more difficult now to make embossed patterning, a technique peculiar to the people of Kernavė.
The use in experimental archaeology of only natural materials not treated with chemicals is also posing a problem to the museum’s restorer, Vasarė Ratkevičienė, who shows ancient yarn dyeing techniques at the festivals.
“In prehistoric times, only plants were used for dyeing,” she says. “In my collection I have about twenty.
“A plant-based dye is weak and works only on wool and silk. As silk had not yet reached Kernavė, I can only demonstrate wool dyeing.
“Now home-made wool, combed, processed and spun without any chemicals at all, can probably no longer be found in old dowry chests. Believe me, everything that has survived has come to me.
“It looks as if we are the last generation to use the remaining bits of natural materials.”
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