Archaeologists become TV reality stars

PUBLISHED: 16:11 17 May 2011 | UPDATED: 19:23 20 February 2013

Mick starting the charcoal burn at Acton Scott

Mick starting the charcoal burn at Acton Scott

Sarah Hart meets the Shropshire conservation officers who have become television stars

Making the past popular

Sarah Hart meets the Shropshire conservation officers who have become television stars

Until recently, the sight of an Iron Age axe head in a museum had me yawning. That was until I spent a few hours in the company of experimental archaeologists Colin Richards and Mick Krupa.

You might have seen them on TV a few times recently on the BBCs popular Victorian Farm and Edwardian Farm series, Channel 4s Rome Wasnt Built in a Day and ITVs Countrywise usually in the business of creating belching clouds of smoke and fire.

Colin and Mick are county conservation officers, granted unusual ones, who spend a dollop of their time trying out and testing age-old industrial processes and craft techniques from way back in antiquity to the late 19th century.

They make the likes of smelting iron the Iron Age way look jolly good fun. And theyre champions at it. Last year they emerged victorious, representing Great Britain in an international iron-smelting symposium in Holland, by producing the largest lump of iron.

They think nothing of knocking up a Medieval lime kiln and sitting up all night melting rocks of solid limestone into potentially explosive quick-lime. And theyre perfectly happy living in woods, sleeping under the stars for days on end producing charcoal the ancient way of slow-burning wood inside a blanket of earth.

The knowledge they glean is not only useful to producers of living history programmes, but to important conservation and education projects in the UK and abroad. They train heritage professionals and theyre key experts working with the Mihai Eminescu Trust, of which Prince Charles is patron, to conserve unique medieval Saxon villages in the Transylvanian region of Romania.

I meet Colin and Mick at Acton Scott Historic Working Farm, in South Shropshire, the scene of much of their research and where The Victorian Farm and parts of Rome Wasnt Built in a Day were filmed. The helpful Victorian-attired man on the reception desk offers to steer me in their direction, but theres no need. I can simply follow the smoke trail. I find Colin, dressed as a Victorian labourer, shovelling wood and coal into the fiery mouth of a hungry brick kiln. Flames shooting out, blasting out hot air. He lends me a soot-blackened hand to shake.

"We have to tend the kiln every 15 minutes. If it gets too hot the bricks will melt," he says, mopping a sooty brow with a sooty forearm.

Theyve packed 7,000 homemade bricks into this upturned beer glass-shaped kiln, so I can see why a meltdown would be a disaster. They started with a gentle fire, gradually raising the temperature to 950 to 1,000 degrees.

"We fire the kiln for five days and four nights. Then it takes a week for the bricks to cool," says Colin.

The duo make bricks from different periods in history, throwing wet clay into moulds. The kiln is fired usually only once a year, and the bricks used for conservation projects.

Mick is tending a smoky, 1.5 metre-tall, chimney-shaped, clay furnace sculpted with a mans moustached and monocled face. Its a bloomery furnace, similar to those used by Iron Age peoples, except theirs, he tells me, would have been covered in pagan images.

Mick and Colins mascot is the Victorian character Colonel Blimp, and inside Blimps mouth rages a scene from hell. Charcoal is burning searingly hot, at temperatures of up to 1300 degrees to smelt a lump of iron ore into a lump of iron that can later be worked into bars of wrought iron for forging tools.

A few feet away are the ash remains of a recent charcoal burn that has produced enough charcoal to feed the bloomery for a few days. Colin and Mick are camped here for the week, taking it in turns to work four-hour shifts through the night.

No modern camping equipment for these two. Home is a crude tepee cobbled from tarpaulin and bits of wood, and bed is a couple of straw bales. They cook over an open fire. Except last night, when Colin relented and slipped off to the local Chinese.

"People do react to you differently when youre like this," says the conservation and historic environment manager for Shropshire Council.

But he and Mick are used to getting strange reactions. While filming for the Edwardian Farm, charcoal-burning in woods at Morwellham, in Devon, they unnerved the locals.

"We were filthy from making charcoal and had built this tarpaulin shelter. We were cooking food on an open fire and washing in the river. They must have thought we were hippies whod gone back to nature!" Colin recalls.

He began experiments into these age-old crafts back in the early 1990s while conservation officer for South Shropshire, born out of a need to train local craftsmen in traditional skills for conservation work on the areas old lead mines. He established a skills trust to train heritage professionals. Mick joined him three years ago. Its fascinating listening to the two men... alder grown in the Shropshire river valleys of the Onny, Clun and Teme makes the best charcoal because it burns hotter and longer than other woods. Clay bricks fired with apple wood turn a brindled colour while birch turns them a shade of blue.

"A serious amount of research goes into these skills, followed by a great deal of practical application and re-tuning to get things right," says Mick, a former engineer turned archaeologist with Shropshire Council.

"Only by doing them can you really understand the processes. Quite often in the past they were written about by people who didnt really understand them so you often have to make leaps of assumptions."

The first time they made Roman-style tubuli was for the Rome Wasnt Built in a Day series. Some quick research and the archaeologists were advising six burly builders on how to make the tubular tiles and fire them in an earth kiln. Frustratingly the builders made the kiln roof too flat, and as Colin and Mick werent allowed to warn them, they could only watch as it partially collapsed during the firing, ruining many tubuli inside.

"The producer thought it would make good television," says Colin.

His son Dan, 16, is helping him at Acton Scott today. So is his 13-year-old daughter Lydia.

"I slept in the back of the Land Rover last night," beams Dan.

"Theyve been firing kilns since they were three," Colin adds proudly.

"Lydia once had a school assignment to write about what she did at the weekend. She said she spent it stoking a furnace and sleeping on bales of straw. They thought she was making it up!"

Theres been a steady stream of volunteers all week. Ray Jeavons, a former Black Country foundryman and engineering surveyor, looks as happy as a pig in muck. Then theres 28-year-old Becky Smith, a graduate with the council planning department.

"I sit in the pod next to Mick in the office, so I hear about what these guys get up to and it sounds exciting, so I thought I would like to get my hands dirty," she says, back for a second stint.

Colins phone rings. Its another would-be volunteer.

"Each time we run these processes we learn something new, how to do something quicker, better, more efficiently," says Mick.

They visit Romania four to five times a year, mostly in their own time, helping to train locals in crafts that were lost under Ceausescus Communist dictatorship, and which these people now need to preserve their precious heritage.

The Saxon villages of central Transylvania, covering an area the size of Shropshire, have been declared a World Heritage Site. Most striking are their imposing fortress churches. The Saxons who settled these lands in the 13th century inherited a turbulent region, so they built fortified churches, complete with towers, battlements and defensive curtain walls, into which they could retreat.

Colin has visited some 60 times since 1996, usually taking with him groups of Shropshire craftsmen and women to train local people.

Not all the learning is one-way traffic. Mick waves a photograph in front of me of a wiry, elderly-looking Romanian man standing on an enormous earthen charcoal clamp up to 20 times bigger than the three to five-ton clamps built by Colin and Mick.

The idea of these clamps is to burn wood slowly, usually over 24 hours, at temperatures no hotter than 600 degrees, reducing it to pure carbon. Charcoal burns hotter and longer than wood or coal, making it ideal for smelting iron, the backbone of technological advancement from the Bronze to the Iron Age.

Its mind-boggling to learn that to produce just five kilos of iron enough to forge three or four iron heads it takes up to 500kg of charcoal. And it takes three to five tons of wood to make 500kg of charcoal.

"It was a wasteful process, but iron was so much stronger than copper or bronze," Mick explains.

"Understanding the processes and resources that went into such ancient crafts gives you a much greater appreciation when you see an artefact in a museum."

Colin and Mick dont spend all their time doing this sort of stuff. Mostly theyre tucked behind desks at Shirehall dealing with wider conservation issues. Excitingly, this summer theyre involved in the building of an Iron Age roundhouse on Clee Hill.

The iron-smelting symposium will come to Acton Scott next year, drawing 80 like-minded people from universities and museums worldwide.

"It promises to be a festival of fire," grins Colin, shovelling another load of wood and coal.

Colin and Mick are taking part in the Ludlow Conservation Weekend, at St Laurence Church, June 23 and 24, and The Ludlow Green Festival, August 28. Traditional craft courses are available at Acton Scott Historic Working Farm.

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