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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 April 2006, 09:57 GMT 10:57 UK
Testing your metal
By Dave Gilbert
BBC News

Phil Riches
Phil Riches at the Cinderbury farm

What's it like living in an Iron Age village? How did they keep warm and make tools? Did they live more rewarding lives? A re-created Iron Age village allows visitors to stay and find out.

Woodpeckers drumming in the copse beyond the village and the melody of a song thrush wake me out of sleep, my eyes straining through the pungent, hazy smoke to see the reed thatch high above.

An animal skin mattress, clay oven at my feet and a decorative shield propped up against the mud wall behind me confirm that this is not my bedroom and not my century.

Our ancestors probably wrestled with those same "where am I?" questions, but I doubt if they ever pondered: "When am I?"

Our curiosity and ingenuity have provided a range of startling opportunities beyond the dreams of our forebears, including the chance to mimic a time machine and revisit their world at a reconstructed 2,000-year-old village.

Many things at Cinderbury Iron Age farm in Gloucestershire, in the Forest of Dean, are pleasantly familiar to someone like myself who grew up in a neighbouring rural county - the red hue of the earth, the birdsong and smells of the countryside which are unchanging down the centuries.

But it is the everyday realities of experiencing life in the years before the Romans arrived in Britain which I found strange, fascinating, and challenging.


There are three completed roundhouses on the site and a fourth under construction. The village is surrounded by a ditch and a hurdle fence with vegetable plots and sheep in the fields outside the enclosure.

Diet: bread, beans, cabbage, meat, apples, wild garlic, nettles
Clothing: wool woven into shirts and cloaks, leather shoes with animal fur liners
Tasks: preparing food, tending the fire, firing the forge, thatching the roundhouse, splitting hazel, weaving

During my stay here it was a constant struggle to fend off the cold in a chilly spring. The desire to be warm again was never far from my thoughts, just as it must have preyed on the morale of Iron Age villagers when the weather turned against them.

I alternated between wanting a hard, physical job to divert mind and body from the cold and hugging the hearth to avoid the freezing breeze laced with hail.

I discovered that the fire is central to Iron Age life. It provides warmth, cooked food, a focal point for family and friends to bond and the timeless fascination of poking it with a stick.

But it comes at a cost. It needs constant replenishing and the acrid reek of wood smoke pervades everything in the roundhouse, stinging your eyes and tainting everything you eat or drink.

During long fireside chats our small and temporary community concluded that our ancestors must have suffered from terrible bronchial ailments and large numbers must surely have died in accidental fires or surrendered to carbon monoxide poisoning. We were obliged to quell the flames before we wanted to sleep to avoid a similar fate.

Metal guru

The discomfort wasn't really a surprise and served as a healthy reminder of the luxury of living in a centrally-heated 21st-Century world. But I was taken aback by the level of skill and endeavour these people possessed.

Cinderbury Iron Age farm
"I think they had time to talk"

Cinderbury residents find out what it is like to dress and eat like an Iron Age villager and discover just how difficult it is to make iron implements, split hazel and thatch a roof.

Trying these things gave me a fresh perspective on our ancestors and helped to illustrate the little I've read about the period.

I enjoyed the exuberance of David the maths teacher who has learned to forge iron tools using ancient technology, the practical skills of Graham the Cornish farmer who has developed an expertise in building roundhouses and Karl the PhD student who showed us how to make fire and knap flint hand axes.

There were other revelations. I now understand why even simple iron tools which can be re-sharpened must have been so prized. Making them is such a huge undertaking.

You have to be able to identify and collect iron ore, make large amounts of charcoal, fire the furnace to a sufficiently high temperature to smelt the metal, and then have the skills to work the iron.

Light my fire

"I'm in awe of them really," said Phil Riches who was my entertaining companion and knowledgeable mentor.

Iron age bedroom
Villagers slept on straw bales

Phil, who used to work in the construction industry, helped build and manage the site and has turned his keen interest in history into a new lifestyle.

"It takes me back to when I was a kid. I spent a lot of time in the forest cooking on an open fire," he said.

"I think they had a nice life ... in harmony with nature. I think they had time to talk, they had a sense of community, they had to look after each other and I think that's what we are missing today."

I still can't build a roundhouse or live off the land but the hours of making the charcoal glow, bashing metal and helping to stitch reeds into hazel purlins have given me a wonderful appreciation of the co-operative ventures and sophistication of Iron Age people.

But my experience also solved some of the simpler questions. I've often wondered whether they had hot drinks in pre-history. Unless the archaeologists can show me cast-iron proof to the contrary, the answer is: "Of course we did."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Cracking! So many people I know are so ignorant in terms of where things come from and how things are done. A little education for everyone in the basic skills that they would have been forced to learn could certainly help everyone.
Mike Lowe, Staffordshire

What those far off people had which we regrettably have throw away is that almost mystical sense of community and the value of family. This is not a rose tinted view, times were, by our standards, harsh in the extreme. Having those around you who had a caring attitude to you and you to them made for security. It made the day to day life with all it's risks and uncertainties worth the candle.
Alex Kenny, Wick

I known what it was like to live in the iron age - I've been to Glastonbury! Seriously - apart from the cold it sounds pretty idyllic.
Ian Westbrook, Folkestone

It's an extremely good idea to get away from the 21st century every so often! Living history is not only a relaxing hobby, but also a chance to learn some very useful skills - how to make or repair shoes, how to start and feed a fire, and get the right heat for cooking stews, fry-ups, or boiling water. I wouldn't call it 'idyllic' - it is a physically demanding life, but it is certainly healthy, with plenty of fresh air and exercise. One thing which can be hard to get used to is having a near-permanent layer of dirt and grime on your skin (a combination of soot from the fire, sunburn, sweat and not washing properly). Pleasant as it is to retreat a millennium or so away, it is nice to get back to a hot, 21st century bath!
Benedict, London

If you really believe they had a better life, I have one word for you, dentistry.
Alan Faulkner, Nara, Japan

Who Cares about Iron Age living! I have a warm house and a wWidescreen LCD HDTV. These guys are crazy
Jerzy, Liverpool

I would love to have the opportunity to go back and live in various times and eras. I think it's wonderful that someone has made this possible. In the United States, we have a colonial village but I'm not sure that people are allowed to stay there and experience it for more than a day.
Kasia Reed, Watertown, New York

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