Last weekend it was Open Farm Sunday. On 8 June, farms across the UK opened their gates to visitors to learn about what life is like on the modern farm – what we grow, the animals we care for, the equipment we use, programmes for helping wildlife and lots more. Open Farm Sunday is a great day out and this year was no exception in Wiltshire.
A group of farms on the Marlborough Downs are partners in the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area. An Open Farm Sunday event is thrown by one of the farms in the partnership and this year was the turn of North Farm, West Overton.
The Nature Improvement Area is around 10,000 hectares of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Beauty. The farmland includes a huge area of land scheduled for its archaeological significance. The Avebury part of the Avebury and Stonehenge World Heritage Site nestles in its south-western corner. There are Sites of Special Scientific Interest, County Wildlife Sites, important geological sites, public rights of way, Open Access land, and the Fyfield Down National Nature Reserve. All told, it’s a wonderful part of the world. The NIA partnership aims to ensure that the Downs are as biodiverse in the future as they have been in the past.
North Farm is at the very south of the NIA, tightly bound to the World Heritage Site and a very important archaeological landscape. Farmer Gill Swanton is also an archaeologist and she and I have worked together for years on different projects. Gill wanted to ensure that the archaeological heritage of farming in the area was represented to the visitors – after all, the land has been farmed for a good few thousand years. While Gill put together a display about the fabulously well-preserved prehistoric landscape and its range of natural materials that attracted people to the area in the past, I took some objects for families to handle (as well as a whole pile of Yong Archaeologists’ Club subscription forms!).
Carrying on the early farming theme, Gill asked me to demonstrate an aspect of prehistoric domestic life. She had a raw sheepskin in the freezer – last year one of her Wiltshire Horn shearlings had an accident and she kept the hide when the carcass was butchered. So I decided to process the hide to show one of the ways that one of the most common archaeological artefacts found in the area – the flint scraper – would have been used.
This meant that I had to refurbish my toolset for the task. I keep a very basic set of hide scraping tools – no more than hazel rods with flint scrapers fitted into the ends. There are very few archaeological examples of hafted flint tools, and as far as I know none of them are scrapers. Butler (2005, 2011:49) suggests that most scrapers would have been used in hand, but hide scraping needs a force and leverage which requires a handle. There are ethnographic and historical examples to use as analogies, but for my day-to-day toolset I like to keep it simple and suit myself.
The fixings are no more than slots in the ends of the hazel rods, a “glue” made of a mix of beeswax, resin and bark tar, and sometimes a strip of rawhide. One of the rods has just the slot, so that I can easily interchange scrapers, sharpen them or turn a scraper in the slot to use a different edge. If I want to sharpen or re-shape the scrapers that are fixed with glue, I do it with the flint in place. You can see one of the effects that this has in the photos above of the small scraper; only one third of the scraper was left for work, the rest was covered in glue and stuck in the handle slot.
To make a supple, soft, strong leather for clothing, raw animal hide needs to be cleaned up, stretched on a frame, and scraped down to remove all the unwanted layers. The flint scraper needs to be sharp, but also evenly shaped – even the smallest point or spur of flint left around the working edge will score or slice the skin. The working edge must be clear of the handle, but the fixing needs to be strong and enough of the stone must be available to make a good bind.
Butler, C. (2005, 2011) Prehistoric Flintwork Stroud: The History Press