Bringing the Early Iron Age to Life

Late Iron Age

Happy Harvest Home – or Mabon

(Some modern thoughts): Today, the Wheel turns and we enter the time of darkness. Today marks the Autumnal Equinox – the mid-point of Autumn when the days are now becoming shorter than the nights and the colors become more vibrant. Perhaps, because the Autumnal changes are more evident now, that is why people have come to believe that the Equinox is the beginning of Autumn, instead of it being the mid-point. Lughnasadh was the celebration of the first harvests (and opened the Door to Autumn), Mabon is the middle harvest celebration, leaving Samhain as the final harvest celebration and the opening of the Door to Winter (first day of Winter). Seeing as how most modern people are no longer connected to the cycles of the seasons – with all their attendant chores, it’s easy to see how the confusion was generated.

Anyway, my garden experiment was, shall we say, a bit less than successful this year. While I had quite a few things sprout and grow, there was just too much shade for them to all bear fruit. I did manage to get a handful of beans – not enough to really use in cooking, so they’ll hopefully become the seed stock for next year’s trial. Where I had a number of squash blooms, I only had one (1!) squash – and something from underground got to it before I could. The worst part is that it wasn’t fully ripe (or even full-grown) before they decided to taste test it and figure that it wasn’t yet good to eat. So, I am letting it go. Maybe it will mature enough (even off the vine) that the seeds will sprout for next year, but I’m not holding my breath.

So, later this autumn, I will be culling about seven or eight trees of various types: box elder (bloody weed tree), catalpa/catawba trees, and black walnut. I’m leaving the black locust tree, as it is fully mature with a height of about 90 feet. A bit big for me to tackle myself. With luck, this will open up the slope (even with the house built into the west end of the property) so that I will have a better harvest next year.

(Back to in-persona): Today is the Equinox, according to the elders. Now starts the dark time of year and we have to make sure that all preparations for the winter months are well underway. There is really no time for much in the way of celebration, since there is so much work to do around the broch and settlement. With luck, we can get the rest of the barley and oats harvested, and the hay put under cover – so long as the rains hold off. We were told that our wheat wouldn’t make it, since the winds have too much saltiness to them (and the season is too short, even with planting early), and the naysayers were right. So our wheat experimental crop did not turn out at all.

There is also making sure that all the roofs are in good order so that the wind driven rains and snows later, don’t cause any sicknesses with the animals that we’ll be over-wintering (or that the humans here don’t come down with any fevers as well!). I need to also go out and see if there’s anything left in the hedges worth harvesting. I’m hoping to find some late season herbs that can be used to bring some flavor to the pottage, as well as can be added to my cures. Must make sure my stores are ready for winter!

Sunny, but shorter, days

Seeing as we have been enjoying an unusual spate of balmy days, I have been taking advantage of the weather to get more things done outside. Getting the newly reclaimed land ready for spring planting has been more demanding than at first thought. I still don’t know how rubble rocks from the broch made their way all the way into this unused field. Or perhaps it’s just that the rocks are so prevalent… either way, getting them out of the field – as well as the bracken and other unwanted plant roots – has kept me pretty busy, along with all the other things I have to get done to prepare our little household for winter.

Mundane vs. persona – My persona has different challenges than I actually have in reclaiming land. For her, there would be no trees to deal with removing, but she would have rocks, shrubs and various other low-growing plants. Me? I have three more trees to remove so that my proposed location for my garden and cereal crop experiment will get enough direct sunlight. Admittedly, the amount of direct sunlight may be toward the lower end of the spectrum in desirability, but that’s all part of the experiment.


Bannocks of Barley


Experimented with making bannocks again this morning. This time, using only barley flour. The bannocks were (as Bryian described them), very neutral in flavor, but they brightened (enhanced) the flavors of the food around them. Served with eggs (over easy) and with clover honey. They were crispy but dense, which he liked very much. I may have made them a little on the thin side, since after they were fully cooked, the bannock only averaged 1/4″. But, they were cooked fully (my own personal estimation). My next edible (hopefully) experiment willl be to make the bannocks only from oat flour.

The reason I am experimenting with the bannocks, is due to them being referenced in Plants & People in Ancient Scotland as there was evidence of their making in the Late Iron Age context during the dig at Howe, Orkney. It was stated that there was no evidence of bread making (think, leavened bread made with a bread-type wheat and yeast) during the Late Iron Age. My guess is that the author(s) of the book did not/do not consider bannocks to be a “true” bread.


“Bringing the Late Iron Age to Life”

My persona, living in Orkney during the late 4th – early 5th century CE, puts me at the equivalent time period as the beginning of the Pictish era on mainland Scotland. There is still no irrefutable evidence that the Picts actually controlled the islands of Orkney at this early period.

I have decided to base my persona’s story as an amalgamation of archaeological evidence from Howe (which, unfortunately no longer exists as a dig site) and Warebeth on the Orcadian mainland. This is to hopefully help me flesh out what my diet, clothing, and daily living might have been like.


This morning’s activities included gathering up my saved fire ashes, so that I could make my washing liquid to clean Eidiard’s, his apprentices, and my clothing – that needed actual washing. Of course, after cleaning the hearth (and before actually making the washing liquid) I had to lay another fire, so that I could make some food for us all to eat.

After getting the fire all set, with a pot of porridge simmering in some of the heaped embers, I went to make the washing liquid. This was done simply by pouring collected rainwater over the ashes to let it seep through and collecting the liquid (through a straw filter) in another bucket. I had already set the clothes to be washed to soak in the larger tub so that everything was  wet through. To this I added the washing liquid, carefully, and started to agitate the wet clothing. Once done, I laid them out to dry in the sun.

I’m just glad that the weather has been so mild, so far, although it does make me wonder what our winter will be like.

Oh, I almost forgot. A few days ago, Eidiard had been given some pig in exchange for some of his metal work. Well, yesterday, Eidiard decided that he was going to smoke the parts he was given. (This was after I had salt cured all of it.) The smell, as it wafted into our home, was absolutely wonderful. Woodsy, with a hint of apples. We ate (and enjoyed!) some of it last night, after it was done. It was great with the vegetables.

Research: The “washing liquid” made by running the water through the wood ash, is basically a weak lye. Since my persona is not trying to make soap with this lye, keeping the solution fairly weak would (theoretically) keep the dangers of lye burns to a minimum. There are tests that can be done to test the strength of the lye solution – floating an egg in the liquid, or inserting a feather to see if it dissolves. If the egg floats on top, the lye is too strong, if it sinks – the lye is too weak. If it floats about half-way, then the lye solution is just right (for making soap). If the feather starts to dissolve on submersion/contact, the lye solution is perfect for soapmaking.

And yes, this is something I want to test for myself – using a “washing liquid” only for cleaning cloth. I don’t think I’m brave enough (yet) to try it on actual clothes, but I have a few “sacrificial” dish towels I’d be willing to try this on.