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Going West: Into the Past

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As you walk through the antlered gate of the hillfort at Castell Henllys you are stepping back into the past. This is no mere historical curiosity, nor ‘just’ an educational museum… it is a real and ancient settlement, painstakingly recreated and brought once more to vivid life.

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There are posts marking some of the placements where the supporting frames of the roundhouses were found during excavations. There are places where you can go and see the stone footings of similar buildings. Indeed, we would see some that very afternoon. But here, there are not just posts. There are roundhouses.

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Over a period of twenty six years, archaeologists explored the site. The roundhouses are built on the original foundations of the Iron Age settlement, standing exactly where they would have stood over two thousand years ago. The site provides a time machine for us to see how our ancestors lived. For the archaeologists, it is something more… a unique opportunity to study the practical issues of living in such a settlement; to see how things would have had to be constructed… and learn how they worked.

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The first to be built was the Old Roundhouse, constructed over twenty years ago and now the oldest such reconstruction standing in the country. Its thatch has been patched and repaired, but even with the strictness of current health and safety measures, it has stood the test of time. It was this that I remembered from my earlier visit some years ago. It had left a lasting impression on me and I was glad to smell the woodsmoke and see the distinctive grey plumes still rising from its roof.

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There is no hole in the roof above the central hearth as most of us were taught. I always wondered how that would work in a rain-drenched land. Inside, the pall of smoke hovers always just above head height, filling the roof timbers and blackening the thatch… and, incidentally, protecting them against woodworm and other invasive insects. The smoke is a natural insect repellent and that observation astonished archaeologists… the technologies our ancestors used were not at all primitive and although many survive only as scraps of archaeology, the experts have been able to work backwards to recreate them in a way that is now proven to work.

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The beaten earth of the floor remains dry, the steeply sloping pitch of the roof shields the wattle and daub walls and footings from the worst weather. The central fire, that would have been kept burning all year round, day and night, provides light and heat and cooking space… as well as a place to gather around the flames to discuss the running of the tribe, or simply while away the long winter evenings with teaching tales, stories of mythical heroes and magical beasts.

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One of the roundhouses is a granary, where goods and grain were stored. Standing near the centre of the clearing and smaller than the rest, it is floored with a raised platform to ensure a good circulation of air and help keep the supplies away from damp earth and its inhabitants.

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Tools and weapons, places to practice the arts of war and the hunt make you feel the inhabitants have just stepped away and might return at any moment.

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A bodger’s lathe waits silently for the craftsman to reappear…

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… and the willow waits to be bent and shaped into baskets, fish-traps and decorative ornaments. You can almost hear the gossip of the women and the laughter of children…

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The smith’s house is set apart. They were magic-makers, revered for their skill in drawing metal from stone… a new technology and one viewed with awe. Did the village have their own smith? Or was he one of those who walked the land, bringing his gift to may places. He would have been honoured everywhere… like the druids who brought lore and law, teaching and mystery wherever they wandered.

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The looms, like the smithy, are silent, but the cloth is half woven. The colours of the wool bright and fresh… colours of earth, made from the plants that grow around the hill. Our ancestors loved colour and wove intricate and beautiful plaids and patterns from the wool the women spun into fine threads, twirling their weighted spindles with the skill of long practice.

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These were our ancestors. By our standards, a hard life perhaps, yet by their own it was simply the life they knew. Children learned early to work with and for the community. Many things were shared; skills were valued and traded both within the settlement and with the greater community. It was not all work though… there was time to see beauty and fashion its likeness in wood, stone, metal and paint.

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There was time and a need to know how to work with the land and with the natural world, not against it. For the chieftain and his warriors, there was comfort and a splendour that was practical as well as beautiful in the lofty hall.

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But if the structural and artistic design, and the scope of the technologies they were using is surprising, then the atmosphere is magical. The sharp incense of woodsmoke is everywhere. Flame-shadows dance, bringing to life the painted creatures that circle the walls. The warmth and sense of shelter is very real, even on a chill and overcast morning when the grass is still sodden from torrents of rain. We sat on the wooden benches, our backs against the trunks of trees and time stood still for us, erasing the centuries and the rush of the modern world. We were long ago and far away, catching the whispers of ancient storytellers who held their people spellbound and watching visions form in the flames…

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