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Growing a spelt crop

Sunday, 1 September, 2013 to Sunday, 30 November, 2014
Steve Burrow
Number of Participants / Visitors / Audience: 
38 volunteers, 200 members of the public, 10 staff

From the winter of 2013 to the summer of 2014, St Fagans National History Museum undertook an experiment to grow a crop of spelt wheat to be used as thatch for our Bryn Eryr roundhouses. The project had several goals:

1. To improve the authenticity of our Iron Age roundhouses by using a thatch material that was known to be available to the original builders.
2. To reduce operating costs by growing the crop ourselves and reducing transport costs.
3. To see if it was possible to grow sufficient crop to thatch two houses.
4. To provide an opportunity for other OpenArch partners to take part in the process.

With advice from expert historic thatcher, John Letts, the crop was planted and harvested in August 2014. Processing of the straw took place through the late summer, with thatching (also by John Letts) beginning with the help of lots of volunteers in autumn 2014.

Many lessons were learnt during the harvesting and processing of the crop. In particular the sheer quantity of labour involved in moving and threshing straw was notable. Even with the help of equipment not available during the Iron Age, the work involved was massive. A variety of threshing methods were tried including flailing, heckling and trampling, and eventually a threshing machine was employed.

It was decided to thatch the roundhouses using stuff thatching which involved additional stages of preparation for the straw, in order to align the stems. Initially an under thatch was laid, consisting of a range of materials, including gorse, heather and bracken. Then a layer of barley was added, with the spelt stuffed into the top.

At the time of writing the thatch is almost complete on one house, with the project due for completion in May 2015.
During the project we were joined by staff exchangers from our partners at the AOZA in Albersdorf, Germany.

The original research design for the spelt planting is attached, and th project has been written up for publication in the EXARC journal.