The Big Bronze Age Boat Build has been a fascinating project so far, but how has it been for the volunteers involved…?
Aidan Phillips tells us more
My name is Aidan Phillips, having been born in Lincolnshire my parents eventually settled in Northants in the early 70’s and I have been here ever since. I’m a Big Bronze Age Boat Build volunteer, having been involved from the very start. I first became involved through another project that the Heritage Team at Stanwick Lakes have been supporting me with. This opened the door(or Pandora’s box, depending on how you look at it!!) to my involvement in other opportunities at the Lakes site.
I come from an engineering background. I then moved into the building trade before finally settling into the Fire Service full time where I currently languish.
I am quite craft driven now and enjoy all sorts of working with varying materials organic and metallic, so this has been a feast of fun for me!
I always know I’m going to sleep well around a boat build day! I sleep deeply and contentedly the night before, knowing that I am facing a day of fun, companionship and full-on exercise. I then sleep like a log (see what I did there!?) when I get home and shower and fall into bed!
The end-to-end experience of casting our bronze cutting heads, hafting them and then using them is an experience in itself.
But to be involved in such a wonderful group exercise with a common goal is exceptional.
Another dynamic is the fascinating journey, learning tool use and how to work the wood, how to use fire and how to read the grain.
Fire as a tool, not surprisingly for a Firefighter, fascinates me. I have been experimenting with various methods to find the most effective. We began by simply building a small fire on top and letting it burn. While the fire did burn the log itself, it mainly just burnt off the applied wood on the top.
We had planned right from the start, to use mud/clay to control the burn areas and ensure we could focus the burn while protecting the sides to try and ensure that the burning was as controlled as possible. The charring that builds up during the burn also then protects the log surface and must be removed to encourage further burning.
I then thought that if I dug out a bowl-shaped hole and set the fire in it, it would be more useful. A passer by who, incidentally, was a stone mason, suggested that a trench-cut would work better. If the fire were set in the middle of the trench, the air could feed the fire from either side, thus increasing the burn temperature. So I tried it, and it was marginally hotter……….and then it rained!
To protect the burn, I propped a cut-off slab over the fire which sat atop the protective mud on either side. This proved really useful. The heat that built up in the void between plank and boat became really intense. I noticed the charcoal build up, removed the slab and scraped it away exposing the timber below. When I reapplied the slab, within seconds it was fully reignited and blazing.
The heat was significant and made the scraping-back arduous, but it made a noted difference to the method, increasing the effectiveness of the burn. Since those early stages, we have run out of slab-like items and now use general logs with the chippings being used to help get the fire going.
I believe that if we had been able to devote the same time and effort on the burn that has been expended on the dug-out, we would have had it finished by now.
A particular challenge we have faced is wetness! The original log was green, thus reducing its flammability. The dug-out chippings help get the fire going, but are not particularly efficient in a day-long situation. Often the chippings are damp and take a while to get going. Often the log itself has either been exposed to rain or simply absorbed moisture from the atmosphere. All these factors can contribute to making the fire setting a struggle to get to a high enough temperature to make a difference. Once alight and well-tended, it can burn through showers of rain unaffected!
As the burn has progressed deeper into the log, the whole idea of a trench fire fed from one end has shown itself to be really effective, the entire boat being the “trench”!
During this summer we have been continually assailed by interested passers-by who admit to having been drawn across the entire site by the delicious smell of wood smoke!! Countless encounters have opened with “that smells amazing” and “I smelled that smoke right across the carpark and had to come and see what smelled so nice!”
It has been a great talking point and gives us an added dynamic to talk over with the public while explaining the entire project.
The youngster who wanted Dad to tell him what we were doing, really made me laugh. After being told we were “making a boat”, he simply replied; “….Why?” The implication being that why would someone go to all that effort when you can hire or even buy one! Heigh Ho! The insight of youth!!
A high point for me has been the cooking.
Using the boat burn as a camp fire has been amazingly successful. Not only have we explored how natural it would have been for the Bronze Age people to have done the same, it has also demonstrated to me that it would be a natural part of the process; why waste the hard won resource of building and tending the fire if you didn’t then reap the benefits? It’ll keep you warm through the night and provides some of the tastiest food!
One thing I can say, I am really enjoying the journey. Experimenting and listening to other peoples ideas, experience and suggestions and using them to influence and trial within the experiment.
What an experience!!