I don’t live in the past—I only visit—and so can you!

Archive for November, 2011

LOST GOLD OF THE NatGeo EXHIBIT

We just got back from a multi-era trip to the East Coast, including the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC. The exhibit has a hundred pieces of the Staffordshire Hoard, along with videos and modern reproductions provided by Regia in the UK. It will be there until March.

The Staffordshire Hoard is a collection of gold and silver pieces from the seventh or eighth century that is redefining our idea of the so-called “Dark Ages.”  It was discovered in 2009 by a metal detectorist working with the owner’s permission in a field near the village of Hammerwich, near Lichfield, in Staffordshire, England. The Hoard, consisting of some 3,500 items, has been valued at over five million dollars, which will be shared between the finder and the owner of the land. It is not only an example of finding a picture window into the past but of everyone concerned doing the Right Thing! Authorities and archaeologists were alerted by the founders, and a subterfuge was used to keep the discovery secret and safe until authorities had a hand on it. There are many sites available that speak more about the discovery, including this site.

The Lost Gold of the Saxons display was incredible and highly recommended. The artifacts are overwhelming, and after a while you just concentrate on the videos, taken from the two documentaries put out by NatGeo and including a sequence on how the inlying, etc. was done (that may be on the second doc, which I haven’t seen). The things sent by Regia in the UK were wonderful and well arranged. it was fun guessing who sent what (and who various persons in the videos were, since the nasal helms were very confusing. They did a marvelous display where a rebated sword was in a cage, so kids could pick it up and feel how heavy it was but couldn’t swing it around!

The NatGeo folk apparently drastically underestimated the appeal of the exhibit. They had no exhibition catalog, had sold out of the DVD of the first program two weeks ago and didn’t expect new copies for another week or two, had only one facsimile of jewelry for sale, no CDs of music (archaeological or otherwise) except for a DVD of Beowulf recited to lyre music) and only two books on Anglo-Saxon life in the bookstore. They did have an umbrella with a sword hilt handle 🙂 They still have until March to put in new stuff, so I will be watching it!

The first documentary on the Hoard is available on DVD; a DVD of the second documentary will, I was told, be available in two months (apparently, they were overwhelmed by requests and questions and are rushing it into production).

The food in the cafe was good as well 🙂

Information on the exhibit may be reached on the National Geographic site. To get the book and DVD published by National Geographic without going to Washington, you can go to their shop online.

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EVERYDAY MIRACLES

“The most instructive experiences are those of everyday life”—Friedrich Nietzsche

From its start, there have been four main goals for Micel Folcland:

1. Of course, for participants to have fun. That does not mean, as it does with some societies, to let members do anything they want. As a folc once wisely said, “History is fun.” Research is fun. Learning things is fun. Quite simply, those folk who call research and accuracy anal and restrictive are doing something that, to me, is not fun!

2. That leads into the second, that is almost as important as the first. We want everyone to be accurate. No sneakers. No spectacles. No cinematic versions of reality. Sometimes this involves research, and it is certainly being anal, including a willingness to change the portrayal as new information becomes available.

3. Micel Folcland was, from the beginning, educational. That certainly distinguished us from the various fantasy LARPs that say they are reenactment groups and which use claims of accuracy only to not do things they object to. As many visitors have said, “You taught me something new today.” That’s what we are trying to do and, sometimes, we succeed in educating ourselves as well, when we research something that has eluded us!

4. And the fourth is that we attempt to portray everyday life.

With these goals in mind, once again, we see that Micel Folcland was never that much different from any other group that does serious living history. A member of one of the farbier societies noted to me that he wants to recreate the unique and the extraordinary, but as Kenneth Hudson, speaking of living history interpretation in museums but relevant for other efforts, notes, participants “dress in period costume and conduct period crafts and everyday work.” At our first board meeting, we adapted the motto: “The common Anglo-Saxon on the cow-path.” (As we refined our focus, we changed that to the average Anglo-Scandianian, but the idea never changed) After watching the inaccurate but hysterical British situation comedy, “Dark Ages,” we added another motto: “Common as Otter Plop.” And hopefully, though we have strayed a bit—for example, most people of he time would have slept on the ground but we, owing to our venerable and wizened old age, use a reproduction of one of the Oseberg beds—we have remained true to the ideal.

The reactions have been varied. A lot of people respect you for making this choice. Some think that you’re a prat because no one cares. A few don’t understand (not merely why you made the choice but what the choice could possibly be). A few ask the pertinent question: How do you determine what is everyday culture?

Obviously, that can be difficult. We know that folk of the kind engaged in textiles; they’d be running around naked otherwise. We know that there was kind of military training; it was, in the words of Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger in The Year 1000, an age of thugs. We know what was eaten and when (if they had a successful harvest in many instances). But how many communities had moneyers? How many pieces of furniture did a household have (and what kind was found)? Did the culture have artifacts from another time or from another culture, and if they did have any, how many did they have?

Obviously, that must be found out with research, and then the answer must be compromised a bit to suit modern laws, health statutes, etc., as well as how educational its practice might be for the MoPs. The existence of artifacts and practices must be found in period as well. For the most part, most serious living history societies follow a simple rule: If you find two (independent) instances of the existence of an artifact or practice, then it is fair use (some groups use three instances, but that is up to and your group). Concentrating our era, let’s take a few examples:

• Scissors have been found in the Viking Age, so their use is permitted (if they resemble those found from the period).

• Books were well known so their use would be permitted, but their ownership restricted to certain classes and should not be widely used (unless reenacting a monastery or the such and if, as before, they resemble those found in the period).

• Some items from other cultures have been found in trading centers (such as silk), their use and possession are permitted would generally have been restricted to the wealthy.

• They have found a single jade Buddha in Northern Europe, so its use would be restricted.

• Although the Norse knew about cotton no doubt, they would have also realized how useless it would have been in their homelands, so there is no evidence it was used in Northern Europe at this time, so its use in recreating our era would be forbidden.

• The use of horned helmets has never been proven for the time, and their invention and assignation to the Vikings has been documented, so their use is not only stereotypical but not timely in the least.

Decisions have to be made by each group as to how many unique and expensive artifacts may permitted in an exhibition. Some might depend on the integrity of the individual and not make a ruling, allowing members to use and own artifacts that have little or no provenance. Others might limit each person to a single (and different) artifact that is uncommon. A few might just forbid any artifact tht is restricted in any way.

In the case of Micel Folcland, the use of a unique or expensive artifact has to be okayed in each instance by the AO. In most cases, it depends on how many folc are involved or, in some instance, the intention of the show (for example, hangerocs are rare in the period we recreate and are limited to a single person at a show, but in shows for Scandinavian-American organizations, we are more lax). We are trying for the common impression and feel that the abundance of uncommon items, especially in a small group of participants, would lerad to incorrect interpretation of the era by MoPs.

Such decisions must be made by the group involved, and hopefully this something that has already been considered. And when a decision has been made, the group should hold to them and enforce them!

Keep all of these rules of thumb in mind when determining what would or would not be commonly used in the era and culture you recreate. If you do, and apply it fairly, you will find out that you are being educational, accurate and, more than anything else, having fun!

For a useful book concentrating on common life in England around the First Millennium, see

Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger’s The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, An Englishman’s World. I have three copies and even today, a decade after its publication, often read parts!