Annual General Meeting and members' evening
The AGM took place as planned, although the inclement weather caused a much-reduced attendance compared with previous years. Only 19 brave souls fought their way to the meeting, this figure including a number of new members. The Minutes of the meeting will be issued by the Secretary in due course. Following closure of the AGM, the audience was treated to a series of short presentations:-
- Firstly Mavis Shannon gave a history of Iceland. It was colonised by Vikings from Norway between the ninth and the eleventh century. At this time Norway was becoming a kingdom, and petty chiefs did not wish to be ruled, so they loaded their families, slaves and livestock into boats and searched for new lands to farm. They were able to do this because the incorporation of a keel into boats made them safer to sail in the open sea. Where Iceland is not covered in volcanic larva fields, it has areas of flat fertile soil which allowed hay to be grown to feed the animals that are kept indoors in winter. There was no arable farming and each farm was surrounded by its fields. Fish was plentiful and there was drift-wood on the beach: valuable in a treeless landscape. The Vikings would also go raiding to get money for luxuries, but basically they were farmers and fishermen. When Christianity arrived, it stopped their raiding and slaves were freed, so the people then exported surplus farming or fishing products by loading them onto ponies and taking the ponies on boats to sell the products abroad. Society was egalitarian and an Althingi or parliament was held every summer in which the main business was to settle blood feuds. In the fourteenth century, there was a considerable deterioration in the climate throughout Europe, making Iceland inaccessible and it remained isolated until steamships were able to reach it in the nineteenth century. This meant that society remained unchanged; typical Norse longhouses continued to be built of turf on a stone base with no windows and a large open hearth in the centre. One of the new imports that was most welcome to Icelanders was corrugated iron, which was used for most buildings: houses could have two storeys and windows. They were insulated using natural products such as moss, hay and wool. Now Iceland is part of modern Europe.
- The next presentation was by Rachel Gilbert and Rebecca Damsell, students from UCLan, who are establishing an interactive website about all the buildings that were stores of the Preston Industrial Co-operative Society from its founding in 1869 until 1966 when it was absorbed into a Lancashire-wide society. They used a directory of all the stores as a starting point. The first store was started by a local community on New Hall Lane, followed shortly by one in Adelphi Street. Other local ones were started and then they amalgamated to form the Preston Society, with more shops being built. The Co-ops often had educational and community programmes and many were built close to the mills. The students have been trying to identify still-existing buildings even if they have been modified considerably. Some have been completely demolished, some have new fronts, others may have clues by which they can be identified, such as the crest above the door or even a stone with the name. As streets and their numbers have been altered it is not always possible to say which of the current buildings was a Co-operative shop, but in one case a particular shop was identified by its distinctive first floor windows. This is an on-going project.
- Unfortunately the weather prevented Margaret Edwards from Manchester presenting her slides and observations on Caerwent, a Roman settlement in south Wales. However, thanks to modern technology, she had sent the slides and script to Bill Shannon who presented them. It was not known if Caerwent was a fort, but the recent evidence now indicates that it was a civilian industrial settlement, producing pottery, supporting the nearby fort of Caerleon. It was also the local civitas, or administrative centre, for the Silures tribe. It continued to be used by the local people, with considerable modification such as blocking up some gateways, until the end of the fifth century.
- Derek Fox then enlivened proceedings by producing a dozen mysterious artefacts, of supposedly Roman origin, and tasked the audience to identify them. This proved to be great fun and was much enjoyed by the participants. The highest score was 8 (no names......). Everyone got the samian. The favourite was probably the "striker" (aka the steel) used for producing the spark from the flint to light the tinder. A splendid piece of early engineering.
- The final presentation was by David Swindlehurst, showing a small number of slides from a recent visit to the Battlefields and Memorials of WW1, in France and Belgium, by members of the Preston Grammar School Association. He described briefly the reasons for the excursion, and explained that a repeat visit was planned for later in 2013, together with another excursion to Normandy to the WW2 equivalents. He invited members to accompany the PGSA on these excursions, which give participants the confidence of travelling in the company of friends and with people who have the necessary knowledge to make some sense of a senseless event.
The evening terminated with the usual "tea and biscuits".
(Report by Janet Edmunds)
Were there really Gladiators?
In 2004, excavation in part of a Roman cemetery in York unearthed 80 skeletons. Only one was undoubtedly a woman, and 64 were certainly men aged between about 18-35 years. These are not the skeletons that would be found in a normal civilian cemetery. At first it was suggested that they were the bodies of people murdered by the emperor Caracalla. He had ruled in 211 with his younger brother Geta, after the death of their father, Septimus Severus, who died in York when they were all campaigning in Britain. Then, after a few months, Caracalla had his brother and followers murdered. However when the bones were carbon dated, they were shown to be buried over a period of about 150 years. Dr Wysocki has studied the skeletons forensically and he gave us a fascinating talk about the wounds found on the bones and what can be deduced from this study. About half the skeletons had been decapitated, with the skull often buried between the knees or elsewhere. For those where it could be determined, it seemed to be the cause of death, rather than a burial ritual. Many were buried with grave goods and food, including meat, for use in the after-life. This would indicate that they were unlikely to be corpses of criminals who would not be buried with such respect. Scientific forensic tests showed they were not local, but of very mixed origin. There were some from north Africa, others from eastern, middle and southern Europe with a few from northern Europe. Some were tall others short: too short to be soldiers; some were well developed others relatively slight. There were a few with wounds, such as broken bones, that had already healed. Some also had wounds inflicted about the time of death. So if they were neither ordinary civilians nor soldiers, were they gladiators? The most telling wound was that of one man who had teeth marks in the pelvis and on the shoulder made by a large carnivore, a lion, leopard or possibly a bear. The talk was followed by many questions and a discussion. Gladiators wore heavy padding on their arms and legs, which could explain the lack of wounds on these bones either from practice or in previous or final fights. Their torsos were bare but wounds here are unlikely to be seen on a skeleton. It was suggested that those who owned gladiators did not want them to retire wounded, but to fight to the death; the evidence from these skeletons indicates that this was sometimes by decapitation, perhaps as a coup de grace to a badly injured fighter, something suggested also by injuries to the skull apparently caused by hammer blows . The shorter, slighter fighters may have been included so that in their fights the outcome was more or less certain in advance. There was a lot of speculation, but if they were not gladiators, who else could they have been?
The Viking Dragons - how to build and sail one.
A presentation by Paul Mercer, the English element of Viking Kings AS
, who is assisting with the management of the Dragon Project. Paul gave us an excellent exposition of the Project, its problems and achievements to date, and supported his words with a series of superb photographs and a couple of short videos. These gave us a real appreciation of the size and complexity of this huge vessel, and wonderment at the achievements of the Viking shipwrights who built Dragons without the aid of modern tools. Fantastic.
In 2008 a wealthy entrepreneur from the Atlantic coast of Norway decided to realise a dream by providing the funds to research, design, construct and sail the largest copy of a Viking Dragon ship to be built in modern times. The result is the Dragon Harald Fairhair.
The first aim and element of the project was to develop an understanding of how a Dragon was built by the Norse Vikings, a technology which was (a) seemingly lost at the end of the Viking era and not thoroughly understood in modern times, and (b) obfuscated by some obvious differences in construction in the various relic boats discovered across Scandinavia, in burial mounds or sunk in harbours. These differences were also confused by the conflicting requirements of the original builders:
- Swedish ships were built to be portable - they were designed for navigation of the rivers of Europe, with a shallow draught and to be "easy" to carry across the mountains separating the headwaters of one river from another. Lightness was the major consideration.
- Danish ships were intended to be used for cabotage, on fairly easy open water in the Baltic and along the Channel coasts of South-east England and Europe. They therefore needed to show some strength but could afford a lightness of construction.
- West Norse ships had to face the Atlantic, where rough seas, and indeed severe storms, are not confined to the winter months. These ships needed both immense strength and considerable weight, to keep the ship upright and steerable in heavy seas and gale-force wind.
- Additionally there were a number of other requirements, for pleasure and fishing boats for instance.
Initial design of the Dragon was therefore confused and subject to repeated modification. In the end, to overcome a number of irreconcileable differences, the team built 3 "prototypes", all the same length (8 metres) but with differing methods of construction, and carried out a sailing test and competition programme, to establish an optimum design.
These sea-going vessels required timber which was strong, heavy, flexible, straight-grained and water-resistant. In a word - Oak. Whatever resources had been available to the Vikings had long since evaporated and sourcing the necessary timber proved difficult. Eventually a timber merchant in Germany proved to have an adequate supply, and he was also able to get permission to fell the very long, straight tree needed to provide the keel.
Manufacture of the components was carried out meticulously to the designed 10thC method, but using 21stC tools (power and hand) for speed and accuracy. Assembly was also achieved using 10thC sequencing, where the hull was assembled first, with the interior frames, stringers, ribs etc being fitted later, rather than the current method of building the frame and fitting the hull round it. The only item not made from oak is the mast, which is pine.
Assembly fasteners were copies of the Viking originals, including wooden dowels and iron nails, peined to form rivets. Where "rope" was required the Dragon incorporates hemp, which was not available to the Vikings (they used seal and walrus hide, which is not available currently!).
The major unknown (still) is the sail. This has proved to be a major problem for both raising and lowering. The material used originally has not been identified. Wool has been suggested, but presents problems:
- making woollen cloth (woven on 10thC looms) sufficiently wind-proof to provide the neccessary driving force for a heavy ship is considered to be unlikely.
- the enormous weight of such a piece of woollen material when dry makes it unmanageable - when saturated with sea-water it would perhaps be sufficient to cause a capsize in wind.
Flax has also been ruled out as a possible solution. The huge square sail for the Dragon was manufactured in India, using a double skin of Indian silk, which gives a strong but light result. There is no proof that silk was used, but it was available at the time, and is a much better bet than the other options.
Sea trials have taken place over the last 2 years, and are still in progess. Trials so far completed include day tests for both oar and sail configurations, and have demonstrated that the ship is seaworthy but that more work is necessary to understand and improve the use of the sail - particularly in raising and lowering, which have proved problematical. Further trials through 2013 will include 5-day trips to learn the skills and arts of living on board a vessel with a deck and nothing else!
The 21st Century presents problems that the Vikings didn't have to cope with.
- As hinted at above, killing seals to make rope from their skins is both unacceptable and illegal today, whereas in the 10th C there was no compunction.
- There is a problem with the ship's designation.
- Is it a passenger ship? If so it requires lifeboats and other safety equipments.
- Is it a cargo ship? If it is it is limited in how many "passengers" it can carry - it has a crew of 100 rowers, not to mention the other crew members.
- Is it a warship?
- Current licensing and safety regulations require the ship to have a source of "artificial" mechanical power.
- The safety requirement on an open-sea vessel of this size has necessitated the inclusion of diesel engine power to ensure no loss of propulsion in adverse weather.
- Harbour regulations also require the availability of independent manoevreability, to avoid the risk of contact with other vessels or harbour installations.
The original programme included a 2013 crossing of the North Sea, and continuing along the north coast of Scotland and down the west coast of Great Britain, calling at Liverpool en route to the Mediterranean. This crossing has had to be postponed until at least 2014 in order to provide more time for learning how the ship behaves and how to get the best performance from her, consonant with safety. The new programme will be issued as soon as possible,
Additional information will be posted here, or in Society news, as soon as it becomes available. This information will include methods of travel (coach or car), costs, times and detailed itineraries.
Members and guests are only invited to participate in this visit on the condition that they take care to avoid injury to themselves and to others and to property belonging to themselves and others. By agreeing to participate in this visit they accept that neither the Society nor its officers nor leaders accepts responsibility for any loss caused by any person on the visit, however caused.