I'm smelting

Emma
Emma Graney
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Ancient technique revived

L’Anse aux Meadows — Last weekend L’Anse aux Meadows was filled with the sound of Vikings singing and chanting, punctuated by the hissing spit of freshly smelt iron and the clang of hammers beating the red-hot bloom.

Donned in traditional Viking attire, re-enactors from Ontario and site interpreters from Parks Canada spent a sweaty day’s work layering charcoal upon raw iron ore inside a hand-built furnace and pumping the bellows to transform 20 kilograms of iron ore into almost three kilograms of iron.

Using a technique lost almost 800 years ago, the group re-created a bog iron smelt — just the second to take place at L’Anse aux Meadows in 1,000 years. 

“I came a long way to make iron here,” said Ken Cook, otherwise known as Grettr Blackhands, his bushy beard only partially obscuring the huge grin spreading over his face.

“When we were doing it we were all floating on air. It was pretty exciting.”

The all-day activity was arranged in conjunction with the Dark Ages Re-Creation Company (DARC) as part of L’Anse aux Meadows’ 50th anniversary.

Darrell Markewitz, an artisan blacksmith and founding member of DARC, developed the training for the Viking re-enactors at L’Anse aux Meadows and Norstead, and was instrumental in organizing this year’s demonstration.

“The problem with Viking history is that it’s so far beyond people’s experience,” he explained.

Thorgeir works with a spring pole lathe to turn a bowl. — Photo by Emma Grainey/The Northern Pen

“We’re talking about things that happened a thousand years ago — people have nothing to relate that to because it’s just so different. The easiest way to help them understand what objects were used for and what Vikings were about is to use living history exhibits and this is a prime example of that.

“When you look at these demonstrations they put archaeological items in context and they create this multi-faceted learning that everyone can get into. It doesn’t matter if you have regular visitors, people with learning or physical disabilities, it doesn’t matter what language people speak, all class of visitors benefit and go away knowing a whole lot more.”

Preparation for the 10-day demonstration at L’Anse aux Meadows was no small feat.

For 18 months, members of DARC re-created Vinland Viking gear to the smallest detail, including replacing the wooden handles of their knives with antler to ensure they were geographically appropriate and developing viking characters that fitted with the time period.

“I came a long way to make iron here,” Ken Cook, otherwise known as Grettr Blackhands

“We’re not playing high kings here, or warriors, because they’re not the people who were here at Vinland,” he said.

“All of our costuming, our instruments — we fine-tuned everything so that it aligned with what we know from archaeology, from history.

“The 50th anniversary is an important time and we were quite excited when we got the chance to do this so we made a serious effort to do a good job.”

The bog smelt wasn’t the only thing on show at the 10-day living history exhibit.

Working with L’Anse aux Meadows site supervisor Loretta Decker, the group formulated a list of activities and elements of the Viking village to recreate for visitors.

“Of course history is a huge part of it all — making sure everything is just as it was back then — but we also had experimental archaeology with things like glass bead making,” Markewitz said.

“No one ever made glass beads at Vinland, but it was part of the wider Norse culture so we recreated an old technique so people could see how they came about.

“Doing that shows the bigger picture, helps put activities into context, shows more skills, helps develop the skills of the Parks Canada site interpreters who’re here to learn, and by doing all that it creates a better experience for every person who visits the site.”

Other activities included pewter casting in stone molds, wood turning and weaving.

“The public, I think, were extremely happy with their experience and the Parks Canada interpreters got to learn so much, which they can hopefully develop and use at the site next summer,” Markewitz said.

“We got to recognize the faces and some people who planned to stay an hour or two ended staying the whole day — one couple came back three days in a row.

“That’s the value of this, of living history. People learn, they’re interested and they enjoy it.”

The Northern Pen

Organizations: Parks Canada, Dark Ages Re-Creation Company, Ken Cook

Geographic location: Ontario, Vinland

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