The new season of Vivacity heritage workshops at Flag Fen and Peterborough Museum begins in October and continues through to March. Aimed primarily at adults, they frequently focus on historic crafts such as wool weaving and dyeing, bronze sword casting, book binding and calligraphy – and one of the featured sessions this season connects us directly with our Bronze Age ancestors and some of the astonishing finds at Must Farm (dubbed ‘Britain’s Pompeii’). Toby Venables talked to basket maker Sue Kirk about learning a new craft, ancient fish traps and capturing the spirit of the past...
Basket weaving techniques have been used for thousands of years to make all manner of things, from small containers to entire dwellings, but tell us how these skills of yours were called upon to help understanding of some of the artifacts at Must Farm…
The project that I was involved in was called ‘Making Meaning’ and was led by a lady called Julia Cox. What she wanted was someone who knew nothing about history – me! – who was also a craftsperson and knew something about making the item. The pieces that I studied from Must Farm were fish traps made from willow. So, I remade one, and from that process we learned a lot about the people who made them.
Can you describe one of these traps?
If you picture a tall wheelie bin that was tapered at the bottom, but with that size of neck at the top, and with two rope handles on either side at the top, that’s essentially what it was like! They were between a metre and two metres long, and they’d been flattened by the compression of the soil. We just had half a basket to work from so were imagining the top of it. It’s possible they were primarily for eels, because there were a lot of eels in that area of the Fens, and most eel traps also have something called a ‘chair’ in them, which is like a funnel at the top that funnels the fish in but stops them turning around and swimming out again. The way we made it, having looked at eel traps from around the world, was with a removable chair lashed onto the top of the basket so you could easily get the fish out
What did you learn from this?
The amazing thing was that a lot of the willow that was used on those fish traps was very straight and uniform in size, which implies that those people had their own willow beds, and were growing their own materials rather than just foraging for it. That is very exciting, because it means that they were controlling the materials that they needed. The other really exciting thing was that lots of the techniques that we found in those remnants of the fish trap are exactly the same as we use now. For example, there was randing in there, which is weaving with one rod at a time, and there was a rope handle, which was exactly how we nowmake the handles on log baskets. There was also a bit of three-rod wale, which is like a control weave, and a track border, which is something we still use today in willow and cane work. These techniques literally haven’t changed for 3,500 years.
Was it a strange experience, seeing such familiar work made by hands thousands of years ago?
Pieces of basketry don’t usually survive – they’re one of the first things to rot down – so finding pieces that were 3,500 years old is the most exciting thing for a basket maker. I had never seen anything like that before – and for it to be just on my doorstep was amazing!
You obviously learned a lot about this Bronze Age community, but did it tell you things about the individuals who made them as well?
His or her weaving was very neat, very tight and very uniform, and in basketry you only get that good by doing it over and over again. That means that person was making those items on a regular basis to have reached such a standard. They’ve found about 18 of these traps in the excavations, all positioned by weirs. So, they were controlling the flow of the water, and positioning the trap at the neck of the weir so the fish were funnelled into it. Presumably this was necessary to feed the enormous number of visitors who were coming to the Flag Fen area, because it was quite a well-visited place then. That’s why they were regularly remaking or repairing the baskets, because by the end of each season those baskets would have been wearing out with that level of use.
The basket weaving workshop at Flag Fen obviously connects with this history, but what can people expect from the day?
Often, none of the people who come have made a basket before. But, in a day, even if you’re at beginner level, you can learn a variety of techniques and take home a basket at the end of it. You learn how willow grows, how to harvest it, how to prepare it. And you learn different techniques – exactly the same techniques that were used in making the Bronze Age fish trap, including how to put a handle on and wrap it – so you get a real feel for the material and a sense of the craft of basketry. It’s a really enjoyable experience, where you get to meet other people in a lovely environment and have a taste of how we weave today and how we did in the past. And at Flag Fen you really get that sense of history continuing, experiencing a craft that has been practised continually since that time.
What was it that first got you into basket making?
I met a basket maker when I was about 25. At the time I was teaching in a secondary school, and she kind of became my mentor. She was called Joni Bamford and was the only basket maker in the area, and taught me solidly for almost a year. I gave up my job and started making baskets and garden structures – anything out of willow, really! I just loved it from the moment I started weaving, because I liked the idea that I could grow my own materials as well. I didn’t have to go and buy anything. That’s the thing I love – it’s completely sustainable. In the early spring you’re providing pollen for bees and insects, then in winter you cut the willow and whatever you make will never fill up landfill, because all willow items completely biodegrade. Also you’ve got the social history behind it, all the techniques involved. If you’re into maths there’s that whole side to it, with all the patterns and looping. All these different elements which I really like – and you never feel like you’ve learned it all.
● Sue Kirk’s basket making workshop takes place on 8 October 2016 at Flag Fen and runs for a full day, 9:30am – 4:30pm.
● Vivacity’s heritage venues are amongst a very small number in the area which keep crafts such as these alive, from the ancient to the modern. A wide variety of workshops will be available from autumn 2016 to spring 2017 including Calligraphy (Peterborough Museum, 12 Nov, 10am-4pm) and Roman & Medieval Herbs (Flag Fen, 15 Oct, 10am-4pm).
● For the details on the full 2016/17 programme, including dates, times and how to book head to www.vivacity-peterborough.com/HeritageWorkshops