All posts by Claus Kropp

Why all the buzz about bees? AIMA bloggers encourage us to Bee Aware!

Bees – one short name accounts for 16,000 to 20,000 species of hairy flying insects classified into seven families. All live within social communities that depend on strict work routines. They all seek the same food sources – pollen and nectar – and each processes their harvest and preserves it in hives built in the ground, in hollow trees, or in human-designed apiaries.

The bee quest for pollen served plants well for 130 million years because bees helped plants reproduce. Bees and humans have a much shorter but more emotional relationship. Bees need plants for food, as do humans. Bees ensure plant fertilization which ensures that humans will have food crops. Over millennia, humans domesticated one species of bee to satisfy this and many other needs – Apis mellifera (the honeybee).

Humans built hives for their honeybees and clustered these hives (apiaries) around orchards, grape arbors, and other areas of intense flowering-plant cultivation. These hives take many forms, but each houses a colony of honeybees. The hard work of the pollinators filled the hives with honey, and from the hives, humans harvested the most natural and veritably the only sweetener available before the introduction of heavily processed cane sugar – honey. Honey, pollen, and bee venom also had medicinal value, as did beeswax. Beeswax when processed became the binding agent for pigments in encaustic art, a component in the mummification process, the candles that lit cathedrals, and the sealing agent for small containers. Finally, the bees themselves were part of the supply chain on which apiarists depended as they harvested queens to propagate new honeybee colonies.

Museums may hesitate to include hives in public areas because of the added expense and expertise required to maintain them or because of concerns about allergic reactions to bee stings. The hives, however, can launch numerous discussions about the long and complicated history of bee, plant, and human interactions.

The absence of hives can also lead to conversations about native pollinators, the thousands of other bee species often ignored and feared. Sometimes all it takes is a brief prompt – Bee Aware – to engage the public in an exploration of nature and human interaction.

Seasons affect the stories to tell. During flowering seasons, all bees collect pollen from flowers. Watch closely and you will see Apis mellifera as well as other species native to your area including bumble bees and carpenter bees (also in the Apidae family) and sweat bees (the Halictidae family). These all have hairy bodies. Other striped flying insects may look like bees, but if they have hairless bodies, they are not bees. These insects, including paper wasps (Polistinae) or yellow jackets (Vespinae), are predators and they can be aggressive, especially in the fall when they have no responsibilities for their colonies, and food is in short supply. Stay calm, observe them in action, take a picture to identify the species later, and enjoy your nature lesson in a museum.

This series of blogs address topics that museums of all types may find useful in interpreting the bee- human relationship.

Installments include:

Which came first, bees or crops? Why does it matter?
Evolution across the globe resulted in mutually dependent bees and flowering plants, but human intervention to ensure pollination of crops affects natural bee-plant relations.

What can law do for bees? A Touch of History
Old Irish laws, the Bee-Judgements, help readers assess how humans legislated behavior in support of bee work.

How has beekeeping changed over time?
An archaeobeekeeper and an archaeological open-air museum in Germany showcase pre- and proto-historic beekeeping methods.

Which hive do bees prefer? Treehives and cultural heritage in Poland
Adaptive use of trees as beehives support an exploration of the relationship of tangible and intangible cultural heritage in Poland.

What do bumblebees do that we overlook? A case-study in Norway
Farmers today rely on other bee species, specifically the bumblebee, to pollinate greenhouse plants, as this museum documentation project in Norway explores.

How do museums support bee preservation?
Learn about a range of efforts supported by AIMA museums that can help sustain bee diversity and spread the word to the general public.

How do bees inspire artists? Bee art from AIMA blogger museums
Explore artistic expressions feature art and imagery inspired by bees in AIMA-member museums.

How many ways can you make a wheel?


The Museum of English Rural Life (The MERL) at Reading University has a significant collection of 22 English farm wagons.  A “Shoulder to the Wheel” exhibition developed in partnership with the Crafts Study Centre, University for the Creative Arts, Farnham, seeks to explore the skills of the wheelwright.  Using a wheel collected by the Museum which dates back to c1894 as inspiration, three contemporary makers used their different skills to create a new wheel in its image.  The exhibition was guest curated by Dr Glenn Adamson, Senior Scholar at the Yale Center for British Art and runs from January – April 2020.

Le Museum of English Rural Life (The MERL) de l’Université de Reading possède une importante collection de 22 véhicules à deux ou à quatre roues.  Une exposition « Shoulder to the Wheel » développée en partenariat avec le Crafts Study Centre de l’Université des arts créatifs de Farnham cherche à explorer les compétences du charron.  À l’aide d’une roue recueillie par le Musée qui remonte à c1894, trois fabricants contemporains ont utilisé leurs différentes compétences pour créer une nouvelle roue à son image.  L’exposition a été organisée par le commissaire invité, Dr Glenn Adamson, Senior Scholar au Yale Center for British Art et se déroule de janvier à avril 2020. 

Exhibition practice – wheels – reconstruction – cart – carriage – wagon  

The Museum of English Rural Life (The MERL), at the University of Reading, has collected evidence of traditional rural crafts from its earliest days in the 1950s.  Amongst the most impressive elements of the object collection is the group of 22 English farm wagons, 4 carts and a timber carriage. Together they inspired the reference work, “The English Farm Wagon” written in 1961 by a past assistant keeper, J Geraint Jenkins.  As part of the redisplay of The MERL’s collection in 2016 they were moved into a bespoke “Wagon Walk”. In January 2020 this space will be used to host an intervention and exploration of the work of the wheelwright called, Shoulder to the Wheel.

There is no point, the old adage goes, in reinventing the wheel.  Whoever first said that must not have met a wheelwright.  The four wheel components; hub, spokes, felloes and rim, have been constantly refined over centuries.

The MERL wheel

Shoulder to the Wheel is a collaborative exhibition between the Crafts Study Centre in Farnham, Surrey and The MERL curated by Dr Glenn Adamson, Senior Scholar at the Yale Centre for British Art.

To create the exhibition we selected a late Victorian wheel collected by The MERL in the 1960s. Three contemporary makers were then invited to create a work in its image.

Greg Rowland

Greg Rowland is the latest in a long lineage of Devon wheelwrights, dating back to the fourteenth century.

Gareth Neal

Gareth Neal is a designer and maker who often refers to old furniture in his work.

Zoe Laughlin

Zoe Laughlin is Co-Director of the Institute of Making at University College London, a materials library and laboratory.

Sturt’s workshop

The exhibition was inspired by the work by George Sturt, The Wheelwright’s Shop, first published in 1923.  His shop was located in Farnham, the home of the Crafts Study Centre.

The MERL Somerset wagon

This wheel came into the object collection of The Museum of English Rural Life in 1962, along with a West Country “ship wagon”.  Both were made in 1894, by artisan C. Bailey of the village of Combe St Nicholas, Somerset, for Lords Leaze Farm, located in the nearby town of Chard.  When fully loaded the wagon could carry 1,100 sheaves of wheat.

As part of the commission, each of the contemporary makers participated in a discussion about the choices they made in the design and construction of their wheel.

Greg Rowland’s wheel

“Wheels are what I do and what I have done for 30 years…My aim was to use as many processes that might have been used in Sturt’s shop but also to use some modern methods not available then.
A contact near Farnham had some elm for the hub.  I had to make wedges and use putty to fill the splits in the wood.
My father, Mike, produced the spokes from oak.  Traditionally spokes were cleft out of the wood but we used a more modern sawing technique using air-dried stock.
The felloes – the curved pieces that make up the wheel rim, are from ash.  This gave us the traditional wheel timbers of oak, ash and elm.
The iron hub rings were shrunk on.  We used traditional whalebone to get the front angle of the spokes, which would form the wheel’s dish.”

Gareth Neal’s wheel

How could you possibly improve the wooden wheel?  It is the result of an accumulation of knowledge and experience over centuries by wheelwrights who spent their whole lives mastering the craft.

Let’s start at the beginning, then.  We can picture hundreds of men dragging huge stones across a plain…Wherever they are, they are wondering how they can make this transportation more efficient.

“My wheel and its accompanying drawings are an encyclopaedia of this evolution, from the problems of drying and splitting timber, through the first attempt to make a spindle, to a celebration of the cross directional strength of the elm hub.  Each thought is a step along the road that led to the wheel we know now.”

Zoe Laughlin’s wheel

“There is often a misconception that using digital tools allows the maker, intent on copying a form with exactitude, an easy route to high fidelity results.
My first step was to scan the original wheel with a handheld infrared Asus Xtion camera attached to a laptop.  No matter how slowly I swept the sensor over and around the subject, areas inexplicably failed to register.
The wheel needed to stand unaided in order to be captured in one continuous scan.  I constructed a relatively unobtrusive jig of floor chocks and a thin wooden shaft leading up to the central hub of the wheel.
I decided to print the wheel with a diameter of 10cm in order to play to the strengths of the tool and ensure best print possible.  I used an Ultimaker2 3D printer that extrudes polylactide (PLA) thermostat filament.
The proprietary software performs a number of adjustments in order to render a scan fit to print.  In this case, an array of support structures were added to the wheel’s typology in order to compensate for areas with undercuts and gaps.
I chose to use a pink low-density polyurethane foam as my material stock from which to mill the digital ruin of a wheel.  It is a material beloved of model makers in industries such as architecture, aerospace, film and Formula 1…It is lurid, smelly, relatively fragile, totally inappropriate for wheelmaking; and perfect for machinery with a CNC mill.”

All the wheels are now on display at the exhibition which opened just recently on January 14th 2020.

Isabel Hughes
Associate Director (& Head of Curatorial and Public Engagement)
Museum of English Rural Life

Groundbreaking Journal Tools & Tillage made Open Access

‘Sharing expertise about our agricultural past is one of the primary aims of the AIMA. Making Tools & Tillage available online represents a significant step towards realising this goal. With the support and generosity of the University Library Heidelberg, decades of fascinating scholarly work have now been made freely available to researchers worldwide. The AIMA community hopes that this represents a new phase in the sharing of knowledge and heralds the beginning of many fresh collaborations between the partner organisations involved.’ — Dr Ollie Douglas, President of the International Association of Agricultural Museums

The international journal Tools & Tillage is a great resource about historic farming techniques and traditional agricultural practices, combined with an (experimental) archaeological approach. Published over the years 1968-1995 it pulled together an impressive number of research projects from around the world, a remarkable effort in the days without internet.

As the number of people studying rural history increases, and museums continue to interpret meaning and method, several of us who work with agricultural museums, experimental archaeology, living history farms, and open-air museums decided to join forces to try and make Tools & Tillage more widely available.

As debates about environmental change gain intensity, and as agricultural practices factor significantly in these debates, the research published in Tools & Tillage seems more and more essential to our collective understanding. Yet, the journal is very hard to access. Three international organisations collaborated to increase access with the aim of engaging younger historians of rural and farm life with the essential knowledge and skills of agricultural techniques published over 27 years in Tools & Tillage.

We found an avid supporter in Dr. Grith Lerche, the only remaining editor of Tools & Tillage, and owner of the copyrights. She co-edited Tools & Tillage with Axel Steensberg and Alexander Fenton. Thanks to UNESCO-Welterbestätte Kloster Lorsch – Experimentalarchäologisches Freilichtlabor Lauresham (DE), the University Library of Heidelberg (DE) scanned the material and made it available, including a full text search of the 137 articles in 1,776 pages.

The full Journal is made available for dissemination and preservation of the electronic files under a (CC BY 4.0) license at:

This project of making Tools & Tillage available was possible thanks to the persistence and good cooperative spirit of many. The partners in this project are:

How often do you step out of your “field”?

The relevance – and challenges – of non-field crops for agricultural museums

“Bruising” furze, Courtesy of Ulster Folk & Transport Museum Collections*

Farmers around the world do much more than farming, often taking on stewardship for much of the environment we associate with the countryside and important activities that do not usually “fit” into field agriculture can be a vital part of farming economies. A good example of this is furze (Ulex spp., also known in English as gorse or whins), which played a major role in fodder production and had many other traditional uses.

Les paysans à travers le monde s’occupent souvent autant de l’environnement que de l’agriculture dans le sens strict du terme. L’ajonc (Ulex spp.) en est un bon exemple, ayant servi pour l’approvisionnement en fourrage, entre autres utilisations traditionnelles.

Bauern weltweit betreiben oft viel mehr als reine Landwirtschaft und sind wichtige Partner in Umweltschutzfragen. Der Stechginster (Ulex spp.) liefert ein interessantes Beispiel in Bezug auf die Rolle einer Pflanze als Trockenfutter und einer ganzen Reihe anderer Verwertungen.

furze – Ulex spp. fodder field agriculture environmental stewardship

It takes but a brief glance at the environment to see how very much farmers around the world affect their immediate environment, from mending fences to keeping roads passable, from spreading microbial disease in effluents to campaigning for safe bio-controls in the place of pesticides. The engagement of farmers with crops outside their fields – if and when they are mainly in field agriculture – is often considered incidental and nigh invisible. A good example of this involves the many fodder crops aside from hay, or even such crops as “tree-hay”, that do not fit into the stereotyped schema of what we give our animals to eat when they cannot graze. In Irish testimony, furze (Ulex spp.) was often part of a fodder complex, mixed with straw, hay, bran or boiled turnips to make it still more delectable.

Popular tradition and even law (Kelly 42, 380-1, 395) saw furze land as valuable and the plant can “talk” – if you are there to listen, since its pods make a loud popping noise in warm weather when they expel their ripened seeds. Since it flowers nearly year-round, it gave rise to the popular saying “when kissing’s out of fashion, the gorse is out of bloom”.

O.W. Thomé, 1885, Wikimedia Commons; Wikipedia Creative Commons, “Whin or gorse on Fife coastal trail”

Furze may not be just “one” thing, in some places. Also known in English as whins or gorse, there may be up to seven species that hybridize easily in the British Isles, though they were usually seen as quite distinct in local traditions. The plant had uses in addition to fodder, as especially noted for Ireland: as a dye plant, as a natural harrow, to sweep chimneys, line storage pits, provide bedding for human and litter for animals. Furze ash was used as fertilizer, plant extracts as medicinals and to make soap, as well as being an important cash crop as fuel for bakers, to such an extent that it was considered a major fire hazard when stored in great quantities in towns.

Furze is a fire-climax plant and regenerates strongly when burned, so that some research might indicate the plant self-oriented genetically to be more flammable! It was once a familiar sight in the environment as ditched hedging and in constructing drainage systems and, today, it is often used, as is its cousin, broom (Genista), for land reclamation, because of the nitrogen-fixing capacities and the cover they provide for wildlife.

Nutritionally, furze provides an important protein supplement to livestock, but obviously it was far too prickly to suit the mucosae of horses, cattle, goats and sheep, so it had to be processed to “gentle” it. Once done, the plant was especially valued for putting a sheen onto animals’ coats and its protein content was a special boost to working animals.

Lucas Furze billhook and hand guard and how to make a furze mitten, both p. 76, Courtesy of Béaloideas, Journal of The Folklore of Ireland Society*

Billhooks with leather hand guards or straw “mittens” were used to gather it. It was softened for use as fodder by “bruising” because, unlike broom, it is quite prickly. Agricultural engineers and scientists term this process “promoting bioaccessibility”. Furze was often bruised with a mallet, while in some kind of hard support, such as a furze stone or whinstone. Such stones were often found near homes or stables. In some cases in Irish tradition, the processing was even done inside the house in a furze pit not far from the family fire, so it was also a winter task in a convivial spot. Furze was at times worked with flails with an iron beater or with beetles like those used to pound potatoes. There is even mention, in a case in Scotland, of a circular trough for furze with a rounded stone pulled by a horse. Of course, there is ample attestation to furze or whinny mills, and Mackenzie of Ross-shire in Scotland was producing these for “export” to other parts of the British Isles as early as the 1840s. Mechanized furze “machines” followed upon these early versions and at times were so large that they needed a special building for themselves.

“Bruising” furze; the second method could be done outdoors or indoors, Courtesy of Béaloideas, Journal of The Folklore of Ireland Society*

 Another technique involved using a chopper on furze in a ground-level trough as one would a pestle with a single-bladed or cross-bladed head. In fact, for hand processing, a pounding technique could precede or follow a chopping technique to produce a “mash”. This sort of “food” ferments quickly, but – as today with dark “homemade” hay – animals often especially liked the taste. (N.B. don’t try letting it ferment yourself for a demonstration – it is against EU regulations!) Some testimony speaks of special skills, of the right “trick” to turn the chopper while bringing it down, that accelerated the work and produced a better mash. Lack of information on such tricks may disguise the intricacies of processing furze effectively and this recalls one of the remarks Isabel Grant made about Highland Scotland: when she asked a potential collection contributor about the price he wanted for an implement, he stressed that it was very valuable: it might not take long to make it, but it took a lifetime to learn how to use it (Grant 104).

There may once have been a particular geography of the tools, techniques and types of furze used, but it has escaped us, with the passage of time, so do remember in collecting testimony to enhance your array of implements: if you know someone who knows how to do it, catch them while you can!

Meanwhile, how often do you step out of your familiar “fields” to look at the plants beyond them, once valued for so many reasons? Tell us about it.

Notes and Literature: There is a summary of a fine volume on hay and hay-making in AIMA Newsletter N° 11: “A Place for Hay. Flexibility and Continuity in Hay Meadow Management” in MARTOR The Museum of the Romanian Peasant Anthropology Journal 21/2016, see For the British Isles, discover the delights of everything you ever wanted to know about furze in A.T. Lucas “Furze. A Survey and History of its Uses in Ireland”, the entire issue of Béaloideas, Vol. XXVI, Dublin, 1958-1960. The remark about the value of an implement comes from Isabel Grant Highland Folk Ways, Edinburgh, Birlinn, 1961/1997, and in his Early Irish Farming, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1998, Fergus Kelly details the value of land as seen through the plants that grew on it.

* For kind permission to use the illustrations from Lucas’ issue on furze, special thanks to Rionach uí Ógáin and Cristóir Mac Cárthaigh of Béaloideas, Journal of The Folklore of Ireland Society, and Michelle Ashmore of the National Museums of Norther Ireland Picture Library for facilitating authorization to use the photograph from the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum Collection.

Cozette Griffin-Kremer, Associate Researcher, CRBC Brest,

Marlene Hugoson and Cozette Griffin-Kremer at the Dimitrie Gusti National Village Museum in Bucarest, Romania, 2018

What is the relevance of animal traction in the 21st century? Some experiences from the 65th World Ploughing Championship in Einsiedel (Germany)

Zusammenfassung (Abstract):

Basierend auf selbst gemachten Erfahrungen der 65. Pflügerweltmeisterschaft im baden-württembergischen Einsiedeln im Jahr 2018, stellt der Autor die Frage nach der Relevanz von tierischer Anspannung im 21. Jahrhundert. Während in Einsiedeln eine Zuordnung derselben eher in agrarhistorische Zusammenhänge oder als schmückendes Beiwerk deutlich wurde, kann aus den Erfahrungen von Institutionen wie Tillers International oder der modernen Forstwirtschaft eine weitaus höhere Relevanz nachgezeichnet werden. Letztlich plädiert der Autor für eine Stärkung der Tierischen Anspannung nicht nur in einer kulturhistorischen, sondern auch auf der praktischen Ebene.


Animal Traction – World Ploughing Championship – Oxen – Horses – Sustainability – Forestry – Agriculture  

On September 1st and 2nd 2018, the 65th World Ploughing Championship took place at the Einsiedel farm estate in Germany. The world´s best ploughers from more than 30 countries competed in stubble and grassland competitions, each with reversible and conventional ploughs and of course – with tractors.

Grassland competition at the World Ploughing Championship 2018 (picture: Claus Kropp)

Alongside the championship itself, the organizers presented a vast supporting program ranging from old-timer tractor shows, regional delicacies, performances and speeches as well as demonstrations of cutting-edge agricultural technology. Another part of the supporting program was the Baden-Württemberg Open Competition for Horse Ploughing and the Hohenheim Field with steam plough demonstrations, featuring the motto “Soil Cultivation in Changing Times”.

Ploughing team at the Baden-Württemberg Open Competition for Horse Ploughing as part of the supporting program of the World Ploughing Championship (picture: Claus Kropp)
Ploughing with draft oxen and (re)constructed medieval plough at the Hohenheim Field Days (picture: Claus Kropp)

Coming from the Lauresham Open Air Laboratory for Experimental Archaeology in southern Germany, we were able to become part of these Hohenheim Field Days with one of our draft oxen and a (re)constructed medieval plough. We also had the chance to present our work and research at the (re)constructed Early Medieval manor with an information desk alongside those of other institutions, associations and museums. Besides being busy with ploughing demonstrations and talking to many interested visitors, I had the chance to take a closer look at the way animal draft power was presented and valued within the event. I asked myself: what is the relevance of animal traction in the 21st century? Judging from the event itself, you could say it is just a relic of a time long gone, a nice thing to have and to preserve as part of our cultural and historical heritage. This can be emphasized with the fact that even the State Horse Ploughing championship was only listed in the supporting program.

I agree one hundred percent that animal draft power is a valuable part of our agricultural past and that agricultural museums need to preserve this knowledge and these practices. In this respect it was right to schedule our ploughing presentation within the “Soil Cultivation in Changing Times” of the Field Days. I nevertheless completely disagree that animal draft power does not play a valuable role in the 21st century and I would have wished that it had been presented not only as a relic of the past but also as an innovative and effective way to cope with the sustainability challenges of our present time. Let me emphasize this with some examples: Looking at the long work of Tillers International in Africa and other continents, it can be strongly stated that – considering the circumstances – ploughing with draft cattle can still be the most economic and efficient way of soil cultivation – not to speak of the most sustainable. The traditional utilization of cattle as three-use-animals (meat, milk and work) plays a key role in this respect. This can also be said for some aspects of modern forestry: In many ways horse- and to some extent also ox-logging once again became effective modern ways of working through a new understanding of sustainable forest management.

It is well known that logging with draft animals ensures far better soil protection than larger forestry machinery (e.g. Harvester) could ever accomplish. It can also be an economic and valuable alternative to heavy machinery when working in steep terrain. I myself had the great opportunity to meet one of the most experienced oxdrivers from France, Philippe Kuhlmann, and he showed me very impressively on his farm that there is no better alternative for him than ox-logging considering his forests lie in the middle of the Vosges Mountains. Both the cows (from which he also produces tasty cheese and which he still milks by hand) and the males (be it bulls of oxen) are used for logging purposes. This was another key moment for me to understand that even in our high-tech society draft animals can play their part.

Vosges cattle working at the farm of Philippe Kuhlmann (picture: Claus Kropp)

Coming back to my experiences at the World Ploughing Championship, I can onlyplead strongly to promote draft animal power in a different way in the future: strengthen the value of it as an important part of our cultural history but at the same time emphasize the use of it today – and tomorrow. In a way, the organizers of future large scale events like this could learn from the way agricultural museums operate around the globe in opening a window onto our past and providing pathways towards our future.

Claus Kropp
Manager Lauresham Open Air Laboratory for Experimental Archaeology