We may think of Dark Age folk as hopelessly pre-technological, but they had to tinker and invent constantly on a personal level to survive and make society go — something ScienceWorks will show all this weekend as they invite kids (or anyone) to come and experience it hands-on. 

This experiential fest, called “Making Medieval,” is all about tinkering and getting things to work — a catapult, casting low-temperature metal — all without machines, fuel, horses or any of the labor-saving devices we know so well in the modern world, says ScienceWorks Educational Director Summer Brandon. 

Demonstrating a small, castle-busting, gravity-driven trebuchet, Brandon says the exhibit and participative class will call on the brains, eyes and hands of children to discern how things worked a thousand years ago, “without any crazy, complicated magic.” 

Exhibit builder and “tinkerer in residence” Dana Schloss loads the trebuchet with coins, providing the mass that will pull the catapult (bucket) sharply downward, hurling a ping-pong ball across the room. That’s how it worked in the 12th century, when the device was first engineered to bring down castle and town walls. Gunpowder replaced it a few centuries later. 

It’s all about “tinker, tinker, tinker” until you figure it out, Schloss says — then when it doesn't do what you want, tinker some more, using your powers of observation and gray matter.

To make things of metal a millennium ago, you usually had to shape a die, melt iron and other metals and pour it into the die — and that’s exactly what kids will be doing. It’s also what Brandon and Schloss were doing this week, melting non-lead fishing sinkers in a skillet on a hot plate, then carving a die of soft, inflammable plaster.

They thought pewter might work, but its melting temperature was too high, so they used non-lead sinkers of bismuth and tin. Using pull-tabs from pop cans, they figured out a way for kids to make chain mail for battle or decorative clothing. 

“I've never done this before,” says Schloss, “so I’m learning how to do it safely, while empowering the kids to tinker and solve problems with their own ingenuity.” 

Videos will demonstrate many ways medieval folk survived and did daily activities — including one that shows how a skilled archer can get off three arrows in less than three seconds.

“We’re looking for places and times where a lot of invention led to a lot of progress,” said Brandon. “People were forced to solve problems, while making do with what they had and being very inventive.” 

Their take-away in the 12th century, and ours now, she adds, is that “you take this set of ideas and play with them. You build a mindset. They did it for survival and we're doing it for fun, inspiration and to be a tinkerer, using new levels of creativity and invention.” 

What’s really different about then and now, she notes, is that now, it’s mostly about mastering something you plug in, and doing it by reading the owner’s manual and operating the software and buttons. Back then, you invented the machine itself and powered it with natural forces, including human muscle. 

The tinkering fest will be focused in "da Vinci’s Garage," site of many tinkering adventures, with other engaging events all over the building. The event will feature period actors and musicians, including Earl the Bard on the hurdy-gurdy. He is normally seen at Oberon’s downtown.

Dennis DeBay and Ash Carey, blacksmiths from the Ashland Forge, will demonstrate the tools and techniques used centuries ago, and still today, to mold iron into unique pieces in a coal-fired forge. Visitors can create their own iron work to take home.

Larry Kellogg of Osher Lifelong Learning Institute will demonstrate the life-size cam hammer he and OLLI students built using plans of Leonard da Vinci. The device was used to forge heated metal, even into the 20th century to make sheet metal for ships and tanks in World War I. 

Making Medieval is this weekend only, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 under 12 or over 65 and free for 2 and younger. A year-long family membership is $70. ScienceWorks at at 1500 E Main St., Ashland. For more, go to www.scienceworksmuseum.org.

John Darling is an Ashland freelancer at jdarling@jeffnet.org.