CRAVEN Museum had its busiest Sunday ever last weekend as hundreds of guests flocked to Skipton for the launch of the Celtic Craven exhibition.

After the event had been opened by Channel 4's Carenza Lewis from the Time Team series, more than 500 people enjoyed the Celtic swords and carved stone heads during the opening weekend. A record 228 people visited on Sunday.

At a private viewing on Thursday night, Mrs Lewis said: "I am very happy to support work of bodies like the Craven Museum. Just like Time Team it's about making archaeology popular and accessible to everyone."

The start of the exhibition was also marked by a visit from three Iron Age characters who entertained the public in Skipton, demonstrating craft skills. They worked in bone and horn to make combs as would have been done during the Iron Age period.

The audience was so impressed many returned with antlers from home for them to work with. "It just shows how interested the people were," said Museum Officer Siobhan Kirrane.

The characters were also a hit with children from Threshfield Primary School who dragged their parents along to the exhibition after the Celts visited them at school.

The display offers visitors the chance to explore the Celts of Craven in the first century AD. A few traces of the Celtic language still survive in local place names like Pen-y-Ghent which means hill of the winds and the River Aire which means strong or fresh.

The exhibition looks at the landscape and homes of the Celtic people. The Romans established forts at Ilkley and Elslack, Wensley and Bainbridge, and an efficient network of roads to link them. There was also a Roman style villa at Kirk Sink near Gargrave.

It must have stood out in the countryside, with its square building and an orange roof, different to the traditional, earthy roundhouses of the native population.

The exhibition also looks at fashions, politics, the impact of the Roman invasion and religious issues. One of the most difficult areas of first century life to understand is the Celtic view of religion and spirituality.

The Celts revered the human head as the seat of the soul. They gathered heads as trophies and believed they had magical powers. At least one skull has been recovered from a roundhouse site in Craven, which may have been placed there as part of some ritual. One case at the exhibition is dedicated to a large number of the carved stone heads which may or may not be Celtic.

It is unlikely that anyone will ever fully understand Celtic myths and rituals but certain traces remain even to this day. Why do people throw money into pools - even in modern shopping centres? This may date back to an ancient Celtic practice, making offerings to the water spirits.

The items on display include the Flasby Sword, an example of Celtic craftsmanship which would have belonged to an aristocratic warrior. This has a beautifully worked, bronze scabbard and was made by a Celtic craftsman in around 50AD.

Another special piece is the Malham pipe, a rare example of an Iron Age musical instrument on loan from the Leeds Museums and Galleries.

The final case entitled 21st Century Celt is crammed full of pseudo Celtic items that can be bought on any high street today. Many have no basis in historical or archaeological fact but still people buy them. As we move into the third millennium it would seem that society does not want to lose touch with the Celts.

Many events and activities have been planned for throughout the exhibition period.

There will be a family drama workshop exploring the life of the Brigantian queen, Cartimandua, on April 26, a children's "Off with their Heads" clay workshop on April 27, an archaeological finds day on May 27, and a chance to have your face painted to look like a ferocious Celt and make your own Celtic shoes on June 3.

The Celtic Craven Exhibition runs until September 30, and admission is free. The museum is open weekdays 10am to 5pm (it is closed on Tuesday), Saturdays from 10am to noon and 1pm to 5pm and Sundays from 2pm to 5pm. It will be closed on Good Friday.

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