Forging Ahead!

January 2023

It looks like a crazy year of travel!

The year got off to a rocky start with me getting Covid while on a trip to Los Angeles. I’ve recovered and have a couple of months before I start the year’s journeys, and I am excited. It looks as if I’ll be busier than last year!

At the end of March I fly to Italy, where I’ll have a week in Modena to pick up my summer clothes and then fly to Northern Cyprus. I will spend the whole month of April there. The plan is to relax and see the country in the spring, but there’s a chance that I’ll be able to do some metalwork and give some lectures.

In May I head to Poland for the EXARC/EAC conference on experimental archaeology. Then it’s back to Italy to spend time with the family there, but at the end of the month I’ll head north to Germany for the Bronze Casting Festival, immediately followed by a trip to Latvia, where I’ve been asked to speak at a conference there.

Later in June, I’ll be in England for a couple of months where I hope to make some museum visits, help out with some workshops, and catch up with friends. In August I plan to go to Ireland and then head up to Belfast for the EAA Conference, where I’m co-chairing a session on experimental archaeology. From there, I head back to Northern Cyprus for the Vounous Symposium. I’ll spend a little more time in Italy before heading back to the US in the autumn.

Some of these workshops and travel expenses are covered by grants, but a lot of it is out of pocket for me. One of my sources of income is my Patreon Campaign. If you would like to support my work in experimental archaeology, please consider making a small monthly donation at Even a couple of dollars/euros/pounds a month really does help. Think of it as buying me a glass of wine after I’ve finished a day at a conference! Supporters do get benefits including postcards sent from all the places that I visit, early access to my podcast, In Small Things Considered, and special access to articles and publications that are exclusive to Patreon patrons. Special thanks go to those who support me on Patreon. You definitely are part of the excitement and fun of doing experimental archaeology!

2022 The Year in Archaeology and Conferences

2022 was an exciting year, full of archaeology, travel and travel mishaps, and exploring a world that had been closed off for two years.

In February, I finally got to work on the fellowship that was awarded to me through Historic Williamsburg and EXARC. I lived for a month in a cottage on the edge of the historic city and helped convert a jeweller’s lathe into a lapidary machine. For the final week, I was on display cutting gems in period costume, which was actually pretty comfortable. I wrote about the experience in an article for the EXARC Journal.

The year really got into gear in the spring when I landed in England and went to the Second Accidental and Experimental Archaeometallurgy Conference at the Ancient Technology Centre in Cranbourne. After two years of pandemic isolation in the US it was wonderful to be able to work with colleagues again. Before getting down to work, Fergus Milton took me over to Butser Ancient Farm to check out the new buildings. The site now has houses that range from the Mesolithic to Early Medieval and even includes a posh Roman house. Fergus is building his own dedicated metals workshop. I hope that I will get a chance to go down there and visit it when it is completed next summer.

The Archaeometallurgy conference was a great time. We constructed furnaces, laughed and joked, and shared information and stories about our respective fields of research. There were talks and presentations, a hog roast, and storytelling. Bronze was poured, iron smelted, and brass created. On Sunday the public came by to see the pyrotechnic action. They weren’t disappointed. I ended up spending more time talking to the public and explaining the event than actually working metal. That was a theme that continued through the summer.

In the end our furnaces were all destroyed and returned to the earth. By the time we left, there was little evidence that so much activity had been going on. To read more about it, here’s a link to my report in the EXARC Journal

I had a wild ride back up north with Ellie Blakelock and Vanessa Castagnino, laughing and talking the whole way. It was great to be in Sheffield again and going out into the Peak District with Gill and Ken. We checked for witches’ marks in the Tideswell Church, visited Bishop’s House, and I wandered around my old neighbourhood in Crookes.

I even got a little bit of excavating in at Castleton.

Digging at Castleton

We also made a trip down to Derbyshire to visit Calke Abbey. It has one of the few remaining 19th Century faceting machines. After my experience at Williamsburg, I was interested in seeing one of these in the flesh. Calke Abbey is an experience in itself. It’s an old manor house that was donated to the National Trust, who have kept everything in situ. Everything is in a jumble, and only the library seems to have been sorted out. The director moved the machine out where I could photograph every inch of it, while Gill wrote down measurements. We did get to see more of the place, although we never got to the upstairs. As it was, there was more taxidermy than many natural history museums, and the family seemed to have a particular interest in lapidary and rock collecting. The curator in my sorely wanted to sort things out and label them, but the place is just as the last residents left it with doll houses, tiger rugs, and even a palanquin chair. It’s truly a place of sensory overload. I just wished that we could have sat ourselves down in one of the comfy library chairs and pulled out a book. A cup of tea would also have been a lovely addition.

Dining room at Calke Abbey

In July I headed south and helped out with the Sedgeford Archaeological metals course, run by Ellie Blakelock. The Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project (SHARP ) is a long term excavation and field school. In addition to excavating an entire medieval village, they run basic and specialist archaeology courses. Despite the unprecedented heat, we had a great time building a furnace, carving moulds, and casting. The final day was an open day so the public got to see the students in action. The students had a great time and cast a lot of jewellery and small objects while learning the basics of primitive casting techniques.

Cuttlefish moulds and casts

The summer heat took Britain by surprise. I got a ride to the Kings Lynn Train Station. I had tickets to go from there to London and then catch the Eurostar the next morning and get back to Italy. The heat was so extreme that the tracks buckled, meaning that no trains could get in or out of Kings Lynn. After waiting a few hours I was lucky to hitch a ride with a young woman whose dad gave us a ride to Ely, where we could get the next train to London. I got a decent night’s sleep at the hotel I booked and then was up at the crack of dawn to catch the first Eurostar back to the continent.

I had a great time relaxing in Modena. I spent a lot of time at the local library taking advantage of the wifi and air conditioning. I visited friends in Siena where we visited as many museums as we could pack into a weekend. I also had some great evenings knitting with friends and making squares for the Viva Vittoria Project. In February 2023 we plan to cover the Piazza Grande with an enormous blanket, all to raise awareness about violence against women.

There was a bit too much adventure at the beginning of August when I tried to get to the Bronze Casting Festival in Uelsen in northern Germany. The plan was to take the train up near Karlsruhe, meet Kevin Frank and then we’d drive the rest of the way. Except… a couple days before we were due to leave, Kevin came down with covid. I had to figure out how to get up there by train, starting from Karlsruhe. It was the high point for holiday travel in Europe, and Germany was offering 9 euro tickets to promote public transit. The trains were packed, and always running late. I missed so many connections and kept having to cobble together a new route and schedule at every station, straining my limited German language skills. It took almost exactly 24 hours, but I got there finally. I was exhausted and then found out that other participants had cancelled out due to Covid or other issues. That left me and Matthias Fischer to get things up and running, teach, and then demonstrate to the public on Sunday. The event was only a weekend, rather than a full week, so there was little time to get my brain together. But it was good to be back, and I enjoyed the event and seeing everyone after so long.

Then I faced the trip back down south. Knowing that it would still be insane, I arranged to spend the night at Kira and Tony’s place in Köln. What should have been an early evening arrival turned into me rolling in around 11 pm. Instead of sleeping, like any sane person would, we stayed up talking and drinking wine all night. I did get a little nap in before heading back to the station. I got there on time, only to find that the first train of the morning train was delayed. The trip back had about as many delays and rescheduling as the trip up. I was so glad to be back to Italy where, despite so many complaints, the trains do tend to run on time, or at least better than they do in Germany.

At the beginning of September I flew to Budapest to speak at the EAA (European Association of Archaeologists) conference. My paper was on examining the industrial waste from primitive non-ferrous metalworking, both in ancient and modern experimental contexts. I’m hoping to continue this project and have started to look for resources and ways to support the project. Meanwhile Budapest was beautiful. I only saw a small portion of the city, and spent most of one day at the museum. I definitely have to go back again.

Building in Budapest

Then it was back to Modena briefly. I had enough time to wash my clothes and repack my bags. Then I was off to North Cyprus for the Vounous Symposium.

My goal for this year was to replicate a set of pot bellows that were excavated at Enkomi, a Bronze Age site near Famagusta. Kevin was still out with covid and Chris couldn’t afford to come, so I was on my own again. Except that Vounous is a huge supportive community. I met Ergün Arda, a ceramic artist from Turkey who took time away from his work to make the bodies for the bellows. A ride was organized so I could go to the leather supplier to get the hides I needed for the tops of the bellows. Then we had a tense night hoping that the bellows wouldn’t crack during the firing. They turned out perfectly and everyone was fascinated by them. In the following days anyone who wanted to had the chance to use them. Again,  I didn’t get much in the way of casting or smelting done, but together we made an important piece of equipment that is closely related to the heritage of the site. During the symposium I finally started the Turkish language course that I’d been trying to get on for over a year. I dearly hope that I will be able to speak Turkish reasonably well by the time I return.

Pot bellow, waiting to be fired

I always hate to leave Vounous, but at least I was heading back to Modena. It’s a good place to relax and recharge. I got to spend some time with my cousin Paolo and enjoy the cooler weather. Then in early October I headed back north to Germany to Adventon, a medieval/Viking era open air archaeological park Kevin has been building a metals workshop there, and originally he planned for an event to celebrate the completion of the workshop. Instead, a small group of us finished putting on the roof and getting most of the walls done. Even if we didn’t get any metalworking done, it was still a great time. The weather was good for the most part, and we had a great time drinking Turkish coffee, talking, and eating meals together.

Trimming shingles for the roof

At the end of Adventon, I had to return to the US. My allotted three months in the EU were up. Unfortunately, my late afternoon flight was changed to an early morning one, meaning I had to beg a ride from Kevin, and we had to get up at 4 am to get me to the airport on time. That was not appreciated by either of us.

Back in the US, I have been finishing up a lot of projects that have languished. Knives have handles now, and I finished a sickle that was a commissioned piece. I’m at the lathe as much as possible, and I’ve also joined a foundry where I can get casting done over the winter. I have some very cool projects in mind and a lot to do in the three months until I leave for Europe again at the end of March.

Next year is already filling up. I submitted an abstract for the EAC conference in Poland in April, and the EAA in Belfast in August. There’s the Bronze casting Festival and Adventon, and of course Vounous. Speaking of which, I’ve only been in Northern Cyprus in September and very much want to see it in the spring when it is green. I’m making plans to be there in April and maybe got some metalworking done while I’m there.

2022 was an exhausting year of missed connections and difficult travel, but it was all so worth it. After the two years of pandemic lockdown, seeing so many friends and people I love, being able to work again and teach, pour metal, all of that was the greatest gift I could have asked for. Here’s to 2023 and all the adventure, but maybe with better travel connections.

Pot bellows in action!

September 2022

I’m back from the conference of the European Association of Archaeologists in Budapest. There were a lot of great sessions, and as always it’s impossible to see more than a fraction of what’s going on. This year the conference was a hybrid of in-person presentations and virtual. Every session had participants who joined in online. The sessions I attended went seamlessly, although it must have been tough for people on the west coast of the US who were giving their talks at 5 am Pacific Time. The poster sessions were also virtual. There were no printed posters. Instead touchscreens allowed viewers to select a session and see the posters. All of these innovations allowed for people to participate who would normally be unable to attend the conference. However, there were some people who I wish would have been able to make it, if only to have in person conversations. Still, the conference was inspiring and I came away with fresh ideas and seriously thinking about new projects.

Digital posters at the EAA

Budapest is beautiful and the National Museum there is world class. The displays and layout are outstanding. Many of them allow the visitor to walk around the object, or at least to be able to see them from more than just one angle. The objects themselves are truly worthy of the treatment they get. I spent an entire afternoon there and would willingly go again and spend more time.

But there’s no rest this week. I arrived back on Saturday and tomorrow, the 6th I fly out to North Cyprus for the Vounous Symposium. There will be two weeks of smelting copper and melting bronze, and maybe we’ll get back into making some faience.

National Museum of Hungary, Budapest

July 2022

The year continues, although the excessive heat has been a bit much, especially when working with hot metal!

The Accidental and Experimental Archaeometallurgy 2.1 Conference was a blast. It was great connecting with everyone again and getting some work done. Thanks to Vanessa Castignino who went all out to make the event a success. There was the usual friendly rivalry between the ferrous and non-ferrous people, with furnaces of all shapes and sizes. There will be a short review of the conference in the EXARC Newsletter, coming out soon.

After a relaxing time in Sheffield, where I actually got to do a few minutes of excavating, I headed down to Norfolk for Sedgeford’s Archaometallurgy day course. We had some great students and built a permanent bowl furnace, so we don’t have to start from scratch every year. We did try to smelt copper, but ironically the weather was too hot to continue bellowing, so we just couldn’t get the furnace hot enough without roasting the people pumping the bellows.

Right now I’m in Modena, Italy where the extreme temperatures continue. However, I am looking forward to a cool time in Uelsen, Germany where I’ll be at the Bronze Casting Festival. I plan to continue my experiments with self-draughting furnaces, and use my 3D printed pins as forms for some sand casting.

Later in August I’ll be presenting at the EAA Conference in Budapest, and then I just got word that the Vounous Symposium will be back for another year! I am so looking forward to seeing everyone in North Cyprus again. Last time we started making faience for the fun of it. Who knows what we’ll try this time, in addition to all the usual smelting and casting…


2022 is finally picking up where 2020 left off. I’m back in England and this weekend I’ll be at the Historical Metallurgy Society’s Accidental and Experimental Archaeometallurgy 2.1 Conference. Next month I’ll be at Sedgeford for SHARP’s Metallurgy day course. Then in August, I’ll head up to Uelsen, Germany for the Bronze Casting Festival at the Bronzezeithof. At the end of August I’ll be speaking at the EAA Conference in Budapest. Plans are still afoot for heading down to North Cyprus in September, although I haven’t had official word about another Vounous Symposium. Fingers crossed, though. It’s an exciting event and one where we have two weeks to work rather than just a weekend.

It feels great to be on the road again, although hauling a suitcase full of bronze tools can get a bit tiring at times. Still, I wouldn’t trade this life for anything!

The Self-draughting Furnace in the Snow

Welcome to 2022 and Some Resolutions

Last year, in 2021 everything was cancelled… again. The world was put on hold for another year. We all got tired of waiting for the next shoe to drop, not realizing that it was a centipede that was dropping them. It was as if the promise we hoped for in 2020 was snatched away. Some people reacted with anger, but for me it was withdrawal. I checked out for a while. When I look back on all the stuff I did last year, it looks like I was insanely busy, but to me it felt as if I had been treading water, waiting for life to come back to some form of normal and leave the US behind.  Still, hope springs eternal. My fellowship at Colonial Williamsburg that’s been delayed three times is rescheduled to happen next April and with luck I’ll be back in Europe this summer.

I did get a furnace built last year. It’s self-draughting, so I didn’t even need a set of bellows. That was convenient and a real labour saver, but it brought home how much bronze casting is a communal event for me. I missed the camaraderie, the laughing, storytelling, and the intensity of working as a close-knit team. I never bought into the idea of the lone, itinerant Bronze Age metalsmith, unbound from the structure of society. As a metalsmith, I am pretty itinerant, but I am rarely alone, and there is always some sort of social structure. In the modern world it is much easier to do this sort of work alone, but that is essentially an illusion. I head over to the hardware store and buy bags of charcoal and order bags of clay to be delivered here, but in the Broze Age there would have been a lot more interaction to get the necessary supplies. If the people who dug the clay and burned the charcoal weren’t a part of my village or settlement, I would have had to negotiate how to get the supplies to where I was working. Likewise for the metal or ore. The Bronze Age was a world without a lot of easy transportation. Something we take for granted now.

These days it’s unfashionable to do New Year’s resolutions. People point out that there really isn’t anything special about the transition from December 31st to January 1st, it’s just an arbitrary date. It is an arbitrary date, but it’s also a long-standing tradition and there is a certain amount of power in traditions. 2021 was certainly a depressing year. Then New Year’s came and went. Compared to New Year’s Eve in Italy and England, there’s not much going on here even in a non-Covid year. It was a low point for me, and it came to the point where the only way was back up again. So, I did make resolutions. Small ones that will get bigger as I get back into the swing of things. It felt right. I feel as if I am getting back into the game and even if I don’t have a lot of energy, I’m acting as if I do. In the coming weeks I plan to put up a page of bronze casting moulds, similar to the page I made for textile tools. I’ll also write a full report on my self-draughting furnace, that amazingly seems to be holding up in the sub-zero weather here, and I’ll polish up and publish some old articles of mine. So, I’m back and hoping to make up for lost time.


Making a Bronze Age Gold Leaf Crown

Photo by Rauf Ersenal

I wanted to recreate one of the gold leaf crowns found in Cyprus. These date back to the Bronze Age there and have been found in burials. The one I chose to replicate is in the Güzelyurt Museum of Archaeological and Natural History, Northern Cyprus. The crown has ivy leaves, berries, and two tendrils.

The original was made of gold, however unable to afford that much gold, I used copper and gold leaf. I also did not create the wire or sheet from scratch. I had planned to make the berries using a dapping block, but a bout of Covid meant that I lost a couple of weeks of time to work on it, so instead I bought 8 mm copper beads.

Making the structure of the crown

The base of the crown was made from Copper Tube (5/32″ ID × 3/16″ OD(4-5mm)) that is commonly used for refrigerators. The original was made from two pieces that were overlapped and held together by wrapping with wire in two places at the back. Since I intended this to be worn, I wanted the crown to be as sturdy as possible, so used one piece of tubing. The original and the replica are both open at the front.

The first step was to drill holes in the tubing. Twenty-four leaves are concentrated along the sides and front. The leaves are in twelve pairs along each side.

The leaves were cut from 30-gauge (0.31mm) copper sheet. The metal was thin enough to be cut with a strong pair of scissors. Long stems were cut out extending from the leaves. The leaves were chased to imitate veins using a bronze hammer with a chisel shaped face. The stems were twisted and then were inserted into the holes and soldered in place.

The berries were put on stems by inserting 12-gauge (2.6mm) bronze wire into the bead and soldering at the top. The stems were then soldered in bunches. Tendrils were made of 18-gauge (1.2mm) wire and soldered into two of the clusters that would be placed at the front of the crown. Four clusters of berries were soldered to the front of the crown by inserting into drilled holes and the ends of the tubing. Two more clusters were inserted into holes along the sides, facing outward.

The soldering was at times frustrating. I would get several in place, and then a leaf halfway around the crown would fall off. I ended up soldering one or two leaves and then leaving it for a half an hour to cool down completely before continuing to add leaves.

Applying the gold leaf

Leaves were coated with thinned PVA glue and gold leaf applied directly using fine sable brushes and tweezers. One was used for applying the glue, while the other was kept dry to to smooth the gold leaf. Multiple layers were applied, with each layer coated with the thinned PVA glue and allowing to dry. Despite the layers, the chased details were still evident.


The crown was to be packed into my carry-on bag for the flight to Italy and then Cyprus. For that I needed to make a sturdy box and interior supports. A box and lid were constructed of carboard and hot glue. Inside, supports were made of bubble wrap and closed cell foam. Supports were placed in the four corners and the centre, so that the crown would not shift during transport. The interior was lined with crumpled Tyvek®. Tyvek® creates a smooth snag free, inert surface that is ideal for contact with delicate metal surfaces. The interior structure was fixed in place using hot glue.

Despite my worries, airport security and customs did not notice the crown and it arrived safely. It was presented to Şenol Özdeverim, Rauf Ersenal, and Celal Dimililer during a meeting at the Çatalköy Belediye. The crown will be worn at the opening ceremonies of the 5th Annual Vounous Symposium in September 2023.

Photo by Rauf Ersenal

Making and Using Pot Bellows

At the 4th Annual Vounous Symposium (2022) we wanted to make a set of pot bellows, based on ones that were excavated at Enkomi, an archaeological site in North Cyprus where metalworking was performed in the Bronze Age.

The process began by coil building and paddling şamot, a heavily grogged clay. As the bellows were formed a ridge was put near the top. This will help hold the leather tops in place, and prevent them from slipping off while they are being used. A tube was added and a hole cut in the bottom. The tuyeres, the pipes that connect the bellows to the furnace will fit inside these. The bellows were fitted with a handle. The handles aren’t strong enough to use for lifting the bellows, but later we found that they came in useful for adjusting the position of the bellows when we were getting ready to start work.

Coil building the base of the bellows

Adding the ridge

The bellows were too large for the kiln, so part of the side was torn out in order to fit them in. The wall was replaced and the kiln was filled with smaller pieces of ceramics. We had a nervous evening because we were uncertain whether the bellows would survive the firing. The walls were heavy and thick and we hoped that they had dried sufficiently to prevent cracking. The kiln was a primitive two chamber type, typical of the Bronze Age in Cyprus. The ceramics are loaded into the top, which has a perforated floor. A fire is built in a pit outside of the lower chamber of the kiln. The chimney (which was extended upwards for this firing) creates an updraft, pulling the heat through the furnace. Normally the fuel would be put in the chamber underneath the kiln, but there was concern that the concentration of heat would crack the bases of the bellows since the heat would be unevenly distributed, concentrating on the bottom of the bellows. This unevenness of the heat would cause the firing to be uneven and result in the bellows cracking.

In the furnace

Firing the furnace

The next day they emerged perfectly fired. As soon as they were cool enough we put on the leather. The goat skins we bought were not large enough, so we used some soft cowhides. The hides are wrapped around the top of the bellows, with the edges overlapped by about 12 cm. When pulling up the overlap opens up and allows air in and then it closes on the downstroke. The result is a continuous and steady airflow. Thanks to Ergün Arda for his skills and expertise in making the pot bellows.

Washing Bones

This is from a blog post I wrote in 2008. At the time I was working on my masters degree at the University of Sheffield. The Stonehenge Riverside Project excavations were ongoing and the cremated remains were brought back to the university for cleaning and analyses. There were other skeletons too, including Medieval burials dating from the Battle of Towton Fields. I was one of the volunteers who washed the bones.

Halloween is not a time for the telling of the stories macabre, but to light the candles for the dead. Come, mes amis, let us do so. – Hercule Poirot

I regularly come in early on Tuesdays and wash the bones from the Stonehenge excavation. The lab is usually quiet with people chatting occasionally, but mostly the few of us there are wrapped up in our work. For me it’s a time of meditation. Washing the small fragments of bones, I wonder about whose they were and and think about how fragile life is. Sometimes we talk about a skeleton whose joints are degenerated and painful to look at, or the skeleton of a small child who never got old enough to walk. There is the stereotype of scientists as being cold and uncaring, but it’s not a fair judgement. We think about the parents of the child who died so young, or how painful life must have been for others who were so old. The bones are handled with respect and all the care we would show our ancestors. In a way we are re-enacting our own modern version of ancient rituals. In the distant past some burials were reopened and the flesh carefully removed from the bones and were then coated with red ochre (which when mixed with water resembles fresh blood). Afterwards the bones were reinterred. I carefully wash the fragments of bone, hardened by fire but still so fragile, rubbing them gently with my fingers to loosen the mud.

I think about Buddhist monks who watch the exposed bodies of their masters decompose, slowly returning to the fields upon which they were laid. They also meditate on life and death, the temporary nature of the physical body, and to view the world with a detached nature.

As I wash the bones, I think about how so many things of the ancient past are now an intimate part of my present. I am living in an extraordinary mash-up of time. In the building where I wash these five-thousand year old bones, there is also state of the art equipment. My life is tied to ancient artefacts and modern technology. Trying to imagine the distance in time creates a wild mental pendulum that slows to its central point of now.  All time is now and I am just quietly washing the mud off of bits of bone.

~~All Soul’s Day 2008

Tags: archaeology, aubrey holes, meditation, stonehenge

Review: The Big Book of Torcs

Back in my undergraduate days we learned about Iron Age torcs. They were massive golden things, symbols of power and prestige. What exactly that power was, we didn’t know. They were made, used, and buried in the ground by people who had no written record. Our assumptions about power rested mainly in our own sets of values. But they are gold, valuable, and precious. Then there are other things that are just as valuable and precious, but more intangible…

A few years ago Tess Machling contacted me. She knew me as a jeweler/metalsmith turned archaeologist who had a passion for hammers and manufacturing processes. She had some photos and asked me what I thought. No details, just a question about what technique I would use to make something, or what would have caused this sort of mark. I enjoyed the puzzles. I told her how one photo was of metal that had been cracked because the smith had hammered it too much and the metal was fatigued. Could it the result of casting? No, the edges were too sharp, a casting flaw wouldn’t have a crack formed like that. In a few days I’d learn that other metalsmiths she asked told her the same things. She and Roland Williamson, a metalsmith with a background in making museum replicas, were searching for answers, and questioned everyone they could contact. Eventually I learned that we were corresponding about Iron Age gold torcs. The questions she asked us were set up like a blind test to avoid any bias. It was accepted knowledge that torcs were cast in gold and in the course of her research she was coming to the realization that the accepted knowledge was wrong.

The problems with institutions is that they lumber along and have difficulty changing. Even if they want to change, it occurs slowly. Most of the torcs were excavated and interpreted by antiquarians and archaeologists who never worked with metal and never thought to talk to someone who did. In my own research, time and again I came across ‘facts’ that had been passed along from one publication down the line that were just plain wrong. Tess and I both knew what she was up against. The entrenched ideas of institutions and people who uphold them are just as precious as gold. To have these ideas questioned seemed as great as affront as taking the One Ring from Gollum and declaring that it would be thrown into the fires of Mount Doom. But sometimes ideas do need to be cast away. Not randomly, but through careful research, examination, experimentation, and always questioning.  I know that early on Tess did have doubts, but she and Roland had so much hard evidence that it was impossible to accept the status quo. Their hard work is changing the way we understand how Iron Age torcs were made. By examining tool marks they are identifying different techniques and seeing the smiths’ hands at work. They have found repairs, retrofits, and an entire catalogue of metalworking tricks of the trade.

In the course of their work, they have published articles in the The Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, The Journal of the Historical Metallurgy Society, and the Later Prehistoric Finds Group Newsletter. But research is never static, it is something that is forever evolving and growing. As we all learned through this process, entrenched knowledge is terribly difficult to dislodge, even when it’s been proven wrong. There is also a need for transparency in research, and a way for the public to learn and participate in the process, free from paywalls. By producing their new website and blog, The Big Book of Torcs, Tess Machling and Roland Williamson are presenting their work for everyone to read, and question. It’s a wonderfully informative publication with a good bit of humour that will be useful for both the layperson and the academic, not to mention aspiring metalworkers!

Ever wanted to know about ancient beer and brewing?

There’s a new podcast by The Prehistory Guys featuring my friend and fellow EXARC member Merryn Dineley, an archaeologist who specialises in ancient brewing and especially the process of malting. I’ve had some of the brews she’s made and will say that the ancient recipes produce some fine beer.

There’s a lot of useful information here for both brewers and archaeologists. She takes down some of the misconceptions about the old beer/bread debate, and tells us how not knowing the brewing process has led to some misidentification of archaeological features.

So open up a favourite beer, relax, and enjoy it while learning about its long and fascinating history!

Stories from Times and Epochs, Moscow

I have a Patreon page where I post stories about my travels and experiences casting bronze around the world. Last year I was in Moscow for the Times and Epochs festival, casting bronze with local reenactors. I learned a lot, both about different ways to cast bronze, and also about Moscow and Russia. The story is being told in installments. The first two can be found here:

Moscow: Arrival

My First Day in Moscow

If you’re interested in reading more, there are both public posts and ones that are available to my Patreon subscribers. There are also other benefits for supporters, including copies of powerpoints and articles, or even postcards sent from wherever I travel. Check and out my Patreon page here and consider a small contribution to support my ongoing work in experimental archaeology.

Vounous Symposium 2019

The 3rd Vounous Symposium went wonderfully well. We experimented with creating faience, including making it from locally resourced materials, resulting in what was named Vounous Blue. This year we had three furnaces, my little pit furnace from last year, one that is self drafting and one short shaft furnace. The self drafting one was used for the faience and small projects. It didn’t get quite hot enough for some things we needed, but the design was a work in progress. The shaft furnace was supposed to be for smelting ore. We had a couple of nice samples, but when we went to collect more, we found that the site was under water. Local members of Vounous will go back when the water is down and will collect more. Meanwhile we used what we had to make the pigment for the faience and smelt in a crucible. Since we had so little, we saved it for the evening of the closing ceremonies. People were impressed with the bright blue flames.

Chris, of Maunfactum Historicum carved limestone moulds for us to cast in, making replicas of knives and daggers that were excavated in the vicinity. He also carved an impressive Egyptian kopesh. We didn’t get that cast, but will try for next year. We wondered about the limestone because we’d always been told that it wouldn’t work. However the moulds we’d seen were local limestone, and we found that this worked very well. Apparently not all limestone is created equal.

The above photo is a replica of a dagger we saw at the Museum of Archaeology and Nature, Gurzelyurt ( Morphou) in its limestone mould. We’ve also cast daggers that are replicas of one that was found here at Vounous.

I wrote a short article for EXARC about last year’s Vounous Symposium. You can read it here.

Crafting in the World: Materiality in the Making

Crafting in the World is a new work that combines the world of archaeology, craft, and anthropology. It explores crafts in ancient and modern contexts and discuses the relevancy of understanding crafts to other disciplines.

I had the privilege of writing one of the chapters for this book. In it I discuss how metal objects can be read in a way that the actions of the smith can be visualised.

"This volume expands understandings of crafting practices, which in the past was the major relational interaction between the social agency of materials, technology, and people, in co-creating an emergent ever-changing world. The chapters discuss different ways that crafting in the present is useful in understanding crafting experiences and methods in the past, including experiments to reproduce ancient excavated objects, historical accounts of crafting methods and experiences, craft revivals, and teaching historical crafts at museums and schools.  

Crafting in the World is unique in the diversity of its theoretical and multidisciplinary approaches to researching crafting, not just as a set of techniques for producing functional objects, but as social practices and technical choices embodying cultural ideas, knowledge, and multiple interwoven social networks. Crafting expresses and constitutes mental schemas, identities, ideologies, and cultures. The multiple meanings and significances of crafting are explored from a great variety of disciplinary perspectives, including anthropology, archaeology, sociology, education, psychology, women’s studies, and ethnic studies.

This book provides a deep temporal range and a global geographical scope, with case studies ranging from Europe, Africa, and Asia to the Americas and a global internet website for selling home crafted items."

The link to the publisher is here. It is an academic publisher, and so it is rather expensive. However some university libraries already have copies, so I would recommend seeing if your local library can get a copy, or borrow it on Inter-Library Loan. If all else fails, contact me through the website or for a PDF.

Making Felt Mittens for Bronze Casting

One of the invisible tools of the Bronze Age metalworker is protective gloves. It’s difficult to work with hot metal without some sort of protective hand gear. Even when using wooden tongs, it’s difficult to keep your hands away from the heat of the furnace. Handling heated stone or clay moulds is also difficult without gloves.

The most popular hand protection is to use commercial welding gloves. They do a good job and are fairly inexpensive. On the other hand when working with students, I have to regard them as being disposable. Someone will inevitably burn the leather, making the fingers stiff and difficult or impossible to work with.

When I was in Moscow for the Times and Epochs Festival, the bronze casters there had a nice alternative: felted wool mittens. They look like something that would have been used in the Bronze Age, do a great job of protecting hands from heat, and are repairable. When I got back to the US I wanted to make myself a pair.

Glove pattern
Cardboard forms for the gloves and clean wool roving.

Making the mittens is a fairly straightforward process. Make a pattern out of some heavy cardboard by tracing your hand and adding a couple centimeters all the way around (the wool will shrink). You will need some wool. I bought some roving, wool that’s been cleaned and made ready for spinning, but you could even use wool straight from the sheep. Just make sure that the wool you use is not labeled as ‘superwash’. Superwash wool has been processed to prevent shrinkage. Great if you’re knitting socks, but useless for felting. I have small hands (another advantage, you can make these to fit!) so I used about 170 grams of wool. The only other supplies needed are hot water and a bar of soap. This is a messy process and takes awhile. You’ll need a clean work table in an area where you don’t have to worry about getting the table and the floor wet. Not to mention yourself. My thanks to the staff at StevenBe who let me use their felting room for the process

Glove pattern and wool
The wool is spread out and the pattern laid on top

Lay out the wool so there’s enough to fold over the edges and top. Make sure that the bottom stays open. Take off the pattern for the moment and wet the wool with hot water and scrub it with the soap. Get the soap all through the wool. This is going to be messy. Put the pattern back and fold the wool so it is completely covered, except for where your hand goes in. Now, pushing down on the wool scrub it around on the work table, keeping it wet and rubbing in the soap, flipping it over and doing the other side.

Felting glove
Lots of soap, hot water, and elbow grease go into the felting process.

When the first layer is completely wet and starting to hold together, add more wool wrapping it 90 degrees from the first layer. If the first layer was from the top to the bottom, the next layer should be side to side. Keep soaping it up, adding hot water and scrubbing it around. At some point the cardboard is going to start disintegrating, so put your hand in there and scrub from the inside. By now you’re losing the will to live, but keep going.

Felting works because wool has scales, almost like tiny hooks. The action of heat and agitation causes these scales to get tangled and bind to each other. This is why wool sweaters shrink when they get put into a hot washing machine or a dryer.

Keep adding layers to the wool until it gets almost as thick as you want it. The wool will compress and get a little thicker when it dries. Once it’s the size and thickness you want, rinse out the soap and let it dry. Drying takes a long time depending on the weather. You can put it in a dryer, but be careful that it doesn’t shrink. A dryer can reduce the size considerably and compress the wool to the point of being dense. If the mitten shrinks too much you can wet it down again and stretch it out some more. You can also put something inside the mitten to keep it from getting too small.

felted glove
The glove is done. It needs to be dried now.

Once it’s done, you can twist it or pound it to get it a little more flexible. There’s nothing to say that you can’t also decorate it

Bronze Age Shoes

I was invited to cast bronze at an event in Germany, but the catch was that I needed to dress in period costume. The skirt and tunic were easy enough, but I knew that the people there would look at my Iron Age shoes and comment on how anachronistic they were. I know, because it’s happened in the past. There are few Bronze Age shoes that have been preserved, and the most famous were the ones worn by Otzi, the Ice Man whose body was recovered in the Alps in 1991. There are a few websites describing how to make them, including one with a video,

Following the instructions on this website, I cut out a pair of soles from the same leather I used for the Iron Age shoes, and punched holes around the perimeter. I didn’t have leather lacing, so I stitched them with multiple strands of sinew. Then I got some jute cord. This is made from the inner bark of the lime, or basswood tree (tillia sp). It is essentially the same as the cord used for Otzi’s shoes. I cut several lengths and started plaiting and knotting.

Lacing the Bronze Age shoe sole

I quickly realised that it wasn’t going well. I couldn’t tie the knots while wearing the shoes, so I made a sort of shoe last out of socks. I just wasn’t enjoying the project and it was looking a mess. I just wasn’t getting the measurements right and the shoe was too large.

Putting the cords on the Otzi style shoe.

I just wasn’t producing what I wanted, so it went on the back burner. When it was about a month out from the event, I nagged myself into getting the shoes done. The problem was that I wasn’t happy with how they were turning out. It would be easier if I was making them for someone else, where I could tie the knots while they wore the shoes. It was then that I convinced myself that I didn’t need to slavishly copy this particular shoe. The materials were proper for period, I just needed to find a way to make them so I was happy while using a technique that would be consistent with the Bronze Age. I decided to make a netted upper rather than one that was plaited and knotted. I started over, this time using a single length of cord. I measured off a length that was 5 times the circumference of the sole (note, this finished about half the shoe. On the second one I measured 9 times the circumference and that worked out perfectly).

I wove the cord in and out of the sinew, skipping every other stitch and leaving a small loop at the top near the edge of the sole.

Weaving the cord through the sinew to make the upper part of the shoe

Then continuing around, I brought a loop through the loop next to the sole and then threaded the cord through that to make a knot. It was easily adjustable.

I made the first round fairly tight so that it would pull the sole up around my foot. I did the same for the second round.

Fitting the shoe to my foot. At this point the netting is fairly tight.

On the third round I made the loops larger because I wanted a netted effect. If I wanted, could continue making the loops smaller that would result in a denser fabric. At this point it was easy to work on the shoe while wearing it.

Making the loops larger to make a more open netting.

After a couple more rounds I started making the loops even larger. I brought the cord around the front of my ankle, looping the cord between it and the loops closer to my toes.

By this time I was essentially done. It took me about three hours for both shoes, working at a relaxed pace. I had a fair amount of cord left over, so I wound that around the top cord of the shoe to reinforce the opening and to give it a bit more of a finished look.

The finished shoes

I made this pair fairly tight because I figure that both the leather and cord will stretch over time. Still, they are easy to slip on and off, and are comfortable for walking. I could make some leather uppers to go over the netting. Otzi’s shoes had that, although there is debate as to whether the leather was on top of, or under the cording. A project for the future is to learn nålebinding to make some socks.