Forging Ahead!

2020 went from from 60 to 0 in a couple months. I returned from Italy to the US and thought I would have a slightly longer stay than usual. Then as the news from around the world rolled in, one by one everything got cancelled or rescheduled for 2021. So now I am reacquainting myself to being in the US, but in an odd way, without the usual parties and social contact that I usually have when I’m here.  Halfway through the year we’ve dealt with lockdowns, riots, second waves (or is it still the first?), loss, and grudging hope.

Not being able to travel, even around the US can get depressing, but I am keeping busy. I spent part of my stimulus check on a wood lathe, something I wanted for a long time. I’m using it to make replicas of antique and ancient textile tools. That has been a lot of fun, and I am enjoying learning a new craft.

I’ve also enrolled in the university. Since all the classes are online now, I can take courses, even if I do get to do some travelling. I’m enjoying the benefits of being a student again, including access to the excellent library here. I was told at the time I was a student here fifteen years ago that the library was outstanding, but I didn’t realise how truly great it was until I got to England and experienced the university libraries there. The University of Minnesota’s libraries rival that of Cambridge.

I continue to work in experimental archaeology, mainly in wood and textiles. Metalworking is a bit hampered because it’s difficult to get the raw materials I need for building a furnace. On the plus side, I’ve generated enough fine wood shavings to substitute for horse manure. I might just get some casting done yet!

As you can see above, I’ve started an Instagram account. If you want to follow me and see up to date photos from my travels, look for fregnigiovanna, or check for postings with #ancienttoolsandcraft.

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 Academia.edu 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.

New analyses of Ötzi, the Iceman’s tools

Ever since he was recovered, I have had a fascination with Ötzi. His death and preservation gave us a unique opportunity to look into the face of someone who lived in the Bronze Age. We are able to examine his clothes and tools and use them to not only reconstruct the last days of his life, but also the lives of others in the Bronze Age.

A new article was published by The New York Times based on newly published research. The article titled, “The Final Hours of the Iceman’s Tools: What the implements found with the body of Ötzi revealed about the Copper Age” by Nicholas St. Fleur gives a fair assessment of the recent research. You can find the NYT article here.

Even better, Mr St. Fluer provides a direct link to the original publication published online through PLOS One, an open access platform, meaning that everyone read the article. “The Iceman’s lithic toolkit: Raw material, technology, typology and use” by Ursula Wierer, Simona Arrighi, Stefano Bertola,Günther Kaufmann, Benno Baumgarten, Annaluisa Pedrotti, Patrizia Pernter, Jacques Pelegrin is available here.

The NYT article gives details about how Ötzi appeared to be in a hurry in his last days. We knew already that his bow was not finished, but the PLOS One article goes into details about the state of his stone tools, the arrowheads, knife, and knapping supplies. The wear analyses showed how recently the tools had been retouched. The fine attention to detail in the examinations indicated how the fine scratches on the stone tools made by the lime bark holder would tell how recently the retouching had been done. Some tools also had evidence of of a particular type of gloss that occurs after the tool was used for cutting live plants.

The examination tells us brief stories about the history of the tools. The scraper was made from what was originally a knife and one arrowhead might have been made from stone reused from a sickle. We also know Ötzi was fairly well skilled as a flint knapper, since the evidence from his retouching tool (antler) and the recent retouching of some of the arrowheads would have most likely been done by him.

The end of the article by Ursula Wierer et al is exciting reading. Through the detailed examination of the condition of Ötzi’s tools, their origins, and how they were manufactured, they have reconstructed an almost moment by moment story of his last days.

featured image from Wikimedia Commons

Return to the Bronzezeitehof

Last year the Bronze Casting Festival was a wonderful experience. People from all over Europe came and exchanged information about bronze casting and metalworking techniques.

Here are a few photos of the First Bronze Casting Festival in 2017.

I’ll be returning there again this May and furthering my experiments in metal finishing. In addition to casting, I’m interested in using metal oxides as colorants for enamels and how they are affected by the reduced environment of a charcoal furnace. In the past I did a lot of metal enamelling in an electric furnace. This will be a chance to explore how the process of enamelling could have been developed. I might even have a chance to make some glass while I’m at it!