I had a blast at the Bronze casting festival at the Bronzeithof in Germany. So many new people, so many furnaces and bellows! I’ll be posting photos and stories as soon as I get it all organised.
Then I cleaned up and headed to Oslo for the Nordic Bronze Age Symposium. Another great event where we discussed metalworking, ceramics, mobility, and much about the Bronze Age women found in Egtved and Skydstrup.
Much of my travel is supported by Patreon contributors. One of the rewards is an illustrated journal of my experiences while living on a Bronze Age farm for two weeks. For more information about how to get copies of the journal click here, or on the big Patreon button below.
July 1- 8 I’ll be returning to Sedgeford for the SHARP metalworking workshop. We’ll be teaching archaeologists and other volunteers there how to build furnaces, cast metal, and maybe even smelt some iron.
It was my pleasure to present a paper at the Nordic Bronze Age Symposium in Oslo earlier this month. I spoke about recognising the learning process by examining mistakes in metalwork. It was a great session and I hope that the research presented here will spur others to examine the flaws in objects to understand the processes of craft production.
Too often artefacts are selected for examination and display because of their perfection, but perfection can limit us. We see the end product but by the very process of achieving perfection the traces of the journey to mastery are erased. When we examine flaws, both minor and major, a world opens up.We can follow the movements of the artisan’s hands and see the sequence in which an object was made. We can see the choices made during production. Was there a flawed section of decoration because a master artisan was momentarily distracted, or was it because an apprentice was still awkward using tools? We can also question why the flaws remain; why the object survives, rather than having been destroyed or repaired.
The flaws, repairs, and mistakes all contribute to the object’s biography and allow us a glimpse of craft and decoration in ancient cultures. The papers presented in this session examined these and more subjects on mistakes in craft, and generated lively discussion.
“Nobody is perfect: contrasts in craft – for the first time at an archaeological conference artists, craftspeople and archaeologists gathered together to discuss the potential of mistakes, failures and repair within material culture of the past. The results were stunning: mistakes, failures and repair can not only help to identify skill level and apprenticeship in craft, they also indicate the intention, the actual purpose of an artefact.” – Heide W. Nørgaard
My bags are packed and tomorrow I fly to Amsterdam and from there take a train to Ülsen, Germany, where I’ll travel back a few thousand years to the Bronze Age. I’ll be at the Bronze Casting Festival at the Bronzezeithof, living in an actual Bronze Age house, cooking meals over a fire, and enjoying the company of other archaeologists and metalworkers. It will be great to get back to casting metal and working too.
Unfortunately communications aren’t that great in the Bronze Age and I will have limited or no internet access while I’m there. I will be keeping a diary of my experiences there and will condense them into a blog post and an article for EXARC.
I’ve also set up a Patreon site to help support all these travels and experiments. For people who sign on to support my work at the $5 level, they will get a PDF of my Bronze Age diary that will include sketches, recipes for the experimental moulds I’ll be making, and all the day by day experiences of the festival.
In early June I will return to the 21st Century by way of Oslo and will have access to the internet again. I think by then I will be glad to be back in the modern world!
Recently this story about the Skrydstrup Woman made the news. Strontium analyses showed that she was not born in the same region where she was buried. Rather than coming from what is now Denmark, she started out life farther south in Germany or France. Like the Egtved Girl (better known for her infamous string skirt) she was a member of the elite society, buried in an oak coffin, wearing gold jewellery, and embroidered robes. All of those items buried with her would have meant the sacrifice of objects that would have taken many days or even weeks of labour to manufacture. Her hair was put up in an elaborate style, that would have required assistance. Her bones indicated she lived a healthy life and died from unknown causes when she was in her late teens. She arrived at Skrydstrup when she was about 13 or 14 years old.
It’s possible that she arrived in Skrydstrup as a bride, marrying into a local noble family to cement a political alliance, or perhaps her well-born family relocated to Skrydstrup. We can make up any number of stories about her personal history, and no doubt many will come out as further analyses is done and technology improves. What remains is that she travelled a long distance in her life, and possibly not just going directly from where she was born to Skrydstrup. She could have travelled to several places in her short life.
I can relate to the Skrydstrup woman. By the time I was her age I had travelled from where I was born in southern California to San Francisco, from there to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Milwaukee and Chicago. As an adult I’ve lived in both North America and Europe. It used to be assumed that people lived their lives in a single community, but then as now, we see that people were mobile. This mobility not only brought a single woman into a community, but also her way of life. She would have spoken at least one other language, a useful skill if her family or that of her husband were merchants. She might have brought other valued resources to her community, such as a new type of needle working, weaving, or other skilled crafts. The objects from her home would have been seen as exotic, foreign, or rare.
The history of archaeology has been full of explanations for the movement of people. At times they were described as political conquests or invasions, the Beaker Folk, Anglo Saxons, Vikings… each generation giving a different interpretation of the data we have. Were they marauding warriors replacing the local population, groups fleeing strife in their homeland, or peaceful settlers arriving with families? Or some of each? The evidence we have in prehistory comes from changes in material culture: a new style of pottery, the introduction of a new technology, or changes in the way the deceased are dealt with. In some cases these cultural changes can be dated and tracked, allowing us to look at the progression of something, such as a craft techniques, from its origins and disbursement. However in tracking all the data on all these objects the humans sometimes get left behind. The bowls, beakers, and axes didn’t move themselves. People were travelling, carrying them, moving from one place to another. It makes sense, humans have been on the move since the beginning. From small bands in Africa, humans have spread out over the entire planet. We continue to move and migrate as groups and individuals to this day, bringing skills, languages, and ideas with us. Creativity, adaptability, and mobility are human strengths.
The Skrydstrup woman puts a personal face on migration. Both she and the Egtved Girl were immigrants, although for years they have been an icon of Danish prehistory. Now their story has expanded and rather than a symbol of a single national identity, they represent the multicultural world of human prehistory.
Archaeological textiles is a difficult specialty since most of the material deteriorates rapidly. It is rare when prehistoric textiles are recovered. However, what textile archaeologists do have for study are the tools used in making textiles: spindle whorls, loom weights, combs, and other tools. When I go to museums, I often look at objects outside of my own area of interest and in the following pages, I’ll be providing some support for my friends who work in textiles.
Please note that many of these photos are taken from outside glass cases and can’t provide measurements and weights. However, I will do my best to provide as much information about the context as possible.
Textile tools in the Bologna Museum of Archaeology
I took some photos of textile tools while on a recent trip to the Museum of Archaeology in Bologna. The cases were nicely organised by context. That is, rather than group all the spindle whorls together and all the beads together somewhere else, the objects were grouped according to where they were found. For example, if they were found in a burial, all the grave goods were displayed together, so all the beads, spindle whorls, and other objects were on the same shelf with a card explaining the context and how the objects relate to each other. I have undone this a bit because the focus here is on textile tools. However, I will provide as much information as possible so that you will be able to do further research if you wish.
Spindle Whorls and Weaving Weights
Spindle whorls and Spindles (Conocchie)
Representations of the Textile Industry
This object, a Tintinnabulo, described as a ritual pendent was part of a lavish burial in Tomb 5 of dell’Arsenale Militare (700-675 BC, Villanovan III) and depicts the steps in wool processing. Drawings show the engravings that are on the front and reverse of the tintinnabulo. More about the tintinnabulo and the burial can be found here.
Textile tools in the The Civic Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Modena
Textile tools in the The National Archaeological Museum in Naples
I have a couple of the fibulae I cast up for sale on Etsy. If you’re in the US, this will be your last chance for reduced postage for a while since I will be leaving for Italy on the 14th. Think of it as a one week sale where you’ll not only save money, but your purchases will also arrive much sooner.
This autumn I was visiting my sister who lives just outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. She has a bit of land, so I asked her if I could build a furnace and do some casting there. I’ve built plenty of pit furnaces, so this time I wanted to build one that was above ground and a bit more visible. It would also mean that no one would trip and fall if they forgot where I put the thing.
First off was to get the basic materials: Clay, Sand, and Horse Manure.
I thought that the clay would be the biggest hurdle. However my sister’s neighbour happened to be a sculptor who works in both iron and ceramics. She went to her regular clay supplier and got a couple feed sacks full of dried clay for free! Potters who work at wheels, or work with kids end up with a lot of clay that is scraped off of workbenches and wheels that is hard to re-use. It’s often mixed consistency, lumpy or part dried. If they want to use the clay again, it has to be reconditioned. So, they take their sacks of scrap back to the place where they buy the clay and pay to have it put through the mill. Since it’s not really usable, some potters are willing to just give it away. So thanks to Liz Fritzsche, who does amazing and beautiful work in porcelain, I was able to get started.
I threw some of the dried clay into a five gallon bucket and poured in enough water to cover the clay and let it sit. It was squishy and workable in a few hours. Next up was horse manure. A friend of a friend has horses, and they were grateful to have someone who would haul away a couple of barn buckets full. The final bit was the sand. My sister did have some beach sand that she’d bought for the garden, but I was more fascinated by the soil there. Her land is in the old Rio Grande River Valley, and the soil is a mixture of silty sand and a little clay that had been pounded to a powder. The soil was almost the consistency of dust. It mixed in perfectly and later I found the mixture was highly resistant to cracking.
The ingredients were mixed with some water, stomped, and adjusted. New Mexico is a lot drier than England, so I ended up adding more water as I worked. It was also nice knowing that it was unlikely for any rain to fall while I was working.
The silt/clay/dung mixture made a durable clay, and after I flew back to Minneapolis, I was please that the crucibles and moulds I packed in my check-in luggage survived airport handling.
The furnace walls are about 8 cm wide (about the width of my palm) and the inside diameter is about 25 cm in diameter. I let it dry for a couple days and then moved it over to an unused area behind a greenhouse where I would have more room to work. I set a small fire with cottonwood branches, fed it for a couple hours, and then let it die out overnight.
We all like to put some decoration on our furnaces. My students have done everything from dragons and demons to cats. I had been thinking about doing some imitation petroglyphs, but as I was working it just seemed natural to do a portrait of Mavis, my sister’s exuberant German Shepherd.
Finally I adjusted the mix to have a bit more of the silty sand and horse dung to make the teapot stand and crucibles. For more information about teapot stands and how they work in furnaces, check out my article on the Umha Aois website here.
Later I added more water to make the slip for dipping waxes in for the first stages of mould making. The silt made a wonderfully fine mould that picked up all the details.
I had some cracking on the upper part of the furnace, and noted that the part that cracked was where I used the commercial sand. The silty New Mexico soil held up much better. If it weren’t so heavy (and probably not allowed) I would have hauled bags of it on the plane to use for more projects.
Both Mavises performed very well (Mavis the Dog is into barrel racing and advanced obedience classes). I’ll be interested to see how it holds up over the winter. Winters in New Mexico tend to be mild, so I’m hoping that the Mavis furnace will be available for friends in Albuquerque to use for some time to come.
Sometimes you just need a new pair of shoes. I’d been wanting to make some of the replica shoes I’d seen online. there are a few good sites where you can find patterns and step by step tutorials.
Kelticos has a number of different patterns that you can download.
I followed the instructions on this site. It goes step by step and practically no-fail. I however am a bit more cautious and rather start with the leather I made a pattern out of brown paper.
Once I was confident that I had a good fit with the paper pattern, I bought the leather that I needed. One thing that few sites describe is the type and weight of leather needed. I bought some cow leather that was supple, but not stretchy from Cox Leather in Abuquerque. The place is an amazing resource for hides, rawhide, leather, skins, and really anything leather related. They also ship!
Leather thickness in the US is measured by the ounce, and in mm in Europe. The leather I bought was about 8 oz / 3.2 mm / 1/8 inch thick.
Once I traced the pattern on the leather, I cut the shoes out using good sharp scissors and punched the holes for lacing with an awl. It’s important to use an awl or punch rather than cutting the hole with a scissors since a round hole pushed through the leather is less likely to tear than a hole that is cut.
I stitched up the backs with sinew. I followed the directions and stitched the sides of the heel to the heel tab straight up. It ended up a little loose. When I get the time I’ll restitch them so they come in a little tighter on the top. Another modification will be to put more of a sole on them. Some options are to cut an insole out of rawhide and sew it between the inside of the sole with another, softer leather insole on top. I might line it with some sheep skin, too.
I’ve been honoured to cast alongside Billy on a number of occasions while we were both at Umha Aois events. His recent article for the Pallasboy Project: Art, Craft, Archaeology, and Alchemy talks about his experience in both experimental archaeology and craftsmanship.
I have a fascination with bellows. We know they had to have existed in the Bronze Age, but unfortunately they are also constructed of ephemeral materials, so none have survived into modern times. The only physical evidence we have consists of fragments of tuyeres. An Egyptian painting from the Tomb of Rekhmire, from 1450 BC shows a man using pot bellows that are operated by hands and feet. There are also Chinese documents depicting the use of box bellows. But bellows, after blowpipes, are likely to be one of the earliest forms of delivering air to the furnace.
Until a set of bellows is uncovered preserved in a bog somewhere a lot is left to the imagination. How big or small could they be? How can the valves be altered to be more efficient? How heavy should the leather be? Should sturdiness trump suppleness? How are all the parts held together and made airtight? Bellows are one of the most essential pieces of equipment that we have for casting bronze and yet very little information is available about their use and construction from the community of experimental archaeologists and reenactment groups.
Over the years I’ve seen many different shapes and sizes of bellows and always thought that a forum where bellows design and use could be discussed would be invaluable for people to share ideas and experiences.
I would like to invite others to share photos of the bellows they’ve made on this site. This could be a welcome forum for discussing the pros and cons of different designs, what worked, what didn’t. Of course any news of archaeological bellows or tuyeres discovered would add to the fun.
To start, Martijn van Es sent me some photos of a set of bag bellows he made and photos of a new set he recently completed using the tutorial on this website. Martijn casts bronze at the Bronzezeithof Uelsen and Het Bronsvuur – The Bronze fire and is active on the web and Facebook discussing Bronze Age casting techniques and projects that he’s involved with.
Other bellows designs
This has to be my favourite bellows idea. Simply made from two cement bags.
I welcome others to send in photos of their bellows, and not just bag bellows. Any bellows that could be considered to fit in with what we know or can surmise from archaeology would be interesting for this forum.
If you are interested in making bellows for yourself but don’t know where to start, check out the tutorials on my site for making bag bellows and for making pump bellows.