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.
National Museum Denmark, The Woman From Skrydstrup http://en.natmus.dk/historical-knowledge/denmark/prehistoric-period-until-1050-ad/the-bronze-age/men-and-woman-in-the-bronze-age/the-woman-from-skrydstrup/
National Museum Denmark, The Egtved Girl. http://en.natmus.dk/historical-knowledge/denmark/prehistoric-period-until-1050-ad/the-bronze-age/the-egtved-girl/
Persson, C.P., 2015. A famous Danish Bronze Age icon turns out not to be Danish after all ScienceNordic. http://sciencenordic.com/famous-danish-bronze-age-icon-turns-out-not-be-danish-after-all
Persson, C.P., 2017. Another female Bronze Age icon is now known to have travelled across Europe. ScienceNordic. http://sciencenordic.com/another-female-bronze-age-icon-now-known-have-travelled-across-europe
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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.
The link for the Etsy listing is here
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.
Bone needles are one of those things that are a useful part of any experimental kit. They are easy to make, durable, and work better for sewing leather and hide than many steel needles. If they do break, then it’s easy enough to cut off a new bit, drill a hole and sand it down to a glossy, slender tool. The best bones to use are the long bones, a humerus or femur.
Recently a particular bone needle made the news. A 7 cm needle made from a bird bone was found during an excavation in the Altai Mountains in Russia. You can read the full article here. Finding a needle in an excavation is difficult enough, but finding one intact after 50,000 years is extraordinary.
However, in this context this needle is much more than just a needle. First we must think about the technology and tools that went into making the needle. It had to be cut and shaped with stone tools, and then there’s drilling out the eye. Once we start thinking about making something as simple as a needle, suddenly an entire toolkit appears, and then there’s the other direction: how was the needle used and what was it used for? Materials such as leather, string, and textile rarely survive in the archaeological record. Could the Denisovans have been sewing hides into clothes? Making shoes? Sewing smaller skins into something larger such as blankets or tents? A world of missing material culture suddenly becomes imaginable.
Small things like this needle should put to rest the image of the “caveman” with ragged animal skins. These people were likely to have been sewing clothing!
This month (October 2015) I had the great adventure of doing some bronze casting with Il Tre de Spade (The Three of Swords) at the Archaeological Park and Open-Air Museum of the Terramare in Montale. The museum is located just south of Modena and recreates Bronze Age houses surrounded by a palisade and a marsh, appearing as it would have in the central and later phases of the Bronze Age there (1600-1250 BC). The museum hosts demonstrations and activities, along with a recreation of the original excavation.
The houses are nicely furnished, with well laid out areas for cooking, sleeping, food storage, and workshops. One house has a workbench for wood and antler working, along with weaving and other crafts. The other has a metalworking workbench with stone anvils, moulds, bellows, and all the needed kit stored neatly on shelves and a work bench. Unlike the recreated roundhouses that are often seen in the UK, you can get a good idea about how the ancient people lived here and where they put their all the things they used in every day life.
(Click on the thumbnails here to see a larger version)
I had been invited to join the casting demonstrations by Claude Cavazzuti, who is also part of EXARC. He is one of Il Tre di Spade (along with Pelle and Scacco) , who were some of the first metalworkers at the museum after it opened several years ago. They do regular demonstrations (sometimes with hundreds of visitors per day) and also run workshops that introduce people to Bronze Age casting and metalworking with a focus on the Middle and Recent Bronze Age (1700-1150 BC) of Northern Italy.
The furnaces there are small clay-lined trenches about 25 cm deep and 50 cm long, something that would be nearly invisible archaeologically and easily interpreted as a cooking hearth (and really, there’s no reason why they couldn’t be both). The furnaces heat up quickly and work efficiently. The charcoal is concentrated around the crucible with more warming beside it so that the fuel is hot before it gets raked around to cover the crucible.
My first new introduction was the bag bellows. They were larger than I have used in the past, and made of heavier leather. They put out an enormous volume of air, but also their size allows the person pumping the bellows to sit on a low stool. One nice innovation is that they put a large stone in the bottom of each bag. That prevents people who are new to bellowing from lifting them too high and causing the bags to collapse.
The real challenge for me was the valve and the way the bellows open at the top. The bag bellows I’d used before have straight sticks in the handles that either open parallel to each other, or are hinged at the back to open like a “V”. These bellows have two sticks on both sides, so that they open into a diamond shape with the wide part opening where your hands hold the bellows. It took a little bit to get used to them and to figure out where best to position my fingers. I never did get it quite tight enough and could feel a bit of air blasting on the back of my arms, but they still delivered a powerful amount of air. The tuyere was a large clay tube that curved downwards at a 90° angle, and was positioned so that it was directly above the crucible. This mean that the charcoal had to be moved frequently to keep the crucible covered. Without the layer of charcoal above, the air coming from the bellows would cool the metal in the crucible.
The crucibles are a flattened dish-shape, with some that were larger and a bit more of a bowl shape to hold more metal. They have a tab on one side that is used as a handle. The crucibles have a small lip for pouring that causes the metal to pour more quickly and flow out in an arc, rather than almost straight down like the triangular bag-shaped bellows used in Britain. It took a little bit of getting used to the trajectory of the metal in order to get all the metal in the pouring cups.
The tongs they use are beautifully crafted from wood and cord. They are kept in a bucket of water to keep them from burning when holding the heated crucible. The entire organisation of tools and materials is efficient and elegant, and there is nothing that would not have been found archaeologically from this period.
For the first demonstration a sword was cast into a sand mould. The sand they use is local, and perfect for casting. Commercial casting sand consists of fine sand and dry bentonite clay. The sand from the Po River delta is exactly that, sand that has been reduced to almost a powder by erosion, combined with clay and silt that has been washed into the river. The Po River sand leaves a much finer texture on the finished objects than the coarser commercial sand that I have used here. Looking at the quality of the sand, I could imagine how different sands might affect the regional quality of casting, and might even have had value as a commodity.
The mould for the sword was made using the standard cope and drag method, with the pouring cup on the side of the sword, rather than pouring from the top. A large vent was also placed at the tip of the sword. The mould was placed at an angle. As the crowd gathered and settled onto benches under a marquee, Claude explained Bronze Age metalworking techniques and then the sword was cast. Everyone was impressed and even more so when the sword was taken from the mould.
After the demonstration was done we started up a second furnace for the workshop. For this one we used the stone moulds that were on display in the house. The moulds were made of a very fine grained local stone, the same that had been used by the Terramare circa 3500 years ago. The moulds were warmed next to the furnace and then strapped together with leather strips. We took turns bellowing and pouring. The shallow crucibles mean that the pouring has to be done more quickly than with deeper crucibles. They cool quickly, so there is little time for dragging out charcoal and skimming. Once the metal was molten, we gave it a quick stir with a stick, pulled the crucible out with the wet tongs, and poured the bronze into the mould while holding the stick across the top to keep the charcoal back.
Sickles, knives, and daggers were cast. Later we moved on to using sand moulds. I borrowed one of the antler spindle whorls from the woodcarving house to see if I could try casting that as an experiment. It worked sort-of. It will take a bit of work to get finished up, but I think with a couple more tries we could have got it spot-on.
I was wearing my bronze torc bracelet that day and one of the new people wanted to try casting that. We used it as a model for a sand mould and after a couple tries, we got a cast that made a perfect duplicate.
While we were casting, more tour and school groups came through to watch more casting demonstrations. School kids also had the opportunity to make their own copper bracelets. There was a square of tables set up with small stone anvils and hammerstones. Punches and chisels were available so they could decorate the strips of copper to make bracelets in patterns that would not have looked out of place in a Terramare village.
Often after the casting is done for demonstrations the bronzes are taken home and finished up using drills and angle grinders, but not here. We had a relaxing time using wet sand on the hard, fine-grained anvil stones to grind off the flashing and excess metal. Some smaller stones that had a coarser texture could be held in the hand and used for working the inside curves and corners. I’d brought my small socketed hammer along and we used that to break off some of the metal, too. Between light hammering and patient grinding, the daggers were smoothed rather more quickly than I would have expected.
It was a great day, and one that was full of new experiences. It was particularly interesting to see how much variation there is in doing the same tasks and getting successful results. The different types of bellows and crucibles make for differences in how tasks are performed. Other small acts show variation between different metalworking groups. Tasks such as turning the crucible over to remove dross and leftover metal after casting was done into the furnace here, where in Ireland we have always done that next to the furnace. These are small things that could be seen archaeologically if excavation is done carefully, but also shows how customs and metalworking traditions develop with regional differences.
Next month I will be moving to Modena and will be in the vicinity of the park. I hope to do more casting there and to learn more about the Early Bronze Age metallurgy of Northern Italy.
A special thanks to Il Tre di Spade, Claude, Pelle, and Scacco and the staff at the Parco archaologico e Muse all’aperto della Terramare for inviting me to participate in casting. I would also like to acknowledge Markus Binggeli & Markus Binggeli who are masters of bronze casting and replicating ancient metalworking techniques. They are mentors of Il Tre di Spade, and provide both inspiration and technical expertise for experimental archaeologists.
If you’d like to learn more about the Early Bronze Age in the Modena area, the work of Il Tre di Spade, and the Terramare Open Air Museum in Montale you can find links below.
Italian language sites
English language sites
Il Tre di Spade also have a Facebook page.
I love living in Britain, but without a visa, it’s almost impossible to live here. Unfortunately that means finding a job in a very tight market and no options for any freelance work. My best option is to move onwards to Italy. I’ll miss wandering in the Peak District, but I will have the opportunity to do some casting with friends at the Archaeological Open Air Museum of the Terramare in Montale, just south of Modena.
I’ll also use my time there to get caught up on writing. I have a lot of articles to write, both based on my thesis and on the work I did with the Staffordshire Hoard. While these won’t pay the rent, they will serve to get my name in print and make me more marketable in the job world. With luck, I’ll be able to return with a job or a post-doc. Or maybe… I’ll be an itinerant metalsmith, travelling around pouring bronze, sharing ideas, and showing off the magic of molten metal.
I’ve started a Go Fund Me campaign to help with the expenses of moving while I get back on my feet. Check it out. I do have some nice gifts for contributors.