Making a Set of Bellows

These were made for a project in conjunction with Weston Park Museum in Sheffield. In the past I had used bag bellows, but we wanted something slightly more modern for an upcoming exhibit on the Roman presence in South Yorkshire. They were surprisingly easy to make and have held up well after many episodes of casting bronze and even an iron smelt

  • Materials needed:
  • Wood board
  • Leather or vinyl
  • 3 cm Copper coupling
  • Wooden pegs
  • Wood glue
  • Linseed or other oil
  • Wood screws
  • Tacks (a box each of 25 mm/1” and 13 mm/ ½”)
  • Upholstery hammer, or other hammer with a small face
  • Linseed or walnut oil
  • Contact cement

Tools needed:

  • Saw (preferably an electric jigsaw)
  • Drill
  • Drill bit to match the wooden pegs
  • 3 cm spade or flat bit
  • Cord or clamps

A note about health and safety

I am going to assume that you are capable of safely using the tools and materials described in the tutorial. Don’t wear loose clothing when using power tools, or let long hair get in the way. Don’t use electric power tools outdoors in the rain. If adhesive has warning labels, pay attention to what it says. I’m writing this tutorial so that you will have enough information to make a set of bellows. As for everything else, you’re on your own and I would prefer you have a good time making and using a great set of bellows.

Designing the bellows

The first thing to do is to sketch out what you want the finished bellows to look like. Traditional fireplace bellows are teardrop shaped, but since I was making a set of bellows and would be sitting between them, I wanted them to have a narrower shape so I could easily reach both handles without having to rock my body back and forth more than was necessary. I also frequently work with kids and wanted the bellows to be manageable for them as well. This was also a consideration when designing the handles. You’ll be working with these for hours at a time, and so you want something you can hold easily without getting blisters or straining your wrists. Gripping the handles will just stiffen the muscles of your hands and wrists and wear you out. Design something that’s comfortable and enables you to shift or change your grip periodically. The handle I ended up with was one that I could easily lift just using two fingers and push down with the flat of my hand.

The eventual over-all design and size of the bellows was limited by the availability of places to buy boards of the needed thickness, by the size of board I was able to find, and the fact that I don’t have a car. Mega-hardware stores like B&Q in Britain don’t have proper boards. They have composite shelving, which if you look at it closely will have seams running the length of the board where two narrower boards were glued together. I worried that this would weaken and possibly break, so I had to find a place that had solid boards. I went to a small shop that does custom woodworking. It would have been nice to make them of oak, but all they had was 2 cm/ ¾ inch pine.  I was extremely glad when the man there cut the board into lengths for me. It was a bit tricky since the board had knots and one large hole. We managed to figure out how to cut around the worst of them and I happily carried my supplies home.

Making the pattern

The next step was to make a pattern. I drew it out on newspaper, cut, taped, adjusted, and fiddled with it until I had it right. This really was the most time consuming part and rightly so. Take time to get the pattern perfect. Play with it. Pretend it’s finished and try pumping it. The time spent tweaking the pattern is time well spent.

Bellows pattern

Now, about the pattern. There are two large sections for the base and the top. The bottom piece would run the length of the bellows from the nose to the back. Rather than have two handles (like a fireplace bellows), the bottom would come just short of the handle (so I don’t knock my knuckles into the wood every time I pressed the bellows down. I did drill two holes in the bottom corners so that I could put tent pegs in to hold it down. My experience working with kids and plenty of adults) is that they tend to overcompensate and lift the bellows clear off the ground.

There are also two small pieces for the nose that will be laminated together with the bottom of the bellows. There are another two pieces that will serve to hold the leather hinge in place, and then the scraps that will be used for internal supports and feet. Just about every bit of the board was used in one way or another.

Once the pattern was made, I laid it out on the boards, working around knots and splits, so that it would be as solid as possible. I traced around it, and in one case changed it at the last minute, you’ll see some of the crossed out lines in photos of the interior. The important thing is to make any changes before cutting the wood.

Bellows 01

The thing I worried about most was the valve. I searched, but nowhere could I find a formula for the size of the valve hole in proportion to the rest of the bellows. I looked at as many as I could and from what I could tell something about one third of the width of the bellows would be sound. The valve itself would be a thick, but fairly flexible piece of leather, so if the valve was too long it might have difficulty making a good seal. I remember one set of bellows that a friend from New Zealand had that were enormous, but had a problem with the valve. The valve was large enough that when drawn up the leather would flip backwards on itself. The bellows had to be flipped over and the leather pulled back down before work could continue. I fussed and fretted awhile, but knew that if I erred on making the valve hole too small, I could always enlarge it. I ended up with a valve hole 6 cm by 8 cm.

The other decision was if the valve would be on the top or bottom. For this I got some input from friends who told me that having the valve on the top was more in keeping with Viking/Scandinavian traditions and that in order to close the valve I would have to push down more forcefully. This is not as much of a problem if I was primarily using these for an iron forge, but casting bronze and smelting iron blooms goes on for hours. I need something that will be efficient and not require any extra effort. In addition, when I work with kids, I want them to be able to help with casting without having them concentrate solely on trying to get the bellows to work.

The disadvantage of having the valve on the bottom is that leaves and debris can get sucked in. I decided to put the valve on the bottom of the bellows and to put small risers underneath. Then I just have to make sure that where I set them up is free from debris. If I was worried about anything getting sucked in I could put a bit of wire mesh on the outside the valve. So far this hasn’t been a concern.

For convenience sake, I decided to make the tuyere (the pipe where the air exits the bellows) out of a 3 cm copper coupling. For this I needed a spade or flat wood drill bit of the same size.

Assembling the bellows

Now to the cutting. That was pretty much straightforward, and I found that the two pieces leftover from cutting the handle made a nice design when put back to back. I later glued them together and they became the shield shape of the hinge. Of course if you want to save time, you could just use a door hinge or some fancy looking strap hinges.

bellows 04

Long scraps were used for the risers on the bottom of the bellows. Miscellaneous pieces became the internal supports. These support the top of the bellows and prevent it from being pushed too far down and straining the hinge. Another support was placed at the back for the same reason. It also prevents the leather from being trapped and abraded.

bellows 03

Once everything was cut, it was fit together and small adjustments made. The next step was to sand everything. You want the wood to be smooth and comfortable to work with, but also to remove any sharp edges might scrape and wear holes in the leather.

Once everything is sanded and fitted, the final assembly can begin. The first thing is to glue and clamp the nose pieces together. I didn’t have enough clamps for the job, and also some of the pieces were awkward sizes, so I wrapped and tied cord around them and then twisted it with some steel chopsticks (A good sized nail would do the trick, too). Get the joins as tight as possible and then let them dry completely. Once they are good and solid, mark the centre and drill through the end using the spay bit. Fit the copper coupling in. It should be a tight fit.  (Make diagram) Now from the inside widen the hole so that it is cone-shaped going back to the end of the coupling.

Bellows 02

Meanwhile pieces of leather were cut for the valve.  There is about a ½ – ¾ inch overlap on the end and sides and a bit more at the end where it is tacked in place. I doubled that part over to make a stronger hinge and used the shorter tacks to secure it.

I wanted to use wooden pegs as much as possible for the construction, but I realised that using some wood screws would make life easier. So the next step was to drill every piece that would need pegs and then to glue all the internal support pieces and secure them with wood screws. The internal supports were also cleverly lined up so the screws would help secure the risers. However, these were also drilled and pegged to the bottom of the bellows. Once again, everything was glued and clamped. Once it was dry I gave it a good coating of linseed oil. I used linseed because I had plenty on hand, but there are other good oils designed for woodworking.

Leathering the bellows

Now it’s time to go back to the drawing board. This time the design will be affected by how high you want to lift the bellows and your budget. Ideally this part should be made of soft leather, such as goat or pigskin. I’d love to have had the money for that, but had to opt for vinyl. Despite having used the cheaper material, it has held up amazingly well, and I do have the option of replacing it with leather on later. But whatever material you choose, a pattern must be made first. Bin liners / plastic trash bags are ideal for this.

bellows 05

Sit beside the bellows and lift the top up as comfortably as you want. Ideally you should be able to open the bellows to about 45° or a bit more. Think about your shoulders when you make this measurement. Measure the length from the handle to the bottom of the bellows and then add a few extra inches for rolling the edge under. Also remember you’ll be pumping up and down for hours. Also take into consideration that you don’t want the bellows to be so short that you lift them off the ground every time you pump them.

Now measure from the centre back around to the front. You’ll also need to have enough that both ends of the leather will overlap on the block where the tuyere comes in. The next dimension you need is the height of the front end. The leather should be a few inches higher than the block. Now a paper pattern can be made making sure that the sides and ends are symmetrical. Make sure to add an extra inch along the top and bottom to allow for folding the leather under when it is tacked in place. Get the pattern symmetrical by folding it in half lengthwise and adjusting it, and then fold it in half sideways and adjust that. Keep tweaking it until it’s exactly what you need. Use this to make a pattern from the plastic bags. This can be taped to the wood, and you’ll have an approximation of how the bellows will work. Try it out and make any adjustments before cutting into the leather.

bellows 06

Once it’s cut out, working from the centre back of the bottom, fold the leather so the cut edge is inside and secure it with tacks. I used the shorter tacks most of the way, but for some areas that get more stress, like along the corners, I used the longer tacks. Once you come to the front, pull the leather gently so that the edge is along the bottom, and tack it in place.

bellows 08

bellows 09

Put some tacks around the tuyere hole and cut the leather so there’s an opening. Do the same for the other side, overlapping the leather and cutting another hole. Put tacks in around the tuyere and the edge of the nose.

I had thought that I would need to glue the leather along the edges of the bellows, but I was pleased to find that the tacks did a good enough job and that there was no leakage.

Now for the top. Starting at the centre back again tack the leather along the edge, folding it like before. Overlap it along the front edge. There will be excess leather and you’ll have to push down a bit to get it to meet. At this point there will be a gap where the leather overlaps. Use some contact cement to seal the pieces together and let dry overnight. You’re almost there!

At this point you can test the bellows and feel how much air they put out. They work, but they’re a bit wobbly, so the final step is to make the hinge. You should have two drilled pieces of wood (if you didn’t drill them for pegs, wood screws will work well). One will fit closely over the top piece of the bellows and the other will go on top of the nose of the bellows. Push the top of the bellows down (it will take a little effort to cram the leather into place) and fit the top of the bellows so that it meets the edge of the nose.

bellows 10

Cut a piece of thick leather (the same type as used for the valve works fine) that will fit under both pieces of the upper hinge. If you’re using pegs, cut holes in the leather for them to go through. Glue the leather to the nose piece and to the wooden piece to go above the leather and secure them with pegs or screws, then do the same for the other half of the hinge. It should be a tight fit. The leather in the hinge will stretch over time, but after several months of use, I haven’t seen much change.

bellows 11

That’s it. You’re done. You’ve made a set of bellows suitable for bronze casting, forge work, or even iron bloom smelting. You can make them as big or as small as you want. Adjust them to fit your needs. Experiment and enjoy.

The finished bellows, ready for use!

If you want to use one at a time, you can add a longer pipe (I’ve found old pipes from vacuum cleaners work well). However, if you want to link two of them together you’ll need a more elaborate tuyere. There will be more on tuyeres in another article.

 

Here is another bellows making website:

http://www.manaraefan.co.uk/index_files/Page408.htm

 

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Making a portable furnace

While this technically isn’t experimental archaeology, this is a good way to facilitate archaeological experiments in metallurgy.  I regularly cast bronze and smelt metals using a small clay-lined pit furnace. However, there are occasions when I am asked to demonstrate Bronze Age metalwork, but am not allowed to dig a hole in the ground. Museums and schools do get fussy about grassy areas and holes that could be a tripping hazard.

I found this link  and I thought it would be a good solution to my portable casting problem. The tutorial was for a making a small iron-working forge, but I decided to make one that would be a scaled up version that would enable me to do the same sort of casting that I do with a clay furnace.

When I say that I do Bronze Age casting, I have to be honest about it. So far, in Britain no intact Bronze Age furnaces have been excavated or properly identified. The furnaces I used are based on the work of others and best guesses as to how the technology was done [1]. I have used short shaft furnaces, similar to, but much smaller than bloomery iron smelting furnaces. I have also used clay bowl furnaces with the air supply coming across the top or from below. The most efficient type I’ve used is a two chamber furnace with the air introduced into a lower chamber with the charcoal and crucible supported above it. It fires up quickly and evenly, plus it has the advantage that the crucible has a stable support, so I don’t have to worry about spilling the metal because the charcoal needs to be moved around.

Step one was to find a sturdy steel bucket and drill a hole in the side near the bottom for the tuyere, the tube through which air is blown into the furnace. The air is needed to increase the heat from the charcoal so the temperature gets hot enough to melt bronze.

A bucket, a steel tube, and furnace cement. Let’s get going!

 

I had a length of steel tube and a flat drill bit (spade drill bit in the US) of the same diameter. The hole was drilled about an inch and a half above the bottom of the bucket to allow for at least one inch of space for the furnace lining.

furnace 2
The view from above. It all fits nicely.

 

The original website used furnace clay, but didn’t say much about it. I bought a tub of Cementone Fire Cement for £8 at B&Q. As you can see it did about half the job, with the clay packed about an inch thick. The directions said to use a trowel, however the cement has a texture like gritty plasticine, but not quite as rigid. Getting it smoothed in the bottom of the bucket was awkward with the trowel (I’m more used to removing material with a trowel than adding it) so I put on some plastic gloves and pushed it into place. In addition to lining the bottom and sides, I put in small knobs around the inside to hold up a small platform, known variously as a tea pot stand or a perforated clay slab. There’s more about those here.

furnace 3
That’s how far one 5 kg bucket of furnace cement will go. Time to go out and get another…

 

The instructions didn’t say anything about getting it on your hands, it just had warnings about getting it into your eyes. However, knowing that many materials like this can be caustic I decided to err on the side of caution and wore nitril gloves. The container had a handy link to the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) so I could check out all the possible material hazards. The MSDS is a great online resource that will let you know exactly what’s in a product and every possible statistic for it. Check it out here. Note that it is caustic and there are precautions against getting it on your skin. It also tells you what to do in case of contact with skin or eyes.

Furnace cement doesn’t harden until it’s heated to 100 C, so that means that it won’t air dry until you heat it up slowly. I used to work with someone who was severely health and safety challenged. I survived, but in the process learned the effects of being too intimately acquainted with carbon monoxide. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Do this outside with plenty of ventilation and don’t hover over the thing while it’s being heated. It’s not a barbeque (at least not yet, there’s plenty of time for that later).

I took out the tube that I was using for the tuyere and built a small wood fire in the furnace and faced it so the tuyere hole faced the breeze. The fire lit quickly and I kept it topped up with scrap wood and a little charcoal and let the whole thing burn down. Once it was cooled, the material was hard as a rock. The next step was to make the tea pot stand. It’s simply a flat plate that fits the diameter of the interior of the furnace with holes about an inch from the edge. The tea pot stand  allows the air to circulate freely below and then come up through the holes to increase the heat of the charcoal. Once that was fired the furnace was ready to use.

Finished furnace after a few firings.
Finished furnace after a few firings.

 

I’ve used the furnace now several times and it holds up well doing high temperature work. My initial fear was that the seams in the bucket wouldn’t hold, but it remains intact after melting bronze and copper. I’ve used it both with bellows and electric pumps.

Furnace with tea pot stand (AKA perforated clay slab in place.
Furnace with tea pot stand (AKA perforated clay slab in place.

 

After I made this, there was some discussion about experimental archaeology and authenticity on the EXARC Facebook Group (a group well worth checking out if you have an interest in any aspect of experimental archaeology). I made the point that this isn’t designed to replicate a Bronze Age furnace, but it replicates the conditions of how we believe Bronze Age furnaces performed. Many early experiments were done using modern gas or electric furnaces, however those have oxygen enriched atmospheres. Charcoal fires have reduced atmospheres, meaning that the air immediately around the crucible is free of oxygen. This is good news because less dross and slag is produced since the environment won’t allow the surface of the molten metal to oxidise.

As for electric pumps, sometimes it’s valuable to have a controlled air-flow. Having an electric air pump means that I can control how much air goes into the furnace and replicate conditions from one pour to the next. This way I will be able to have multiple experiments conducted under conditions as close as possible to each other. It would be difficult to replicate the controlled airflow of an electric pump with bellows since there might be times when I get tired or there is some distraction and the air flow is slightly less than for the previous pour. Control in these situations is important for experiments where I would I want to compare the melting times of different alloys and need to control as many variables as possible.

Another advantage is that this furnace always starts out at the same temperature. While a bowl furnace dug into the ground is well insulated, there are often problems getting it dried out or warmed up after a night of rain, not to mention trying to get it heated up for a wintertime demonstration when the ground was iced over. While it’s good to have the experience of getting a cold, damp furnace going, it’s also nice to have one where I don’t use up a couple kilos of charcoal getting it dry and heated.

By the way, it’s not only good for metal casting, but with a small grate, it does a good job as a barbeque.

 

[1] I should note that while there haven’t been any of these types of furnaces excavated in Britain, twice now when I have been demonstrating using a small bowl furnace, field archaeologists have told me that they excavated something that looks identical to what I was working with, but didn’t know what it was and described it in their reports as a cooking hearth.

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Publications

Links to my online publications on academia.edu are  here 

In press

Looking over the shoulder of the Bronze Age metalsmith: Recognising the artisan in archaeological artefacts in Crafting in the World. Clare T. Burke and Suzanne Spencer-Woods, eds.

The Roseberry Topping Hoard and Rituals of Life and Death Transactions of the Hunter Archaeological Society 

2016

Getting hammered: The Use of Experimental Archaeology to Interpret Wear on Late Bronze Age Hammers and Modern replicas. EXARC Journal (OPEN ACCESS!)

The importance of multidisciplinary work within archaeological conservation projects: assembly of the Staffordshire Hoard die-impressed sheets. Journal of the Institute of Conservation Volume 39, Issue 1.

Coauthors: Jenni Butterworth, Kayleigh Fuller, Pieta Greaves

 

2014

The Compleat Metalsmith: Craft and technology in the British Bronze Age 

The Archaeology of Metalworking: Fieldworkers practical guide for BAJR (British Archaeological Jobs and Resources), David Connelly, ed.

Of Tea Pot Stands and Perforated Slabs: A report on the comparison of experimental bronze casting furnaces with artefacts from SE England

Industrial Waste and Associated Finds in The Excavation Of Ring-Ditches Two and Three at Poulton, Cheshire. 2010-2013 Kevin V.E. Cootes and Mike Emory, eds.  Published by The Poulton Research Project

Looking over the shoulder of the Bronze Age metalsmith: Recognising the artisan in archaeological artefacts in Crafting in the World. Clare T. Burke and Suzanne Spencer-Woods, eds. (in press)

The Kilnhurst Hoard: A report on a Late Bronze Age Hoard in the Clifton Park Museum, Rotherham (unpublished museum report)

The West Kennet Long Barrow Hoard: A report on a Late Bronze Age Hoard for the Wiltshire Heritage Museum, Devizes (unpublished museum report)

A Report on a Late Bronze Age Hoard found in Northampton (unpublished museum report)

The Donhead St. Mary’s Hoard: A report on a Late Bronze Age Hoard in the Salisbury Museum (unpublished museum report)

The Roseberry Topping Hoard: A report on a Late Bronze Age Hoard for Weston Park Museum, Sheffield (unpublished museum report)

A Report on Bronze Age metalsmithing tools in Winchester Museum (unpublished museum report)

A Report on metalsmithing tools and Late Bronze Age Hoards in the Colchester Museum (unpublished museum report)

Bronze Age Metalsmithing Tools in the collections of Norwich Castle Museum (unpublished museum report)

2013

Ashmolean Museum British Collection Highlights: The Isle of Harty Hoard from Kent  Ashmolean Museum website

2012

“Copper smelting at Umha Aois”  Cornish Mining World Heritage Site  newsletter

 The Inshoch Wood Hoard A report to the Inverness Museum (unpublished museum report)

2009

“A Study of the Manufacture of Copper Spearheads in the Old Copper Complex” The Minnesota Archaeologist Vol. 68

Technology as a tool for archaeological research and artifact conservation AIC Postprints (Co-authored with Gretchen Anderson)

 

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Traces of Empire – Video!

 

In the summer of 2014 Weston Park Museum here in Sheffield approached me about making a film about how metalwork would have been done in Roman Britain. Most of what I do is related to the Bronze Age, but I jumped at the chance to do something new. We set up a time to go take a look at the brooches they would have on display. After photographing them and taking measurements, I made some waxes and then put them into moulds. The process is explained in the video.

I also realised that bag bellows would probably not be the way to go, so I built the bellows that are described in the tutorial on this website.

Alan Sylvester, the filmmaker for Museums Sheffield and Lucy Creighton, (now the acting curator of archaeology) both spent long hours at Heeley City Farm helping me build the furnace and pump the bellows. After a day of filming Alan felt he needed more shots of metal being poured, and so we went back for a second day of filming. This time I had some of the pieces I cast earlier, so we could show a bit of the clean-up process.

It was a great experience. Later I gave a talk at Weston Park Museum about making the film and the importance of experimental archaeology. I also brought along the bellows and some of my tools. If you go see the exhibit, there’s a shorter version of the film on a loop near the display.

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Useful Links

Here are some of the wonderful people and groups out there. Some relate to experimental archaeology and others are great resources.

Web Help

This site wouldn’t exist without the patient help and technical expertise of Ciaran Benson. If you need a web guru, look for him at cicanhelp.com/.

General Resources

Archaeological Data Service (ADS) A thoroughly useful site. It has a search function that allows keyword searches for archaeological sites and objects. It is also a repository for grey literature (unpublished, privately, or locally published archaeological site reports) in addition to hosting regional archaeological journals and archives.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme has a searchable database of finds throughout England. It also has useful articles on typology and information about conservation and laws regarding finds and treasure in Britain.

Need archaeological supplies? remember when doing experiments, it’s important to record as much as possible. Archaeology Trowels and Tools has almost everything you need from photographic scales to weatherproof notepads and permenent ink pens to keep track of all the details.

Experimental Archaeology

Ancient Malt and Ale is a site devoted to recreating ancient beers and ales. I’ve had some of Merryn Dineley’s brews and can truly appreciate her work in experimental archaeology. If you want to know more about brewing in antiquity this is a great site to check out. There’s a Facebook Group, too: Ancient Ale & Beer: recipes, techniques and traditions

EXARC is dedicated to all fields of experimental archaeology. They host annual conferences and a peer reviewed journal, in addition to providing a network to promote open air museums. The journal is available online, and there is a lively Facebook group.

Umha Aois a group of artists and archaeologists dedicated to rediscovering Bronze Age metalsmithing and casting techniques. Their website includes videos, articles about the projects they’ve done. They also have a Facebook page.

Fun Stuff

Looking for a place to spend an archaeological holiday? Or just wishful thinking about exotic sites? Check out Past Horizon’s Timeless Travels.

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Events, Workshops, and Classes

Experimental Archaeology Needs You! Talk and Trunk Show

 Craftspeople! Archaeology Needs You! Learn the magnificent history of out humble shawl pins, and find out how you can contribute to archaeology.

Find out more here

Workshop at Western Illinois University

Tomorrow I’ll be heading down to Macomb, Illinois to run a workshop at Western Illinois University (1-4 November). It will be an exciting event. I will give a couple lectures on experimental archaeology and we’ll do some bronze casting. Lining up the materials long distance has been a bit of a challenge, but it looks as if everything is ready for the workshop.

The staff there are pulling out all the stops. Seeing that my talks will incorporate more than just the interests of the Anthropology Department, the Art Department has also been invited to join in. The local press has been notified, too. It should be an exciting event, and we’ve all been looking forward to it.

The program will be an interesting range of talks and events. Thursday we’ll build the furnace and have a couple short talks about excavating metals, identifying metalworking assemblages, and a repeat of the talk I gave in Oslo about the significance of mistakes in craft work. On Friday I’ll give an hour-long session on experimental archaeology and then we’ll head over to the furnace and get some practical experience pumping bellows and casting bronze. Rather than pack up and leave early Saturday morning, I opted to spend another day there to talk to students some more. Less lecturing and more conversation. I’ve been told that there is one student who is keen on textile archaeology, so I’ll have time to show her the PowerPoint I did at StevenBe.

Getting the supplies for this has strained the budget the department has for visiting lectures, but they are hoping that this will show the university leaders that programs like this provide unique opportunities for students and will open the door for more events. For myself, I would like to see this grow into a longer program, possibly a week-long event, so that students have more time to explore more aspects of experimental archaeology.

For now, this event is run on a shoestring and because I really want to see this happen, I am getting little more than being comped for my transportation, room and board. The ongoing support I get through Patreon makes events like this possible, and the contributions I get go a long way to fund workshops like this that provide educational opportunities for others. If you’re interested in supporting workshops and my work in experimental archaeology, please consider making a donation through PayPal or Patreon.

Talking archaeology at Cyprus Classical Academy 22308836_10159799978290221_763452381345579338_n

Last week I had a great time talking to the students at Cyprus Classical Academy about what archaeologists do. Cyprus Academy is a Montessori school and so the students in each class ranged in age from 6 to 11. They had a chance to look at and handle artefacts, pump a set of bag bellows, and have a go at using a drop spindle to spin some wool. This is a great age for kids to learn about prehistory and the fascinating story of how people invented tools and developed crafts. They will continue on studying prehistory and history, but I doubt they’ll ever think about ‘cave men’ the same way again. Apparently one of the teachers was amazed by finding out that Neanderthals made flutes and had music.

One of the unexpected benefits of my talk was that a girl in the class was excited to know that there are women archaeologists. There is the popular perception that archaeologists are men, and while field archaeology tends to have more men excavating, I pointed out that women also excavate, and also work in labs and museums. I included some slides showing kids volunteering cleaning finds, to let them know that there’s a place for them in archaeology too.

Next month I head down to Western Illinois University to give a couple lectures and to run a bronze casting workshop. It’ll be good to pump bellows again, especially since it’s getting cooler outside these days. I’m also looking forward to introducing a whole new group to archaeological metals.

I am back in the US now and spending some time tanning goat hides to make a set of bellows. This is really starting from scratch!

DSCF1198

Meanwhile I’ll be speaking at Steven Be on the history (and prehistory) of textiles on Sunday 24 September from noon to 2 pm. We’ll start at about 50,000 years ago and wind our way through textile history. I’ll have replica Bronze Age spindle whorls and other items for show and tell (and for sale).

Steven Be is on the corner of 35th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis. The place is fabulous and must be seen to be believed! We’ll be upstairs with spinners, knitters, and other textile artists. Details can be found linked here.

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The EXARC Journal is now Open Access! This is a big step and great news for researchers in experimental archaeology, or for people who are interested in ancient technology and techniques. In the past articles were made available after two years, now they are available on publication.

The journal is available for free now, but there are a lot of benefits of joining EXARC. The most important reason is to support the work EXARC does in promoting Open Air Museums, living history, museum studies, and experimental archaeology. Membership will get a print version of the journal, in addition to a card that gives you free admittance to museums who are associated with ICOM. To see a full list of the extensive work the organisation does, check out the link here.

In 2014 I presented a paper at the 8th Annual EXARC Conference in Oxford. Getting Hammered is about the experimental work I did using Bronze Age replica hammers and comparing the hammers I used to the ones I examined in museums. The article is available online now at this address.

To celebrate this, I am putting up the Powerpoint and notes from the 2014 presentation on my Patreon site. It will be available for all supporters who contribute $3 or more per month. The contributions made to my Patreon page go to fund my experimental work, including my participation in the recent Bronze Casting Festival in Uelsen, Germany.

 

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What is Experimental Archaeology? It Begins With a Question

My first foray into experimental archaeology came when I was working at the Science Museum of Minnesota, where I was cataloguing the metals collections there. It’s not well-known in the rest of the world, but during the Late Archaic Period (3000-500 BC) in the Lake Superior region of North America, Native Americans worked with the copper that was easily found there. The culture was aceramic, meaning that they did not make pottery, and so did not have the means to cast or alloy the copper they found. However, they could hammer it, anneal it, and create finely detailed cut work ornaments, earrings, and hand tools, in addition to spears, knives, and arrowheads. It was while I was examining the spears that I started to wonder how they were made. The spears were triangular in cross section and I noticed that they were perfectly smooth on two sides, but on the third side the metal was folded with an almost flowing appearance. This was accentuated by fine corrosion on the surface. Knowing these weren’t cast, the first question I had was how they could have been hammered into a raised shape. The clues were in the surfaces and I reasoned that rather than being poured into a mould, they were hammered in, and the rougher surface was where the metal was packed in and hammered from the top. In order to test my theory about how this was done, I carved a block of walnut to create a triangular spearhead. Knowing that copper needs to be annealed periodically, I lit a small charcoal fire and had a friend standing by with bellows. It turned out that they weren’t needed because a light breeze was enough to raise the heat of the charcoal fire to anneal the copper. The metal was easily hammered into the mould using a hand-held hammerstone. The metal pushed into the mould smoothly along the sides and the top surface was rough from my pushing the edges of the metal from the top edges of the mould and folding them back onto the surface of the spear.

I was not only fascinated by the process of making a spear, but also how I had deduced it from examining the original spears in the museum and puzzling out the details. The whole thing was eventually written up and published in The Minnesota Archaeologist.  After the first foray into experimental archaeology, I was hooked. From that time forward, I closely examined tools and metal objects, trying to figure out how they were made, what processes were used, and what tools were needed, how those tools were made, receding back ad infinitum.

This is the crux of experimental archaeology that sets it apart from re-enactment or generally doing craftwork: experimental archaeology starts with a question. Experiments can be done in a lab in order to control as many variables as possible. Experiments can also be done in the field, but unlike re-enactment, not every tool and object needs to be a replica of an original. This is especially true when doing experiments in prehistoric crafts, where few of the original tools still exist. When doing experiments, I can use steel tongs and graphite crucibles, as long as they will not affect the parameters of the question being asked. Likewise in some experiments, for instance trying to learn the melting times for different alloys in a charcoal fire, rather than using bellows I will use an electric pump to make sure that each sample was created under as close to the same conditions as possible. Each experiment must be thought out ahead of time and choices made for each step. The important thing is not to be distracted by the possibilities, but to always focus on the question and to create the conditions that will give a meaningful answer, even if it is inconclusive and leads to other experiments. It’s also vitally important to measure, weigh, time, and quantify as much as possible. For example when experimenting with smelting, the ore should be weighed before and after processing. How long it took for the ore to smelt should be timed. The amount of charcoal used should be recorded. The size of bellows and furnace should be noted. The heat of the furnace should also be monitored. Finally the slag, dross, and refined metal should be weighed and recorded in order to find out how much metal was produced from the ore. The slag could be examined to see if there is any metal left, and note if it could be re-smelted. It can be tedious work at times, and a pain to remember to weigh, record, and photograph everything, but the results will be worth the effort, because the information hasn’t been lost. The data from the experiment you did will lead to more experiments, but will also yield useful information for others.

This is just the beginning. This website will feature experiments that I and others have done, and will also include tutorials on how to construct basic equipment. If you are interested in reading more about experimental archaeology, check out the links page where you will be able to find others interested in experimenting with ancient and even not so ancient technology and craft.

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