I finally got the fibulae I cast in Dublin last month finished and fitted with pins. They polished up nicely and look a lot more shiny than their counterparts in museums. I still have a hammer and a couple other castings to clean up. Meanwhile a new batch of waxes are in moulds and if the weather behaves they could get cast up in the next couple weeks.
There’s even a slow motion film of one of these guys being cast thanks to the folks at UCD.
My new furnace got its first workout when 63 Year 3 (eight year old) students from Gleadless School came to Heeley City Farm for an archaeology day. I arrived early and we got the fire going and set up the bag bellows. The project was to give the kids an idea of life in the Iron Age, so they had a brief lecture by Ken Dash about archaeology, followed by a talk at the roundhouse. They visited the farm’s soay sheep, a breed that is supposed to go back to the Iron Age, and some of the other animals at the farm. Then they came to watch me cast a spindle whorl in tin (lead might be more authentic, but the risk assessment forms are detailed enough without that). We talked about what life in the Iron Age would have been like for kids their age and what they might have done for fun with no televisions, computers, or video games. I handed around a lump of tin, put it in the crucible, and then they could see it melt like magic. I poured the tin into a mould and after it cooled, I fit it onto a wooden shaft. Once they had their spindle, they took it to Sally Rodgers, the heritage officer for the farm, who showed them how to spin the wool from the soay sheep and use the spun yarn to make a simple bracelet.
I also had some of my tools for them to handle: bronze hammers and palstaves, chisels, a pig scapula (perfect for scooping charcoal), along with the tools and equipment needed for casting.
This was the first school group of the year and the first time a visit had been organised thematically. It worked well with the classes broken down into groups of 15 with two adults for each group. Since archaeology has been added to the National Curriculum, events like this do a good job of giving students a hands-on lesson that is engaging and memorable. Each group got a spindle as a souvenir of the event. They might have a go at spinning in their classrooms, but the spindle also serves as a reminder of the the day out and the things they did when they visited the farm.
I had a great afternoon at Heeley City Farm. When I arrived Iain and the crew had cleaned up the area so it looked as immaculate as a little clearing in a wood can be. The old furnace was pretty dead, having been tromped, dug, and re-dug for over five years, so I decided it would be good to start a new one. Iain was ahead of me and already had clay and sand ready. I dug a small hole positioned so that I could sit facing the groups as they come in (I’ve been meaning to do that for years). I lined it with the clay mix and then set a small wood fire to dry the clay. As it was, while I was building the furnace, the damp was seeping through the soil, making the clay wetter than when I put it on.
Of course I left the house without my phone, so no photos of the new furnace yet.
I sat and fed the little fire dry twigs and wished I’d had the sense to pick up some sausages at the Co-op. Ah well. Iain and I talked about projects we planned to do until the fire died down. I buried the embers and covered the furnace with dirt. No one will know where it is or mess with it. If I’m lucky, it will still be warm when I go to fire it up tomorrow morning.
I missed the first day of the conference, choosing instead to go to my PhD graduation ceremony. It was a wild trip. I graduated with the full regalia of cap and gown, had a quick couple glasses of wine at the archaeology department’s reception, and then we hopped on a fast flight to Dublin for the EAC9 conference at University College, Dublin. The conference was a collaborative effort brought together by EXARC, UCD, and the Irish National Heritage Park. It was a large conference with over 200 delegates, 20 papers, and 31 posters.
The Dublin University campus is huge and spread out, so we had a time trying to find the right building. I arrived just in time to deliver my paper and see the rest of the session. There were some interesting papers and posters given that explored the range of pyrotechnology in archaeology from cremation to glassworking and metalwork. In addition to the usual poster session, individual posters were given a ten minute presentation while being projected in the main hall. These included Jiří Hošek, Ryszard Kaźmierczak, Paweł Kucypera & Maciej Tomaszczyk (Nicolaus Copernicus University) with a presentation on steel carburising in a small shaft furnace, and Yuri Godino & Lorenzo Teppati Losè (University of Florence) presented a poster on their experiments on cupellating galena to produce refined silver.
I was also interested in the presentations on glassworking. There were two very different approaches to the subject with Marta Krzyżanowska & Mateusz Frankiewicz from Poland who spoke about producing Early Medieval lampwork type beads in an open hearth based on excavations in Ribe. Jonathan Thornton from Buffalo, New York spoke about replicating trade bead production based on evidence from Africa using glass frit in a clay mould .
The presentations that discussed metal began with my presentation on inverse segregation and its influence on chemical analysis of objects cast in the Bronze Age. Padraig McGoran of Umha Aois presented a poster on his experiments that included problems and solutions in casting into open one piece moulds.
After that I was off to the university’s experimental grounds to help set up furnaces and get ready for casting. The centre boasts a Mesolithic house, along with metalworking furnaces in varying states of decay. There are separate areas set aside for flint knapping, firing pottery, and active metalworking projects. The members of Umha Aois had already started building a variety of furnaces that included ones heated from below, from the side, and another with a tuyere that had a 90 degree bend that blew the air directly onto charcoal covering a flat, pan-shaped crucible. I worked at a portable ceramic furnace that was brought to the site by Fiona Coffey. It was set up inside Billy Mag Floinn’s newly constructed traveller’s tent. Despite it being wind and waterproof, the flaps ventilated it well and we kept warmer than the others who were set up under a tarp outside.
At lunch I was presented with a birthday cake. Unusual as it was no one had anything bigger to cut it with than a pocket knife. The only solution was to get one of Billy’s bronze swords and carefully slice it. It was a most memorable birthday.
Finished projects were on display, including swords, horns, tools, spears, and stone moulds. We spent the day casting axes, jewellery, tools, and other objects. There was a constant flood of visitors and regular announcements were made when one of us was ready to pour. For most of the day it was standing room only. The casting events continued all afternoon and into the evening.
Slow motion film of me casting some little bronze fibulae
Rather than head straight back to Sheffield the next day, I had arranged to see the Bishopsland Hoard and a hammer from the Garden Hill Hoard at the National Museum. I’d hoped that I could see some moulds, and to have some colleagues also examine the objects. Unfortunately emails were crossed and I just got to see the hoard and hammer. However, that was fascinating in itself, and I spent hours measuring, weighing, drawing, and photographing every detail of the artefacts.
Events like this are exhilarating and exhausting. We all learn more every time we meet, and we come away with new ideas as well as newly cast objects to finish up. This week I’ve been filing and polishing some of the bronze fibulae I cast and I still need to get to work on the replica I cast of the hammer from the Lusmagh Hoard. Meanwhile, there are more waxes and moulds to make to get ready for casting again.