Sedgeford Archaeology and more videos!

Last summer I had the pleasure to assist Dr Eleanor Blakelock in running a week-long seminar in archaeometallurgy and experimental archaeology at the  Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Project (SHARP) in Norfolk. The current excavations are focused on two areas of an Anglo Saxon village, however their “primary objective is the investigation of the entire range of human settlement and land use in the Norfolk parish of Sedgeford”. The excavations have been going on since 1996, and the organisation provides comprehensive teaching in a wide area of archaeological subjects. You can read all about the project here.
Last year they began a new course in experimental metal working. We built furnaces, made moulds, crucibles, mixed alloys and cast bronze. We even got some local ore and smelted iron. It was an intensive week and the hottest one I have experienced in England.

During the event, Ellie took some videos of us in action. The first one shows us building  a casting furnace and a pit for heating the moulds, and then follows us through the casting process.

One interesting phenomenon of the week was how we became separated from the rest of the SHARP community. We were given our own space that wouldn’t interfere with the the trenches or the campground. The first two days when we were building furnaces we kept to the same schedule as everyone else. However, once the casting began we couldn’t stop for meals or keep to the schedule that everyone else had. One of our group would come down and bring back food for the rest of us. We were effectively isolated, although the others knew where we were from the rising smoke. Later when we started showing up with freshly cast  bronze jewellery there was a bit of envy and wonder. In the space of a couple days we had gone from being part of the community to the people who were “over there” with special knowledge that didn’t conform with regular schedule or tasks that everyone else did. We kept odd hours, were continually covered in soot, but had become somewhat wizard-like in our knowledge of metalworking (not to mention regularly getting out of kitchen chores!).

On the final evening, everyone joined us for the iron smelt. The week had been intensely hot so we started the bloomery furnace in the afternoon, after the heat of the day. As the sun set and most folks had finished their supper, they came by to see the furnace in full swing with fire shooting from the top. Of course everyone wanted to take a turn at the bellows! It was a magical evening. Stories were told, and mysteries presented. In a way it was an initiatory experience for the archaeologists who signed up for the course. It was hard work, but they learned the secret knowledge of the smiths and have stories and their bronze castings to prove it.

The course will run again this July. If you’re interested in learning more about the course or being part of the excavation sign up on the SHARP website.

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8 March 2015 – International Women’s Day and the Bronze Age

palstave
bronze palstave with a haft carved from holly

 

When I’m casting metal, there’s not much time for contemplation. I’m either pumping bellows, tending charcoal, instructing others, or getting ready for the pour. Finishing the stuff I cast is another matter. There’s a lot of handwork that doesn’t involve concentration. Lately I’ve been carving a new set of tuyeres and hafting a palstave, which means a lot of sawing, shaping and sanding.

Today while I was using a rasp to even out the handle, I was thinking about an incident in my rebellious youth. In the late 50’s and early 60’s the women’s movement hardly existed. Young girls were taught be polite and prepare for a life of domesticity. Even with no knowledge of feminism, that never sat well with me. I was an unrepentant tomboy. Girls were forbidden to wear trousers to school, so as soon as I was home I changed into jeans and more often than not, I’d get into something that meant the knees were torn out. My mother and those in charge of my life despaired of me ever becoming a proper young lady.

The incident that stuck in my memory was the day in first grade when the class was divided up. The boys got pieces of wood to make toy airplanes and the girls got some handkerchiefs to made dolls. I was never one for dolls, and I enviously watched the boys assembling their airplanes. Crossing the line to the boys half of the room would have been unthinkable.

So, I watched every step of what they were doing and when I got home, I got out a hammer, some nails, and scrounged some pieces of wood. It wasn’t as nice as the pre-cut pieces of wood that the boys had in the classroom, but I made an airplane. I even found some sandpaper and discovered my dislike of sanding. Sanding was boring and slow, but I wouldn’t be outdone by a bunch of boys. By the end of the day I figured I had two skills. I could make dolls and I could make airplanes. What I didn’t realise at the time was that I also was able to learn by observation and without being directly instructed. It was also one of my first steps at ignoring the barriers set up to prevent girls from making airplanes, or whatever else they wanted.

I’ve made my peace with sanding. It’s no longer a necessary evil, and instead I’ve found the time spent is good for meditation and reflection. The final satiny surface also shows a pride in artisanship, something that I think a Bronze Age smith could relate to.

Making wooden airplanes and experimenting with bronze axes push the boundaries of how we learn and what we know. Experimental archaeology is one way that I continue to question authority and explore the distant past.

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