I have been far behind in keeping up with my website and blog because I took on a major project working on the Staffordshire Hoard. Because it was a short term contract, I opted to commute from Sheffield to Birmingham. It made for long days, but it was worth it.
My job was to assemble the fragments of embossed sheet metal. I’m proud of the work I did for the Hoard and for Birmingham Museums. There are some articles and blogs that have highlighted the work I did there, with more to come.
The articles and video below go into greater detail about the work I did on the Hoard and have some good photos of a few of the embossed sheet metal foil.
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.
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.