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
This autumn I was visiting my sister who lives just outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. She has a bit of land, so I asked her if I could build a furnace and do some casting there. I’ve built plenty of pit furnaces, so this time I wanted to build one that was above ground and a bit more visible. It would also mean that no one would trip and fall if they forgot where I put the thing.
First off was to get the basic materials: Clay, Sand, and Horse Manure.
I thought that the clay would be the biggest hurdle. However my sister’s neighbour happened to be a sculptor who works in both iron and ceramics. She went to her regular clay supplier and got a couple feed sacks full of dried clay for free! Potters who work at wheels, or work with kids end up with a lot of clay that is scraped off of workbenches and wheels that is hard to re-use. It’s often mixed consistency, lumpy or part dried. If they want to use the clay again, it has to be reconditioned. So, they take their sacks of scrap back to the place where they buy the clay and pay to have it put through the mill. Since it’s not really usable, some potters are willing to just give it away. So thanks to Liz Fritzsche, who does amazing and beautiful work in porcelain, I was able to get started.
I threw some of the dried clay into a five gallon bucket and poured in enough water to cover the clay and let it sit. It was squishy and workable in a few hours. Next up was horse manure. A friend of a friend has horses, and they were grateful to have someone who would haul away a couple of barn buckets full. The final bit was the sand. My sister did have some beach sand that she’d bought for the garden, but I was more fascinated by the soil there. Her land is in the old Rio Grande River Valley, and the soil is a mixture of silty sand and a little clay that had been pounded to a powder. The soil was almost the consistency of dust. It mixed in perfectly and later I found the mixture was highly resistant to cracking.
The ingredients were mixed with some water, stomped, and adjusted. New Mexico is a lot drier than England, so I ended up adding more water as I worked. It was also nice knowing that it was unlikely for any rain to fall while I was working.
The silt/clay/dung mixture made a durable clay, and after I flew back to Minneapolis, I was please that the crucibles and moulds I packed in my check-in luggage survived airport handling.
The furnace walls are about 8 cm wide (about the width of my palm) and the inside diameter is about 25 cm in diameter. I let it dry for a couple days and then moved it over to an unused area behind a greenhouse where I would have more room to work. I set a small fire with cottonwood branches, fed it for a couple hours, and then let it die out overnight.
We all like to put some decoration on our furnaces. My students have done everything from dragons and demons to cats. I had been thinking about doing some imitation petroglyphs, but as I was working it just seemed natural to do a portrait of Mavis, my sister’s exuberant German Shepherd.
Finally I adjusted the mix to have a bit more of the silty sand and horse dung to make the teapot stand and crucibles. For more information about teapot stands and how they work in furnaces, check out my article on the Umha Aois website here.
Later I added more water to make the slip for dipping waxes in for the first stages of mould making. The silt made a wonderfully fine mould that picked up all the details.
I had some cracking on the upper part of the furnace, and noted that the part that cracked was where I used the commercial sand. The silty New Mexico soil held up much better. If it weren’t so heavy (and probably not allowed) I would have hauled bags of it on the plane to use for more projects.
Both Mavises performed very well (Mavis the Dog is into barrel racing and advanced obedience classes). I’ll be interested to see how it holds up over the winter. Winters in New Mexico tend to be mild, so I’m hoping that the Mavis furnace will be available for friends in Albuquerque to use for some time to come.
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.
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 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.
The conservation of the Hoard has won a major award (November 2015). Check out the video The ICON Conservation Awards.
An article I coauthored about working on the hoard published in Journal of the Institute of Conservation is available here: The importance of multidisciplinary work within archaeological conservation projects: assembly of the Staffordshire Hoard die-impressed sheets
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.