Experimental Archaeology at Western Illinois University

On November 1-3 I was in Macomb, Illinois leading a bronze casting workshop at Western Illinois University. This was the first event of its kind for the University and few people knew what to expect. While there is a certain amount of flintknapping and some pottery done by students, there was no available program for the introduction of the method and theory behind experimental archaeology.

Arrangements had been made by Professor Andrea Alveshere, a colleague of mine from the University of Minnesota. There wasn’t much in the way of funds for the project, so I agreed to come as long as my expenses and materials were covered. It was a program that both she and I very much wanted to introduce to the department.

I had a long train ride from St Paul to central Illinois, but enjoyed seeing the landscape. I arrived fairly late that evening and was taken to cabins on rural property now owned by the university. The land and cabins had been bequeathed to the university and they are a great resource. In addition to dorm-like cabins with bunk beds, bathrooms, and limited kitchen facilities, there is a dining hall with a complete kitchen. We made sure that there were supplies for coffee and breakfast and checked out the site for the furnace to be built.

The grounds around the cabin are level and grassy an there was already a large firepit with picnic benches arranged around it. I met the site manager, and we chose a spot beyond the firepit where we could construct a small pit furnace. Fortunately she was excited about the project and had no problems with holes being dug. She also liked the idea of the furnace being buried when we were done with it and to have it excavated later.

We hit the ground running on Thursday. Andrea picked me up and we went to the university where I met students and staff in the art metals department. They were excited about the project and were helping with the supplies. The idea of primitive casting was fascinating to them and they looked forward to the event. I borrowed some tongs and other equipment from them, with more to be delivered the next day. While we spoke one of the professors who teaches pottery came in. We needed clay, and I had to explain that we wanted his worst stuff, the stuff that’s scraped off tables that’s usually discarded or sent for recycling. He didn’t quite understand why we wanted the useless clay, but we could have as much as we wanted.

After lunch we made a run into town for more supplies. We found bags of sand and proper lumpwood/natural charcoal at the local farm store for a reasonable price. The plan was to cast into cuttlefish bone since two days was not enough time to make moulds for lost wax casting. Unfortunately when the shipment of cuttle bone arrived, it contained packages of aquarium gravel. So we were also scouring local pet stores for cuttlefish. Andrea contacted the company she ordered from and arranged an overnight delivery, but there were no promises that it would arrive in Macomb in time. The nearest FedEx office was in Peoria and it would have to go by post from there to Macomb.

We agreed to meet up at the site at 2:30 to build the furnace. When we arrived, a few students were already on site. I explained to them about clay mixing and the reasons we mix sand and dung with the clay. In the process they got a basic lesson about ceramic petrography, and early clay recipes. By the time we were done they had a working knowledge of clay bodies and the physical experience as well. A hole was dug and then lined it with clay. I explained about tuyeres and used a branch to construct a clay-lined hole to the base of the furnace. When I build a furnace I usually ask the students to decorate it in some way. Usually something is put above the hole where the tuyere comes in. While working, the students decided that the furnace should have a turtle head above the tuyere. A nice choice, since the glowing charcoal would make for an interesting turtle shell! While they worked on that, I made the platform (also known as teapot stands or perforated clay slabs) to place in the furnace. By 6:30 pm we had everything done. I needed to change for my talks at 7 pm at the university.

Note the supports for the teapot stand inside. It was a well made and durable furnace.
Note the supports for the teapot stand inside. It was a well made and durable furnace.

Once I was cleaned up Andrea took me to the lecture hall. It was a great facility with a large wall-sized screen and auditorium seating. It was almost half full, which was good considering that it was a weekday evening and the subject was unfamiliar to most people. Despite that we drew attendance from the anthropology and art departments, in addition to members of the local archaeology society and public not associated with the university.

I gave three short talks in succession with questions and answers after each one. These were all presentations that I’d given at conferences, all of which were about 15 minutes long. I started off with the one I gave in Oslo about the significance of mistakes and how they are preserved in metalwork. The second was about Minimum Tools Required, a portion of my PhD thesis that organised the chaîne opératoire of metalworking. The final talk was about excavating metal, based on the BAJR guide that I’d written. The questions were enthusiastic and despite there being little in the way of prehistoric metal in the region, there was interest in the subject. I did answer a couple questions about Lake Superior copper use among Native Americans. There is some debate as to how some of the copper objects arrived in central Illinois from northern Minnesota. Were objects traded by Native Americans, or was the copper a chance find of raw material that had been redeposited by glacial action? I hadn’t seen the objects, but typology might provide an answer. At the end I spoke a little about what we would be doing the next day.

Afterwards Andrea and I returned to the furnace. Although it was still damp, I wanted to get it dry before casting the next day. We laid a little fire and sat talking late into the night. The presentation had been a great success and it looks as if it generated a lot of interest.

Friday I was scheduled to give a talk on experimental archaeology at noon. This was basically an introductory lecture, about why and how experimental archaeology is done, along with the basic ground rules for doing experimental work. Word had gotten out and the room was filled to capacity. After the talk we headed back to the site and got to work. Because we hurried the process along last night there were cracks in the furnace, but because it was set into the ground the cracks had little effect. The furnace was still warm from the previous night and I used a trusty pig scapula to scrape out the ash and leftover charcoal and then fit the platform in place. The fire was lit and after I had worked the bag bellows for a bit, the students took over. Every group I work with seems to have a different approach as to how to operate the bellows. I know that the way I do it, alternating pumps with one per hand, is difficult to coordinate for people trying it the first time. Some people never quite get it and just pump both the bellows at the same time (affectionately known as the Cambridge Method). Here, the students teamed up and had one person per side, operating the bellows with both hands and surprisingly well-coordinated. They were energetic and worked long sessions without tiring. At times I had to ask someone to give up their place to let another student try. I wanted to make sure that everyone who wanted to (including non-students who had come to see what was going on) had a chance at the bellows. With the frequent changes at the beginning the furnace took a bit longer to melt the metal than normal, but we did get there. About an hour after we started Andrea got the call that the cuttlebone had arrived. Students were already carving moulds from what we had on hand. Now things were in full swing. I was grateful to the jewellery professor who took on showing the students how to prepare and carve the cuttlebone while I supervised the melts.

There were a few failures do to improper mould preparation. It gave me the opportunity to explain how easy it was to lose droplets of metal while casting and pointed out the debris that was getting trampled around the furnace, tell-tale clues that an archaeologist needs to look out for in a site that could be mistaken for a cooking pit. Every experience that day was a teaching moment. Both instructional and non-discursive. Repeatedly students told me that they had never known that there was such a thing as experimental archaeology, and that they were thinking about archaeology in a new way. A couple students who had not yet declared were suddenly thinking about the possibilities of having a major in anthropology.

The students wanted to keep going despite a large pot-luck dinner that had been prepared, so they went to eat in shifts. Andrea had made traditional booya, a popular stew in the upper Midwest. There were also pasta dishes, salads, and a wide array of food. People assured me that I wasn’t too soot covered, although I felt as if I had charcoal smoke in every pore. The head of the Anthropology Department came up and complemented me on my lecture. He was impressed by how I presented the information and noted the enthusiasm of the students. The potluck was also attended by members of the local archaeology society who aren’t formally a part of the university, but attend functions and often work with students on projects.

After dinner we worked a little more, but it was long past the time that we could see well in the dark. We packed up as much as we could find and put it all in the cabin.

Blowing off the bits of charcoal before pouring. Always exciting!
Blowing off the bits of charcoal before pouring. Always exciting!

I had the choice of leaving on Saturday or Sunday. I opted for Sunday because the train left at 7 am and I knew that Friday would be a late night. I told the students that if they were interested, we could continue casting on Saturday. I had no lectures or other plans, so we agreed on a 10 am start.

The next morning we had another good-sized group of students. The previous day there had been close to a couple dozen people at a point and rarely fewer than a dozen visiting throughout the day and evening. Saturday was more relaxed, but still well-attended. Students made moulds and instructed ones who hadn’t been there the day before. The more experienced ones were already taking on tasks like they were old hands at it.

Andrea was amused that this was supposed to be my day off, but instead it was another full day of casting. Some experimentation was done with hammering (using my bronze hammer and anvil) and other finishing work. One student was keen on textile archaeology, so she cast some beautiful spindle whorls. I also made some clay ones with her, using some of the scraps left over from building the furnace. Once dry, she’ll take them to the art department to see if she can get them fired there. I heard that they also do raku pit firing.

Towards evening I needed to call it quits. I had an early start in the morning and needed to get things cleaned up and packed. . The students reluctantly poured the last moulds and we got everything in order. The next day they would cover the turtle furnace with dirt and let it deteriorate. In a year or two it will be just as useful as a teaching tool for excavation.

The entire event was successful and exceeded our expectations. We had brought an entire new perspective on archaeology to the department, and the department heads were impressed. In my talk I had emphasised the value of programs like this not only for hands-on student learning, but also as a unique opportunity for public interaction with the department. Too often universities are segregated from the surrounding community leading to the local residents wondering what goes on there. Experimental archaeology programs, especially those performed out of doors, provide an opportunity for interaction and public participation, and even drawing on experience of people from outside the university. Andrea and I discussed the possibility of doing a longer workshop or even the possibility of an accredited short course. Now that the department has been given an idea of what can be accomplished, they might be more amenable to funding it.

These are ambitious ideas in a time when universities are hurting for money. I was glad to be a part of this mainly because I wanted to help Andrea introduce experimental archaeology to her students and colleagues. There was no budget for such an unknown project, but because we were keen on this, Andrea scraped what funds she could get at short notice and we put it together on a shoestring. I would love to pursue this and give students the full range of what an experimental archaeology course could offer, but that is for the university board to decide.

In the meantime, I would like to thank all the people who support my project on Patreon. They provided the opportunity for this seed to get planted and for students to have a unique experience that will benefit them in their careers as archaeologists. The contributions made through Patreon and PayPal go towards giving more people the opportunity to explore the world of material culture in a way they never realised before. If you’re interested in finding out more about my Patreon project or making a sustaining contribution please click on the link below.

Become a Patron!

The furnace at night
The furnace at night

 

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New article in the EXARC Journal

I wrote a brief article about the Bronze Casting Festival for EXARC, a journal dedicated to experimental archaeology and open air museums. This year the EXARC Journal has become open access, so the articles are available for everyone to read.
The article is a condensed version of the experiments and bronze casting that went on at the festival at the Bronzezeithof in Uelsen last May. Those of you who support me through Patreon for $5 per month will have already read this and much more in far more detail.
https://exarc.net/issue-2017-3/mm/bronze-casting-festival-bronzezeithof-uelsen-germany
If you have an interest in experimental archaeology, or are just curious about how people did things in the past, without the benefit of heavy machinery or computers, definitely check out the EXARC journal. There are years’ worth of articles that not only tell you how the pyramids could have been built to how impressions in tiles can tell us about ancient textiles.

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Travelling Women

Another female Bronze Age icon is now known to have travelled across Europe

Photo: The National Museum of Denmark

 

Recently this story about the Skrydstrup Woman made the news. Strontium analyses showed that she was not born in the same region where she was buried. Rather than coming from what is now Denmark, she started out life farther south in Germany or France. Like the Egtved Girl (better known for her infamous string skirt) she was a member of the elite society, buried in an oak coffin, wearing gold jewellery, and embroidered robes. All of those items buried with her would have meant the sacrifice of objects that would have taken many days or even weeks of labour to manufacture. Her hair was put up in an elaborate style, that would have required assistance. Her bones indicated she lived a healthy life and died from unknown causes when she was in her late teens. She arrived at Skrydstrup when she was about 13 or 14 years old.

It’s possible that she arrived in Skrydstrup as a bride, marrying into a local noble family to cement a political alliance, or perhaps her well-born family relocated to Skrydstrup. We can make up any number of stories about her personal history, and no doubt many will come out as further analyses is done and technology improves. What remains is that she travelled a long distance in her life, and possibly not just going directly from where she was born to Skrydstrup. She could have travelled to several places in her short life.

I can relate to the Skrydstrup woman.  By the time I was her age I had travelled from where I was born in southern California to San Francisco, from there to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Milwaukee and Chicago. As an adult I’ve lived in both North America and Europe. It used to be assumed that people lived their lives in a single community, but then as now, we see that people were mobile. This mobility not only brought a single woman into a community, but also her way of life. She would have spoken at least one other language, a useful skill if her family or that of her husband were merchants. She might have brought other valued resources to her community, such as a new type of needle working, weaving, or other skilled crafts. The objects from her home would have been seen as exotic, foreign, or rare.

The history of archaeology has been full of explanations for the movement of people. At times they were described as political conquests or invasions, the Beaker Folk, Anglo Saxons, Vikings… each generation giving a different interpretation of the data we have. Were they marauding warriors replacing the local population, groups fleeing strife in their homeland, or peaceful settlers arriving with families? Or some of each? The evidence we have in prehistory comes from changes in material culture: a new style of pottery, the introduction of a new technology, or changes in the way the deceased are dealt with. In some cases these cultural changes can be dated and tracked, allowing us to look at the progression of something, such as a craft techniques, from its origins and disbursement. However in tracking all the data on all these objects the humans sometimes get left behind. The bowls, beakers, and axes didn’t move themselves. People were travelling, carrying them, moving from one place to another. It makes sense, humans have been on the move since the beginning. From small bands in Africa, humans have spread out over the entire planet. We continue to move and migrate as groups and individuals to this day, bringing skills, languages, and ideas with us. Creativity, adaptability, and mobility are human strengths.

The Skrydstrup woman puts a personal face on migration. Both she and the Egtved Girl were immigrants, although for years they have been an icon of Danish prehistory. Now their story has expanded and rather than a symbol of a single national identity, they represent the multicultural world of human prehistory.

 

References

National Museum Denmark, The Woman From Skrydstrup http://en.natmus.dk/historical-knowledge/denmark/prehistoric-period-until-1050-ad/the-bronze-age/men-and-woman-in-the-bronze-age/the-woman-from-skrydstrup/

National Museum Denmark, The Egtved Girl. http://en.natmus.dk/historical-knowledge/denmark/prehistoric-period-until-1050-ad/the-bronze-age/the-egtved-girl/

Persson, C.P., 2015. A famous Danish Bronze Age icon turns out not to be Danish after all ScienceNordic. http://sciencenordic.com/famous-danish-bronze-age-icon-turns-out-not-be-danish-after-all 

Persson, C.P., 2017. Another female Bronze Age icon is now known to have travelled across Europe. ScienceNordic. http://sciencenordic.com/another-female-bronze-age-icon-now-known-have-travelled-across-europe

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Textile Tools in Archaeology

Archaeological textiles is a difficult specialty since most of the material deteriorates rapidly. It is rare when prehistoric textiles are recovered. However, what textile archaeologists do have for study are the tools used in making textiles: spindle whorls, loom weights, combs, and other tools. When I go to museums, I often look at objects outside of my own area of interest and in the following pages, I’ll be providing some support for my friends who work in textiles.

Some resources for those of you who are interested in historical and ancient textiles include the European Textile Forum whose mission is “…to give academics and craftspeople working with historical textile techniques a place and opportunity to meet with each other. This is the perfect surrounding and the perfect place to solve technical questions regarding your textile and to get input from others working on similar pieces – both on the academic and on the craft side.”

Please note that many of these photos are taken from outside glass cases and can’t provide measurements and weights. However, I will do my best to provide as much information about the context as possible. Click on the thumbnails below for a larger image.

For more information about textiles in archaeology and history, I can recommend the books below. Click on the image for a direct link.


Elizabeth Wayland Barber Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years - Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times

Craft Specialization and Social Evolution: In Memory of V. Gordon Childe edited by Bernard Wailes

Marie-Louise NoschC. Gillis Ancient Textiles: Production, Crafts and Society

Fanfani, GiovanniMary HarlowMarie Louise Nosch (Editors) Spinning Fates and the Song of the Loom: The Use of Textiles, Clothing and Cloth Production as Metaphor, Symbol and Narrative Device in Greek and Latin Literature

Lilli FransenShelly Nordtorp-MadsonAnna NorgardElse Ostergard Medieval Garments Reconstructed: Norse Clothing Patterns 

Marianne Vedeler Silk for the Vikings

A brief selection of articles and other resources:

Chittock, Helen 2014 Arts and Crafts in Iron Age Britain: Reconsidering the aesthetic effects of weaving combs. Oxford Journal Of Archaeology 33(3) 313–326

Gleba, Margarita 2012 From textiles to sheep: investigating wool fibre development in pre-Roman Italy using scanning electron microscopy (SEM). Journal of Archaeological Science 39 (2012) 3643e3661

Mårtensson, Linda, Marie-Louise Nosch, and Eva Andersson Strand 2009 Shape Of Things: Understanding a loom weight. Oxford Journal Of Archaeology 28(4) 373–398

Rast-Eicher, Antoinette, Lise Bender Jørgensen 2012 Sheep Wool in Bronze Age and Iron Age Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science 40

Shishlina, N.I., O.V. Orfinskaya And V.P. Golikov 2003 Bronze Age Textiles From The North Caucasus: New evidence of fourth millennium bc fibres and fabrics. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 22(4) 331–344

Standley, Eleanor R. 2106 Spinning Yarns: The Archaeological Evidence for Hand Spinning and its Social Implications, c ad 1200–1500. Medieval Archaeology, 60/2

Webb, Jennifer 2002 New Evidence for the Origins of Textile Production in Bronze Age Cyprus. Antiquity 76

Italy

Textile tools in the Bologna Museum of Archaeology

Museum Website (in English)

I took some photos of textile tools while on a recent trip to the Museum of Archaeology in Bologna. The cases were nicely organised by context. That is, rather than group all the spindle whorls together and all the beads together somewhere else, the objects were grouped according to where they were found. For example, if they were found in a burial, all the grave goods were displayed together, so all the beads, spindle whorls, and other objects were on the same shelf with a card explaining the context and how the objects relate to each other. I have undone this a bit because the focus here is on textile tools. However, I will provide as much information as possible so that you will be able to do further research if you wish.

Spindle Whorls and Weaving Weights

Bobbins (Rocchetti)

Spindle whorls and Spindles (Conocchie)

Representations of the Textile Industry

This object, a Tintinnabulo, described as a ritual pendent was part of a lavish burial in Tomb 5 of dell’Arsenale Militare (700-675 BC, Villanovan III) and depicts the steps in wool processing. Drawings show the engravings that are on the front and reverse of the tintinnabulo. More about the tintinnabulo and the burial can be found here.

 

Textile tools in the The Civic Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Modena

Museum website (in English)

Textile tools in the The Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia

Museum website (in English)

Reggio Emilia is a small city to the northwest of Modena, along the via Emilia heading towards Milan. Like Modena the exhibits are chronological and just about everything is on display. It’s interesting to note the similarities and difference between the textile tools given how close Bologna, Modena, and Reggio Emilia are.

Textile tools in the The National Archaeological Museum in Naples

Museum Website (in Italian, the English version doesn’t appear to be working)

Norway

Historical Museum, Oslo

Museum website (in English)

The Viking Ship Museum

Museum website (in English)

The textiles and tools come from the Oseberg boat burial. The boat was built in AD 820 and was in use until AD 834 when it was used for the burial of two women. The burial includes two chests that contain textiles woven from linen and wool, tapestries, and textile tools including a swift, distaffs, weaving tablets, shears, and looms. Raw materials, such as bundles of unspun flax were also a part of the goods interred with the women.

England

Unlike Italian museums, the ones in the UK display only their finest examples with much of the collection in storage. The museums here are arranged by city, roughly from north to south.

Arbeia Roman Fort & Museum, South Shields

Museum website

Segedunum Roman Fort, Baths & Museum, Wallsend

Museum website

Hancock Museum, Newcastle

Museum website

Bede’s World, Jarrow

Museum website

Museum of Archaeology, Durham

Museum website

Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

Museum website

The Museum of Somerset, Taunton

Museum website

The Meare Lake Villages near Taunton was a major craft manufacturing site during the Iron Age in Britain (800 BC – AD 100) and more bone combs were found there than in the rest of Britain combined. It would be interesting to find if anyone has done a study to see if other bone combs in Britain and neighbouring regions can be traced back to Meare or Somerset. The combs are distinctive and carved from whalebone.

Royal Albert Museum, Exeter

Museum website

Iron Age Spindle whorls Royal Albert Museum, Exeter, UKIron Age Spindle whorls

Iron Age Spindle Whorls.  Royal Albert Museum, Exeter, UKMedieval spindle whorls made of bone and lead

Northern Ireland

Ulster Museum, Belfast

Museum website

Bone weaving tablets (the large one looks like a scapula), spindle whorls, a distaff, and shears. AD 8th-10th Century. Ulster Museum, Befast, Norhtern Ireland.
Bone weaving tablets (the large one looks like a scapula), spindle whorls, a distaff, and shears. AD 8th-10th Century.

 

 

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Fibulae for sale!

I have a couple of the fibulae I cast up for sale on Etsy. If you’re in the US, this will be your last chance for reduced postage for a while since I will be leaving for Italy on the 14th. Think of it as a one week sale where you’ll not only save money, but your purchases will also arrive much sooner.

The link for the Etsy listing is here

peter-fibula2

 

 

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The Mavis Furnace: Casting in Albuquerque or how to build a furnace for almost no cost!

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.

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Dry clay

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.

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The Mavis Furnace: note the small tabs inside. These support the Teapot Stand.

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.

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Mavis the dog immortalised in a furnace!
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Mavis in a calm moment. Her nickname is the Dog-nado.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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The Mavis furnace, teapot stand, and some crucibles

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.

 

Here’s a very short video of the furnace in action.

 

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Iron Age shoes

 

Sometimes you just need a new pair of shoes. I’d been wanting to make some of the replica shoes I’d seen online. there are a few good sites where you can find patterns and step by step tutorials.

Kelticos has a number of different patterns that you can download.
I followed the instructions on this site. It goes step by step and practically no-fail. I however am a bit more cautious and rather start with the leather I made a pattern out of brown paper.

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brown paper pattern for a pair of Iron Age shoes.

 

Once I was confident that I had a good fit with the paper pattern, I bought the leather that I needed. One thing that few sites describe is the type and weight of leather needed. I bought some cow leather that was supple, but not stretchy from Cox Leather in Abuquerque. The place is an amazing resource for hides, rawhide, leather, skins, and really anything leather related. They also ship!

Leather thickness in the US is measured by the ounce, and in mm in Europe. The leather I bought was about 8 oz / 3.2 mm / 1/8 inch thick.

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The pattern laid out on the leather. I traced the right foot and then flipped the pattern over to trace the left foot.

 

Once I traced the pattern on the leather, I cut the shoes out using good sharp scissors and punched the holes for lacing with an awl. It’s important to use an awl or punch rather than cutting the hole with a scissors since a round hole pushed through the leather is less likely to tear than a hole that is cut.

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The shoes all laced up.

I stitched up the backs with sinew. I followed the directions and stitched the sides of the heel to the heel tab straight up. It ended up a little loose. When I get the time I’ll restitch them so they come in a little tighter on the top. Another modification will be to put more of a sole on them. Some options are to cut an insole out of rawhide and sew it between the inside of the sole with another, softer leather insole on top. I might line it with some sheep skin, too.

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A comfy fit.

 

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World’s Oldest Needle

World’s oldest needle found in Siberian cave that stitches together human history

Bone needles are one of those things that are a useful part of any experimental kit. They are easy to make, durable, and work better for sewing leather and hide than many steel needles. If they do break, then it’s easy enough to cut off a new bit, drill a hole and sand it down to a glossy, slender tool. The best bones to use are the long bones, a humerus or femur.

Recently a particular bone needle made the news. A 7 cm needle made from a bird bone was found during an excavation in the Altai Mountains in Russia. You can read the full article here. Finding a needle in an excavation is difficult enough, but finding one intact after 50,000 years is extraordinary.

However, in this context this needle is much more than just a needle. First we must think about the technology and tools that went into making the needle. It had to be cut and shaped with stone tools, and then there’s drilling out the eye. Once we start thinking about making something as simple as a needle, suddenly an entire toolkit appears, and then there’s the other direction: how was the needle used and what was it used for? Materials such as leather, string, and textile rarely survive in the archaeological record. Could the Denisovans have been sewing hides into clothes? Making shoes? Sewing smaller skins into something larger such as blankets or tents? A world of missing material culture suddenly becomes imaginable.

Small things like this needle should put to rest the image of the “caveman” with ragged animal skins. These people were likely to have been sewing clothing!

 

 

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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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