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
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
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
Textile tools in the Bologna Museum of Archaeology
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
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
Textile tools in the The Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia
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)
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.
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
Segedunum Roman Fort, Baths & Museum, Wallsend
Hancock Museum, Newcastle
Bede’s World, Jarrow
Museum of Archaeology, Durham
Wiltshire Museum, Devizes
The Museum of Somerset, Taunton
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
Ulster Museum, Belfast
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.
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.