9 February 2015 – Tin spindle whorls for the kids!

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.

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8 February 2015: A new furnace for casting at 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.

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Traces of Empire – Video!


In the summer of 2014 Weston Park Museum here in Sheffield approached me about making a film about how metalwork would have been done in Roman Britain. Most of what I do is related to the Bronze Age, but I jumped at the chance to do something new. We set up a time to go take a look at the brooches they would have on display. After photographing them and taking measurements, I made some waxes and then put them into moulds. The process is explained in the video.

I also realised that bag bellows would probably not be the way to go, so I built the bellows that are described in the tutorial on this website.

Alan Sylvester, the filmmaker for Museums Sheffield and Lucy Creighton, (now the acting curator of archaeology) both spent long hours at Heeley City Farm helping me build the furnace and pump the bellows. After a day of filming Alan felt he needed more shots of metal being poured, and so we went back for a second day of filming. This time I had some of the pieces I cast earlier, so we could show a bit of the clean-up process.

It was a great experience. Later I gave a talk at Weston Park Museum about making the film and the importance of experimental archaeology. I also brought along the bellows and some of my tools. If you go see the exhibit, there’s a shorter version of the film on a loop near the display.

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