Nobody’s Perfect: Contrasts in Craft session at the Nordic Bronze Age Symposium

 

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

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Casting Bronze in the Italian Bronze Age Way!

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)

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The ubiquitous Bronze Age warp weighted loom. This one has some rather nice textile in the works.

 

 

 

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The cooking hearth and oven. The little device on the side is a wonderful little warming oven with charcoal in the bottom and the food on top. I like to think of it as a Bronze Age microwave.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Pots on a shelf

 

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Space for metalworking tools and supplies

 

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Wood and antler working area.

 

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some of the woodworking tools.

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.

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The furnace. Not much to see here, and even less after a few thousand years!

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.

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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.

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The tuyere with the moulds set next to it to warm up. The small bowls are the crucibles. Note that they are used without lids.

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.

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Beautifully constructed wooden tongs

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.

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The sand mould is set up. The hole at the top is the pouring cup. There’s a smaller hole at the bottom, at the tip of the sword that acts as a vent.

 

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Casting the sword.

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.

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A display of some of the things cast at the Open Air Museum

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.

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A nice flat anvil stone for grinding the flashing off of the dagger blade. There’s evidence from the originals that the holes for rivets were punched rather than drilled, or cast in place. Other stones are used for coarser grinding. Note my hammer at the bottom. It came in handy for breaking off some of the flashing. A bit of time travel here since this is a replica of a Late Bronze Age hammer!

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.

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Dagger: This was cast in a stone mould and is partially cleaned (it’s the same one as in the photo above). The pouring cup will be cut off and rivet holes punched into the arched end.

 

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Knife: This is as cast in commercial casting sand. It will take a bit of polishing, but I am looking forward to finishing and using it.
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Sword: This was cast in the natural sand. It’s difficult to see, but the texture is much less gritty than the knife. It’s about halfway between the knife and the dagger for smoothness. It just needs to have the sprue and vent removed and a bit of the flashing taken off before punching the holes for the rivets.

 

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.

Useful links

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.

A film about the Terramare and Bronze Age metalworking (in English)

Italian language sites

Parco archaologico e Museo all’aperto

Musei Modenesi

Parco archaologica sul Facebook

English language sites

Archaeological Park and Open-Air Museum of the Terramare in Montale

Visit Modena tourism

EXARC

Il Tre di Spade also have a Facebook page.

 

 

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The Staffordshire Hoard and Me

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.

BBC News: Staffordshire Hoard Reveals its Secrets

Staffordshire Hoard Newsletter

Staffordshire Hoard Video Blog

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

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Journals and Books in Archaeology and Craft

Journals

Here are some useful links to academic journals on archaeology. I’ll do my best to make sure the links are current.

Many of the journals linked here are open access, but many aren’t. If you need to access an article, many public libraries do have free access to journals, in addition many universities in the US often allow public access to their libraries. Another resource is to check academia.edu. The site provides open access to articles, theses, dissertations, and conference proceedings.

Note that this is by no means an exhaustive list of the journals out there!

Archaeology

American Journal of Archaeology

Antiquaries Journal

Antiquity

Archaeometry

Assemblage – The Sheffield Graduate Journal of Archaeology (OPEN ACCESS!)

Berkshire Archaeological Journal (OPEN ACCESS!) Note that the journal runs from 1878 to 1980

British Archaeology (OPEN ACCESS!)

Cambridge Archaeological Journal

CBA Research Reports  (OPEN ACCESS!)

Current Archaeology

Derbyshire Archaeological Journal

Discovery and Excavation in Scotland (OPEN ACCESS!)

European Archaeologists 

Expedition

Ethnoarchaeology

EXARC (OPEN ACCESS!)

Internet Archaeology

Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory

Journal of Archaeological Research

Journal of Archaeological Science

Journal of Archaeology of Northwest Europe (OPEN ACCESS!)

Journal of the British Archaeological Association

Journal of Community Archaeology and Heritage

Journal of Conservation & Museum Studies (OPEN ACCESS!)

Journal of Heritage Tourism

Journal of the Historical Metallurgy Society

Journal of Irish Archaeology

Journal of Material Culture

Journal of Open Archaeology Data (OPEN ACCESS!)

Journal of Social Archaeology

Journal of World Prehistory

London Archaeologist (OPEN ACCESS!)

Medieval Archaeology

The Minnesota Archaeologist

Open Access Archaeology Journals (OPEN ACCESS!)

Oxford Journal of Archaeology

Papers from the Institute of Archaeology (OPEN ACCESS!)

PAST (OPEN ACCESS!)

The Post Hole (OPEN ACCESS!)

The Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society (PPS)

Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (OPEN ACCESS!)

Public Archaeology

Scottish Archaeological Journal

Scottish Archaeology Internet reports (OPEN ACCESS!)

Somerset Archaeological and Natural History

Surrey Archaeological Collections (OPEN ACCESS!)

Sussex Archaeological Collections (OPEN ACCESS!)

Transactions of the Hunter Archaeological Society

Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society (OPEN ACCESS!)

Visual Anthropology

World Archaeology

Yorkshire Archaeological Journal

 

Craft

Folklore

The Journal of Modern Craft

World Art

Books

These are a few of the books I’ve found useful. Again, it is nowhere close to being exhaustive, but I plan to update it regularly.

Note: Clicking on the image will take you to Amazon.com where I get a slight kickback if you buy anything when you visit the site (even if it isn’t the same book you clicked on). Yep, this is blatant monetising, but I don’t have advertising on the site and any source of income helps pay the bills for the site. That said, these are all books and authors that I have in my library and highly recommend.

Books on Craft in General

The Craftsman by Richard Sennett is the book to start with for understanding craft, how it works and how it is learned.

The Search for Structure by Cyril Stanley Smith is a joy to read. He explores structure, art, and craftsmanship from an engineering point of view, but also as one who sees the world as a work of craft.
One of my favourite quotes comes from this book:

I asked a blacksmith famous for his superior penknives to tell me the difference between iron and steel. “What’s the difference?” he replied. “What is the difference between an oak tree and the willow—they have different natures and one must adapt to them.” He did not accept the suggestion that some material absorbed from the fire’s charcoal might have something to do with it, and he would not have understood a word of any lecture I could have given him on diffusion, crystal structure, and phase transformations; yet he could make a good knife and I could not. (Smith, 1981, 348)

 

Books on the history of metalworking

 Ronald Tylecote is probably the author to start with when studying archaeo metallurgy. His work covers the beginning of metallurgy to the Industrial Revolution, exploring the development and changes in technology and experimental work with smelting and furnaces.

A history of metallurgy follows the development of metalworking from ancient Egypt (at the time he wrote, these were the earliest known examples) through Medieval Europe. Despite its age, this is the most comprehensive volume on ancient metalworking and a good start in learning the prehistory of metals.

The following two books are nearly identical. Don’t feel as if you are missing out if you don’t own both. Both are excellent references and the chapters are divided by metals, so all the information about copper is provided together, as is silver, tin, gold, lead, and iron.

Books on experimental archaeology

John Coles is the granddaddy of academic experimental archaeology. He did write the book on it, and back in the 1970’s worked to make it a more organised discipline. These books are excellent introductions to experimental archaeology.

Books on metalworking

Knowing archaeological metals is one thing, but knowing how to work with them, their practical properties, and hands-on experience is essential. These are the books that I feel are essential essential guides for practical metalworking.

Tim McCreight’s books are great bench guides that are well organised for quick reference. They are also great textbooks for metalworking.

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Events, Workshops, and Classes

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.

Talking archaeology at Cyprus Classical Academy 22308836_10159799978290221_763452381345579338_n

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!

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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.

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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.

 

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