Washing Bones

This is from a blog post I wrote in 2008. At the time I was working on my masters degree at the University of Sheffield. The Stonehenge Riverside Project excavations were ongoing and the cremated remains were brought back to the university for cleaning and analyses. There were other skeletons too, including Medieval burials dating from the Battle of Towton Fields. I was one of the volunteers who washed the bones.

Halloween is not a time for the telling of the stories macabre, but to light the candles for the dead. Come, mes amis, let us do so. – Hercule Poirot

I regularly come in early on Tuesdays and wash the bones from the Stonehenge excavation. The lab is usually quiet with people chatting occasionally, but mostly the few of us there are wrapped up in our work. For me it’s a time of meditation. Washing the small fragments of bones, I wonder about whose they were and and think about how fragile life is. Sometimes we talk about a skeleton whose joints are degenerated and painful to look at, or the skeleton of a small child who never got old enough to walk. There is the stereotype of scientists as being cold and uncaring, but it’s not a fair judgement. We think about the parents of the child who died so young, or how painful life must have been for others who were so old. The bones are handled with respect and all the care we would show our ancestors. In a way we are re-enacting our own modern version of ancient rituals. In the distant past some burials were reopened and the flesh carefully removed from the bones and were then coated with red ochre (which when mixed with water resembles fresh blood). Afterwards the bones were reinterred. I carefully wash the fragments of bone, hardened by fire but still so fragile, rubbing them gently with my fingers to loosen the mud.

I think about Buddhist monks who watch the exposed bodies of their masters decompose, slowly returning to the fields upon which they were laid. They also meditate on life and death, the temporary nature of the physical body, and to view the world with a detached nature.

As I wash the bones, I think about how so many things of the ancient past are now an intimate part of my present. I am living in an extraordinary mash-up of time. In the building where I wash these five-thousand year old bones, there is also state of the art equipment. My life is tied to ancient artefacts and modern technology. Trying to imagine the distance in time creates a wild mental pendulum that slows to its central point of now.  All time is now and I am just quietly washing the mud off of bits of bone.

~~All Soul’s Day 2008

Tags: archaeology, aubrey holes, meditation, stonehenge

Review: The Big Book of Torcs

Back in my undergraduate days we learned about Iron Age torcs. They were massive golden things, symbols of power and prestige. What exactly that power was, we didn’t know. They were made, used, and buried in the ground by people who had no written record. Our assumptions about power rested mainly in our own sets of values. But they are gold, valuable, and precious. Then there are other things that are just as valuable and precious, but more intangible…

A few years ago Tess Machling contacted me. She knew me as a jeweler/metalsmith turned archaeologist who had a passion for hammers and manufacturing processes. She had some photos and asked me what I thought. No details, just a question about what technique I would use to make something, or what would have caused this sort of mark. I enjoyed the puzzles. I told her how one photo was of metal that had been cracked because the smith had hammered it too much and the metal was fatigued. Could it the result of casting? No, the edges were too sharp, a casting flaw wouldn’t have a crack formed like that. In a few days I’d learn that other metalsmiths she asked told her the same things. She and Roland Williamson, a metalsmith with a background in making museum replicas, were searching for answers, and questioned everyone they could contact. Eventually I learned that we were corresponding about Iron Age gold torcs. The questions she asked us were set up like a blind test to avoid any bias. It was accepted knowledge that torcs were cast in gold and in the course of her research she was coming to the realization that the accepted knowledge was wrong.

The problems with institutions is that they lumber along and have difficulty changing. Even if they want to change, it occurs slowly. Most of the torcs were excavated and interpreted by antiquarians and archaeologists who never worked with metal and never thought to talk to someone who did. In my own research, time and again I came across ‘facts’ that had been passed along from one publication down the line that were just plain wrong. Tess and I both knew what she was up against. The entrenched ideas of institutions and people who uphold them are just as precious as gold. To have these ideas questioned seemed as great as affront as taking the One Ring from Gollum and declaring that it would be thrown into the fires of Mount Doom. But sometimes ideas do need to be cast away. Not randomly, but through careful research, examination, experimentation, and always questioning.  I know that early on Tess did have doubts, but she and Roland had so much hard evidence that it was impossible to accept the status quo. Their hard work is changing the way we understand how Iron Age torcs were made. By examining tool marks they are identifying different techniques and seeing the smiths’ hands at work. They have found repairs, retrofits, and an entire catalogue of metalworking tricks of the trade.

In the course of their work, they have published articles in the The Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, The Journal of the Historical Metallurgy Society, and the Later Prehistoric Finds Group Newsletter. But research is never static, it is something that is forever evolving and growing. As we all learned through this process, entrenched knowledge is terribly difficult to dislodge, even when it’s been proven wrong. There is also a need for transparency in research, and a way for the public to learn and participate in the process, free from paywalls. By producing their new website and blog, The Big Book of Torcs, Tess Machling and Roland Williamson are presenting their work for everyone to read, and question. It’s a wonderfully informative publication with a good bit of humour that will be useful for both the layperson and the academic, not to mention aspiring metalworkers!

Ever wanted to know about ancient beer and brewing?

There’s a new podcast by The Prehistory Guys featuring my friend and fellow EXARC member Merryn Dineley, an archaeologist who specialises in ancient brewing and especially the process of malting. I’ve had some of the brews she’s made and will say that the ancient recipes produce some fine beer.

There’s a lot of useful information here for both brewers and archaeologists. She takes down some of the misconceptions about the old beer/bread debate, and tells us how not knowing the brewing process has led to some misidentification of archaeological features.

So open up a favourite beer, relax, and enjoy it while learning about its long and fascinating history!

New analyses of Ötzi, the Iceman’s tools

Ever since he was recovered, I have had a fascination with Ötzi. His death and preservation gave us a unique opportunity to look into the face of someone who lived in the Bronze Age. We are able to examine his clothes and tools and use them to not only reconstruct the last days of his life, but also the lives of others in the Bronze Age.

A new article was published by The New York Times based on newly published research. The article titled, “The Final Hours of the Iceman’s Tools: What the implements found with the body of Ötzi revealed about the Copper Age” by Nicholas St. Fleur gives a fair assessment of the recent research. You can find the NYT article here.

Even better, Mr St. Fluer provides a direct link to the original publication published online through PLOS One, an open access platform, meaning that everyone read the article. “The Iceman’s lithic toolkit: Raw material, technology, typology and use” by Ursula Wierer, Simona Arrighi, Stefano Bertola,Günther Kaufmann, Benno Baumgarten, Annaluisa Pedrotti, Patrizia Pernter, Jacques Pelegrin is available here.

The NYT article gives details about how Ötzi appeared to be in a hurry in his last days. We knew already that his bow was not finished, but the PLOS One article goes into details about the state of his stone tools, the arrowheads, knife, and knapping supplies. The wear analyses showed how recently the tools had been retouched. The fine attention to detail in the examinations indicated how the fine scratches on the stone tools made by the lime bark holder would tell how recently the retouching had been done. Some tools also had evidence of of a particular type of gloss that occurs after the tool was used for cutting live plants.

The examination tells us brief stories about the history of the tools. The scraper was made from what was originally a knife and one arrowhead might have been made from stone reused from a sickle. We also know Ötzi was fairly well skilled as a flint knapper, since the evidence from his retouching tool (antler) and the recent retouching of some of the arrowheads would have most likely been done by him.

The end of the article by Ursula Wierer et al is exciting reading. Through the detailed examination of the condition of Ötzi’s tools, their origins, and how they were manufactured, they have reconstructed an almost moment by moment story of his last days.

featured image from Wikimedia Commons

Forging Ahead!

2020 went from from 60 to 0 in a couple months. I returned from Italy to the US and thought I would have a slightly longer stay than usual. Then as the news from around the world rolled in, one by one everything got cancelled or rescheduled for 2021. So now I am reacquainting myself to being in the US, but in an odd way, without the usual parties and social contact that I usually have when I’m here.  Halfway through the year we’ve dealt with lockdowns, riots, second waves (or is it still the first?), loss, and grudging hope.

Not being able to travel, even around the US can get depressing, but I am keeping busy. I spent part of my stimulus check on a wood lathe, something I wanted for a long time. I’m using it to make replicas of antique and ancient textile tools. That has been a lot of fun, and I am enjoying learning a new craft.

I’ve also enrolled in the university. Since all the classes are online now, I can take courses, even if I do get to do some travelling. I’m enjoying the benefits of being a student again, including access to the excellent library here. I was told at the time I was a student here fifteen years ago that the library was outstanding, but I didn’t realise how truly great it was until I got to England and experienced the university libraries there. The University of Minnesota’s libraries rival that of Cambridge.

I continue to work in experimental archaeology, mainly in wood and textiles. Metalworking is a bit hampered because it’s difficult to get the raw materials I need for building a furnace. On the plus side, I’ve generated enough fine wood shavings to substitute for horse manure. I might just get some casting done yet!

As you can see above, I’ve started an Instagram account. If you want to follow me and see up to date photos from my travels, look for fregnigiovanna, or check for postings with #ancienttoolsandcraft.

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

June 2017


It was my pleasure to present a paper at the 
Nordic Bronze Age Symposium in Oslo . The conference focused on contrasts and connections in the Bronze Age. Presenters covered a wide range of topics from landscape, technology, social practices and materialities. 

The session that I participated in was titled Nobody is Perfect: Contrasts in Craft. 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, the 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

Talking archaeology at Cyprus Classical Academy 

Talking archaeology at Cyprus Classical Academy 

In March 2017 I had a great time talking to the students at Cyprus Classical Academy about what archaeologists do. Cyprus Academy is a Montessori school in which classes are organised by ability rather than age. The students I spoke to ranged in ages from 6 to 11.  This is a great age for kids to learn about prehistory and the fascinating story of how people invented tools and developed crafts. The students 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. 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.

Casting with Dr. Billy Mag Fhloinn

I’ve been honoured to cast alongside Billy on a number of occasions while we were both at Umha Aois events. His recent article for the Pallasboy Project: Art, Craft, Archaeology, and Alchemy talks about his experience in both experimental archaeology and craftsmanship.

World’s Oldest Needle

Original article from The Siberian Times: https://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/news/n0711-worlds-oldest-needle-found-in-siberian-cave-that-stitches-together-human-history/

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 for making needles 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? Did they sew these together with sinew or hair, or cord made from plant fibre? 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!

EXARC: 9th Experimental Archaeology Conference, Dublin (IE)

17-18 January 2015

I missed the first day of the conference. Instead I was at my PhD graduation ceremony. It was a wild trip. I graduated with the full regalia of cap and gown, had a quick couple glasses of wine at the archaeology department’s reception, and then we hopped on a fast flight to Dublin for the EAC9 conference at University College, Dublin. The conference was a collaborative effort brought together by EXARC, UCD, and  the Irish National Heritage Park. It was a large conference with over 200 delegates, 20 papers, and 31 posters.

The Dublin University campus is huge and spread out, so we had a time trying to find the right building. I arrived just in time to deliver my paper and see the rest of the session. There were some interesting papers and posters given that explored the range of pyrotechnology in archaeology from cremation to glassworking and metalwork. In addition to the usual poster session, individual posters were given a ten minute presentation while being projected in the main hall. These included Jiří Hošek, Ryszard Kaźmierczak, Paweł Kucypera & Maciej Tomaszczyk (Nicolaus Copernicus University) with a presentation on steel carburising in a small shaft furnace, and Yuri Godino & Lorenzo Teppati Losè (University of Florence) presented a poster on their experiments on cupellating galena to produce refined silver.

I was also interested in the presentations on glassworking. There were two very different approaches to the subject with Marta Krzyżanowska & Mateusz Frankiewicz from Poland who spoke about producing Early Medieval lampwork type beads in an open hearth based on excavations in Ribe. Jonathan Thornton from Buffalo, New York spoke about replicating trade bead production based on evidence from Africa  using glass frit in a clay mould .

The presentations that discussed metal began with my presentation on inverse segregation and its influence on chemical analysis of objects cast in the Bronze Age. Padraig McGoran of Umha Aois presented a poster on his experiments that included problems and solutions in casting into open one piece moulds.

After that I was off to the university’s experimental grounds to help set up furnaces and get ready for casting. The centre boasts a Mesolithic house, along with metalworking furnaces in varying states of decay. There are separate areas set aside for flint knapping, firing pottery, and active metalworking projects. The members of Umha Aois had already started building a variety of furnaces that included ones heated from below, from the side, and another with a tuyere that had a 90 degree bend that blew the air directly onto charcoal covering a flat, pan-shaped crucible. I worked at a portable ceramic furnace that was brought to the site by Fiona Coffey. It was set up inside Billy Mag Floinn’s newly constructed traveller’s tent. Despite it being wind and waterproof, the flaps ventilated it well and we kept warmer than the others who were set up under a tarp outside.

A memorable birthday! Photo by Tríona Sørensen

At lunch I was presented with a birthday cake. Surprisingly no one had anything bigger to cut it with than a pocket knife. The only solution was to get one of Billy’s bronze swords and carefully slice it. It was a most memorable birthday.

Bronze objects that had been created by the members of Umha Aois were on display, including swords, horns, tools, spears, and stone moulds. We spent the day casting axes, jewellery, tools, and more. There was a constant flood of visitors and regular announcements were made when one of us was ready to pour. For most of the day it was standing room only. The casting events continued all afternoon and into the evening.

Rather than head straight back to Sheffield the next day, I had arranged to see the Bishopsland Hoard and a hammer from the Garden Hill Hoard at the National Museum. I’d hoped that I could see some moulds, and to have some colleagues also examine the objects. Unfortunately emails were crossed and I just got to see the hoard and hammer. However, that was fascinating in itself, and I spent hours measuring, weighing, drawing, and photographing every detail of the artefacts.

Events like this are exhilarating and exhausting. We all learn more every time we meet, and we  come away with new ideas as well as newly cast objects to finish up. This week I’ve been filing and polishing some of the bronze fibulae I cast and I still need to get to work on the replica I cast of the hammer from the Lusmagh Hoard. Meanwhile, there are more waxes and moulds to make to get ready for casting again.

Click on the link for more information about the conference EXARC: 9th Experimental Archaeology Conference, Dublin (IE) 

and here is a moment by moment twitter feed from the conference