Another female Bronze Age icon is now known to have travelled across Europe
Last year (2017) this story about the Skrydstrup Woman made the news. Strontium isotope 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 Bohemia. She was an honoured member of the community, buried in an oak coffin, wearing gold jewellery, and embroidered robes. Her hair was put up in an elaborate style, that would have required assistance. 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. Analyses of 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 14 or 16 years old.
New analyses was presented at the 14th Nordic Bronze Age Symposium in Oslo, Norway in June of 2017. The work of the Tales of Bronze Age Women Project (National Museum of Denmark) employed strontium isotope and other analyses to determine the mobility patterns of women in Bronze Age Europe. The early results have determined that the Skrydstrup Woman travelled extensively and that the Egtved Girl did not make one trip from the Black Forest region of Germany where she was born, but made several trips between there and Denmark. The project continues to explore how mobility patterns of prominent women could be a part of social and economic exchange and networking in the Bronze Age.
I can relate to these women. By the time I was the age of these young women, 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, over a thousand miles from where I was born. As an adult I’ve lived in both North America and Europe. It used to be assumed that people in prehistory lived their lives in a single community, and if someone travelled long distances, it was assumed to be men. However, then as now, we see that people were mobile. This mobility not only brought an individual 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 were merchants. She might have brought other valued resources to her community, such as a new way of making pottery, new weaving patterns, 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 of archaeologists give a new and 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 of social change 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. We cannot tell the circumstances that led these women to travel across Europe to Denmark. What remains is that they travelled long distances in their lives, and not just going directly from where they were born to Denmark. Although they have been an icon of Danish prehistory for years, both the Skrydstrup Woman and the Egtved Girl were immigrants. Their story has expanded now, and rather than a symbol of a single national identity, they represent the multicultural world of human prehistory.
The video below was produced by the Tales of Bronze Age Women project. It shows the processes used in the analyses of the women and some of the early discoveries of the project.
2022 is finally picking up where 2020 left off. I’m back in England and this weekend I’ll be at the Historical Metallurgy Society’s Accidental and Experimental Archaeometallurgy 2.1 Conference. Next month I’ll be at Sedgeford for SHARP’s Metallurgy day course. Then in August, I’ll head up to Uelsen, Germany for the Bronze Casting Festival at the Bronzezeithof. At the end of August I’ll be speaking at the EAA Conference in Budapest. Plans are still afoot for heading down to North Cyprus in September, although I haven’t had official word about another Vounous Symposium. Fingers crossed, though. It’s an exciting event and one where we have two weeks to work rather than just a weekend.
It feels great to be on the road again, although hauling a suitcase full of bronze tools can get a bit tiring at times. Still, I wouldn’t trade this life for anything!
Welcome to 2022 and Some Resolutions
Last year, in 2021 everything was cancelled… again. The world was put on hold for another year. We all got tired of waiting for the next shoe to drop, not realizing that it was a centipede that was dropping them. It was as if the promise we hoped for in 2020 was snatched away. Some people reacted with anger, but for me it was withdrawal. I checked out for a while. When I look back on all the stuff I did last year, it looks like I was insanely busy, but to me it felt as if I had been treading water, waiting for life to come back to some form of normal and leave the US behind. Still, hope springs eternal. My fellowship at Colonial Williamsburg that’s been delayed three times is rescheduled to happen next April and with luck I’ll be back in Europe this summer.
I did get a furnace built last year. It’s self-draughting, so I didn’t even need a set of bellows. That was convenient and a real labour saver, but it brought home how much bronze casting is a communal event for me. I missed the camaraderie, the laughing, storytelling, and the intensity of working as a close-knit team. I never bought into the idea of the lone, itinerant Bronze Age metalsmith, unbound from the structure of society. As a metalsmith, I am pretty itinerant, but I am rarely alone, and there is always some sort of social structure. In the modern world it is much easier to do this sort of work alone, but that is essentially an illusion. I head over to the hardware store and buy bags of charcoal and order bags of clay to be delivered here, but in the Broze Age there would have been a lot more interaction to get the necessary supplies. If the people who dug the clay and burned the charcoal weren’t a part of my village or settlement, I would have had to negotiate how to get the supplies to where I was working. Likewise for the metal or ore. The Bronze Age was a world without a lot of easy transportation. Something we take for granted now.
These days it’s unfashionable to do New Year’s resolutions. People point out that there really isn’t anything special about the transition from December 31st to January 1st, it’s just an arbitrary date. It is an arbitrary date, but it’s also a long-standing tradition and there is a certain amount of power in traditions. 2021 was certainly a depressing year. Then New Year’s came and went. Compared to New Year’s Eve in Italy and England, there’s not much going on here even in a non-Covid year. It was a low point for me, and it came to the point where the only way was back up again. So, I did make resolutions. Small ones that will get bigger as I get back into the swing of things. It felt right. I feel as if I am getting back into the game and even if I don’t have a lot of energy, I’m acting as if I do. In the coming weeks I plan to put up a page of bronze casting moulds, similar to the page I made for textile tools. I’ll also write a full report on my self-draughting furnace, that amazingly seems to be holding up in the sub-zero weather here, and I’ll polish up and publish some old articles of mine. So, I’m back and hoping to make up for lost time.
New article available through EXARC. See the link below for the full article
It is accepted knowledge that when re-melting alloys, some of the metal with a lower melting temperature is lost through oxidation, and more metal must be added in order to maintain the desired alloy proportions. In order to understand the changes in alloy content when recycling using Bronze Age technology, experiments were undertaken by the author and others, using a charcoal furnace. These experiments included recycling bronze to quantify the loss of tin, and how alloys were affected by co-melting metals. The results were then compared to modern metallurgical practices using electric and gas furnaces. The initial results were presented at the Historical Metallurgy Society’s Research in Progress Conference in November of 2009. However, this paper includes further experiments that build on the earlier work. The conclusions indicate that knowledge of earlier practices was lost with the advance of technology, and that broad assumptions cannot be made about earlier technological practice based on work done with modern equipment.
On November 1-3, 2017 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 there knew what to expect. While the archaeology program provides for 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.
Professor Andrea Alveshere, a colleague of mine from the University of Minnesota and I discussed the possibility of my coming to give a short seminar and workshop. 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 university.
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 where we would build the furnace.
The grounds around the cabin are level and grassy, and 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. 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 so that it could be 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 participating in the project and were glad to provide us with 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 he said that 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. Andrea had ordered cuttlefish bone from a wholesaler, but unfortunately when the shipment of 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 of working with it as well. A hole was dug and then it was lined with clay. I explained about tuyeres and used a branch to construct a clay-lined hole that ran from the top edge 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. That was right on time since I needed to change clothes for my talks at 7 pm at the university.
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 members of the public who were 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 previously 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 finished objects traded by Native Americans, was the raw material transported and traded, or was the copper a chance find of raw material that had been redeposited in southern Illinois by glacial action? I hadn’t seen the objects, but typology might provide a part of the 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 a couple 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 many 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. They were surprisingly well-coordinated. The students 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. The furnace took a bit longer to get the first crucible of metal melted than it normally does because of the frequent changes of personnel pumping the bellows, 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 due 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 we all went to eat in shifts. When I took a break, 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. We had a great time talking about local archaeology and experimental work.
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.
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 in the afternoon 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 new participants 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. Left to itself, it should be covered in grass in a year. 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.
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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
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.
I was visiting my sister in the autumn of 2016. She has a bit of landjust outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, 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.
The first task 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 students end up with a lot of clay that is scraped off of workbenches and wheels that is hard to re-use. It often has a mixed consistency, it’s 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.
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 locating 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 of manure. 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 the proportions were adjusted until it was perfect. New Mexico is a lot drier than England, so I ended up adding more water than usual 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.
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.
We all like to put some decoration on our furnaces. My students have done everything from dragons to turtles to cats. I had been thinking about doing some decorations imitating the local 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. Honestly, this mix was as good as jeweller’s investment for picking up detail.
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 the soil on the plane home 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.
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.
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 Albuquerque. 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.
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.
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.
First posted on 16th November 2016
Since I first posted this I have worn the shoes often and have come in useful while working at the Bronzezeithof in Germany. They are holding up well after a year, although I don’t wear them every day.
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.
Bag bellows might be the oldest form of bellows used. We don’t know for certain because they are made entirely of organic materials, and so none survive in the archaeological record. Because they have the advantage of being portable, lightweight, and easy to make, this type of bellows are still in use for iron forging in parts of Africa and South Asia. When you make a pair, you can be as “authentic” as you want, using only wood and leather, or you can use more readily scrounged materials like vacuum cleaner hoses and pleather. There is a remarkable video of Kenyan metalsmiths using bellows made of cement bags here.
In addition to this tutorial, check out the Bellows Forum page where there are variations of bellows designs and some interesting variations.
Traditionally bag bellows are made of pliable leather and the usual description is that a single bellow is made from one goatskin. The bellows I describe here are made with upholstery fabric. At the time I made them, leather was too much for my budget. After they were sewn I gave them a good coating of linseed oil that made them both waterproof and airtight. I find it ironic that in the Bronze Age leather would have been readily available, but hand-woven fabric would have been exorbitant. So, these are my ostentatious display of wealth bellows.
How big the bellows you make will depend on what’s comfortable for you. I’ve used very large bellows and ones so small you’d think that they’d never produce enough air to get the job done, but they did remarkably well. What is important is that the size works for you. You’ll be sitting on the ground, or close to the ground (I like a log or a short tree stump with a bit of padding). Sit down on the floor and raise your arm with your elbows bent so that they are lifted a little over waist high. Try not to move with your shoulders. You’ll be pumping your arms up and down for hours, so it’s good to find a height that works for you so that you don’t wear your arms out. Measure that height or get a good idea of how high that is. Then you’ll want to add a few more inches because you want to have the bellows rest on the ground. If you lift them too high, the sides will collapse and you won’t be able to trap the air in them. You also want to add another few inches to wrap around the handles.
Besides the leather (or whatever material you choose) the other supplies you’ll need are heavy waxed thread or sinew, leather or sail needles (depending on the type of material you’re sewing). The handles are made of two straight branches about 3-4 cm (1-1 ½ inches) in diameter, or four boards 3 by .5 cm (1 by ¼ inch) the length will depend on how wide the top of your bellows are. If you use branches, they’ll have to be split lengthwise so that they have a semi-circular cross section. My bellows are about 16 inches wide.
Using your own measurements, adapt the pattern below, adding about 3 cm/1 inch for the seams around the edges, and enough at the top to wrap around the handles. You’ll also need some scrap to make loops for your fingers. The loops are more important than you realise. Getting them right will mean the difference between being able to work for hours, and giving up because you keep getting blisters or losing your grip.
Another useful detail is to sew a small triangle in the front of the bellows, just below the handles. Holger Lonze taught me this trick. It makes it much easier to open the bellows wider and get more air in.
The other detail is the part at the bottom that sticks out. This is where the tuyere will fit. The size you make that will depend on the tuyere you make, and also how much air you want to push through to the fire. If it’s too narrow, you’ll be expending a lot of energy pushing air through a small space. Too large and you’ll be pumping furiously to get the volume of air through the tuyere. Mine is about 10 cm (4 inches) and tapers a little so I can fit different tuyeres to it in case I ever want to change it.
The other supply you’ll need is rawhide. Leather strips can work, but they aren’t as durable or tight as rawhide. The best source for rawhide I’ve found is the pet shop. Buy a rawhide chew bone for a dog and soak it in a bucket of water overnight. The rawhide will soften and you can untie the ends and unroll a nice sheet of rawhide. I cut it in a spiral so I have good, long pieces. While it’s wet, you can wrap it and tie it easily. Once it’s dry it shrinks to a hard, tight fit.
Cut out the leather or material and then stitch it with the outsides together so that when you turn it inside out, the raw edges will be on the inside. Don’t sew it all the way to the top. You want that extra selvedge to wrap around the handles. Make sure you fit the triangle in the front below the bottom edge of where the handles will be.
The next step was the hardest for me. It’s a bit of a pain. You need to wrap the upper selvedge of the bellows around the sticks and sew them tightly into place. If you’re using half-round branches, make sure the flat sides are on the inside so they meet and make a tight fit. Sew these in tight along the bottom of the sticks. It’s annoying if they wobble around.
Turn the bellows right side out and admire your work.
If you used branches, you might not need loops for your fingers. Try pumping them a bit and see if you can open and close them easily without them slipping out of your hands. The action is to open them while the top of the bellows is close to the ground, Lift them, close them when they are as high as you want to lift them, close the bellows and then push down. If you lose your grip, you might want to put loops on them. They are simple, just strips of the same material that your bellows are made from. Sew them so your hand will be about 1/3 to 1/4 of the way from the back. When the bellows open, the little triangle in front will allow the bellows to open in a “V” shape and allow you to trap more air. Having the loops toward the back means that you don’t have to open your hands as wide. Since I work with kids a lot, this was a consideration when I designed them. Also, I have small hands.
The loops should accommodate four fingers on one side and your thumb on the other. The handles will stretch over time, so I periodically have to stitch them again to tighten them up.
There now, try them out. If you feel any air leaks in the seams you can seal them with linseed oil. If you made your bellows from fabric, the easiest way to coat them is to hang them on a clothes line outside and slather the oil on with a paintbrush. It takes a long time to dry and smells pretty strong. It’s definitely something to be done outdoors. Keep in mind that it might take a day or two for the linseed oil to dry.
Now in order to work, you’ll need at least a short tuyere. If you’re not fussed, some steel tubing from a vacuum cleaner works fine. If you want a more Bronze Age look, you can make them from wood. I took a short branch and drilled a hole in it using a 2 cm flat bit (1 ½” spade bit in the US). The branches are about 1 cm or ½” wider than the bit. If you don’t have a bit or don’t want to use power tools, take a branch of the right thickness (about 4 cm or 3”) and split it in half. Carve out the centre and fit them back together using glue and rawhide.
Fit one end of your tuyere into the opening at the bottom of your bellows (you didn’t sew that shut, right?). Now take the wet, sloppy rawhide and wrap it tightly around the part of the bellows covering the tuyere. If your tuyere is made of split branches, keep wrapping so that it holds the halves of the branch together. Depending on the weather and humidity, it might take several hours for the rawhide to dry.
Once everything is dry, try them out. They’ll be a bit stiff at first and will need to be broken in. It takes a bit of practice to get the Open-Lift-Close-Push rhythm going, especially if you alternate hands. Once you get into it, it gets easier. Think of a cat kneading its paws.
Another tip is to get some thin willow twigs, about the size used for making baskets. Make them into hoops that will fit inside the bottom of your bellows. It will help keep them open, especially if you have a tendency to lift them too high.
Next you’ll be wanting a “Y” shaped tuyere to connect the bellows together.