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.
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!
I have a Patreon page where I post stories about my travels and experiences casting bronze around the world. Last year I was in Moscow for the Times and Epochs festival, casting bronze with local reenactors. I learned a lot, both about different ways to cast bronze, and also about Moscow and Russia. The story is being told in installments. The first two can be found here:
If you’re interested in reading more, there are both public posts and ones that are available to my Patreon subscribers. There are also other benefits for supporters, including copies of powerpoints and articles, or even postcards sent from wherever I travel. Check and out my Patreon page here and consider a small contribution to support my ongoing work in experimental archaeology.
The 3rd Vounous Symposium went wonderfully well. We experimented with creating faience, including making it from locally resourced materials, resulting in what was named Vounous Blue. This year we had three furnaces, my little pit furnace from last year, one that is self drafting and one short shaft furnace. The self drafting one was used for the faience and small projects. It didn’t get quite hot enough for some things we needed, but the design was a work in progress. The shaft furnace was supposed to be for smelting ore. We had a couple of nice samples, but when we went to collect more, we found that the site was under water. Local members of Vounous will go back when the water is down and will collect more. Meanwhile we used what we had to make the pigment for the faience and smelt in a crucible. Since we had so little, we saved it for the evening of the closing ceremonies. People were impressed with the bright blue flames.
Chris, of Maunfactum Historicum carved limestone moulds for us to cast in, making replicas of knives and daggers that were excavated in the vicinity. He also carved an impressive Egyptian kopesh. We didn’t get that cast, but will try for next year. We wondered about the limestone because we’d always been told that it wouldn’t work. However the moulds we’d seen were local limestone, and we found that this worked very well. Apparently not all limestone is created equal.
The above photo is a replica of a dagger we saw at the Museum of Archaeology and Nature, Gurzelyurt ( Morphou) in its limestone mould. We’ve also cast daggers that are replicas of one that was found here at Vounous.
I wrote a short article for EXARC about last year’s Vounous Symposium. You can read it here.
Crafting in the World is a new work that combines the world of archaeology, craft, and anthropology. It explores crafts in ancient and modern contexts and discuses the relevancy of understanding crafts to other disciplines.
I had the privilege of writing one of the chapters for this book. In it I discuss how metal objects can be read in a way that the actions of the smith can be visualised.
"This volume expands understandings of crafting practices, which in the past was the major relational interaction between the social agency of materials, technology, and people, in co-creating an emergent ever-changing world. The chapters discuss different ways that crafting in the present is useful in understanding crafting experiences and methods in the past, including experiments to reproduce ancient excavated objects, historical accounts of crafting methods and experiences, craft revivals, and teaching historical crafts at museums and schools.
Crafting in the World is unique in the diversity of its theoretical and multidisciplinary approaches to researching crafting, not just as a set of techniques for producing functional objects, but as social practices and technical choices embodying cultural ideas, knowledge, and multiple interwoven social networks. Crafting expresses and constitutes mental schemas, identities, ideologies, and cultures. The multiple meanings and significances of crafting are explored from a great variety of disciplinary perspectives, including anthropology, archaeology, sociology, education, psychology, women’s studies, and ethnic studies.
This book provides a deep temporal range and a global geographical scope, with case studies ranging from Europe, Africa, and Asia to the Americas and a global internet website for selling home crafted items."
The link to the publisher is here. It is an academic publisher, and so it is rather expensive. However some university libraries already have copies, so I would recommend seeing if your local library can get a copy, or borrow it on Inter-Library Loan. If all else fails, contact me through the website or Academia.edu for a PDF.
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.
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.
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.
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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