One of the invisible tools of the Bronze Age metalworker is protective gloves. It’s difficult to work with hot metal without some sort of protective hand gear. Even when using wooden tongs, it’s difficult to keep your hands away from the heat of the furnace. Handling heated stone or clay moulds is also difficult without gloves.
The most popular hand protection is to use commercial welding gloves. They do a good job and are fairly inexpensive. On the other hand when working with students, I have to regard them as being disposable. Someone will inevitably burn the leather, making the fingers stiff and difficult or impossible to work with.
When I was in Moscow for the Times and Epochs Festival, the bronze casters there had a nice alternative: felted wool mittens. They look like something that would have been used in the Bronze Age, do a great job of protecting hands from heat, and are repairable. When I got back to the US I wanted to make myself a pair.
Making the mittens is a fairly straightforward process. Make a pattern out of some heavy cardboard by tracing your hand and adding a couple centimeters all the way around (the wool will shrink). You will need some wool. I bought some roving, wool that’s been cleaned and made ready for spinning, but you could even use wool straight from the sheep. Just make sure that the wool you use is not labeled as ‘superwash’. Superwash wool has been processed to prevent shrinkage. Great if you’re knitting socks, but useless for felting. I have small hands (another advantage, you can make these to fit!) so I used about 170 grams of wool. The only other supplies needed are hot water and a bar of soap. This is a messy process and takes awhile. You’ll need a clean work table in an area where you don’t have to worry about getting the table and the floor wet. Not to mention yourself. My thanks to the staff at StevenBe who let me use their felting room for the process
Lay out the wool so there’s enough to fold over the edges and top. Make sure that the bottom stays open. Take off the pattern for the moment and wet the wool with hot water and scrub it with the soap. Get the soap all through the wool. This is going to be messy. Put the pattern back and fold the wool so it is completely covered, except for where your hand goes in. Now, pushing down on the wool scrub it around on the work table, keeping it wet and rubbing in the soap, flipping it over and doing the other side.
When the first layer is completely wet and starting to hold together, add more wool wrapping it 90 degrees from the first layer. If the first layer was from the top to the bottom, the next layer should be side to side. Keep soaping it up, adding hot water and scrubbing it around. At some point the cardboard is going to start disintegrating, so put your hand in there and scrub from the inside. By now you’re losing the will to live, but keep going.
Felting works because wool has scales, almost like tiny hooks. The action of heat and agitation causes these scales to get tangled and bind to each other. This is why wool sweaters shrink when they get put into a hot washing machine or a dryer.
Keep adding layers to the wool until it gets almost as thick as you want it. The wool will compress and get a little thicker when it dries. Once it’s the size and thickness you want, rinse out the soap and let it dry. Drying takes a long time depending on the weather. You can put it in a dryer, but be careful that it doesn’t shrink. A dryer can reduce the size considerably and compress the wool to the point of being dense. If the mitten shrinks too much you can wet it down again and stretch it out some more. You can also put something inside the mitten to keep it from getting too small.
Once it’s done, you can twist it or pound it to get it a little more flexible. There’s nothing to say that you can’t also decorate it
I was invited to cast bronze at an event in Germany, but the catch was that I needed to dress in period costume. The skirt and tunic were easy enough, but I knew that the people there would look at my Iron Age shoes and comment on how anachronistic they were. I know, because it’s happened in the past. There are few Bronze Age shoes that have been preserved, and the most famous were the ones worn by Otzi, the Ice Man whose body was recovered in the Alps in 1991. There are a few websites describing how to make them, including one with a video,
Following the instructions onthis website,I cut out a pair of soles from the same leather I used for the Iron Age shoes, and punched holes around the perimeter. I didn’t have leather lacing, so I stitched them with multiple strands of sinew. Then I got some jute cord. This is made from the inner bark of the lime, or basswood tree (tillia sp). It is essentially the same as the cord used for Otzi’s shoes. I cut several lengths and started plaiting and knotting.
I quickly realised that it wasn’t going well. I couldn’t tie the knots while wearing the shoes, so I made a sort of shoe last out of socks. I just wasn’t enjoying the project and it was looking a mess. I just wasn’t getting the measurements right and the shoe was too large.
I just wasn’t producing what I wanted, so it went on the back burner. When it was about a month out from the event, I nagged myself into getting the shoes done. The problem was that I wasn’t happy with how they were turning out. It would be easier if I was making them for someone else, where I could tie the knots while they wore the shoes. It was then that I convinced myself that I didn’t need to slavishly copy this particular shoe. The materials were proper for period, I just needed to find a way to make them so I was happy while using a technique that would be consistent with the Bronze Age. I decided to make a netted upper rather than one that was plaited and knotted. I started over, this time using a single length of cord. I measured off a length that was 5 times the circumference of the sole (note, this finished about half the shoe. On the second one I measured 9 times the circumference and that worked out perfectly).
I wove the cord in and out of the sinew, skipping every other stitch and leaving a small loop at the top near the edge of the sole.
Then continuing around, I brought a loop through the loop next to the sole and then threaded the cord through that to make a knot. It was easily adjustable.
I made the first round fairly tight so that it would pull the sole up around my foot. I did the same for the second round.
On the third round I made the loops larger because I wanted a netted effect. If I wanted, could continue making the loops smaller that would result in a denser fabric. At this point it was easy to work on the shoe while wearing it.
After a couple more rounds I started making the loops even larger. I brought the cord around the front of my ankle, looping the cord between it and the loops closer to my toes.
By this time I was essentially done. It took me about three hours for both shoes, working at a relaxed pace. I had a fair amount of cord left over, so I wound that around the top cord of the shoe to reinforce the opening and to give it a bit more of a finished look.
The finished shoes
I made this pair fairly tight because I figure that both the leather and cord will stretch over time. Still, they are easy to slip on and off, and are comfortable for walking. I could make some leather uppers to go over the netting. Otzi’s shoes had that, although there is debate as to whether the leather was on top of, or under the cording. A project for the future is to learn nålebinding to make some socks.
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.
Last year the Bronze Casting Festival was a wonderful experience. People from all over Europe came and exchanged information about bronze casting and metalworking techniques.
Here are a few photos of the First Bronze Casting Festival in 2017.
I’ll be returning there again this May and furthering my experiments in metal finishing. In addition to casting, I’m interested in using metal oxides as colorants for enamels and how they are affected by the reduced environment of a charcoal furnace. In the past I did a lot of metal enamelling in an electric furnace. This will be a chance to explore how the process of enamelling could have been developed. I might even have a chance to make some glass while I’m at it!
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.
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.
Last September I had the honour to be invited to cast bronze in North Cyprus as part of the Vounous Symposium. It was an amazing experience, working in the place that saw the dawn of ancient metallurgy. Our word copper is derived from the name of Cyprus. As part of the symposium, we visited a historical copper mine (I only brought back a few samples!), ancient sites, and museums. However the focus of the symposium is the recreation of ancient technology, not only to understand techniques used in the Bronze Age in Cyprus, but also to restore its lost heritage and to educate others about the island’s rich history.
I wrote a short article for EXARC about the 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.
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
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.