Learning silk

I was given some silk cocoons last year (September of 2019) when I was in North Cyprus. They are local to Cyprus and working with silk and cocoons is a craft tradition there where they are used to make floral decorations (Karlitaş 2015). They come in a range of shades from white to a gold honey colour. My interest was piqued when I was told that there was evidence of a silk industry in Cyprus dating back to the Bronze Age (2000 BC) (Panagiotakopoulou et al 1997; Belgiorno 2010;  Gonzato and Lentini 2010; Gonzato 2015; Hadjikyriakos and Trentin 2015; Whitfield 2018). Silk production was written about by both Aristotle (Historia Animalia V: 19.6) and Pliny (Historia Naturalis XI: 75-8). Silk garments were noted by Horace along with images of silk production (Horace Satires I, II: 101-2; Ovid Ars Amatoria II: 298)

Silk cocoons from North Cyprus

I had never spun silk before, so before I could experiment with the cocoons I needed to gain some proficiency in the craft. I bought some mulberry silk sliver and some silk hankies with the idea that I would work my way up to processing and spinning the silk from the cocoons I was given. I started with the silk sliver.

Spinning Silk Sliver

Mulberry silk is the product of the cultivation in which captive silkworms are fed fresh mulberry leaves. All but a few of the silkworms are killed while they are inside the cocoon in order to have continuous strands of silk (Konstantinou 2016). Sliver is similar to combed wool in that it is a bundle of fibres that have all been aligned. I was told that the best way was to spin from the fold, and I learned immediately that this was true. Unlike wool, silk is slippery. Trying to spin the ends of the fibre led to a lot of frustration, the fibres slipped too quickly between my fingers. By making a loop over my index finger and then spinning from the middle of the strands, I was better able to control the flow of silk to the spindle. This resulted in the fibres wrapping around each other to produce a fine, strong single strand.

Left to right: Commercially prepared silk sliver, The sliver on a supported spindle, The finished silk yarn dyed with indigo

I started with a small supported spindle that was made from a glass bead that weighed 9.8 grams (fig 1b). I’d heard that silk sticks to everything, so I figured that my rough ceramic spindles would catch too much. The small spindle worked well, but I wanted to go faster, so I transferred it to a larger drop spindle made from polyform resin that weighed 24 grams. This worked very well. The sliver is smooth and goes quickly without catching on anything. The sliver was later dyed with indigo using the shibori technique and then chain plied, a technique that combines overlaps the strand into three to make a thicker yarn (figure 1c).

Spinning Silk Hankies or Mawata

Once the 250 grams of sliver was spun, I felt confident to move on to the next step, silk hankies. These are a step closer to cocoons. A silk hankie is an individual  degummed cocoon that was stretched on a square frame. Hankie are sold in bundles that resemble layered mats that have a slightly thicker border. I carefully chose an edge of the bundle and gently peeled one layer away. The layer is uneven, so I spent a little time pulling and teasing the edges and any thick spots in the centre. The thick spots tend to be silk from the inner cocoon that has shorter fibers, so I was careful not to tear holes by stretching these too far. Often the shorter fibers are discarded, although some people include them in their spun yarn. The resulting lumps in the yarn are called neps and give an artistic texture to the finished product. To begin spinning, some people pull a thread from the center of the hankie, others from an edge. I find starting with a corner works best while I drape the rest of the hankie over my wrist or wind on a short hand distaff. I found that I had more neps using the hankies than I did with the sliver, but I expect these might wash out since they are probably the shorter fibres from the center of the cocoon. Some of the individual strands of the silk clung to my hand, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought that it would be. I have rough hands, but it didn’t seem to cause any frustration.

The resulting fibre was somewhat finer than when I spun the sliver, although that might be due to my skill improving rather than the different type of processing.

Left to right: Silk hankies, Silk hankies separated and dyed, the spun silk

Spinning Degummed Cocoons

For this project I bought commercially degummed cocoons, some of which I dyed using indigo. To spin them, I took an undyed cocoon and pulled and teased it out so it was fairly fluffy and evenly dense. I pulled and twisted some fine strands and put them on the spindle. It spins very fine, and feels more like spinning sliver than hankies. It’s easy to see the structure of the cocoon now and how the inner layers have shorter fibres. Those are like a clump in the middle that have to be carefully teased out. The silk was spun on a replica ceramic Bronze Age spindle weighing 34 grams. Because the cocoons were dyed whole, the centres had less dye than the exterior of the cocoon, giving it a variegated colour.

Left to right: Figure Degummed cocoons, Degummed cocoons dyed with indigo, degummed cocoons one stretched out. Note that the dye did not penetrate entirely to the centre, leaving it paler than the exterior. The spun silk

 At this point I felt confident in my spinning ability and began to research the degumming process.

Degumming Cocoons

The cocoons must be degummed before they can be spun. The gum is called sericin, a sticky secretion of the silkworms that holds the cocoon together. Without degumming the fibers tend to cling together, making for an uneven, brittle strands. The process calls for soaking the cocoons in a heated base solution that dissolves the sericin. In order to replicate early silk production, I wanted to make my own alkali solution from wood ash and distilled water.

Making the Alkali Solution

Twigs of lilac and mulberry were burnt in a clean ceramic dish. When cooled, there were 12.2 grams of ash. Any remaining bits of burnt wood were removed. 

The ash (12.2 grams) were added to ½ liter of distilled water in a covered ceramic crock and allowed to sit for 24 hours. The solution was filtered through paper filters, after which a reading of pH 11.1 was taken with a calibrated digital pH meter. This is similar in scale to commercial ammonia which ranges from 10.5-11.5. Information for degumming cocoons have suggested using urea or various recipes of soap, lye, washing soda, and baking soda to arrive at the needed alkalinity (Lamb 2014; Cook 2017; Cao et al 2018; Baro  2020). Cao et al (2018) state that silk cocoons are best degummed at a pH of 11.5 in commercial processing, although they found that a pH of 11.0 removed 23% of the sericin, and at 11.5 it increased to 26%. A pH of 11.5 is sufficient to remove the sericin from the interior of an intact cocoon. However, since I had not planned to reel the cocoons, a process for which the cocoons need to be processed whole, the solution of pH 11.1 should be able to penetrate throughout the cocoon. It should be noted that a pH that is too high can damage the proteins of the silk strands, resulting in a weakened fibre (Babu 2019).

The Degumming Process

When silk is reeled, that is when a single continuous strand is pulled from a cocoon, it is important that the silkworm pupa remain inside the cocoon. When the silkworm emerges as a moth, it creates a hole in the end of the cocoon. Likewise, a hole is made if the pupa is removed before processing the cocoon. The degumming process loosens the fibers and creates a wet, messy mass. Even the degummed cocoons that I bought looked like a tangled mess. I decided that picking out bits of bug from a wet pile of cocoons would not be much fun, and because I was more interested in spinning the silk than reeling, I removed the pupae prior to degumming. Some of the cocoons had a weak spot where the cocoon wasn’t as firm. I was able to use the tip of a knife to tease the silk fibers away to create a hole and shake the remains of the pupa out. While I could pull away some of the fibers on those cocoons, the silk was almost brittle and I could see how trying to pull fibers from a cocoon without degumming would be unsuccessful for producing any silk fiber. Other cocoons were firm, about the consistency of cardstock. For those I ended up cutting into the cocoon. I had seen some in this batch where a round hole had been sliced through one end of the cocoon, and I did the same. I’ve learned in conversation with others that the silk can be loosened by boiling, and the silkworm pupae released. In this way the pupae can be used as food, but boiling does not affect the sericin and as soon as the cocoons dry, they turn into a stiff, papery mat.

The recommended process is to heat the cocoons in the alkali solution for a period of time. Baro (2020) recommends bringing the solution and cocoons nearly to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer for 10 minutes. Others (Lamb 2014, Luong et al 2015, Cook 2017, Cao et al 2018) all recommend simmering for 30 minutes. Luong et al recommend a temperature of 90°C, while Cao et al recommend 98°C.

Eighteen cocoons were put into the prepared alkali solution in a nonreactive enamelled pot. Since the cocoons were opened, there should be no trouble with the solution being able to wet every surface. The cocoons were brought to a boil in less than five minutes and then the heat was reduced to 90°C and held at that temperature for 30 minutes. Despite pushing them down, the cocoons floated. After about 15 minutes they began to get soggy and limp, but never seemed to lose their structure. Cook (2017) describes the sericin becoming slimy as it dissolves and the silk loosens.

Afterwards the cocoons were rinsed repeatedly in distilled water to remove all traces of sericin and alkali solution. There was no feeling of sliminess and it was very easy to pull fibres from the damp cocoons. It was noted that before degumming the cocoons ranged from white to pale gold colours. After degumming the colours ranged from distinct yellows to  greyish olive colours. As they dried the grey ones became more white while the yellow became more intense. It was fairly easy to pull the fibres of the damp cocoons apart, but when dry the fibbers held together, with an almost paper-like texture. Some fibres had a sicky feel to them, By the time all the silk was dried, the fibre was stiff, so it was determined that not all of the sericin had dissolved. There are three variables that could be responsible. 1) that the alkali solution was not string enough. 2) that there wasn’t enough of the solution for the number of cocoons immersed. 3) The cocoons weren’t simmered long enough or the temperature wasn’t high enough.

More ash was burned and the charcoal was again filtered out. 34.5 g of ash were added to 1 liter of distilled water. Again, 18 cocoons weighing 5 grams were prepared and were put into a stainless steel pot with the alkali solution. This time the alkali solution had a pH of 11.7. Distilled  water (350 ml) was added, but it brought the pH down to 10.5. More ash was burned and added to fresh distilled water and the pH was adjusted to 11.5 using a combination of the fresh solution and the solution with the lower pH. The cocoons were brought to 98C and then the temperature was lowered to 90C. The cocoons were allowed to simmer for 30 minutes. A single cocoon was removed for testing. It was rinsed and quickly dried with paper towelling. The silk was pliable and not sticky. The rest of the cocoons were removed from the alkali bath and then soaked and rinsed repeatedly to remove any remaining sericin.

Spinning the Degummed Cocoons

Once dried, the cocoons provided for a very fine spin using a wooden supported spindle. The fibres are pliable and none of the sericin remains. However, the fibre is fuzzy, almost wooly. It is likely due to cutting holes in the cocoons to remove the silkworms , leaving a large percentage of shorter fibers.

Further Research

It took multiple attempts to get the alkali solution to the proper pH. Different types of wood could influence the pH level, as also the source of water. The question is how people in antiquity knew that the solution was strong enough to degum cocoons. Tradition might have had that a particular type of wood was preferred and that quantities were measured so that there was a known ratio of ash to water, or that there was some way of testing the strength of the solution, possibly by observing colour changes in natural dye solutions (Wood 2020). Further experiments are needed to better understand the degumming process as it was practiced in antiquity.


Baro,  M. (2020) Instructible: Silk Spinning for Lazy People https://www.instructables.com/id/Silk-spinning-for-lazy-people 

Belgiorno, M.R. (2010)  Cipro all’inizio dell’Età del Bronzo: Realtà sconosciute della comunità. Gangemi Editore, Rome.

Cao, T., Wang, Y., and Zhang, Y. (2018) “Effect of Strongly Alkaline Electrolyzed Water on Silk Degumming and the Physical Properties of the Fibroin Fiber.” Plos One 8(6): e65654 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3688822/

Cook M. (2017) Wormspit  http://www.wormspit.com/ and http://www.wormspit.com/degumming.htm

Gonzato, F. (2015) Precious cloths & prestige technologies: Textile production from Pyrgos-Mavrorachi in Cypriot Cultural Details: Proceedings of the 10th Annual Meeting of Young Researchers in Cypriot Archaeology, I. Hadjikyriako, M.G.Trentin, Eds. Oxbow Books, Oxford

Gonzato F., A. Lentini (2010) Textiles Quality and Spindle Whorls Type: New data about spinning techniques In Cypriot Middle Bronze Age. International Congress on Archaeological Sciences in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East (ICASEMNE), Paphos, Cyprus

Hadjikyriakos, I and M. G. Trentin (2015) Cypriot Cultural Details: Proceedings of the 10th Annual Meeting of Young Researchers in Cypriot Archaeology

Karlitaş, H. (2015) Silkworm-breeding and Silk Cocoon. North Cyprus Monthly Magazine (December) http://www.northcyprusuk.com/egitim-kultur-sanat-tarih/silkworm-breeding-and-silk-cocoon-h2611.html

Kolander C. (1985) A Silk Worker’s Notebook. Interweave Press, Colorado

Konstantinou G. (2016) Biodiversity of Cyprus by NGO Protection of the Natural Heritage and the Biodiversity of Cyprus http://biodiversitycyprus.blogspot.com/2016/05/silkworm-bombyx-mori-linnaeus-1758.html

Lamb, S. (2014). The Practical Spinner’s Guide – Silk. Interweave Press (May 31, 2014)

Luong, T., Dang, T., Ngoc, O., Dinh-Thuy, T., Nguyen, T., Toi, V., Duong, H., and Son, H. (2014) Investigation of the Silk Fiber Extraction Process from the Vietnam Natural Bombyx Mori Silkworm Cocoon 391 BME2014 in Vietnam, IFMBE Proceedings, Springer Verlag.

Panagiotakopoulou, E., Buckland, P.C., Day, P.M., Doumas, C., Sarpaki, A., and Skidmore, P. (1997) A lepidopterous cocoon from Thera and evidence for silk in the Aegean Bronze
Age, Antiquity 71, 420-29.

Whitfield, S. (2018) Silk, Slaves, and Stupas: Material Culture of the Silk Road: Material Culture of the Silk Road. University of California Press

Wood, J. (2020). How to Test pH of Water Without a Kit? Water Filter Cast https://waterfiltercast.com/how-to-test-ph-of-water-without-a-kit/

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Review: The Big Book of Torcs

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

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

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

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

Ever wanted to know about ancient beer and brewing?

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

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

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

Stories from Times and Epochs, Moscow

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:

Moscow: Arrival

My First Day in Moscow

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.

Vounous Symposium 2019

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: Materiality in the Making

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.

Now we’re Cooking with Gas! How experimental archaeology challenges modern assumptions about metal recycling.

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.

Read the full article here

Experimental Archaeology at Western Illinois University

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.

Note the supports for the teapot stand inside. It was a well made and durable furnace.

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.

Blowing off the bits of charcoal before pouring. Always exciting!

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.

Clay, pewter, and bronze spindle whorls. experimental Bronze Age metallurgy meets textile archaeology!

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.

The furnace at night

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

June 2017

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

The session that I participated in was titled Nobody is Perfect: Contrasts in Craft. I spoke about recognising the learning process by examining mistakes in metalwork. It was a great session and I hope that the research presented here will spur others to examine the flaws in objects to understand the processes of craft production.

Too often artefacts are selected for examination and display because of their perfection, but perfection can limit us. We see the end product but by the very process of achieving perfection the traces of the journey to mastery are erased. When we examine flaws, both minor and major, the world opens up.We can follow the movements of the artisan’s hands and see the sequence in which an object was made. We can see the choices made during production. Was there a flawed section of decoration because a master artisan was momentarily distracted, or was it because an apprentice was still awkward using tools? We can also question why the flaws remain; why the object survives, rather than having been destroyed or repaired.

The flaws, repairs, and mistakes all contribute to the object’s biography and allow us a glimpse of craft and decoration in ancient cultures. The papers presented in this session examined these and more subjects on mistakes in craft, and generated lively discussion.

Nobody is perfect: contrasts in craft – for the first time at an archaeological conference artists, craftspeople and archaeologists gathered together to discuss the potential of mistakes, failures and repair within material culture of the past. The results were stunning: mistakes, failures and repair can not only help to identify skill level and apprenticeship in craft, they also indicate the intention, the actual purpose of an artefact.” – Heide W. Nørgaard

Talking archaeology at Cyprus Classical Academy 

Talking archaeology at Cyprus Classical Academy 

In March 2017 I had a great time talking to the students at Cyprus Classical Academy about what archaeologists do. Cyprus Academy is a Montessori school in which classes are organised by ability rather than age. The students I spoke to ranged in ages from 6 to 11.  This is a great age for kids to learn about prehistory and the fascinating story of how people invented tools and developed crafts. The students had a chance to look at and handle artefacts, pump a set of bag bellows, and have a go at using a drop spindle to spin some wool. They will continue on studying prehistory and history, but I doubt they’ll ever think about ‘cave men’ the same way again. Apparently one of the teachers was amazed by finding out that Neanderthals made flutes and had music.

One of the unexpected benefits of my talk was that a girl in the class was excited to know that there are women archaeologists. There is the popular perception that archaeologists are men, and while field archaeology tends to have more men excavating, I pointed out that women also excavate, and also work in labs and museums. I included some slides showing kids volunteering cleaning finds, to let them know that there’s a place for them in archaeology too.