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!

Forging Ahead!

2022 is finally picking up where 2020 left off. I’m back in England and this weekend I’ll be at the Historical Metallurgy Society’s Accidental and Experimental Archaeometallurgy 2.1 Conference. Next month I’ll be at Sedgeford for SHARP’s Metallurgy day course. Then in August, I’ll head up to Uelsen, Germany for the Bronze Casting Festival at the Bronzezeithof. At the end of August I’ll be speaking at the EAA Conference in Budapest. Plans are still afoot for heading down to North Cyprus in September, although I haven’t had official word about another Vounous Symposium. Fingers crossed, though. It’s an exciting event and one where we have two weeks to work rather than just a weekend.

It feels great to be on the road again, although hauling a suitcase full of bronze tools can get a bit tiring at times. Still, I wouldn’t trade this life for anything!

The Self-draughting Furnace in the Snow

Welcome to 2022 and Some Resolutions

Last year, in 2021 everything was cancelled… again. The world was put on hold for another year. We all got tired of waiting for the next shoe to drop, not realizing that it was a centipede that was dropping them. It was as if the promise we hoped for in 2020 was snatched away. Some people reacted with anger, but for me it was withdrawal. I checked out for a while. When I look back on all the stuff I did last year, it looks like I was insanely busy, but to me it felt as if I had been treading water, waiting for life to come back to some form of normal and leave the US behind.  Still, hope springs eternal. My fellowship at Colonial Williamsburg that’s been delayed three times is rescheduled to happen next April and with luck I’ll be back in Europe this summer.

I did get a furnace built last year. It’s self-draughting, so I didn’t even need a set of bellows. That was convenient and a real labour saver, but it brought home how much bronze casting is a communal event for me. I missed the camaraderie, the laughing, storytelling, and the intensity of working as a close-knit team. I never bought into the idea of the lone, itinerant Bronze Age metalsmith, unbound from the structure of society. As a metalsmith, I am pretty itinerant, but I am rarely alone, and there is always some sort of social structure. In the modern world it is much easier to do this sort of work alone, but that is essentially an illusion. I head over to the hardware store and buy bags of charcoal and order bags of clay to be delivered here, but in the Broze Age there would have been a lot more interaction to get the necessary supplies. If the people who dug the clay and burned the charcoal weren’t a part of my village or settlement, I would have had to negotiate how to get the supplies to where I was working. Likewise for the metal or ore. The Bronze Age was a world without a lot of easy transportation. Something we take for granted now.

These days it’s unfashionable to do New Year’s resolutions. People point out that there really isn’t anything special about the transition from December 31st to January 1st, it’s just an arbitrary date. It is an arbitrary date, but it’s also a long-standing tradition and there is a certain amount of power in traditions. 2021 was certainly a depressing year. Then New Year’s came and went. Compared to New Year’s Eve in Italy and England, there’s not much going on here even in a non-Covid year. It was a low point for me, and it came to the point where the only way was back up again. So, I did make resolutions. Small ones that will get bigger as I get back into the swing of things. It felt right. I feel as if I am getting back into the game and even if I don’t have a lot of energy, I’m acting as if I do. In the coming weeks I plan to put up a page of bronze casting moulds, similar to the page I made for textile tools. I’ll also write a full report on my self-draughting furnace, that amazingly seems to be holding up in the sub-zero weather here, and I’ll polish up and publish some old articles of mine. So, I’m back and hoping to make up for lost time.

 

Iron Age Shoes

Sometimes you just need a new pair of shoes. I’d been wanting to make some of the replica shoes I’d seen online. there are a few good sites where you can find patterns and step by step tutorials.

Kelticos has a number of different patterns that you can download.
I followed the instructions on this site. It goes step by step and practically no-fail. I however am a bit more cautious and rather start with the leather I made a pattern out of brown paper.

brown paper pattern for a pair of Iron Age shoes.

Once I was confident that I had a good fit with the paper pattern, I bought the leather that I needed. One thing that few sites describe is the type and weight of leather needed. I bought some cow leather that was supple, but not stretchy from Cox Leather in Albuquerque. The place is an amazing resource for hides, rawhide, leather, skins, and really anything leather related. They also ship!

Leather thickness in the US is measured by the ounce, and in mm in Europe. The leather I bought was about 8 oz / 3.2 mm / 1/8 inch thick.

The pattern laid out on the leather. I traced the right foot and then flipped the pattern over to trace the left foot.

Once I traced the pattern on the leather, I cut the shoes out using good sharp scissors and punched the holes for lacing with an awl. It’s important to use an awl or punch rather than cutting the hole with a scissors since a round hole pushed through the leather is less likely to tear than a hole that is cut.

The shoes all laced up.

I stitched up the backs with sinew. I followed the directions and stitched the sides of the heel to the heel tab straight up. It ended up a little loose. When I get the time I’ll restitch them so they come in a little tighter on the top. Another modification will be to put more of a sole on them. Some options are to cut an insole out of rawhide and sew it between the inside of the sole with another, softer leather insole on top. I might line it with some sheep skin, too.

A comfy fit.

First posted on 16th November 2016

Since I first posted this I have worn the shoes often and have come in useful while working at the Bronzezeithof  in Germany. They are holding up well after a year, although I don’t wear them every day.

Making bag bellows

 

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.

The basic pattern for cutting out a pair of bag bellows.

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 small triangle set into the front of the bellows. Note that I put in a couple stitches so that when the bellows close, the triangle folds inwards.

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.

A close-up of where I tied the opening of the bellows to the tuyere

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.

The finished bag bellows. Note that the handle is towards the rear of the bellows.

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.

This shows the handle at the top of the bellows and how to hold the bellows open while using them

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.