Learning (slowly) about gum

About a week ago I bought a multi-pack of Mint flavour sugar free chewing gum and chewed just over one packet worth. I then packed it into the slit in my handle, and inserted the blade. My assumptions about gum have been, and are still being tested. Encountering chewing gum in unexpected places, it is usually hard and stuck convincingly to something else. I assumed this was because it had dried out. Consequently I had it in my mind that once the gum dried in my knife handle the rigidity it delivered would hold the blade in place.

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One week later and the gum is still soft. I have tried a number of strategies to dry it out which include leaving it outside in the damp cold, but this didn’t work. I then left it on a radiator hoping the heat would dry it out, but the gum just became more pliable. Innovatively, I left it in the freezer for 24 hours and this did harden it up, but throughout the following day the gum became maliable again. I then left it buried in wood ash in my wood burner for three days. Because the ash is dry I thought it would draw out the moisture from the gum, but no, it is still maliable.

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I am slowly working out that I am attempting to manage two variables: temperature and moisture content. My assumption that chewing gum hardens is I think correct based upon all the bits I have found stuck to things in the past. However, I read a comment on a blog post today that stated that chewing gum would be hard at room temperature but softens as it reaches body temperature through the chewing process. If correct then it is temperature that is the key factor, but not necessarily for reducing moisture content. Perhaps moisture content is not a factor here? I have also been reading about Neanderthal birch bark tar production where the tar is ‘sweated’ out of the bark, so again heat seems to be the key factor. If correct then perhaps my chewing gum hafting is as hard as it will get at room temperature, probably a similar hardness to when I initially started chewing it. Like the famous parable that people in far northern latitudes have fifty words for snow, I think I could do here with a few more descriptors than ‘hard’ and ‘soft’.

It gets even more complicated if I introduce data into the discussion. Whilst the knife has been languishing in the ash of my wood burner I have tested it daily for moisture content with a ‘Moisture Meter’. I usually use it on wood to see if is dry enough to burn, but I have been using it on the gum and the wooden handle once a day. It indicates that the gum has more moisture than the wooden handle, and both the readings for the gum and handle are remaining pretty constant. This suggests that the gum does in fact contain moisture, and contradicts my emerging ‘plastic’ hypothesis.

Finally, there is the issue of the chewing gum found stuck to things in the outside world, and that has become hard! How does that happen? What I need is the input of a materials scientist, and funnily enough my niece Isabella is a materials scientist. She thinks that the gum outside may be oxidising and it is the oxidisation process that makes the gum become hard. So time becomes another factor in the discussion, and probably surface area as well. TBC.

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Exploring the process of hafting

I have discussed before how many of the learning processes I engage in are also about social relationships. I am keen to haft my Johnstone blade and my friend Simon Harper is someone I enjoy spending time with, and is ‘handy’ when it comes to doing practical stuff. Consequently, we got together last week to spend four hours or so drinking beer and trying and haft my blade (note finger and plaster).

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Simon is into history and prehistory (among many other things) and his fantastic replica Medieval knife (above) was used to fashion the wooden handle for my blade. I feel the need to confess at this point that no stone tools were used in the making part of this project. Partly because I wanted to do it sooner rather than later, and partly because I wanted to see how Simon would approach the task with his tools. I was learning from him really.

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Simon’s first move was to select a suitable piece of wood from his wood burner pile that was approximately hand grip size. We had a blade and handle each and the above is my attempt after sawing to size, creating the slit and shaping with the metal knife.

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Functionally it is good, ergonomic and it holds the blade very tightly. Plus, I like the look of it. As you can see from the following photograph around 45mm of the blade is embedded within the handle. This provides good area of contact and the tight fit means that it has good strength in the longitudinal plane.

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However, it currently has no support that would give strength in the transverse plane. In other words, if I were to put pressure on the edge by cutting it would move the blade sideways in the haft. So the question I am playing with at the moment is how to provide transverse support for the blade. I have two ideas but have not settled yet upon materials. Firstly I think some kind of mastic that is malleable when warm, but hardens when cool. This could be pressured into the slot surrounding the blade and providing good support when it becomes hard. This is the kind of material that Kiefer has producing from resin, charcoal and beeswax. However this knife is a slightly different beast. It is not a replica of anything, but a creation based upon a certain set of principles, which I cannot fully explain. It is becoming an exercise in seeing materials differently, and the toilet cistern certainly fulfils this criteria. So mastic wise I have two main candidates: chewing gum; and tarmac. I am thinking chewing gum currently as it is easy to get hold of and I think will provide the kind of rigidity needed.

Once the gap has been filled a different kind of material will be necessary, one that has a behaviour best described as ‘shrink to fit’. In the prehistoric past sinew has served this function, stretching when wet, and then tightening upon drying. The tightening provides an internal cohesion that would bring together the blade, gum and wooden elements. I still have some sinew left from my adventures at Reaseheath, although Bella, our Lurcher, has eaten most of it. However, I have seen another artist’s work that I would like to try and integrate. Micaella Pedros uses plastic bottles for exactly this ‘shrink to fit’ kind of function. This is a video of her’s on Youtube.

This hafting project has been going on for over a week now, and I carry the knife in its current iteration round in my bag with me. It sits on whatever desk I am using as I work through my different ideas on how to take the next step. The next post (in theory) should be the end result. Let’s see…

 

Saturday night in the lab

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I ended up back in the lab on Saturday evening, inspired by the previous night’s results. I took in some undamaged cistern lids, but focused upon using larger fragments lying around from previous sessions. It was interesting because I could feel the enthusiasm taking over on this occasion, whereas the previous evening had been characterised by precise and controlled thinning. Consequently, the two new points are less refined, but are both long. I seem to be managing endshock well, and the main conscious strategy is to listen to the hits. When the point is sounding stressed I back off. I wont go into the sonic nuances but once you have destroyed a few you can begin to hear the material complain when misused. I now respond well to both sound and the visual clues available, and the reward is longer points.

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Whilst both the new points are less refined, I can say that they both have ‘character’. The first one was on a large, but curved, piece of ceramic. This presented the very same problems encountered when flattening the bases of beer bottles and so I applied the same methods. I was largely successful in a brutalist kind of way. Largely, because it is the longest of the three points, brutalist because there is lots of original surface left on the dorsal. As the photo shows, it has still retained some curvature in spite of my efforts. Removing that curvature would have reduced the length and so I have accepted one to achieve the other. I think for a knife blade this curvature is not an issue, but it may be problematic for a spear head as the longitudinal strength would be compromised.

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I know you are not supposed to have favourites, however, this is my third one of the set. This one was both intuitive and remedial. I worked away, and then adjusted when it went off piste. Consequently the longitudinal mid-line edges are wavy and very much follow the flow of the process of making. It feels like the physical result of a human material dialogue. I like it because it reminds me of some of the Kimberley points from the Manchester Museum, where the person has worked with the form of the material, rather than attempting to mechanically impose a prerequisite shape. We have started to buy ‘wonky’ fruit and veg from the supermarket, and this my wonky bi-point: long, wide, off centre and still too thick, but an enjoyable interactive process and aesthetic result non the less.

Karen’s been out gallivanting

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Friday evening and I ended up going back into Uni. Karen was going on a works do and so after taking the dog out I thought I would go back in and finish some things off. We have been knapping Johnstone during our weekly experimental sessions and slowly but surely I have got better. We started out in an unstructured way and I still can’t say exactly what my method is, but I am becoming pretty consistent and avoiding endshock. Anyway, tonight rather than finishing off what I went in to do, I ended up sat in the lab and decided to play with my thinning.

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As you can see it has worked pretty well and I am enormously satisfied with this one. Measurements wise it is still what Bruce Bradley would class as an Early, however I don’t really care too much as it is just pretty good. It has also confirmed to me that this material is actually ideal for knife blades. Kiefer Duffy and myself are going to get together to make a knife, and so I might try hafting this blade this weekend. If it works then we have the basis of a nice workshop we can do together, as he can knap, but also make a mastic glue from birch resin. Watch this space!

Ancient Pyrotechnology Experience

What follows is a review of our pit firing event from two weeks ago poetically written by Kiefer Duffy, event participant and University of Liverpool graduate experimental archaeologist. Over to Kiefer.

As the name suggests, Learning Through Making is focused on the practical skills that helped our ancestors succeed. This is a review of a workshop centred around pit firing pottery, an ancient way of making ceramics using an open fire. Hopefully I can relate what we did and what it meant to me.

I am an (amateur) Experimental Archaeologist, slightly obsessed with ancient humans. Experimental Archaeology is about reconstructing the technologies and processes our ancestors. On one hand, as the above description suggests, it is a scientific discipline; a way  of exploring the past in the present. On the other, it is a way to connect to our ancestors, to revive dead traditions and experience a way of life to which we, as a species, owe an unfathomable debt. This workshop was centred around that most human behaviour of building, maintaining and using fire.

On a cold, early winter day our newly formed tribe came together to finish the quasi-ritualistic process of turning wet earth into beautiful art and practical pottery. A previous workshop had completed the arduous task of forming the clay and shaping it to suit. Over the course of this day, huddled round the fire, we learned to control fire in its rawest form. We also shared knowledge, food and stories as we dutifully stoked the flames. Gradually we all took on our roles and, as the photos show, whilst the light faded our fire kept going and hard work paid off.

The previous workshop had ended with a number of these gorgeous “Venus” figurines, a staple of Upper Paleolithic art, and small Neolithic bowls. The most beautiful examples are the work of resident ceramicists, Nacho and Paul. The methods we used for firing dates to betwen 10-20,000 years ago, as humans were first coming to grips with the technical applications of fire and mud.

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Our first task was to set the fire going, luckily the wind was on our side, and place the vessels/figures so that they could start the “cooking” process. A gradual, low(ish) heat, cooking is done to drive off remaining water and prepare the clay for its eventual high heat firing.

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Our workshop leaders, taking the place of tribal elders, explained how the properties of the clay (still retaining a lot of water) and the unpredictability of fire (blasts of wind, a particularly flammable piece of wood etc) could spell disaster if we didn’t position each piece carefully. The ring of sticks allowed us to gradually move the figures and vessels towards the fire whilst avoiding the flames touching them, with potentially explosive consequences.

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With the pieces arrayed, both practically and aesthetically, we began our long vigilance. Ever watchful for stray wisps of flame or the collapse of our dirt and wood buttresses. For several hours we slowly moved our ceramics closer to the flame and kept a fine balance of fuel and fire.

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Gradually our technology evolved, here we’ve added a reflective ring of logs around the fire to keep as much heat inside the hearth as possible. Luckily some still leaked out otherwise there would have been cooked pots and frozen people

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As the flames died and our ceramics reached the centre of the fire the most tense stage begins. Now we need to build the fire to a even higher temperatures while the last of the internal water is driven from the clay objects.

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Around this time Nacho and John emerged bearing news of dinner. For me, this is when it changed from an interesting workshop to a true experience. As we sat round the fire, attending to our pots and figures, eating together I felt like I had been transported back to the “residential sites” I’ve spent so much time reading about at university. Robin Dunbar (of social brain fame) has recently been giving talks on the importance of social eating, simply put…the more we eat together  the more we feel a profound sense of community. Combine this with a warm fire and the sight of the pottery it was all I could do to stop myself painting the garden walls with images of mammoths and covering myself in ochre! Even worse, day had started to fade and the fire was now a source of light and even greater warmth…the atmosphere was unbearably atavistic

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With the clay works now directly touching the embers we now had to construct a new fire whose embers would eventually envelop our work and provide the sustained heat that would turn them into true ceramics.

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Fires were lit at each corner and we scrambled to keep them on the thin line between dying out and overwhelming the still vulnerable clay.

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All our knowledge and mastery of fire, learnt and perfected throughout the day, was brought to bear…we all looked on tensely as the flames came dangerously close

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However, all went well and we were left with this perfect pile of embers that would serve as the cocoon in which our clay vessels and figures would truly become ceramic.

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This is the final image I have of the evening, I think it perfectly encapsulates the drama of the whole process and the real scientific knowledge that went into organising this workshop. Fire and what we can do with it has helped define the human experience for hundreds of thousands of years, this is one of the most impressive ways in which we have manipulated the natural world with our intelligence, it was truly thrilling to learn a little bit more of how to be a human.

Thanks to John, Paul and Nacho for this amazing experience

Experimental Archaeology Student Symposium, University of Newcastle, September 2018

Two weekends ago I drove up to Newcastle to take part in the excellent Experimental Archaeology Student Symposium (EAStS). I was giving a paper based upon my own current preoccupation, Learning Through Making, and I had offered to run my Bronze Age arrowhead workshop the following day at the (equally brilliant) Jarrow Hall Museum. The idea was that on the Saturday they would get the theory, and on the Sunday experience the practice. My paper was titled Learning Through Making: an active research framework and what follows is the abstract for that paper followed by a review of the Sunday workshop by Amber Roy on behalf of all the EAStS folks who took part.

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Abstract: It can be difficult to grasp the technology and terminology associated with the production of stone tools. Having completed a higher degree that included a large component of lithic analysis, I can say that my own understandings really developed after actually learning how to make stone tools. Whilst it took me a number of years to produce an arrowhead I can now teach a beginner the process within four hours. To do so I have done two things: broken the process down into component parts; and situated these component parts within a learning model. In relation to component parts, by controlling the type of artefact produced, and the materials and tools used, a series of predictable problems can be managed within the four hours. The result is that everyone takes home something approaching a Bronze Age barb and tang arrowhead.

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But actually everyone takes home the experience of using a hard stone and soft antler hammer and a copper pressure flaker. This in turn allows recognition of the function of each approach and differing types of debitage generated by each. This makes practical sense of the technological models and terminology generally used to discuss archaeological lithic artefacts.

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However, this is only half the story. I have found Kolb’s four stage learning cycle useful for thinking about learning as ‘process’ rather than ‘event’. Creating time within the four hour workshop for the student to reflect upon their learning outcomes allows them to formulate new research questions regarding the technological processes. Explaining how to access materials and tools means that students can use their practical experience to generate new data to answer these new questions. In this way ‘Learning Through Making’ provides an active research framework for a self directed exploration of stone tool technologies.

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Review: On Sunday 28th September 2018 after the Experimental Archaeology Student Symposium (EAStS) one of our speakers, John Pripani, held a glass knapping workshop for us at Jarrow Hall Anglo Saxon Farm. The day before John had given a paper which comprised a description of his learning journey from novice to instructor, and the insights this offered for his teaching approach and our learning how to knap. As a group we were excited enough to give it a go the next day.

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The feedback from the group was positive and it was clear we all took a great deal away from this workshop. By the end of it we could knap! But, more than that, we learnt how to work the material, an understanding had developed for how this material flaked. With John’s demonstrations and guidance we knew what actions and materials, stone, antler or copper, to use in order to create the forms we wanted. And Hey Presto! We made arrowheads out of glass bottles!

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The whole group successfully learnt knapping and pressure flaking techniques, and this resulted in a knapped glass arrowhead from each one of us. Many of  the group had previously found flint knapping very difficult. But, with guidance, we were able to understand how the material behaved and the types of pressure and bodily actions needed to remove flakes. We learnt that we could knap, and we also learnt that we could develop our practice on many different materials, such as glass and bathroom ceramic, which behave in similar ways to flint. Many of us are now sourcing materials to continue to build on the skills that John helped us develop during this workshop. ‘Learning Through Making’ really works!

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I would like to express my thanks to the organisers and all the people who took part in both days. It was great. In particular I would like to thank Victoria Lucas for facilitating the workshop, Amber Roy for putting together this review, and Marco Romeo Pitone, as I still owe him £4 from the car parking 🙂

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‘Venus’ figurine workshop, October 2018 at the fantastic Old Abbey Taphouse

I am fortunate to know some very talented people. This is a review by my friend,  artist and photographer, Pete Yankowski, of a the above workshop organised by Nacho, Paul and myself. Nacho and Paul are skilled and knowledgeable potters, and Pete’s photographs really capture very well the atmosphere of the afternoon. I hope you enjoy his review, many thanks to Pete.

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I went to this workshop on Saturday, and I want to say that it was great. ‘Venus’ figurines from between 20-30.000 BCE were found in Europe and are very intriguing.

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This figurine is small and a beautiful shape that fitted snugly in the palm of my hand. To hold the original many thousands of years ago must have felt sacred and meaningful. Why such figurines were made, and by whom, is a mystery that can perhaps only partly be revealed using scientific methods and archaeological evidence. 

 

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In the workshop we learned about the archaeological background, make up of the clay fabric, the date it may have been created, and the climate and the location where it was found. This provided some ideas with the aim of us later formulating our own perspective. 

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We started the making process by first of all drawing from photographs of the original clay figure. This enabled us to become familiar with the dimensions and detail of the ‘Venus’. 

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We then mixed clay with burnt and ground animal bone, as the original had traces mammoth bone within it.

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It is documented that many exploded figurines were found in the area where the ‘Venus’ was found. So we can logically conclude that whoever made these clay figures were experimenting with methods for successful figures to emerge. To me this indicated intelligence and ingenuity from the creators.

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There is evidence this ‘Venus’ figurine from Dolni Vestonice was made from one piece of clay and shaped without adding any more material. Possibly because in firing such a piece of solid clay it can come apart where the joints are made. Making it in this way was interesting and gave me a feeling of connection to the shape moulded by hand into the clay. 

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When making the figurine, I realised how sophisticated the design was, from my own perspective as an artist. I then started imagining the environment and community around the original crafts person. 

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There were people from many backgrounds within the workshop and this stimulated discussion between us whilst we were each creating our own version of the Dolni Vestonice ‘Venus’.

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At the end of the session we all got together and talked of the experience of making our own version of the figurine and ideas around the ancient individual and perhaps their reasons for creating the original. 

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It was good as people were experiencing the act of making the figure from a personal perspective. One person commented that her sister had a baby the day before and she spoke of the closer connection she felt when making the figure.

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Within the group we discussed the perspective the maker may have had in observing their own body to create the original, indicating that it may well have been a woman doing the making. Also in the making, we realised how sophisticated and beautiful this figure is and that it would have seemed like a precious item. 

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The discussion was great as many ignored the preconceptions of some archaeologists from 50 to 100 years ago who, from the literature they produced, presumed our ancient ancestors were not very intelligent. We felt that some archaeologists may well have been influenced by the attitudes of their own lives and times. Archaeology provides some valuable methods for understanding more about ancient objects. In addition, the historical context of archaeological interpretation allows us to think critically about how we can formulate our own ideas about our ancient ancestors. However, making these figurines provided a creative perspective that in turn added more ways of thinking about what these figurines may have meant in the prehistoric past. 

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This was a great workshop, well resourced and the creative process was fun. I met so many interesting new people, and it made me think!

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This is a link to Pete’s website: https://evolution-by-design.com/about/