I’m back, and I’m getting thinner

johnstone plan

Well not me, but my points. My knapping has been intermittent recently, partly because of fieldwork, and partly other projects. However, term has now started and so have our weekly experimental sessions. We have a nice small group of enthusiastic knappers, and quite quickly I have been able to let them get on with it whilst I focus a little more on my own practice. This week we ran out of bottles and so I introduced the group to the joy of Johnstone, or bathroom ceramic, of which we still have plenty. I really like it as a material and produced a couple of neat and tidy, but thick points.

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And so, they were sat on my desk and by about 4.30pm yesterday I needed a break from head based stuff and so decided to play with thinning them. Anyway, they both went really well. My learning outcome from this successful process: the antler needs to do all the bifacial thinning before pressure flaking starts. On a thinned piece the pressure flaking is easier. This Johnstone point is still around 5mm so not massively thin, and it undulates a bit, however it is fully bifacially worked.

recycled glass

And then, this morning at breakfast Karen knocked a recycled glass glass onto the floor and it broke. At 11.30am today I needed a break from the head based stuff already, and coincidentally I had brought the remains of the unfortunate recycled glass glass with me.

thinning with antler

I followed the same method and after clearing off the prominent shards with a hard hammer started to thin the remaining thick glass base with the antler. I got it bifacial pretty quickly, however because it was a thick piece to start with I carried on with the antler to approximately shape it, before using my soft iron nail pressure flaker to finally shape and thin it.

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Anyway, I am pleased with it, and I am pleased with the learning process. Like so many things, being away from it for a while has allowed particular aspects to peculate. Coming back to glass knapping afresh has allowed new insights to emerge, and the continued thinning process is what has emerged here for me. This leaf shaped point is 4mm thick which is great, and formally it is a homage to the artefact produced by John Lord here. This kind of thinning using the antler makes the flake scars less visually obvious. Consequently, subsequent pressure flaking removals tend not to travel as far because they can run into the previous scars. This means that the nice ripple flaking pattern that is possible on glass that has been predominantly pressure flaked (see here) is not present on this much flatter piece. Back to the head based stuff 😦

Making a Bronze Age beaker: a short photo essay

Almost a month ago now we had our ‘make a Bronze Age beaker’ workshop at the Old Abbey Taphouse.

The two beakers above were produced by Nacho as examples for us to follow. The first has dried and is ready for firing, the second has been fired. The following photos show the coiling process discussed in the previous post. A flattened digestive biscuit sized base is produced and the the sausage like coils are then built up.

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As the coils are built up they are systematically blended together on the outside and inside to bind together and form the walls of the vessel. As you can see from the photographs, a range of approximately Bronze Age shapes emerged from this process.

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Once we had produced our Bronze Age pots the next stage was to decorate the walls with designs copied from archaeological examples. We first of all practised upon 2D shapes before going onto the pots directly.

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In the photograph below Nacho is showing how nettle cordage can be used to produce patterning on the pots.

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As I have said before, the end results are not just the finished vessels, but also the experience of the people taking part in the process.

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As ever, thanks to Pete Yankowski for the photographs: https://peteryankowski.co.uk/

 

 

On working with crafts people

Last weekend we had a Bronze Age beaker workshop, and I will post about that separately, here I want to work through my current experience and thoughts regarding my collaboration with crafts people, in particular Nacho and Paul the potters. Part of the workshop on Saturday included bringing the fired pots from previous sessions so that people could collect their pieces. Having worked with Nacho and Paul on Early Neolithic, Later Neolithic and Bronze Age pots a pattern has emerged. I am not a pottery specialist, however, I make sure I understand the categorising systems and characteristics of each period in order to make it clear how archaeology uses objects (in this case pots) to understand the past. It is through these different aspects that narratives are developed to explain each period.

Early Neolithic pot

One example might be a comparison between Early Neolithic and Later Neolithic pots. Early Neolithic pots tend to have round bases, whilst Later Neolithic vessels have flat bases. This has been interpreted as Early Neolithic pots being more suitable for resting upon broken ground, and therefore indicative of a less settled lifestyle. So a functional approach to form leads to interpretation. In contrast the later flat based vessels suggest flat surfaces are more common, and therefore the form of vessels again reflects aspects of environment and use. I like to emphasise the difference between evidence and interpretation to allow people to decide for themselves if they think this is a reasonable explanation, but more importantly, recognise the critical thinking processes involved.

Later Neolithic pot

The pattern that has emerged within Nacho and Paul’s production process doesn’t seem to reflect this approach though, in that we do the same thing every time. First we make a pinch pot, then we make a coil pot, then we add the designs. Shape and pattern are provided for us in the form of illustrations mainly derived from the publications of Alex Gibson. Shape and pattern are afterthoughts not related in any meaningful way with production process. The participant can take their pick as to which method they want to use to produce each or any vessel from each or any period.

Coiling

When handling pots from the previous firing it slowly occurred to me that if the Early Neolithic pots had round bases because people were not using flat surfaces, then the coiling method we were using (which needs a large flat surface) would be technologically incorrect. Conversely, if this coiling method was indeed being used in the Early Neolithic it would cast doubt upon the mobility interpretation. To me this seemed an exciting observation and one that could be productively explored experimentally. And so I discussed it with Nacho. Nacho’s approach to our workshops could be described as more ‘person centred’, providing a participant with the basic components: pinching; coiling, shapes and patterns, and letting them work through the process at their own speed to produce something approximating the desired outcome. I have sympathy with this approach, indeed I do something similar with my glass Bronze Age arrowhead workshop. However I was finding it difficult to reconcile this approach with the pottery sessions. I think because the pedagogic approach being used was not made explicit, and an archaeological integrity between method and outcome was implied. The workshops were beginning to feel (to me) a little repetitive and superficial.

I think what is actually happening is a difference between an academic and a craft person’s approach. As a practitioner Nacho places high value on the aesthetics of his finished vessel. He also refers to relevant academic texts to shape his approach and final outcome. Within our workshops he adopts the above ‘person centred’ approach to ensure each person goes home with something. All this is commendable. From my perspective as an academic and archaeologist I can’t stop myself asking questions, and I encourage our participants to do the same, encouraging them to think critically about the orthodox interpretations. I have said previously that some amazing ideas come out when this critical process is structured. Nacho lent me some Gibson texts and I have started reading about Early Neolithic pottery. The question I have to resolve is what our workshops are actually about. Working with Nacho and Paul has really opened my eyes to pottery technology. Asking questions is the process by which I develop my understanding. If we work together to find an answer to this coiling question the process of investigation will develop my own understanding but also Nacho’s technological approach. I think this may be a large part of what these workshops are for me.

Workshop at Whitworth Men’s Shed

It has taken me a while to write this post. Currently we are away in London and I am enjoying catching up with myself. There are no images to go along with the text and in many ways that reflects the experience of the workshop itself.

I first encountered a Men’s Shed last year when we went to Norfolk to visit John Lord. Karen hates paying for parking and so when we visited Norwich we walked in from the outskirts where we had parked to the centre where we were headed.

Norwich Men’s Shed is in an old industrial unit on the outskirts of the city. It looked interesting so I popped in. I found out that it is an organisation to promote social inclusion and wellbeing for older and economically disadvantaged men. This is facilitated through peer to peer practical skill sharing. Beautiful.

A few months later I found out that a friend of mine, Tony Sheppard, was running a Men’s Shed in Whitworth, just outside Rochdale. In the spirit of the project I offered to run an arrowhead making workshop for the men at the Whitworth project.

I had however an ulterior motive. I get a great deal from the making process and thought this may be an opportunity to measure a wellbeing outcome. A measured wellbeing outcome would be valuable for approaching funding bodies to develop future workshops. I (naively) thought this could be a win win. Tony was keen and so we arranged a date and I went to Whitworth.

The project comprised two organisers, about a dozen ‘men’ and a small industrial unit in the process of being refurbished by the men themselves. After a brief introduction from Tony I explained what I was about and passed around some flint and glass tools.

I propsed six weekly sessions with a wellbeing questionnaire at the beginning and the end. The wellbeing measure was something done for every activity and so really it was just the six weekly sessions that was new. The response was overwhelmingly negative.

The explanations as to why my proposal was not wanted could be debated, but that was not really for me to do. They did not need to explain to me why it was not attractive to them. Anyway, I was more interested in the overall feeling in the room.

It reminded me more than anything of being in a playground, with certain individuals making decisions and speaking for the group. Tony was frustrated because I was a guest. I was a guest and so had to take on board what was unfolding. It was really interesting.

Universities, museums and members of the public pay me money to teach them how to make stone tools. Here I couldn’t give it away.

I think the above is an accurate description of events. What follows is my conjecture as to the reasons why this interesting situation occurred, and it should be taken as conjecture.

Tony thought that we two were the only university graduates. I am 58 and almost all the men present were older than me. Some of them were skilled practitioners in their own fields, as  illustrated by the improvement work being done by them on the shed.

The same individuals who were recognised as skilled practitioners within the group seemed to also be the individuals that spoke up for the group. This suggested to me a relationship between recognised skill and leadership within the group.

Tony had not asked the men if they wanted a university person to come in and teach them a practice based skill. Both he and I had assumed making glass arrowheads would be of interest. It was a mistake to not include any of the men in that initial descision making process.

I think skilled older men with unofficial positions of authority within a group may resent not being consulted. Especially about a university person coming into their space and exercising ‘expertise’ upon them.

It made me think about how male identities and within-group status can be constructed through skilled practice. Conversely, how trying out a new practice and not being so skilled could be threatening to status and identity.

the nub of resistance coalesced around the commitment to doing six weeks of something they saw as having little value. I agreed to return the following week and do a taster session with a few of the men.

The following week I worked through the arrowhead process with five men, whilst another six or so observed from the sidelines whilst playing dominos. And it went well.

I want to work with Tony and in a wellbeing context in the future. However, the key here is how our assumptions were wrong, creating a context that was hostile, and suggesting interesting relationships between skilled practice and male status and identity. All that has been percolating for the past few months!

 

Talk at the Water Street Gallery

I have said in a previous post that I have some very talented friends. Pete Yankowski has taken part in, and photographed a number of our workshops, and on the back of that invited Nacho, Paul and myself to contribute to his (excellent) Ancestors Awakening exhibition. The exhibition was hosted at the Water Street Gallery in Todmorden and I displayed a number of artefacts illustrating the theme of exploring materials.

Rosemary, the gallery owner, was kind enough to invite myself, and medical herbalist, Edwina Staniforth, to each give a talk providing some context to the works in the exhibition. Edwina’s talk was about the Birch tree, and as a pioneer species, the properties and qualities that may have been valued by people in the past.

My own talk was in two parts. The first part looked at the history of archaeology, examining how stone tools have been used to shape a series of different narratives about the past, and therefore a series of different pasts.

The second part was reflective, exploring how learning to make stone tools has shaped me and my experience of the world. From one of commodities and things, towards a world of materials and their agency.

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When organising any kind of activity, I make sure it is the kind of thing I would love to go to. Consequently, I took with me two items from our teaching / handling collection: a Lower Palaeolithic handaxe and Middle Palaeolithic Levallois core and flake.

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I never underestimate the value and privilege of being able to handle artefacts from our deep past. The audience was actively engaged throughout, and based upon feedback, both talks went well. However, I think that for most participants having the opportunity to handle actual Palaeolithic artefacts was the real highlight. As it would have been for me.

Mesolithic Star Carr type shale pendant workshop: a medium sized photo essay

I was planning to just present the photographs because as usual Pete Yankowski has done an excellent job of recording the event. However, when laying them out I thought it may be of interest to say a little about how the workshops are organised and explaining what I have learned from this process. I have done half day and full day workshops at the Old Abbey, and I have found a half day four hour workshop works for the pub, as well as myself and most participants. Quite often the workshops are collaborative, and this time I was directing the pendant making, and Edwina Staniforth making willow bast cordage for the pendant. The workshops always start out with an introduction to the topic. The periodisation of prehistory, and the concept of understanding the past through objects can be alien to many people. Consequently I use this section to explain these ideas and sow the seed that by making an artefact we can also use this active process to learn something about people in the past. Discussing this together at the end can enrich both our own, and everyone else’s understanding of the past. I end the introductory session by presenting us all with a research question, to keep in mind throughout the making process: “what (if anything) can experimental archaeology tell us about people in the past?” I overran by 15 minutes and then Edwina explained the processes she had already completed to get the willow bast to a stage that it could be worked on the day. 15

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And then we went outside. Rachele Evaarooa and Craig Thomas from the Old Abbey have been fundamental for me getting these workshops up and running. As well as providing encouragement they also provide me with the space to host them free of charge. The external space is an old cobbled road with an awning protecting us from both the sun, and the rain. On this occasion it provided us with shade on what was a beautiful warm and sunny Saturday. The group was split into two, so that as one group produced the cordage, the other group could make the pendants. We would have a break for half an hour at 3pm, and the the groups changed tasks meaning everyone got to do both activities.

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Making the cordage was a more complex process than making the pendant. Consequently, Edwina ended up completing a couple of people’s cords so that they could hang their pendants at the end of the workshop. By contrast, the pendant making needed minimal instruction and people were off! The shale pebbles had been collected by Rina Srabonian, Karen Buckley and myself from Runswick Bay north of Whitby the week before. The main task was to find a pebble thick enough to not break, but thin enough to be able to drill through successfully. They all aced it.

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I had produced twenty or so flint drills to make the hole. These were made from waste flakes from the wheelbarrow full of debris generated from our knapping experiments. As drills they work really well.

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We had looked at the Star Carr pendant design in the introduction, but it was really interesting to see how people engaged with the tools and materials to develop their own designs. I would say the group as a whole were confident in their artistic abilities and at least one of them was an experienced jewellery maker.

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The above photograph is of a worn down flint drill after being used for making a series of holes and engravings. I have talked about it in another post but the best bit for me is where we share with each other our experience of the process and attempt to answer the original research question. It is important to me that we create a conducive environment for people to contribute, and I encourage everyone to do so. I am terrible with names and so we all have name badges which helps me to facilitate this process.

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Anyway, the results. After everyone had combined their cordage with their pendants Pete arranged them to take some pics. This brought the two groups of makers together and gave everyone a chance to chat informally to everyone else. We all had something in common, and it seemed we all had something to say. One thing I am learning from these workshops is how this overall process creates community. Archaeology is an inherently interesting subject and a group of people coming together to engage in process and discussion seems to really work well.

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And of course we all had something to wear! Post workshop feedback suggests the willow cordage is too abrasive to wear next to skin. Edwina chose willow bast because it is the appropriate material for this time of year, however there are other forms of cordage that would be less abrasive, but not available yet.

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Anyway, the only person not in the photographs is Pete Yankowski, so here is one of him, and a link to his website. Enjoy!

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Between a motorway and a Mesolithic place

Today I spent the morning with my friend Stephen Poole at Windy Hill, just above junction 22 of the M62 near Rochdale. We went to have a look at a spur just above the valley bottom, however we had a wander around first. We started out at the test pits we excavated last summer. Stephen along with Richard Blakeley and Brian Howcroft carried on after the University of Manchester dig finished. I had not been back and so Stephen updated me on their Mesolithic finds and his current thoughts. After that Windy Hill farm, or the remains of, was second on the list. This is an image of the farm from a 1925 copy of the Rochdale Observer.

This is a photograph of the farmhouse doorway today. Until recently there was a second lintel above the doorway and facing outwards with the letters WJM 1687 carved into it. That has disappeared.

I also learned a little about building terminology. For example this chamfered stone in the middle of the window is called a mullion.

Some of the windows still had evidence of how glass was cemented into the frame.

The next word I learnt was ‘quoins’. Here is a photograph of some quoins in action, holding the structure of the wall together.

Because the quoins are integrated into the stonework on the right the wall on the left seems to have been added at a later date.

After rummaging around what remains of Windy Hill Farm we headed down into the valley. The valley separates the M62 from the farmhouse, and behind the farmhouse our test-pits.

Next on the agenda was this bend in the stream. Over many millennia the stream running through the valley bottom has cut through the original land surface. The result is an amazing stratigraphic section.

Anyway, it was starting to spit and we still hadn’t got to the spur we had come to look at. Stephen has a theory that flat spurs close to the water may have been useful locations for hide processing during the Mesolithic. He has found lithic scatters on similar spurs locally, consequently we are looking at doing some surveying and test pitting in a couple of months time.

Stephen scrapped away a small section and the – peat, mineral soil, fragmented sandstone natural – sequence seems to be the same as on the ridge above. After that we legged it back to the cars and then went to a cafe.

I didn’t make anything, apart from the journey, but I did learn quite a lot from Stephen, who has literally decades of experience of the area. On that basis I feel it is ok to shoehorn my mini review into this blog