Experimental Archaeology Student Symposium (EAStS) contribution: experimental archaeology, public engagement, iterative learning

Whilst you are attending the second EAStS get together I will be running a Mesolithic pendant workshop in Manchester. Consequently I am unable to take part directly in the Saturday session. I would however like to contribute to the dialogue in the form of this blog post. This post constitutes a version of what would have been my 15 minute PPT, and the theme is that of ‘iterative learning’ when working with other making specialists in an experimental archaeology / public engagement context. I have discussed before how experimental archaeology can play a valuable role in both teaching and learning. Much of my understanding has come from developing and running experimental archaeology workshops for the public. Positioning myself as an academic I argue that by developing a collaborative approach with both crafts people and members of the public we can all gain valuable insights from the experimental process.

Learning Through Making

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Learning Through Making is the term I use to frame the approach I am developing, primarily to facilitate my own learning but also, through this blog and workshops, to share that process. Having gained a higher degree that involved a significant component of stone tool analysis I can say that my understanding really developed once I started making stone tools. Formalising and sharing my own learning process has proved to be a useful teaching approach, and I am currently developing this through a series of five workshops. A number of elements have fed into this series of workshops and I will summarise them here. As a visiting lecturer at the University of Chester teaching undergraduate prehistory modules, it is clear that whilst thematic lectures are valuable, they do not help students grasp chronology. I am also the archaeology technician at the University of Manchester and can see how within the humanities, funding opportunities for experimental projects has significantly reduced. Paradoxically, public engagement activities and social media presence is seen by our department as de rigour. Finally, through a series of public engagement ‘experiments’ it is clear that an appetite for archaeologically themed activities is alive and well. Having tested the waters I can say that public engagement in the form of experimental archaeology making workshops is popular, and I would argue financially sustainable. Furthermore, by stepping outside of the academic milieu they provide experimental archaeology with a valuable source of new questions and interpretations.

Financially sustainable?

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The sessions I am running are half day workshops. Having tried full day (exhausting) and half day (enjoyable) workshops on a ‘pay as you feel’ basis around £20 per person was the average contribution for both full days and half days. Half days therefore work best financially and I also think for the engagement levels of the participant. Working with another specialist we usually get around fifteen people and come away with perhaps £100 each after covering miscellaneous costs. This simply provides enough to make it worth while for the practitioners and the venue, and in that respect can be reproduced and developed without external funding sources.

Periodisation

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I design and run the kinds of workshops I would love to go to, if I didn’t have the curse (I direct you to the recent UCU strikes focused upon gender pay imbalance and precarity) but also the privilege of working within archaeology. The chronologically ordered workshops run from: Palaeolithic Dolni Vestonice ‘venus’ figurine; Mesolithic Star Carr pendant; Neolithic Grooved Ware pot; Bronze Age barb and tang arrowhead. To cover this range of materials and practices I work with other making specialists. Along with an experimental potter we also run a fifth and final pit firing workshop, for the figurine, the Grooved Ware pot, and as a really lovely bonding experience for all participants. As a strategy for grasping chronology participants get to literally work through the prehistoric periods.

Interpretations

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Each workshop begins with a short introductory Powerpoint presenting the temporal and geographical context as well as key debates and interpretations. This is a foundation for introducing a research question to the participants: “what, if anything, can experimental archaeology tell us about past people and processes?” I include a reflective section at the end of each workshop so that each person has the chance to present an answer to the research question. For me this collaborative discussion is the best part of the workshops.  Experimental archaeology is used here to provide participants with a structured process that can facilitate engagement and generate questions that can lead to further understandings.

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As an example, during the Palaeolithic session one of the potters, Paul Thomas, illustrated how by squeezing the clay the ‘Venus’ figurine shape emerged automatically. This presented me (a Palaeolithic specialist) with a new insight into how the form of the human hand and the material conspire to allow a figurine to emerge. The materials and the human hand are all very intimately linked within this particular figurine. In the discussion at the end this emergent process was developed by one of the participants, whose sister was at that very time waiting to give birth. She saw the making of the figurine and the making of the child as related processes, and interpreted a pregnant mother as being the past person who made the original. Another participant described this poetically as “ideokinetic instruction in modelling a changing body“.

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A second example comes from the Mesolithic session. This workshop has been taken directly from part of an undergraduate module at Manchester. When our archaeology students reproduced the Star Carr pendant they followed closely the design on the original. In other words they worked hard to create a reproduction. The subsequent public session had a number of experienced crafts people on board and the confidence level felt higher. One woman produced a fantastic curvilinear design with the hole integrated into the pattern. Whilst not at all Mesolithic in design, it introduced the idea that the hole in the original was not necessarily for suspension, and the original object may not have actually been a pendant. Indeed no use wear could be found on the original and this for me opened up a whole range of new questions and observations about our modern assumptions.

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A final example comes from the series of Neolithic sessions we have run. In them we have made early round based and later flat based pots, but for each session (and the Bronze Age beaker session) we used exactly the same coiling method. Early round based pots are thought to reflect a still mobile population, with rounded bases resting more easily on broken ground. If this interpretation was correct then our coiling method for early Neolithic pots was incorrect as it was necessary to use a large flat surface. I have discussed this issue in depth, but in short, it highlighted that an academic and craft persons perspective can be at odds with each other. Recognition of this has opened up for us new ways of making and therefore understanding and ultimately teaching. Indeed, the potter, Juan Ignacio Jiménez is now exploring and enhancing his skills with the hand coiling method as this would seem to be more appropriate for mobile peoples and Early Neolithic round based pots.

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Conclusions

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As an academic I have learnt a lot from these experimental sessions, working with both crafts people and members of the public. It would be easy to believe that as the workshop facilitators we are the subject and practice educators, and participants the empty vessels waiting to be filled with our knowledge. It doesn’t work at all like that. Certainly, working alongside skilled practitioners can educate and open our eyes to aspects of past process. In turn a critical approach to a skilled practitioner’s methods can open their eyes to the differences between their own, and past processes. So far, so good. However, some key insights have emerged from a reflective component integrated into the sessions. This encourages and values participant ideas and experience, and in turn opened me up to radically new interpretations of these objects. In summary, subject specialists and production specialists working on experimental archaeology projects within a public engagement context provides a rich and febrile environment for all of us. It provides a venue for iterative learning.

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Thanks to my collaborators: experimental potters Juan Ignacio Jiménez and Paul Thomas, medical herbalist and cordage maker Edwina Staniforth, photographer and artist Pete Yankowski, and also Rachele Evaroa for support and encouragement and providing a venue to develop and host these activities.

 

Fussell’s Lodge Long Barrow

I am currently teaching a module at Chester dealing with the different periods of British prehistory. One of my colleagues at Manchester, Julian Thomas, is a Neolithic specialist and so I asked him if he had anything detailing the building and dating of an Early Neolithic monument. Teaching about periods that are not your specialist area is actually very rewarding, it means you have to spend time researching interesting topics and knowledgeable colleagues are there to help guide the process. Anyway, Julian handed over this book.

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From my previous readings it was clear that sites like Fussell’s Lodge had developed over a number of generations, and perhaps people’s relationships to the monument had changed over that period as well. Categorising it as Early Neolithic and a Long Barrow helped students grasp period and function but I wanted to see if we as a group could penetrate these categories to get to the more interesting aspects of the monument. In their paper Serious Mortality Michael Wysocki, Alex Bayliss and Alasdair Whittle use a series of twenty seven radiocarbon results to propose a relative sequence of dates for the building of the different components of the monument. This allowed the building phases to be understood in generational time.

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Next on my list of visits was Nick Overton’s Sheep bone teaching collection. Fussell’s Lodge was rich in both human and animal remains and the depositional acts were discussed in detail in the book. I just needed to borrow some suitable material so that we could go through the process of making the depositions ourselves. Finally, the session I was teaching starts at 4pm and lasts approximately two hours. This is late in the day and the students don’t want to be listening to me for two hours. I know this because they said so in their feedback. This was couched more positively within the request for more practical activities. So, in response we were going to split up into around nine generations (or groups) and each generation would play their part in building a Fussell’s Lodge Long Barrow, between five and six o’clock, in room CML 009, on the Parkgate Campus.

First stage

The first stage was to clear some land and then build a tent like structure supported by two posts. It was within this relatively small area that a series of depositions of human bones were to be made over a series of generations.

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The next stage of construction was to build a wooden revetment that outlined the long barrow shape. This was the process that established the much larger part of the monument and was achieved with a tape, more chairs and some cooperative working.

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Once the monument was outlined depositions could begin. The human bones deposited early on were root etched, which suggested they had been dug up and relocated into the monument. Subsequent bone depositions were ‘green’ and indicate that actual bodies may have been deposited by later generations. A series of ‘generations’ of students deposited their bones within the small tent like structure of the monument. In the Neolithic this was finished off with the deposition of an ox skull. We used a sheep jaw.

Tent like structure

Then the monument was ‘sealed’ by a new pit and post (chair). Imaginary turf and flint cobbles were piled on top of the tent like structure and it was covered with an ox hide (feet attached) and left to weather for a decade or so.

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After that the final generations had to burn down the monument, and fill the wooden revetment with the imaginary soil from two parallel and imaginary trenches. The final act was to deposit some ox remains in the south ditch (sheep jaw).

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Wysocki and co. present three different possible scenarios as to the relative order of events that took place in the Neolithic. I feel that our re-enactment fell approximately somewhere close to perhaps one of them. All things considered. However, it was a success. They still had to listen to me, but the students also got to move around, crawl under chairs, handle sheep bones, and importantly grasp that Fussell’s Lodge Long Barrow was a cooperative endeavour. They also experienced the shift from depositing ‘ancestral’ remains to then human bodies with parts of oxen. They can now think about what that change in practice may have meant in the Neolithic. Discussing the process with Nick afterwards I think next time we could do a two hour session, with the first hour making the monument, and the second hour doing an eight page graphic novel of the making of the monument. This would integrate a reflective learning element to the process. Best comment of the evening: “Are we paying nine grand for this?

 

 

I’m back, and I’m getting thinner

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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.

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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.

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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.