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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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“.
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.
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.
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.
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.