Our wet March pit firing: a short photo essay

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On Friday the 8th of March we had our postponed pit firing. Friday was the least wet week-end day we have had for a fortnight and so we went ahead in far from ideal conditions. This was partly because Eleanor, a student from Chester is examining the process for her dissertation, and the timing had to also fit within her academic deadlines. Anyway, spoiler alert: 99% success rate!

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After digging the pit the above photo shows the initial heating stage, to get the fire going and nurture a steady heat source.  

This initial heating dries out and warms up the soil in the pit. After heating for an hour and a half the pots could then be slowly introduced around the fire.

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Our task then was to both feed the fire, and gradually turn the pots and move them closer to the heat source. The aim of this stage was to evaporate moisture from the pots very gently.

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The fire generated hot embers and once established it was possible to rake the embers towards the pots, as well as move the pots towards the embers. These were the variables being controlled in order to facilitate a smooth heating and evaporation of moisture from the pots.

 

We had started the process at ten in the morning and at around one in the afternoon the rain started. Nacho (or rather the Met Office) had anticipated this, and so Nacho had bought two packs of aluminium foil. The cold-hearted drops of rain falling on the now heated pots presented the possibility of thermal shock, or breakage through rapid cooling. Nacho covered the pots with the foil to both protect them from the raindrops and reflect the heat from the embers back onto the pots. Although not strictly a Neolithic or Bronze Age solution, it helped us work in far from ideal conditions.

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The photograph above is of ‘the office’. We had two thermometers (one on the left courtesy of Sean Ashton) with which to monitor the internal and external temperatures. Alan (Eleanor’s dad) was charged with recording both every 20 minutes, and every time the pots were moved. Eleanor wants to compare and contrast temperature data with the subjective decision making of Paul and Nacho throughout the process.

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Once the pots were judged to be dry enough and hot enough they were introduced to the hot embers and a fire built on top of them. The fire needed to get hot enough to transform them from clay into ceramic. It was very much up to Nacho and Paul to decide at which point to start the fire and how hot and how long it should carry on for.

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The final stage for Friday occurred after 3.30pm, when Paul returned from picking up the children from school. This final stage involved covering the fire with greenery and soil to starve it of oxygen. This effectively ‘slow cooks’ the pots.

Fast forward to 10am Saturday morning, and the fire was still smoking and still pretty hot. In an ideal world Nacho would have left the pots in the ground for a couple of days, to cool slowly and naturally. Because of our deadlines we took a risk and raked off the upper surface to speed up the cooling process, had a cup of tea, and then went back to excavate and recover pots from one section only.

As you can see, in spite of the challenges the firing worked pretty well. I had to leave at 11.30am but Paul texted me later to say they had a 99% success rate. Nacho and Paul now have really good control over both the clay and its necessary processes and inclusions, as well as the pit firing variables. They fired all the pots they were given by our participants from from the Early Neolithic, Late Neolithic and Bronze Age sessions, and I think Eleanor has got some excellent material for her dissertation. Result!

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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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August 2018 Bronze Age arrowhead workshop: a short photo essay

This was the latest workshop at the brilliant Old Abbey Taphouse. I think we all had a lovely afternoon and I get the feeling these workshops have some mileage. In other words, it’s not just me who is interested in these things.

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Mark, Paul and Eve’s arrowheads in that order. These are all first attempts, but the main take home is not the arrowhead, but an understanding of the complexity of apparently primitive technologies. Next month is our Neolithic Day.

Reflecting upon my Bronze Age arrowhead workshop

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The title suggests that my workshop is about producing a Bronze Age arrowhead, but upon reflection I realise it is actually about people. The workshop went really well, so much so that I am keen to do another one soon. I received good feedback but most importantly I really enjoyed it, and I think the participants did as well. In total there were ten and a half of us. Rachele, from The Old Abbey dipped in and out, in between other pub related tasks. Of the nine participants I knew six already and three people were new to me. Interestingly, three of the participants were engineers. The day was sunny and everyone was in a good mood and the group mix was good.

I had them for four hours and I had integrated a half hour introduction explaining how stone tools have been used to structure our understanding of prehistory. This is a compressed summary of around 850,000 years of British prehistory in 30 minutes. Highlights include an Acheulean handaxe (made by me), a Bout-coupe handaxe (made by me), a blade core and blades (made by John Lord), a bladelet (made by me), Neolithic leaf shaped arrowhead and Bronze Age barb and tang arrowhead (both by me). The idea is that they can ‘handle’ their way through prehistory and it worked well. I have a day-school coming up in September and I am going to develop this section so that it is two hours and includes a Powerpoint and activity. I feel really pleased that I have produced an almost complete teaching collection in line with the historical discussion. After the main lecture bit we explored how can we develop an understanding of the stone tools themselves. One approach is through experimental archaeology, or Learning Through Making, and off we went. I introduced them to a Kimberley point (made by me) to provide a linkage between archaeological stone tool production and the ethnographic use of glass. This provided a segue into beer bottles.

Removing the base of the beer bottle using a length of wire is great, because people are amazed at how easy it is. After everyone had obtained their base I led them through hard hammer, soft hammer and pressure flaking. Without providing a blow by blow account, some people got it and others didn’t. In the middle of that bell curve sat seven people. I worked through the process in a linear sequential way starting with hard hammer and ending with pressure flaking. I may change this a little as really they need to move between the three tools on their journey through the process. The linear approach may not therefore be that useful.

It was a four hour session and based upon feedback I am going to instigate an official break in proceedings, meaning everyone would have a break at the same time. There are actually many advantages to this. First of all it gives people the chance to get to know each other a little. Secondly it provides a respite from the intense concentration that is required. Thirdly it will provide some business for the venue who kindly hosted my event free of charge. Along the same lines, a mini ‘icebreaker’ at the beginning has been suggested.

This feedback is really useful because it has highlighted to me the point mentioned at the beginning of this post. The workshop is actually about people, people who have come together in order to make a Bronze Age arrowhead. It is a social, as much as a technological process. Getting their feedback is a great reminder of this, and great way for me to think about how I can craft future workshops around the people taking part.

The best bit of feedback I received on the day was “that was really interesting. I am never going to do it again!

My thanks to Rachele for encouragement and hosting, and Brian Madden for these excellent photographs.

My best barb and tang arrowhead made from a flint flake

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I am really pleased with this one. It is the culmination of a series of themes, including the belief that flint is harder to work than glass. This is still true, but I had a very different experience of working this flint than I did with the Kilmarnock type arrowhead I made a few days ago. They were two very different kinds of flint, and this was made from a flake I had lying around in the back yard so I have no recollection as to which nodule it came from.

Anyway, I now have a set of Bronze Age arrowheads for my workshop on Saturday showing the different materials that can be used for personal practice. For me it legitimises my idea that it is not just possible, but actual, to develop knapping skills on one material and then migrate over to other ‘more archaeological’ materials. As you can see a small section of the left hand barb broke off the flint example. Whilst that should diminish the pleasure I got from making it, it doesn’t. It was simply part of the making and learning process, learning that I have reached a place that I am very happy with. I have a skill and an aesthetic that I can systematically apply to a series of materials. I also have a method to enable other people to do the same. Bringing those two aspects together is immensely satisfying for me.

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A Bronze Age ‘Kilmarnock type’ flint arrowhead

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Same procedure as the last lot, except using my metal pressure flaker on some very hard flint. Again, I selected a pre-thinned piece, a blade produced by John Lord, of which I have about thirty. I took all the thick bits off with a stone, and then pressure flaked the shape. I am using Chris Butler’s (2005) book Prehistoric Flintwork for the relevant shapes and sizes and this is a useful exercise. I am learning about the flintwork from different periods by making the stuff. This flint was particularly difficult to work. I had an obsidian preform that I reduced and that was like soft glass, easy to work. This flint felt ‘dry’ and hard to work. Even with my favourite pressure flaker my invasive thinning was limited to 7 or 8mm maximum. When making it I made sure the thick section was the point and the thinner section could be the base, and therefore easily notched. And so it transpired. I am churning about two out per day at the moment, not sure what has come over me?

 

Bronze Age arrowhead workshop: the sequel

Rachel at The Old Abbey Taphouse has been kind enough to give me the space to run a second workshop with them. Drawing upon my Pop Up Business School experience, videos attract more attention than posts with just photos, or text only. Consequently, here is my promotional video.

My friend Brian Madden edited this video for me, and pointed out how about half way through (1.09 seconds) one of my neighbours shouts out “I can’t find the chocolate“. Soon after (1.23 seconds) I can be seen eating some chocolate. Who said subliminal advertising doesn’t work.