Exciting times

I had a very exciting day yesterday, when a number of different elements came together and opened my eyes to a particular phenomenon. This post is about this one particular phenomenon that I will term here ‘asymmetrical flaking’, something that I find myself doing with almost every handaxe. So, what is this ‘asymetrical flaking’ phenomenon? For me it has two facets (literally): on one face a high ridge will run the length of the object but will be off centre; on the reverse face exactly the same pattern occurs. I have observed it with my own products but was surprised to see it exemplified on this Neolithic Axe produced by John Lord for Elizabeth Healey’s teaching collection.

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If we ignore the refitted flakes, the key thing to note on the above photograph is the longer flake scars on the left hand side and shorter ones on the right. The result is an off centre raised ridge running longitudinally. This equates to a shallower angle from edge to ridge on the left, and a correspondingly steeper angle on the right.

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Flip it over and the same phenomena is reproduced, although here the ridge is more sinuous. What this results in is an artefact that has a cross section similar to the sketch below.

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Important to note that with this cross section, if you are holding it in your hand and then flip it over you are presented again with the same surface topography.

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Whilst discussing this with Elizabeth I held the axe in my hand in order to illustrate the phenomena from a production perspective. What occurred was that the shallow angled section accommodated my palm perfectly. This allowed me to offer up the steeper angled face to be worked by the antler hammer. The flakes are then removed from the lower face and the steep angle allows long invasive flakes to be removed.

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Flip if over and the freshly flaked area again accommodates the palm and again presents the steeper angle to start invasive flaking.

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It is worth looking in closer detail at the flake scars on the steeper face (see above). These scars are curtailed as the bulbar scar has been removed.

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On the same edge but opposing face the longer flake scars retain more of their bulbar section. This indicates that the steep side was produced first, and then the bulbar scars were worn down by the process of removing the longer invasive flakes on the opposite face. I need to look at this more closely when I have the axe in front of me.

So what does this all mean? I am not sure, but it does illustrate a really interesting relationship between the form of the human hand, platform angles, length of removals and the production process. I have not fully digested all this yet, and may have to return to this post. However, for now that is a summary of my observations on this phenomenon. It is however, part of a larger story…

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Object style and author biography

This week I indulged in a little after hours flint knapping and made this pointy handaxe. I like it, and it bears a genetic similarity to many of the other handaxes I have made previously. This shape and form is not a blueprint I start with, but more a negotiated outcome.

Within university the concept of object biography is a current component of our undergraduate teaching. Considering the past lives of the object, and interactions that have helped to shape it over time. By its very nature, it takes the object at its present point in time and ventures backwards to reveal the objects story.

This must have been on my mind as this handaxe embodies a number of stylistic features that I can relate directly to my own biography. First of all the shape and aesthetic. For it to be a ‘result’ the acid test is that I have to like it. I have said before, I am competent at making functional tools, but I enjoy making aesthetic tools. This one chimes with my aesthetic and that is how I know it is ‘finished’.

Second up is the steep scraper retouch I have applied to the thick handle bit. Karl Lee taught me how to make a scraper, and I now use his same method to teach our students. In fact, that is what I had been doing earlier in the day, and the day before. Consequently the handle bit (if I cleaned it up) would be akin to, and could function as, a large scraper.

Finally, Because of the depth of the original flake I was using, to shape the basal section involved taking a series of long and thin removals. I was again using a ‘finger’ method learned from Karl, and with a little conscious care I could have used this process to produce bladelets. This reminded me of an observation by Damien Flas regarding an Early Upper Palaeolithic blade point from Kent’s Cavern. He recognised a series of bladelet removals from the basal section of the dorsal surface, suggesting it had also been used as a bladelet core.

The image above is a screen shot of page 207 of my PhD thesis showing the blade point in question. Observe the four removals travelling in a right to left direction on the proximal dorsal section. So the artefact aesthetic and form is clearly embedded within this author’s biography, and these aspects emerged through the process of making. This object will shortly be going on its travels, to my knapping comrade Rob Howarth. Consequently, this object biography is not ‘finished’, but has in fact only just started.

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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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

‘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/

 

 

 

More on Solutrean points and ‘Johnstone’ or bathroom ceramic

I am still playing with my first batch of this lot of ‘Johnstone’, or bathroom ceramic, and am onto my second Solutrean point. As discussed earlier, I am familiarising myself with the background to these artefacts whilst exploring this particular material affordances of bathroom ceramic. There are lots of facets that are potentially of relevance, but essentially the archaeological points are bifacially worked, with some being very long and very thin. They were produced around the time of the Last Glacial Maximum, in refugia in France, Spain and Portugal. The most impressive (and probably unusable) pieces are from a cache at a site called Volgu in France. Below is an image of actual Solutrean material from the Musee d’Archeologie Nationale in France.

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By World Imaging [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons.

These points were thinned using a soft hammer and sometimes the tips were pressure flaked. Bruce Bradley, an experimental flint knapper at the University of Exeter, has emphasised the use of an ‘overshot’ technique in thinning. This involves establishing a spur (or sticky out bit) on the edge, and then hitting that to take off a long flake that travels completely across the face. Whilst very difficult to achieve it provides an efficient method for thinning a piece. When Kim Akerman made his Roseleaf Kimberley point he did exactly this by mistake.

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The bathroom ceramic is already pre-thinned and so effectively I am starting at a late soft hammer phase of reduction. This is my most recent example, using a soft antler hammer and pressure flaking. I have not attempted the overshot technique as yet but I grasp, conceptually, how it may work.

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This is the second face, with a little step fracture island towards the centre of the piece. This would be an ideal candidate for an overshot flake to remove the remaining glazed surface.

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So the next Solutrean / Johnstone instalment will be overshot flakes. Let’s see how that goes.

Anatomy of a handaxe

.DSC_1310I am a visual person, and the above title is a reference to a film, Anatomy of a Murder. More specifically it is a reference to the poster for the film, designed by Saul Bass. This handaxe was made from a large flake, from the largest slab of Runton beach flint. I have angled it so that the step fracturing is clear. Generally speaking, step fracturing is not good. I used a soft hammer on a lot of this and the step fracturing is a result of that. I am still learning.

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This handaxe is from our teaching collection and is ‘real’, real being Lower Palaeolithic and therefore produced by someone called Homo heidelbergensis. Main thing, look at the step fracturing, it is not just me.

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If we look at the edge blunting this is largely to do with movement through an abrasive sediment, perhaps over millenia. Originally it would have been sharp like mine. The orange colour has been absorbed from the environment it has been resting in. If it were chipped again the original colour would be revealed.

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This is the poster I like, and paradoxically it illustrates what a handaxe was probably used for: dismembering a carcass. This is an interesting theme for me. I am now good enough to produce ugly functional stuff consistently, but I get satisfaction from producing the aesthetic pieces. It is definitely not an either / or situation. It does however throw light on how experimental production is used today, and of course the different ‘economic’ contexts of myself and Homo heidelbergensis.