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.

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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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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Learning (slowly) about gum

About a week ago I bought a multi-pack of Mint flavour sugar free chewing gum and chewed just over one packet worth. I then packed it into the slit in my handle, and inserted the blade. My assumptions about gum have been, and are still being tested. Encountering chewing gum in unexpected places, it is usually hard and stuck convincingly to something else. I assumed this was because it had dried out. Consequently I had it in my mind that once the gum dried in my knife handle the rigidity it delivered would hold the blade in place.

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One week later and the gum is still soft. I have tried a number of strategies to dry it out which include leaving it outside in the damp cold, but this didn’t work. I then left it on a radiator hoping the heat would dry it out, but the gum just became more pliable. Innovatively, I left it in the freezer for 24 hours and this did harden it up, but throughout the following day the gum became maliable again. I then left it buried in wood ash in my wood burner for three days. Because the ash is dry I thought it would draw out the moisture from the gum, but no, it is still maliable.

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I am slowly working out that I am attempting to manage two variables: temperature and moisture content. My assumption that chewing gum hardens is I think correct based upon all the bits I have found stuck to things in the past. However, I read a comment on a blog post today that stated that chewing gum would be hard at room temperature but softens as it reaches body temperature through the chewing process. If correct then it is temperature that is the key factor, but not necessarily for reducing moisture content. Perhaps moisture content is not a factor here? I have also been reading about Neanderthal birch bark tar production where the tar is ‘sweated’ out of the bark, so again heat seems to be the key factor. If correct then perhaps my chewing gum hafting is as hard as it will get at room temperature, probably a similar hardness to when I initially started chewing it. Like the famous parable that people in far northern latitudes have fifty words for snow, I think I could do here with a few more descriptors than ‘hard’ and ‘soft’.

It gets even more complicated if I introduce data into the discussion. Whilst the knife has been languishing in the ash of my wood burner I have tested it daily for moisture content with a ‘Moisture Meter’. I usually use it on wood to see if is dry enough to burn, but I have been using it on the gum and the wooden handle once a day. It indicates that the gum has more moisture than the wooden handle, and both the readings for the gum and handle are remaining pretty constant. This suggests that the gum does in fact contain moisture, and contradicts my emerging ‘plastic’ hypothesis.

Finally, there is the issue of the chewing gum found stuck to things in the outside world, and that has become hard! How does that happen? What I need is the input of a materials scientist, and funnily enough my niece Isabella is a materials scientist. She thinks that the gum outside may be oxidising and it is the oxidisation process that makes the gum become hard. So time becomes another factor in the discussion, and probably surface area as well. TBC.

Saturday night in the lab

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I ended up back in the lab on Saturday evening, inspired by the previous night’s results. I took in some undamaged cistern lids, but focused upon using larger fragments lying around from previous sessions. It was interesting because I could feel the enthusiasm taking over on this occasion, whereas the previous evening had been characterised by precise and controlled thinning. Consequently, the two new points are less refined, but are both long. I seem to be managing endshock well, and the main conscious strategy is to listen to the hits. When the point is sounding stressed I back off. I wont go into the sonic nuances but once you have destroyed a few you can begin to hear the material complain when misused. I now respond well to both sound and the visual clues available, and the reward is longer points.

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Whilst both the new points are less refined, I can say that they both have ‘character’. The first one was on a large, but curved, piece of ceramic. This presented the very same problems encountered when flattening the bases of beer bottles and so I applied the same methods. I was largely successful in a brutalist kind of way. Largely, because it is the longest of the three points, brutalist because there is lots of original surface left on the dorsal. As the photo shows, it has still retained some curvature in spite of my efforts. Removing that curvature would have reduced the length and so I have accepted one to achieve the other. I think for a knife blade this curvature is not an issue, but it may be problematic for a spear head as the longitudinal strength would be compromised.

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I know you are not supposed to have favourites, however, this is my third one of the set. This one was both intuitive and remedial. I worked away, and then adjusted when it went off piste. Consequently the longitudinal mid-line edges are wavy and very much follow the flow of the process of making. It feels like the physical result of a human material dialogue. I like it because it reminds me of some of the Kimberley points from the Manchester Museum, where the person has worked with the form of the material, rather than attempting to mechanically impose a prerequisite shape. We have started to buy ‘wonky’ fruit and veg from the supermarket, and this my wonky bi-point: long, wide, off centre and still too thick, but an enjoyable interactive process and aesthetic result non the less.

‘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/