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.

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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/

 

 

 

Learning about human flint interactions

This is a summary of a session last week at the University of Chester. I am a Visiting Lecturer at Chester and the students I was working with last week had all been in previous workshops or lectures in the past couple of years. Consequently it was lovely to catch up with them again.

The session had been organised by Barry Taylor and I had the relatively simple task of introducing everybody to the process of using a hard hammer on a nodule of flint to generate useable flakes. Everyone had a nodule, and so after a little explanation about platforms we were off.

I thought, from an instructor point of view, this may be a little simplistic and not fill out the time we had together, but I was wrong. Making platforms work for you actually involves a bit more than a conceptual understanding of them. It takes practice, conscious trial and error, and this takes time. It is and was time well spent. In fact, simply learning how to hit something in a relaxed manner is something most people are not taught, and so freeing up our bodies to hit effectively, and then accurately, was a large part of the process for many people.

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We were successful in that everyone generated some flakes. They also got an idea of how flint works, and how they need to work in order to work flint. Barry has some larger nodules on order, and the students are going to use these to generate flakes, use the flakes to work different materials, and then do use wear analysis to recognise relationships between actions, resultant use wear patterns, and different materials. As Barry pointed out, most people were modest when it came to summarising what they had learned, but this review process was useful to me.

I learned that this kind of human material interaction actually made for a very valuable and enjoyable session. The learning is packaged within an exercise that has apparently simple outcomes. Everyone was able to generate useful flakes and in doing so demonstrated a practical grasp of using platforms to break down a nodule and then generate useful flakes. I am going to run this same workshop at Manchester as I think it makes a great and enjoyable introduction. My thanks to Barry for coming up with, and organising a really enjoyable session.

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.