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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Mesolithic ‘pendant’ workshop: my thoughts

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The most recent Old Abbey workshop focused upon making willow bast cordage and a Mesolithic Star Carr type shale pendant (see above GIF by Colleen Morgan). The idea was a development of cordage making activities from the experimental archaeology group at Manchester, as well as the pendant making activity from this years Material Culture module organised by Nick Overton.

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Edwina Staniforth was running the cordage making activity, and introduced a new ‘community’ of women to the Learning Through Making workshop. I was surprised at how differently this group approached the pendant decoration, compared to the undergraduate students who completed the same activity a month or so earlier.

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Above is a pendant made by Catherine O’Doherty, a third year student at Manchester. The engraving is more similar to the original Star Carr pendant. The following photograph is of Carolyn Quinn’s pendant and shows how the process and material have been explored differently to produce deeper gouges and a curvilinear pattern.

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What struck me about the above example is how the hole has been integrated into the design. This is in contrast to Catherine’s example, where the hole is made specifically to suspend the pendant, whilst the pattern decorates the pendant. It then occurred to me that if the hole is actually part of the design on the original object we may be imposing the idea of a pendant onto something that comprises a pattern and hole.

This was exciting to me because the University of York have completed a lot of work on the pendant, but did not find any convincing use wear to suggest it had been worn for any length of time, or at all. At that point lots of ideas started to present themselves, but the key point I want to focus on is my assumption that the object in question was a pendant as we understand them. This assumption had excluded any further consideration of what the original object was to the Mesolithic maker.

My most recent workshops have been really presenting me with food for thought, and this is directly related to engagement with communities beyond the academic. This post is brief as I hope to have one of the participants write about their experience of the workshop, and include Pete Yankowski’s excellent photographs. However, and to conclude, I am finding these workshops to be febrile environments, allowing  the exploration of archaeological artefacts and processes from new and exciting directions.

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The GIF was produced by Colleen Morgan and taken from the Star Carr website: http://www.starcarr.com/pendant.html

This is the paper documenting the pendant analysis and interpretation: http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue40/8/index.html

 

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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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/

 

 

 

Thinking about materials differently: workshop at the National Permaculture Convergence in Manchester, September 2018

This is a short review of my workshop for the people at the National Permaculture Convergence last weekend. What follows is the abstract from the event, some feedback from participants, and my own acknowledgements.

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We live in a material world that is structured around the consumption of resources. Being brought up in a modern and western society means it can be difficult to see how this could ever have been different. However, there were, and still are, many different and more sustainable world views and ways of life on offer. Choosing to view the world differently inevitably leads to experiencing the commonplace differently. Things, their meanings and value can then change before our very eyes. It is possible to find excitement, creativity and meaning within the previously mundane.

 

 

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Australian aboriginal Kimberley points are glass spearheads and knives produced from the mid 1800s to the 1980s from old glass and ceramic bottles. They are the direct result of an interaction between western homestead building and sheep farming colonisers and the mobile and indigenous population. The aboriginals adapted coloniser rubbish to develop their own material culture in occult and incredible ways. One example of this is the Kimberley point. In turn the colonisers began to desire these aboriginal artefacts as new and exotic commodities. Consequently, most large British museums have collections of Kimberley points within their stores.

 

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These glass points are more than commodities, and the skilled practice of making them is part of a transformatory process, not just of the glass bottle, but of the individual doing the producing. The making of them opens us up to a new understanding of the potentialities of our material worlds. Commoditisation of the end product literally misses the point. This workshop is designed to lead you through ethnographically recorded processes used by aboriginals to make Kimberley points. Making a glass point like these is a highly skilled practice and four hours is a short amount of time. However, four hours is enough time to grasp how the application of a skilled practice can open up a new world of excitement, creativity and meanings through the repurposing of what could be seen as rubbish. As I am not Australian, aboriginal or from the Kimberley region the points we will be making should be termed Manchester points. We do however have the Kimberley folk to thanks for providing us with a way of exploring and understanding our own world differently.

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Amazing, best workshop I have done in ages and I have done a lot. Great pace and knowledge. Thanks so much“.

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Loved your attention to each of us, your positive encouragement and practical support

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Brilliant workshop, well explained and really enjoyable. Thank you“.

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My thanks to everyone who took part in this four hour workshop. I really enjoyed it and I think everyone else did as well. Thanks as well to Dan who organised the convergence for giving me the space to run the workshop.

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And a special thanks to my friend Keith Reynolds. He selflessly helped me set up, took all the photographs, garnered the feedback, and then helped me pack it all away again. Much appreciated mate.

 

 

 

Solutrean points from bathroom ceramic

It has been a while and that lack of knapping has taken me back a few stages, or so it feels. For unknown reasons, probably related to tidying up the back yard, I have started playing with the plenty of bathroom ceramic I have now neatly stacked on top of my wood store. I have said elsewhere how my soft hammer work is possibly my weakest area at the moment.

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Working with this material is therefore interesting. Using a hard hammer I have had lots of problems, but primarily endshock. I noticed on a Youtube video someone using antler to thin some of this material successfully, and so I have been playing with the same.

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I used a heavy and light antler hammer to bifacially work this piece. I was surprised at how well the material responded and worked with the heavy antler. Ultimately that was almost all I used. I have developed a new variation of the Metin Erin resting arm on knee method. I hold the piece of material being knapped out now, rather than resting it on my leg. This works better.

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You can see on the floor the two antler hammers used. I did a little hard hammer at the beginning before abandoning it. This is my second attempt and the heavy antler hammer has opened up new possibilities. I was sticking with the light hammer, partly because I like it, and partly because I was worried about endshock with a heavier hammer. However, the antler seems to work well with the ceramic and the heavy hammer is obviously the right tool. I should say that the ceramic is quite thick, over 12mm.

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I think I know about Solutrean points, but I am going to familiarise myself with them before I write the next post on these artefacts. Above are the reference books I keep on my shelf. There is also an excellent paper by Anthony Sinclair at Liverpool called Constellations of Knowledge (downloadable here) about the social implications of these points. I now have a new theme!