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.

IMG_0201

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.

IMG_0224

IMG_0228

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.

IMG_0237

IMG_0245

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.

IMG_0259

IMG_0266

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

IMG_0285

IMG_0286

IMG_0290

IMG_0300

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.

IMG_0308

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

IMG_0328

IMG_0349

IMG_0357

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.

IMG_0365

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.

IMG_0377

IMG_0379

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

IMG_0384

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.

IMG_0401

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

Advertisements

Experimental Archaeology Student Symposium, University of Newcastle, September 2018

Two weekends ago I drove up to Newcastle to take part in the excellent Experimental Archaeology Student Symposium (EAStS). I was giving a paper based upon my own current preoccupation, Learning Through Making, and I had offered to run my Bronze Age arrowhead workshop the following day at the (equally brilliant) Jarrow Hall Museum. The idea was that on the Saturday they would get the theory, and on the Sunday experience the practice. My paper was titled Learning Through Making: an active research framework and what follows is the abstract for that paper followed by a review of the Sunday workshop by Amber Roy on behalf of all the EAStS folks who took part.

newcastle 9

Abstract: It can be difficult to grasp the technology and terminology associated with the production of stone tools. Having completed a higher degree that included a large component of lithic analysis, I can say that my own understandings really developed after actually learning how to make stone tools. Whilst it took me a number of years to produce an arrowhead I can now teach a beginner the process within four hours. To do so I have done two things: broken the process down into component parts; and situated these component parts within a learning model. In relation to component parts, by controlling the type of artefact produced, and the materials and tools used, a series of predictable problems can be managed within the four hours. The result is that everyone takes home something approaching a Bronze Age barb and tang arrowhead.

newcastle 1

But actually everyone takes home the experience of using a hard stone and soft antler hammer and a copper pressure flaker. This in turn allows recognition of the function of each approach and differing types of debitage generated by each. This makes practical sense of the technological models and terminology generally used to discuss archaeological lithic artefacts.

newcastle 2

However, this is only half the story. I have found Kolb’s four stage learning cycle useful for thinking about learning as ‘process’ rather than ‘event’. Creating time within the four hour workshop for the student to reflect upon their learning outcomes allows them to formulate new research questions regarding the technological processes. Explaining how to access materials and tools means that students can use their practical experience to generate new data to answer these new questions. In this way ‘Learning Through Making’ provides an active research framework for a self directed exploration of stone tool technologies.

newcastle 3

Review: On Sunday 28th September 2018 after the Experimental Archaeology Student Symposium (EAStS) one of our speakers, John Pripani, held a glass knapping workshop for us at Jarrow Hall Anglo Saxon Farm. The day before John had given a paper which comprised a description of his learning journey from novice to instructor, and the insights this offered for his teaching approach and our learning how to knap. As a group we were excited enough to give it a go the next day.

newcastle 14

The feedback from the group was positive and it was clear we all took a great deal away from this workshop. By the end of it we could knap! But, more than that, we learnt how to work the material, an understanding had developed for how this material flaked. With John’s demonstrations and guidance we knew what actions and materials, stone, antler or copper, to use in order to create the forms we wanted. And Hey Presto! We made arrowheads out of glass bottles!

newcastle 13

The whole group successfully learnt knapping and pressure flaking techniques, and this resulted in a knapped glass arrowhead from each one of us. Many of  the group had previously found flint knapping very difficult. But, with guidance, we were able to understand how the material behaved and the types of pressure and bodily actions needed to remove flakes. We learnt that we could knap, and we also learnt that we could develop our practice on many different materials, such as glass and bathroom ceramic, which behave in similar ways to flint. Many of us are now sourcing materials to continue to build on the skills that John helped us develop during this workshop. ‘Learning Through Making’ really works!

newcastle 10

I would like to express my thanks to the organisers and all the people who took part in both days. It was great. In particular I would like to thank Victoria Lucas for facilitating the workshop, Amber Roy for putting together this review, and Marco Romeo Pitone, as I still owe him £4 from the car parking 🙂

newcastle 12

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.

40

41

2

4

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.

 

 

65

36

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.

 

61

 

 

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.

21

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

38

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

1

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

7

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.

keith

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.

 

 

 

The crunch of crushing platforms

Overnight I have gained some insight. As I said in the last post I have now mastered the production of leaf shaped arrowheads on flint flakes and can make them relatively quickly. I have also gone on in previous posts about the function of platforms for avoiding crushing and shock absorption, which compromise the blow or pressure. The crunching sound associated with that is what the title of this post refers to. These particular insights have come from working predominantly bottle bases, where systematic thinning is necessary throughout, and a crushed platform leads to thick edges that resist flaking. In the ‘bottle bottom world’ crushed platforms are a pain.

DSC_1020

When I visited John Lord he made a leaf shaped point from a flake of rock crystal. The flake he struck had quite a large bulb and didn’t look ideal for much to my amateur eye. The main thing to emphasise is that the flake had a largish bulb and was overall relatively thin.

DSC_1024

As you can see from the photograph above, from where I was sitting you couldn’t see much. What I heard was two things: some good pressure flaked removals; but also a lot of crunching. This is the sound I associate with crushed platforms, and consequently I didn’t hold out much hope for the end result.

DSC_1031

I was however proved entirely wrong. As I said at the beginning, and if I were to review the order of my posts, my focus and progress on leaf shaped points has been good since sitting down with John. I also semi-observed myself making that same crunching sound when working flakes yesterday. Flakes are formally different to bottle bases in that much of the flake is thin and I now understand needs ‘crunching’ into shape. The crunching sound relates to the crushing of thin sections of flint, but with a flake this can be a useful strategy for rapid shaping when the flake is already thin enough. The really interesting thing is that I learnt that in Norfolk some weeks ago, and applied it yesterday in Manchester. However, this process occurred unconsciously. I was provided with the audio data by John and it was duly logged and interpreted (incorrectly). However, through a process of making on flakes that same data was marshalled unconsciously into an experiment I didn’t even know I was doing. The results were incorporated into my new method, and then overnight I gained an insight into the process that had been going on all along below the surface.

There is a whole field of philosophy that rejects the mind body dualism, one that I definitely subscribe to. However, it is easy to ‘think’ about what needs doing (my piles of paper and jobs that still need doing!) and in the process override the more subtle processes that are going on under the surface. I suppose what I am drawing out here is that whilst I intellectually agree with the idea that we should reject the idea of a separate intellect, putting that idea into practice involves creating space to let ourselves process what is happening. Perhaps the term or concept of idea is unhelpful? In a social world which values ‘efficiency’ a process of allowing things to percolate, and giving time to play with things can sometimes be difficult. It can run counter to what our family, friends and colleagues expect from us. Anyway, it is now 9.40am and I need to be getting on 🙂

Reflecting upon my Bronze Age arrowhead workshop

screenshot-2018-05-15-22-32-32.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My best barb and tang arrowhead made from a flint flake

_20180507_194409

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

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

DSC_1282

Bronze Age arrowhead workshop: the sequel

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

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