Yesterday Paul sent me this photograph. I emailed him back to say “not just us then!”. I assumed it was a ceramics magazine with an article on the Dolni Vestonice figurine.
I asked him if there was a relevant article and he said that he hadn’t explained clearly.
This was the figurine he had made on Sunday, simply photographed on a ceramics text book. I struggled to comprehend as this figurine looked formally different to the one I had seen and photographed on Sunday.
Plus which, the finish was very different. Apparently, after our Sunday session Paul took his figurine home and removed probably one third of its mass to make it correspond formally and size wise to that of the original.
He then burnished the complete thing using a small smooth pebble. The back of a teaspoon was used for the hard to reach bits.
Above is a photo of my fired figurine, and Paul’s burnished pre-fired version. I am really blown away by Paul’s rendition, it is brilliant. Again, my intuition was right, that Paul and Juan have the skills and aesthetic to do justice to the Dolni Vestonice figurine. I wasn’t prepared though for the impact of the results. Perhaps it is because I made one myself and know and understand the degree of skilled practice that is involved. Really great stuff. They are both helping us out at Manchester next week with an experimental archaeology session. They need to bring these in as well. Chantal Conneller, who is organising the session, and a Palaeolithic specialist, will be really excited to see these figurines.
I asked both Juan and Paul if they would apply themselves to the task of producing a ‘Venus’ figurine each, as I thought they would be able to do it more justice than I had. My figurine came out well from the firing and we had some clay and bone mix left, and so I went round on Sunday and both Paul and Juan had a go.
The photographs and measurements we used for reference purposes are from the Don’s Maps website, and below is the lovely figurine produced by Juan.
Correspondingly, this is the example produced by Paul. My intuition was correct in that they have both produced skillful and beautiful interpretations. Juan has suggested burnishing the figurines before firing in order to emulate the shiny surface seen on the archaeological example.
All in all it took about one hour. As we have used the same clay and bone mix these figurines should fare well within the fire pit. This leads to the logical conclusion that we need to have another fire pit social at some point in the near future. C’est la guerre.
Last night I spent the evening with Nacho and Paul, families and friends, taking part in their pot firing ceremony. It was a lovely evening and again I learned a lot about the ceramic process. Below is a picture of Paul and Nacho, the proud parents! These pots have been air drying for two weeks with the aim of reducing the moisture content before firing. This concern with the amount of moisture is a theme that ran through most of the activities throughout the evening.
After getting the fire going the pots were laid out around the fire, mouth facing the fire. This is because the base can contain a lot of moisture and a rapid change in temperature can lead to the water cracking the base. This placement is to acclimatise the pots to the heat gently. The sawdust is to stop damp from the ground leaching into the pots, and it also allows a precise placement of the pot.
Once in place the pots are turned regularly in order to make sure drying is even.
At the critical stage (when Nacho says so!) the pots are reversed and the now warm pots can have their bases exposed to the heat more directly.
As the evening progressed the pots were frequently rotated and moved closer to the fire. At the same time the ashes were dragged outwards from the fire and moved closer to the pots. These were all strategies to gradually increase the temperature and ensure that all aspects of the pot are exposed to the heat. The underlying fear was ‘thermal shock’, the pot experiencing a sharp increase in temperature and then cracking. Gradually the pots were moved into the hot ashes. Second photograph bottom right you can see my ‘Venus’ figurine nestled in its bed of ashes.
And then we placed wood atop the pots and ashes. This part caused both Nacho and Paul a lot of stress because the fire caught quite quickly and the temperature seemed to increase rapidly. They were fearing that the pots would ‘pop’, which would have been bad. All the actions were aimed at facilitating a smooth evaporation of the water within the pots.
We started at 6pm and I left at 11pm with Paul and Nacho still sitting around the fire, monitoring. There were nine pots and my figurine and they had both invested a lot of time, effort and skill in these nine urns and beakers. Consequently, they paid due care and concern to try and ensure that this stage of the process progressed smoothly. Nacho said how prehistoric ceramicists would have known their materials intimately and therefore would have been able to act more confidently and directly. This experiment was however the process whereby these two were getting to know their materials. I had an email this evening to say that they had mixed results: the red marl from Frodsham didn’t cope well and the pots cracked; the clay from Athol Rd on the other hand came out well. Apparently the ‘Venus’ looks great. Photos soon then!
My plan of making one point per day has not gone well, however, I have had some tangential and enjoyable making activities going on. A friend, Nacho, who is a potter asked me about prehistoric urns and beakers, a subject I know little about. He is interested in following the archaeologically understood methods in order to produce his urns, from gathering the clay locally, through to a social open firing event. We have spent a couple of days together now, sharing ideas and I have learnt a lot about ceramic technology in that time. As I am not an urn or beaker person (currently!) I wanted to make a ‘Venus’ figurine, an example of the first known ceramic technology. My muse was a black figurine from a site called Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic. The original was made from yellow clay and burnt mammoth bone around 25,000 years ago. What follows is a not so short photo essay.
The ‘clay mine’, a soil pipe trench on Athol Road in Whalley Range, Manchester. The clay is really plastic and the photograph was taken after inclusions had been removed.
Nacho making a small pit fire to burn the bone. Not a mammoth bone but taken off the dog, source unknown.
Using a hammer-stone to crush the bone and make a horrible smelling bone powder.
Estimating the clay to bone ratio, and Nacho ‘wedging’ the two together. The aim is to get an even dispersal and consistency.
The clay and bone mixed together, and my first attempt at a ‘Venus’ of Dolni Vestonice.
The figurine has to now slowly dry before it will be fired in the open pit in a couple of weeks. I have plenty of clay left and can in theory have a bit more of a play. I am both pleased with my first attempt and surprised at how crude it is. Nacho had a little go whilst I was at his house and it was clear he had much better control over the material even though he was only demonstrating. I think as well as his skill, he also had the materials at a wetter consistency than I did this evening. I suspect the clay has dried out a little over the two days I have had it sitting here in its unsealed plastic bag. I am going to ask Nacho to make one as well as I think he may be able to do justice to the original.