‘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/

 

 

 

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Wow

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.

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I asked him if there was a relevant article and he said that he hadn’t explained clearly.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Paul and Juan produce two new ‘Venus’ 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.

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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.

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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.

 

Bronze Age pot firing and social!

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.

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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.

warming the bases

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.

Pots plus more wood

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!

Reports of my one point per day have been greatly exaggerated

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.

 

venus and ruler

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.