Our wet March pit firing: a short photo essay

54E26C42-39DC-49A3-8BC5-AB8FA1DE0D94

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!

10BB74DD-3F0B-4711-B00E-B92C2F6FE2D7

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.

A2D474C2-1A79-4818-AB10-C6F0F21FC64E

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.

E45089C7-D3A7-444D-A7FD-364F6B428BAE

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.

815A696E-3AAE-42D2-B3FE-3854FEE3F1B1

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.

64B7B12E-C569-4C7B-BE55-A11788F8689E

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.

60A7AA62-1B67-4C5A-AC5F-084DC978A35C

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!

5DC67385-DE6F-471C-BFAF-2C3F9A08409D

Advertisements

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

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.

IMG_9143

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.

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.

 

 

 

August 2018 Bronze Age arrowhead workshop: a short photo essay

This was the latest workshop at the brilliant Old Abbey Taphouse. I think we all had a lovely afternoon and I get the feeling these workshops have some mileage. In other words, it’s not just me who is interested in these things.

IMG_1165

Mark, Paul and Eve’s arrowheads in that order. These are all first attempts, but the main take home is not the arrowhead, but an understanding of the complexity of apparently primitive technologies. Next month is our Neolithic Day.

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.