Making a Bronze Age beaker: a short photo essay

Almost a month ago now we had our ‘make a Bronze Age beaker’ workshop at the Old Abbey Taphouse.

The two beakers above were produced by Nacho as examples for us to follow. The first has dried and is ready for firing, the second has been fired. The following photos show the coiling process discussed in the previous post. A flattened digestive biscuit sized base is produced and the the sausage like coils are then built up.

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As the coils are built up they are systematically blended together on the outside and inside to bind together and form the walls of the vessel. As you can see from the photographs, a range of approximately Bronze Age shapes emerged from this process.

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Once we had produced our Bronze Age pots the next stage was to decorate the walls with designs copied from archaeological examples. We first of all practised upon 2D shapes before going onto the pots directly.

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In the photograph below Nacho is showing how nettle cordage can be used to produce patterning on the pots.

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As I have said before, the end results are not just the finished vessels, but also the experience of the people taking part in the process.

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As ever, thanks to Pete Yankowski for the photographs: https://peteryankowski.co.uk/

 

 

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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.

Mesolithic Star Carr type shale pendant workshop: a medium sized photo essay

I was planning to just present the photographs because as usual Pete Yankowski has done an excellent job of recording the event. However, when laying them out I thought it may be of interest to say a little about how the workshops are organised and explaining what I have learned from this process. I have done half day and full day workshops at the Old Abbey, and I have found a half day four hour workshop works for the pub, as well as myself and most participants. Quite often the workshops are collaborative, and this time I was directing the pendant making, and Edwina Staniforth making willow bast cordage for the pendant. The workshops always start out with an introduction to the topic. The periodisation of prehistory, and the concept of understanding the past through objects can be alien to many people. Consequently I use this section to explain these ideas and sow the seed that by making an artefact we can also use this active process to learn something about people in the past. Discussing this together at the end can enrich both our own, and everyone else’s understanding of the past. I end the introductory session by presenting us all with a research question, to keep in mind throughout the making process: “what (if anything) can experimental archaeology tell us about people in the past?” I overran by 15 minutes and then Edwina explained the processes she had already completed to get the willow bast to a stage that it could be worked on the day. 15

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And then we went outside. Rachele Evaarooa and Craig Thomas from the Old Abbey have been fundamental for me getting these workshops up and running. As well as providing encouragement they also provide me with the space to host them free of charge. The external space is an old cobbled road with an awning protecting us from both the sun, and the rain. On this occasion it provided us with shade on what was a beautiful warm and sunny Saturday. The group was split into two, so that as one group produced the cordage, the other group could make the pendants. We would have a break for half an hour at 3pm, and the the groups changed tasks meaning everyone got to do both activities.

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Making the cordage was a more complex process than making the pendant. Consequently, Edwina ended up completing a couple of people’s cords so that they could hang their pendants at the end of the workshop. By contrast, the pendant making needed minimal instruction and people were off! The shale pebbles had been collected by Rina Srabonian, Karen Buckley and myself from Runswick Bay north of Whitby the week before. The main task was to find a pebble thick enough to not break, but thin enough to be able to drill through successfully. They all aced it.

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I had produced twenty or so flint drills to make the hole. These were made from waste flakes from the wheelbarrow full of debris generated from our knapping experiments. As drills they work really well.

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We had looked at the Star Carr pendant design in the introduction, but it was really interesting to see how people engaged with the tools and materials to develop their own designs. I would say the group as a whole were confident in their artistic abilities and at least one of them was an experienced jewellery maker.

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The above photograph is of a worn down flint drill after being used for making a series of holes and engravings. I have talked about it in another post but the best bit for me is where we share with each other our experience of the process and attempt to answer the original research question. It is important to me that we create a conducive environment for people to contribute, and I encourage everyone to do so. I am terrible with names and so we all have name badges which helps me to facilitate this process.

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Anyway, the results. After everyone had combined their cordage with their pendants Pete arranged them to take some pics. This brought the two groups of makers together and gave everyone a chance to chat informally to everyone else. We all had something in common, and it seemed we all had something to say. One thing I am learning from these workshops is how this overall process creates community. Archaeology is an inherently interesting subject and a group of people coming together to engage in process and discussion seems to really work well.

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And of course we all had something to wear! Post workshop feedback suggests the willow cordage is too abrasive to wear next to skin. Edwina chose willow bast because it is the appropriate material for this time of year, however there are other forms of cordage that would be less abrasive, but not available yet.

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Anyway, the only person not in the photographs is Pete Yankowski, so here is one of him, and a link to his website. Enjoy!

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.