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.

Early Neolithic pot

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.

Later Neolithic pot

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.


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.


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.

nacho turning and placing

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.