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!

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On quartering a glass bottle using a stone (again)

I had an enjoyable knapping session with Nick Overton this week and it has been a while since both of us sat down together. I want to organise a Kimberley Point workshop, and so my theme for the evening was to consciously work through the production process. My aim was to grasp what is practical to work through in a three hours session with a potentially new knapper. I started with a green glass bottle base and side panel from the usual source. The first step was to separate the side panel from the base.

To do so I used a length of no.8 wire to attack the inner junction of the basal section and the side of the bottle. It worked pretty well in that it took out three big sections weakening the overall integrity of the bottle. So far so good. There is absolutely an auditory component to this process and that is something I am going to explore in more detail. After the third removal the increasing thickness of the remaining glass meant that the base snapped off, taking with it a section of the side panel. The break followed a path of least resistance (and thickness) and left me with a base and curved side panel.

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I then flipped the side panel over with the dorsal (convex) surface uppermost in order to produce my blank. I used the hard hammer to produce a line of weakness and this again had aural and visual clues as to how well it was working. When I had the required line I flipped it over to expose the inner (concave) surface and struck the inside of the same line once. As you can see, it worked pretty well.

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On the close up below it is possible to see the hard hammer impact marks. The no.8 wire tool used to remove the base is in the background.

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I then proceeded to do the same thing on the other side, but with less success as it split into four pieces.

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This process is intriguing and I need more practice to get consistent results. Consequently I will probably discuss this process, but start other people off with preforms.

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Above is the resulting point from the lower section of the side panel, and below is the aboriginal example from the Manchester Museum.

MM twister

The main difference is flatness. Mine is lens shaped whilst the museum example is plano-convex, and a little more refined. The difference is subtle and qualitative, but I think boils down to the length of the removals and resultant edge angle. I am able to systematically produce points and the main areas for my own improvement are: getting longer removals; systematic hard hammer quartering. In relation to the workshop idea, I think if we use preforms then I can probably lead someone through the process in three hours.

A ‘lack of progress’ update

My one point per day is working out at one every couple of days. However, I am getting real value out of this lovely piece of glass.

Toolkit

The third point has just been finished and it is the longest. Having got two small points from the first half I split the second large fragment in two using the glass cutter and hammerstone method. It worked perfectly.

I then got work on the third point. We are on holiday and it was roughed out in a glorious 40 minutes sat in the sand dunes at Lindisfarne (Holy Island) yesterday. I spent about 40 minutes on it this morning and have just finished it this evening in the lovely garden of the youth hostel in Whitby.

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Again not perfect but I was losing width and so contented myself with symmetry in plan. Current state of play: three points and still one preform left. Last day of holiday tomorrow.

One point per day. I am an optimist

I have just finished an epic ‘negotiation’ with a lovely liquorice coloured, 10mm thick piece of period plate glass. I started it yesterday evening, and finished it this morning. The complete process falls within a 24 hour period, but that would be what is termed ‘special pleading’. I just want to do one point per session per day. The glass is really lovely and the thickness presented some real learning opportunities.

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This was the toolkit I started with. I wasn’t at home and forgot to bring my abrading stone (mistake). This morning at home I employed the abrading stone and a piece of leather to protect my hand as by then it was getting sore.

Glass cutter and hard hammer

Because the glass was exceptional I wanted to make the most of it. This meant splitting it, and to do so I used a glass cutter and then gently hard hammered along the ‘cut’. This strategic use of modern and traditional approaches resulted in two decent sized pieces. Trust in God, and tie your camel, so to speak.

Optimistic

I have been told that the experimental archaeologist Bruce Bradley draws onto the core an outline of the flake he is about to remove, and then goes on to remove it. I outlined the shape of the point I was aiming for, thereby identifying the material needing to be removed.

Actualistic

I started using the pressure flaker to remove this excess material. However, the bump visible on the bottom left was proving problematic and so I tried the hard hammer. This resulted in what is called end-shock or hitting it at one point (the bump) and it breaking at another (in the middle). On the plus side I now had two more halves to work with. I continued with the left-hand piece.

Edge preparation

This is an example of good edge preparation. The ultimate aim here is to apply deep invasive flakes to the upper face. In preparation to do so I worked along the edge of the upper face removing short flakes and creating a steep edge angle. This provides a good platform angle to then apply the desired deep invasive flakes to the upper surface. This platform preparation process can be used to simultaneously shape the piece.

Stack

However, it is not as simple as it sounds. Here I ran into problems again where the angle didn’t work and I created a lump. Whilst not exactly at this point, it was with a couple of these problems that I left the piece last night. This morning I was able to re-address these issues more patiently. To do so I had to work back to the last point where I could get a good preparatory removal, and then edge along from there. When I could go no further I would move back a little along the edge and take a large deep invasive removal out. This effectively removes a lot of supporting material and provides a negative bulb that can again be worked. Complicated to explain, and I am learning on the job so to speak. Dealing with lumps like this involves losing width.

finished point

Anyway, the net result is good. This piece embodies a lot of my learning and working out. The really beautiful museum examples are perhaps so because the working out had been done a long time before, a working out that translates into bodily understanding. Consequently, on the museum examples we see confident and systematic flaking which leads to a clean and aesthetic conclusion.

The one point per day may be a little optimistic for me. With hindsight, if I was really being goal focused  I could have chosen an easier piece of glass and started the process earlier in the day. However, this glass is beautiful and I have taken time to negotiate a lot of issues that in the past would have been the end of the road. Furthermore, the first thing I did this morning was to get outside and continue with this piece. The deadline presents a focus upon an end product, and the learning process becomes a by product of the action. However a conscious focus upon the process is where the learning and understanding occurs. I have been reading about learning theory and this ‘making’ process is what David Kolb (1984: 30) has classed as Concrete Experience. As I sit now writing this blog I am reflecting upon this Concrete Experience and engaging in Kolb’s opposing category of Reflective Observation. Reflective Observation allows me to upgrade my understanding based upon the new experiential ‘data’ acquired through paying attention within the process. Doing so allows me to develop a new Abstract Conceptualisation or road map of what I need to do in order to make a Kimberley Point. With the next Kimberley Point I make I will be able to test out the usefulness of this new and upgraded Abstract Conceptual road map to see if it helps. The testing out process Kolb terms Active Experimentation. This brief four stage description isolates what is in fact a dynamic and blurred process of human action. However, the idea and practice of producing one new point per day provides a nice 24 hour learning unit within which this four stage process can occur, again and again. A further benefit is that it seems to get me out of bed in the morning!

Kolb, D.A., 1984. Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey. Prentice-Hall Inc.

Scotch Whisky Lize Bard

I have been impressed by another blogger recently. Lize Bard is a poet and photographer, and if you follow Lize’s blog you receive a haiku every day. It has become the first thing I read of a morning and it is a lovely way to start the day. The most impressive aspect to me though is the discipline Lize demonstrates producing a new piece on a daily basis. It has inspired me to up my game and produce a new point everyday. I am not sure what I am letting myself in for here, but this is today’s.

Scotch whisky

This is the original fragment from a Scotch Whisky bottle.

Scotch WhiskeyIt is period glass again and this time a different set of problems. Although ostensibly a flat side panel it was in fact of uneven thickness. I went for length and in doing so had to manage both unusually thin and thick sections  at different points along the length of the piece. It would have perhaps been better to have gone for a shorter point with a thick base and thin tip. But I didn’t. It has worked out OK, although because of the thinness the flaking is not as punchy as on the previous point. I have also not fully removed a longitudinal curve, and to continue trying would have really reduced the width of the piece. That said I am happy with the different styles of retouch I can bring to bear to resolve the various problems encountered. So a little like myself, it is not perfect but fairly presentable. In the right light. See you tomorrow.

Material worlds

This post focuses upon the varying range of materials available to us for knapping practice. Each of these materials presents its own set of particular problems that need to be resolved in order to produce an artefact. They are in approximate chronological order in relation to my own discovery and use of them.

First of all then is an industrial ceramic used to make large diameter soil pipe. The soil pipe on the left is again from my friend Joe Curley. It may or may not be of a similar high quality to the material seen on the right that was used to make the handaxe. I will need to break into it to find out. The large fragments of the material used to make the handaxe were fantastic to work and I would love to find a source. I discovered a number of large broken fragments at Salford Quays near my home but I have now used all this found material 😦 To produce the handaxe it was mainly hard hammer with a little soft hammer finishing. The main issue with this excellent material is managing the curve. The main benefit and drawback is that it is effectively pre-thinned. You can get good results quickly, but then have to get on top of thinning when you move onto flint nodules.

Second up is bathroom ceramic or Johnstone as it is called by north American knappers. I saw this being knapped on a Youtube video a long time ago, and as soon as the soil pipe worked I started seeking out and trying this material. I was fortunate in that the University of Manchester refurbished the toilets in our building at the same time as I was looking for material. Consequently I have lots of these cisterns waiting for my attention. Some hard hammer, mainly soft hammer up to now. It is a coarse material to work and I haven’t really explored pressure flaking with it yet.

Third up is glass, my current favourite material to work. This is old glass from a tip near where I live. I think most of it is early 1900s material, thick, uneven and with bubbles. However, great to work with and has really helped me develop my pressure flaking. Modern glass is good too, if you use bottle bases. Most of the side panels are too thin.

Porcelain or high quality ceramic also works. This piece of patterned vase was from approximately the same site as the above glass and the material pressure flaked beautifully. Modern China also works but is harder to flake.

And then flint, the material most commonly used by our ancestors in Britain, mainly available in the south and east of England. This is the material I have least experience of working with because I live in the north west. It comes in nodules of varying form and being able to quarter and optimise the nodule is something I want to learn and understand. I have made a number of handaxes, but currently they all turn out pretty small. Availability of material can almost correlate directly to my relevant skill level working that material. No surprise and a fact that emphasises the importance and value of practice.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive summary. It is meant to highlight the value of looking at materials differently, recognising the qualities they embody and thinking about how those qualities can be manipulated. Each of the above examples was a small exploratory experiment, to understand the qualities of the materials in question. The accumulative result is that I have developed some good abilities using hard and soft hammer and pressure flaking. When we look at a finished artefact, and then for the first time try our hand at knapping, the results can be disheartening. The breakthrough for me was finding materials that were abundant enough so that I could make lots of mistakes, again and again. Slowly but surely things started work, but most important was the pleasurable aspects of the process. With hindsight I realise that I was playing with it. Each little experiment was less like science, and more like playtime. I am currently reading about theories of learning and want to understand why I find it such an engaging experience. What is the nature of the relationship between me and the activity? Perhaps that will be the content of a future post.

Fourth time lucky

Yesterday evening Nick Overton and myself had ourselves a marathon 4 hour knapping session. I was interested in making two more points from the remaining Camp Coffee preforms and whilst doing so we had some stimulating conversation about the nature of retouch. It has been a theme in this blog that I seem to struggle to replicate the character of the retouch seen on the museum pieces. By the time I got to my last point I think I recognised why. I produced my four points and as can be seen from the photographs below it has made a really nice narrative sequence. Finding the period material; using a stone to make the preforms; using the preforms to make the points.

nest of pointsNick is using a different Bombay Sapphire bottle glass and is focusing upon  getting a series of fully invasive removals on his first sweep. To achieve this he is taking very ‘flat’ removals off the surface of the glass by placing his pressure flaker close to the top of the platform and pushing straight in. He then uses his knee to provide the transverse force necessary to remove the flake, like this.  Although my pressure flaking method is different I am doing something similar, in that we are ending up with similar results. On my last point I started to place my pressure flaker lower on the platform and changed the angle of pressure. This allowed me to work in a more systematic and aggressive manner punching off the removals. I started to get concavity on both ventral and dorsal surfaces and the final point is more similar in character to the museum examples. I am chasing a characteristic method of applying retouch, which in turn produces a characteristic feel to the finished piece. I think the thicker glass allows this kind of work. I am pleased with my nest of points all from the one half bottle. I am really pleased with this punchy approach to flake removal. The next one I think will be an experiment in platforms and pressure flaker angles.