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

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