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.

Coiling

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.

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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.

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.

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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

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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.

Our bushcraft day out at Reaseheath College with Peter Groom and company

This is a short photo-essay and summarises part of my experience yesterday on our joint University of Manchester / University of Chester bushcraft day out. Spoiler alert: it was excellent. This post focuses upon sinew making from a deer metapodial, or lower part of the leg. To begin the process we each selected a limb. Apparently Peter Groom, who runs the course, can get these free of charge as they are of no real commercial value. The thing I would emphasise is how the metapodial is an very self contained unit, and as Peter pointed out, you get four of them from each animal.

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The first step was to select a stone flake with a sharp edge and make a cut so that the skin could be peeled off. It became clear that my metapodial had been lying around for a long time and dried out. This resulted in it being pretty difficult to ‘peel’ the skin off. Two of Peter’s students, Evon Kirby and Matt Bonwick were on hand to help guide us through the process.

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Hannah Cobb, who I was sat next to, had a ‘fresh’ one and was able to skin it cleanly and quickly. However, with persistence I got the hang of it and managed to get the skin off. The tools used are in the lower right of the above image.

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One of the purposes of removing the skin was to expose the tendons. Tendons runs up the front and back of the metapodial and once exposed both of these were cut and removed.

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As can be seen the tendon is pink and feels plastic. The task is to transform the tendon into sinew through a process of beating. As the tendon is beaten it first of all changes colour from pink to white. As it flattens the differing elements that make the tendon are separated out into individual fibres. Hannah’s ‘fresh’ tendon took a lot longer to process than my dry example. Mine took less than 20 minutes.

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Once the complete tendon has been sufficiently flattened the individual filaments can be separated out and this is the sinew. Evon then showed Hannah how the sinew could be used to attach flights to an arrow shaft. What I found interesting though was the range of materials we had also acquired through this process. Most obviously a section of skin and a bone as well as the deer’s ‘toes’. Matt thought the toes may be useful for making glue a bit like horse’s hooves. This is a short post with more to follow, however, as already mentioned the day was excellent and if anyone is interested I would encourage them to get in touch with Peter for a chat.

A shameless attempt to ‘drive traffic’ or vaguely on topic?

I have just produced my own website! It is a tool to promote a formalised version of a ‘beginners’ knapping workshop as discussed in this blog previously  My university teaching quota has now officially finished and making a website has been on my list of things to do for a while now. My sister in law, Sue Lorkins, set me on the path by producing a prototype and introducing me to the free Weebly website software.

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However, because of the teaching I didn’t do anything with it. Sue also pointed me in the direction of a free training workshop designed for social enterprises and individuals wanting to be self employed. That sort of describes me and it started one week after my marking finished so the timing was perfect. It ran over five days and was facilitated by Simon Paine from the Pop Up Business School. It was excellent and made me feel as though wanting to teach people about how to make stone tools in 2018 is not such a mad idea!

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Anyway, learning through making, to stay on topic. One day of the workshop was devoted to using Weebly to build a website and getting it online. The technical support was provided by Jack Aling and with him to hold my hand (metaphorically) it was surprisingly easy. It has taken a week or so of messing about with different versions to get to something I am happy with, but all in all I am happy with it. The course was good for keeping a focus and this distillation process has been difficult but really useful. They pointed out, and so should I, that there are many free website platforms available, but in their experience Weebly is the easiest to use for non-techies (like me).

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I also learned that having a website is not enough, and the following days session was devoted to using social media to ‘drive traffic’ (as I now say!) to your website. My overall professional function is being an ‘educator’ within the University sector, and I have qualifications and feedback which tells me I am good at my role. I observed and experienced really good teaching on this five day course. Simon has a good depth of experience and is a great communicator, Jack has strong technical knowledge and a sense of humour. The sessions were delivered with warmth and patience, and the occasional dollop of inspiration and/or confidence building as necessary. I hadn’t planned on going to all five days, but I did in the end and it was all worth it. The five days is useful for getting people to work through all aspects of their ideas, and in my instance getting a website online. I would recommend this organisation and course to anyone who has a business idea, but especially if it is a left-field idea, and double especially if they have no money to start it up with and no clue how to go about it. And now in a shameless attempt to ‘drive traffic’, this is a link to my website 😮 https://johnpiprani.weebly.com/