Thursday & Friday last week saw us undertake a two-day experimental archaeology workshop, discussing the methods and materials used in activities such as flint knapping, metal working and pottery production.
The workshop was a great success, and was enjoyed by those attending who were able to have first-hand experiences of all the activities.
MBArchaeology’s Community Archaeology Placement, Sophie, has written up our experiences over the two days as part of her training programme:
Experimental Archaeology workshops
By Sophie Avison (Community Archaeology Placement)
Today was the first day of our Experimental Archaeology workshop. Throughout the two days we will experiment with a number of processes that would have been used by the people of the past. First on the list was flint knapping – the process of hitting a flint nodule with another harder rock in order to chip flakes off and shape them. This technique was used by prehistoric people to make tools such as arrowheads, scrapers (for scraping animal hides and bones) and handaxes. We each had a go and found out that it is a lot harder than it looks! Luckily, however, we managed to avoid any casualties despite handling the sharp flint, and most group members came away with flints that bared a close resemblance to those seen in museums, which we were happy with on a first attempt!
Above left: Flint knapping debris left by our tool-making attempts
Above right: Group member having a go at flint knapping
For our next activity we used air drying clay in order to make pots, using a prehistoric method of coiling the clay. First of all a piece of clay is rolled up and made into a ring, another is then made and placed on top of the first. This continues until there is a stack of coils, then the coils are smoothed together to create one piece, and a base is made out of a flat piece of clay and moulded in. Or at least it sounded that simple… most of us managed to create the stack of coils into a pot shape but then had a lot of difficulty smoothing the coils together. However once we had done our best with them we laid them out into the sun to dry and moved on to the next activity.
Next we were creating moulds using beeswax and clay (the ‘lost wax technique’), the idea being that the clay is moulded around the wax, and when the clay has dried it can be fired which will cause the beeswax to heat up and run out leaving the shape of our carved object within the clay. We each took a chunk of wax and used a sharp flint to carve a shape out of it – some a little more ambitious than others – from a simple ring to a ‘mother earth’ figure! Once the shapes had been carved we pressed clay around them leaving only a small section at the top showing and created a funnel from that point (this is where the molten metal will be poured in). We left these along with the pots to dry out overnight, and that completed Day One’s activities.
When arriving this morning the first thing we did was build a fire as we would rely on this for the majority of our activities today. When the fire was going we placed half of our pots and moulds into it (the other half would be placed in later when the flames had died but the heat was more intense). After about half an hour of firing, we could see that our pots were turning colour, from brown to grey, and one pot had gone white due to the heat.
We then tried some cooking using our fire pit (although we cheated a bit by using tin foil!), cooking some beef, fish and some courgette flowers and marigolds. The second half of the pots and moulds went in at this point, and we left all these firing whilst we enjoyed our food!
The pots each reacted differently in the fire although most of them survived in some form or another, the most common reaction to find was that the pots were crumbling and flaking away – however we were lucky that they didn’t explode as can sometimes happen. We retrieved them from the fire using two sticks and placed them out on the ground to cool. The moulds came out next – when getting these out we made sure to tip them upside down so that any remaining beeswax would run out.
Next we melted some solder for the moulds (admittedly, this should have been copper, but as a first attempt we decided to try solder as this is easily obtainable and doesn’t require heating as much. Solder was placed in one of the pots we had made that had purposefully been given a spout – this was to be our crucible for metalworking. The solder didn’t melt very well in the embers so we built the fire back up again in order for it to reach melting point. Once the fire was going again it didn’t take long before the solder was molten, and using thick wet gloves the crucible was lifted out and onto an earthen platform we had made to sit our moulds in, just for support really. The solder was then poured into the moulds and left to cool.
Whilst we were waiting for it to cool we moved onto the next activity, which was painting with natural colours. These colours came in powder form and we mixed them with a little water creating paints. We used flint blades to carve images or patterns into bone and using our fingers or brushes made out of grass, painted the colours onto the bone – the colour ran into the grooves and stained them making the images stand out.
Above left: Group member carving bone with a flint blade
Above right: Natural pigments, such as ochre, that were used to colour the bones
Finally it was time to return to our moulds and see if they had been successful. Picking out each of our moulds we used a stone to break the pot encasing off; each one had worked to some degree of success, easily identifiable was a flower, a ring, a ‘hooded monk’, and a Thor’s hammer (‘mother earth’ didn’t appear to survive the process however!).
Overall the workshop was a success and enjoyed by all. From trying out a few methods used commonly in prehistory and beyond, we can appreciate just how different life would have been in the past, without the comforts of Ikea and Asda to pick up whatever it is we need at the last minute (even if we do build the flat packs ourselves!), and the kind of skills that our ancestors would have possessed. They may not have been able to read and write but they’d probably survive longer than us in the Hunger Games!