Geoarchaeology at the Bradford Kaims

Becky Scott – Assistant Supervisor (Geoarcheology) and PhD Candidate, University of Reading

Following on from our blog post about the geophysical survey carried out at the Kaims this year, we have been busy ‘ground-truthing’ the anomalies seen just to the North of Trench 6 – that is, identifying whether the magnetic anomalies seen on the survey are archaeological features or not. Of course, like most endeavors, we have had varying degrees of success! The first few test pits that were dug contained nothing but colluvium (sediment that has been deposited downslope, often known as hill or slope wash) even after digging up to a metre. We then decided to take some cores around the area that showed the magnetic anomalies to the North of Trench 6 using the Dutch auger, which is essentially a long pole about 1 metre long with a T-handle and a screw-like head at the bottom which collects and retains sediment. Dutch augers are particularly useful for hard and wet sediments so worked very well through our silty clay colluvium. After taking a number of cores (with the excellent help of our two Young Archaeologists Club competition winners!) we eventually came up with some lovely layers of charcoal and burnt material, so we set to work digging three more test pits. Two of these test pits were more much more successful, particularly Test Pit 75 which showed a charcoal layer almost 30cm thick (see Figure 1 below).

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Figure 1. SE-facing section of TP75 showing three very distinct layers: Top soil, colluvium and a ~30 cm thick charcoal and stone rich layer.

 Test Pits in the wider landscape

As well as ground-truthing the results of the geophysical survey, we have also been collecting samples for geoarchaeological analysis from some larger test pits dug by our new friend, The Big Digger. For those unfamiliar, geoarchaeology is an approach to archaeology which utilises techniques from the earth and environmental sciences to answer archaeological questions. In real life it mostly involves getting really, really muddy and pondering sediment sequences for long periods of time…

The main aim was to take samples from the colluvium in the wider landscape (identified during coring by Dr. Richard Tipping and Coring Supervisor Anna) for radiocarbon and pOSL (portable Optically Stimulated Luminescence) dating and micromorphology (the study of in-situ soils and sediments in thin section) to provide us with a proxy for human activity in the immediate area (see Figure 2 below). Colluvium results from human activity, particularly agriculture, and therefore can tell us about past agricultural processes in the wider landscape as it represents a period of soil erosion due to ploughing, over-grazing, and the removal of trees. Under gravity these sediments are then transported downslope. Sometimes, if geoarchaeologists are lucky, ancient soils will be preserved underneath the colluvium allowing us to infer a period of stability and identify the environmental conditions before the land was cleared. The nature of the colluviation also gives information about what processes caused it to erode, and how high the energy of its erosion was.

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Figure 2. Students Oda and Daniel taking OSL samples in the extended section of T6 with Anna and Becky, and Director Paul also working hard in the background. Samples for pOSL were taken vertically down the sequence from the section by inserting tubes into the face of the section, removing gently and quickly securing with tape to ensure no light entered the samples. They were then labelled with a sample number and an arrow indicating the end that had not been exposed to light, ready for laboratory analysis.

Figure 2. Students Oda and Daniel taking OSL samples in the extended section of T6 with Anna and Becky, and Director Paul also working hard in the background. Samples for pOSL were taken vertically down the sequence from the section by inserting tubes into the face of the section, removing gently and quickly securing with tape to ensure no light entered the samples. They were then labelled with a sample number and an arrow indicating the end that had not been exposed to light, ready for laboratory analysis.

pOSL will hopefully allow us to identify the rates of erosion in the area, with the radiocarbon dates from the peat below effectively acting as an ‘anchor’ to identify when this erosion (and therefore agricultural clearance) began. Once the thin sections are made, micromorphology will allow us to identify the depositional and post-depositional processes occurring at the microscale.

Geomorphological Survey at the Bradford Kaims

 Anna Finneran, Coring Supervisor and PhD Candidate, University of Durham

In 2017 the Kaims coring team has benefitted from many dry days, and persevered through some soaking days. Here’s a quick update on the accomplishments of Dr. Richard Tipping and field school students this season:

The Bradford Kaims branch of the BRP since 2010 has conducted a landscape-scale interdisciplinary investigation of a large fenland associated with our archaeological sites.  Excavations have uncovered multiple burnt mounds, structural remains, and artefacts.  Human activity spans at least the Mesolithic through the Bronze Age.  The features and material culture represent an industrial area.  Conspicuous in its absence, however, is evidence for domestic activity in the landscape. In contrast, palaeoenvironmental reconstructions present a rich aquatic environment, characterised by two large lakes throughout the Holocene and populated with unique flora and fauna, potentially attractive for long-term habitation.  The landscape surveys this season have sought to look beyond the Neolithic and Bronze Age by incorporating geomorphology, geophysics, soil micromorphology, and excavation to describe both the natural landscape and the human activity throughout the Holocene.

The main aim of the 2017 season in terms of this geomorphological mapping was coring and sediment description at locations known to contain or likely to contain layers of colluvial accumulation (or slopewash). Colluvial accumulation would result from episodes of erosion on slopes descending towards the fenland basin. Geomorphological analyses from previous seasons concluded that no natural sediment erosion occurred on steep slopes around the fenland. Any erosion on gentler slopes may then be ascribed to archaeological, and potentially agricultural, activity.

The coring team conducted coring transects across the landscape, inserting a metal tube (or sediment core) into the soils and sediments of the fenland and its surrounds, to chart the different types and depths of material.  We successfully identified layers of colluvium within layers of peat, representing episodes of agricultural destabilisation of the slopes, at numerous points. Following reconnaissance, five locations were selected for a combination of analyses including soil micromorphology and pOSL analysis (see Becky Scott’s blog in a few days for more detail on this!).

Another aim of the geomorphological investigations in 2017 was working in tandem with Graeme Attwood’s magnetometry survey to define buried anomalies. Coring and sediment description preceded excavation of 1 x 1m test pits over the most promising anomalies. The anomalies to the NW of Trench 6 proved to be burnt mounds, as hoped. However, the anomalies in the form of two parallel lines between Trenches 11 and 9 were found to be ditches for Victorian age drainage pipes.

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Despite our pipe-related set-backs, one lost (but later retrieved) core, and numerous small injuries and sprains, the coring team successfully completed our aims for this season with positive and encouraging results for the future. Next season we hope to continue to investigate the natural landscape and the human impact upon the environment throughout the Holocene, and hopefully use the analyses of colluvial deposits and the dating material provided by the fenland to gain a more in-depth understanding of how people across the Bronze Age and Iron Age influenced their landscape.

Archaeomagnetic Studies at the Bradford Kaims

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Sam Harris, Doctoral Research Student – University of Bradford

Firstly, it is purely coincidental that I study in Bradford (West Yorkshire) and am coming to take samples at the Bradford Kaims. As an archaeomagnetist, and we are pretty few and far between, it is always amazing the variety of sites that you get to see and work on. Having parachuted into the Bradford Kaims trenches for the second time, this site is no exception in its wonder. Placed at the edge of a fen, the variety of soil and sediment types on site is impressive! This offers the perfect opportunity for archaeomagnetic studies.

For those that aren’t quite sure what this odd science (magic) is, you are welcome to peruse my website, which is listed at the end of this blog post, for some answers. Simply put, the Earth has a magnetic field which varies over space and time. A record of the past geomagnetic field can be found in the in situ remains of hearths, furnaces, or other anthropogenically fired features that we as archaeologist excavate on a regular basis. Archaeomagnetic studies seek to improve our knowledge of past geomagnetic field changes through the analysis of this material. Why though, I hear you ask…

This is because we can use the knowledge of geomagnetic fluctuations over time to conduct archaeomagnetic dating and gain an idea of the last time that some fired archaeological features were heated. Having a dating method which directly relates to an anthropogenic activity, rather than to the end of an organism’s carbon absorption for example, is a powerful tool for the archaeologist.

Archaeomagnetic dating was first attempted at the Bradford Kaims in 2011. While the study was successful and the date recovered for a fired hearth feature in Trench 6 (c.4350 cal.BC) was considered accurate given other artefactual dating evidence for the site, newly acquired radiocarbon dating evidence suggests that the calibration methods used for the archaeomagnetic dates produced erroneous results. This was due to the use of an experimental and alternative calibration model from outside the UK, as the current UK calibration model does not stretch back into the Bronze Age or before. This previous study, and others since, have identified the need for further work to be undertaken. This is where me and my PhD come in! My main aim is to improve our understanding of geomagnetic field change during prehistoric periods, but particularly the Neolithic.

At the Bradford Kaims this season, I sampled two features associated with the Bronze Age burnt mounds, both of them interpreted as fire pits containing fired stones, burnt sediments, ash, and charcoal. These features will provide good radiocarbon dating records, alongside the archaeomagnetic signatures for the fired subsoils within and below them.

Thanks to the Bamburgh Research Project’s excellent radiocarbon dating programme at the Bradford Kaims, the fired archaeological features that I can archaeomagnetically study will have independent dates associated with them. By building up a number of well-dated features in this way, a new calibration curve for the UK can be created, with the Bradford Kaims being a central case study in this process. Through the combined use of radiocarbon dating and archaeomagnetic dating on prehistoric sites like the Bradford Kaims, we can gain a more nuanced understanding of their chronologies.

Sam’s website can be viewed at; www.neolithicarchaeomagnetism.weebly.com

Sam’s Twitter can be viewed at; @Archaeomagnetic

Geophysical Survey at the Bradford Kaims Uncovers a Possible Prehistoric Settlement

On the 17th and 18th of June, Graeme Attwood*, from Magnitude Surveys came to the Bradford Kaims to conduct a geophysical survey of the landscape surrounding the site. The survey produced some intriguing results which provided exciting information for future excavations of the wider archaeological landscape.

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Graeme Atwood from Magnitude Surveys performing a geophyiscal survey at the Bradford Kaims using a fluxgate gradiometer.

The geophysical survey conducted at the Kaims used a hand-pulled fluxgate gradiometer, a type of magnetometer, which measures magnetism. Magnetic survey is used in archaeology as it can detect magnetic anomalies in the ground, which may indicate the presence of subsurface archaeological features. The magnetic geophysical survey investigated a total area of approximately 2.3 hectares in order to assess the below ground archaeological potential of the Bradford Kaims, conducted as part of our wider investigation of the landscape. Our investigations integrate excavation, field walking, survey and paleoenvironmental coring to evaluate the extent and nature of human exploitation of this wetland environment.

The magnetometer survey was conducted in five areas across the landscape of the Bradford Kaims, both in the wetland areas that are the focus of our current excavations and of the hills surrounding them. The survey produced a number of magnetic anomalies, suggesting that a wide variety of archaeological features are sitting below the surface.

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Map showing the five areas in which geophysical survey was conducted at the Bradford Kaims

The fifth area investigated in the survey covered our excavations on the South-Side of the wetland. The results indicated an archaeological feature which is thought to be another large burnt mound, one of the features found across this site. We are confident of this interpretation as a small portion of the mound has been excavated in previously seasons. Part of our remit is to test the accuracy and scope of the geophysics by excavating the anomalies. This is working extremely well, giving huge scope for future work.

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Results from the fifth area of survey showing magnetic anomaly 5a which has been interpreted as a burnt mound

The most exciting results, however come from the investigations of the wider landscape. The third area of magnetometry survey on Hoppenwood Bank near our area of excavation revealed positive magnetic anomalies with a strong archaeological character. Two large circular features; one measuring 13m in diameter, the other 14.5m in diameter, were identified. These circular features are similar to the magnetic anomalies produced by round houses. This suggests we may have identified a prehistoric, possibly Iron-Age settlement, at the Kaims! Within the large outer ring of what we think may be round houses, a series of smaller sub-circular anomalies were also identified. These features are between 0.75m and 2m in diameter, possibly produced by pits and post-holes which may indicate an internal structure to the large circular features which strengthens are interpretation that these may be roundhouses. The evidence that we may have discovered a settlement becomes more convincing when we consider the series of positive anomalies that have been found across the south-eastern portion of the third area. These anomalies are thought to be produced by the presence of pits and similar cut features, suggesting human activity in this area, strengthening the argument for the presence of a settlement. Settlement activity of this type is very rare in Northumberland and very exciting.

Results from the third area of survey showing the circular magnetic anomalies; 3a and 3b that have been interpreted as possible Iron-Age round houses.

This enthralling discovery has put all of the Kaims team in high spirits and we are planning to excavate the area of the settlement, next season. The geophysical anomalies identified in this survey have opened up the possibility of an exciting future for excavation of the Bradford Kaims!

*Afterword from Paul Gething: Graeme Attwood was a regular at the BRP for almost a decade. He came as a young student, became a staff member and eventually went on to run T1 in the Castle. He left the BRP to do postgrad work in Geophysics. He has returned often to visit and occasionally to do small scale work in Bamburgh and at the Kaims. He recently started his own geophysics company in Bradford, which is thriving. He went far above and beyond what we reasonably expected of him on a furiously hot few days. I have always admired his work ethic, but he surprised me with just how much he can do. It was a great pleasure to welcome Graeme back to the BRP and fantastic to work with him again and I look forward to working with him again in the future. I also look forward to seeing his business go from strength to strength.

Introducing the 2017 Bradford Kaims Staff

Paul Gething – Site Director

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I’m Paul. I believe that good PPE is the key to good excavation.

Post-script by Tom Gardner; Other than being flippant in return emails, Paul Gething is from Yorkshire, has been a professional archaeologist for many decades, and directs our excavations with suitable aplomb and style. When not excavating, Paul is a school governor and magistrate, as well as a writer who has published widely upon the medieval period and the history of Northumbria. He likes ale and fun & games.

Tom Gardner – Project Officer

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Hi. I’m Tom, and I’m from Glasgow in Scotland. I am a PhD student in Geoarchaeology at the University of Edinburgh. I have been working at the Bradford Kaims for 6 years, after coming as a student in 2012. What I love most about the project is the camaraderie between staff and students on site, and in our post-work social scene. I am in charge of overseeing the archaeological investigations at the Kaims, and this allows me to get stuck in to the soil science, as is my want. Outside of work, I enjoy sitting around in the campsite having a quiet drink, and participating in the many pub quizzes of Belford.

Rachel Brewer – Project Manager

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Hello, everyone, I’m Rachel Brewer and I’m from Illinois, U.S.A.  After participating as a student in 2014 and working as an assistant supervisor in 2016, I’m excited to be back with the Bradford Kaims Project in the role of Project Manager.  I have a B.A. in History from Southern Illinois University and an M.A. in Archaeology from Cardiff University, Wales.  I’m particularly interested in the Anglo-Saxons and early medieval pottery, but I’ve enjoyed the excavation opportunities, work environment and people at the BRP so much that I keep returning! Back home I work as a secondary English teacher, but I love being involved in fieldwork during the summer holidays. I look forward to meeting and working with all of you!

Rachel Moss – Trench 6 Supervisor

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I’m Rachel – otherwise known as ‘Moss’ – and I will be returning to the Bradford Kaims this year as a supervisor. I first started excavating at the Kaims as a student in 2014 and have been coming back ever since. I have spent most of my time at the site in Trench 6 and can’t wait to discover more of its secrets this year. I also love the experimental archaeology we carry out every season, from making pottery to brewing prehistoric beer.

I am currently studying for my undergraduate degree in archaeology from the University of Edinburgh. In my spare time I enjoy reading, good food, travel, and trips to St Mary’s to watch Southampton FC whenever I’m at home down south.

I can’t wait to get back for the start of this season and meet all the students and community volunteers coming to join us!

Anna Finneran – Coring Supervisor

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Hi, I’m Anna and I’m from Maryland. I completed a BA and MA at Durham University and this autumn I am returning to Durham to begin a PhD. I first joined the BRP as a student in 2014. This year I will be assisting Dr. Richard Tipping.

Charlie Kerwin – Trench 42 Supervisor

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I’m Charlie and I have just moved back home to London after finishing my undergraduate degree in BSc Archaeology at the University of Nottingham. This will be my fourth year at the BRP, I first came to the BRP as a student in 2014 and became a staff member in 2016 when I undertook the role of Assistant Supervisor on the South Side of the Bradford Kaims. I’m excited to be returning this year as Supervisor of the South Side. In my academic studies my main interest was not actually within prehistoric archaeology, rather they lay within gender archaeology and the Anglo-Saxon and Medieval periods. However, the incredible preservation offered by the wetland conditions at the Bradford Kaims immediately caught my interest and has kept me coming back. Although I am looking forward to overseeing the South Side and I am keenly anticipating what archaeological features will be uncovered during this season’s excavations, it is really the people that have made me return year after year. I’m always thrilled to get to see and work with the great team at the Kaims each season and I am also looking forward to getting to know all the new people who will be visiting the project.

After this season, I’m hoping to continue my education. However, I am leaving the field of Archaeology (with some regret) to pursue an MSc in Development Studies at SOAS University of London.

Franzi Leja – Trench 42 Assistant Supervisor

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In my fourth year of returning to this amazing project, I once again put my studies in Bamberg, Germany to a little rest and look forward to the experiences awaiting me and everyone attending the BRP. At my home university I currently work at the department of Geoarchaeology analysing charcoal and am writing my bachelor thesis about vegetation reconstruction. My role in this year’s season will be the assistant supervisor to Trench 9 and Trench 11 at the Bradford Kaims. Our plans and hopes for 2017, including new survey methods, got me extra excited and I cannot wait to reunite with old friends and meet new ones!

Katie Walker – Trench 6 Assistant Supervisor

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I am Katie, and I am from Inverness. I am currently finishing my 3rd year at the university of Edinburgh. This year I am an assistant supervisor in Trench 6 at the Bradford Kaims. I am most looking forward to the mighty craic!

Becky Scott- Assistant Supervisor

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I’m Becky and I will be returning to the Kaims this year as an Assistant Supervisor because I enjoyed my time here so much in 2015! I have an undergraduate degree in Environmental Science and have recently finished an MSc in Environmental Archaeology at the University of Reading where I will be starting my PhD in September. My main interests are Palaeolithic (particularly Lower Paleolithic) and Mesolithic environments, and the use of terrestrial carbonates in archaeology.  I hope you enjoy this photo of me in my element on the coast of Wales looking for Mesolithic footprints. Hopefully the weather at the Kaims will be slightly better than this…

Cuthbert – Dog

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I am Cuthbert. I joined the team in 2015. I’m a dog and I’m friendly but quite slobbery. My favourite type of site is one with a ball.

Student bookings now being taken for our 2017 Field School Excavation

Our 2017 student booking form is now available.

Our season will last 5 weeks from June 11- July 15th and will cost £300 per week.

This will include camping accommodation and access to modest cooking facilities. Unlike previous years, a tent will be provided for you upon your arrival. Be aware you will not be permitted to use your own tent.

You can find more information on our website. If you have any further questions please don’t hesitate to get in touch: colekelly@bamburghresearchproject.co.uk

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If there is anyone interested in a staff position who has not yet applied, please do so ASAP.

 

Pottery Making at the Bradford Kaims – Videos

This blog presents the video interviews from our open archaeology day which focused on prehistoric pottery.

The first shows Rachel Brewer, Assistant Supervisor, discussing the process she went through – first to prepare the clay and then to produce fired ceramics. The second presents some thoughts about the day from two of our students, Ewan and Ian.

 

Thank you for watching!

Stay tuned for more of our experimental sessions – coming soon!

Week 3 in the Post-Excavation Department

 

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The Windmill – home to the Post-excavation Department.

 

Good morning from the Post-excavation Department! We have had a busy few weeks with a steady flow of students coming through eager to learn. Taking into account the better weather and the remarkable finds from the trenches, there is plenty to keep us busy!

 

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Thomas Fox, Environmental Assistant Supervisor, teaching students Katie and Weston.

 

With the amount of new finds, we are able to guide students through the initial processing stages: identifying, recording, and bagging the find. Archaeology at its core is about understanding the past from physical remains, so it is highly important to encourage diligent record keeping.

 

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Students Eden and Steffi finds washing.

 

With the new finds processed, the students are then given the opportunity to move to the next tasks: cleaning, sorting, and illustrating the finds. This allows them the chance to walk through the entire post-excavation process and therefore improve their critical thinking skills and encourage thought on the historic use of the artefact.

 

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Finds Supervisor, Jeff Aldrich, examining some of the finds from the Bradford Kaims.

 

Bradford Kaims has been updating their records to reflect the past several years of work. The finds have all been processed, it’s simply a matter of digitising and correlating the artefacts to their locations in three dimensions. Once the locations are correlated, we can store the finds for future study.

With three weeks down and new students ready to learn about archaeology, we’re getting things moving here at the Project and look forward to the next five weeks!

Trench 6 Update – Bradford Kaims

 

Trench 6 remains our largest and longest running trench to date at the Bradford Kaims. Each new context we uncover adds to the complexity and variety of information about prehistoric human activity in the area. Here, we highlight just two of the exciting features currently under excavation.

 

THE TROUGH

Over the past couple of weeks, we have uncovered our wooden trough in the northwest corner of the trench. After two years of sitting under tarp, the trough has now been fully excavated and cleaned, with its contents removed down to a beautiful clay base. The trough is made of a hollowed out oak tree and fills with crystal clear water, so may have been used as a well; however, within its fill, fire cracked stones have been found which means that this water was probably being heated.

 

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The trough being fully excavated after half-sectioning.

 

BUILDING A

Earlier in the season we uncovered a suspiciously rectangular-shaped dark fill in the northern side of Trench 6. Upon beginning excavation last week we found a series of four large postholes down one side as well as postholes in each corner. We believe that the colossal postholes suggest that this structure was a building. Lying within the structure is an oblong patch of burnt material, which could possibly be a fire pit. From this pit, we have removed a large pointed post, which could have been one of the posts supporting the structure.

Experimental Prehistoric Pottery

This week’s experimental blog is courtesy of Rachel Brewer, Bradford Kaims Assistant Supervisor.

 

Following on the heels of the beer brewing experiment, our Week 5 experimental archaeology project was an effort to make a variety of pottery vessels using only raw clay sourced from our prehistoric site here at the Bradford Kaims. We knew from previous seasons that the trenches and test pits often turn up natural clay deposits of varying colours and quality. We’ve also had a few examples of possible Neolithic and Bronze Age potsherds surface during excavation; so this summer’s experimental archaeology program seemed like a perfect opportunity to test out our prehistoric potting skills! Altogether, processing the clay, forming the pots, and the subsequent firing turned out to be a messy, fun and educational experiment for all involved.

 

Step 1: Gathering the clay

While digging a series of shovel test pits earlier in the season, we hit upon a substantial deposit of clay about 50cm below topsoil. Seeing a source of raw material for our pottery experiment, I dug out a bucket’s worth to begin processing. Though the clay was mostly light orangey-brown, there was a thin layer of grey overlaying that; it also gathered a good amount of silt and peat on its way out of our 20cmX20cm shovel test pit. Through processing, these colours and textures blended together as shown in the later photos.

 

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The raw clay.

 

Step 2: Processing the clay

This was the longest part of the process, due in part to my own inexperience and also to the wet conditions on site. I knew from research that the best way to process raw clay is often to dry it out completely, grind to a powder, sieve, and slowly reintroduce water until the clay reaches a workable consistency. I also knew how unlikely it would be that we could completely dry out that amount of clay in a timely manner, particularly when it was raining almost daily. So I opted instead for wet processing, which involved the help of several pairs of hands pulling all of the clay into small lumps and mixing/mashing it up with added water in a large plastic box. This part worked better than expected, and after a couple of days of minimal stirring, nearly all of the clay was liquefied.

 

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Slaking the clay on site.

 

At this point we poured the slip (liquid clay) through a sieve to remove the largest inclusions, mostly small stones and twigs. We could have used smaller screens and sieved multiple times for greater purity, but I chose not to since examples of prehistoric pottery found at this and other sites indicate that prehistoric people were not processing their clay to a high degree.

 

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Sieving the slip.

 

For about a week I attempted to do a daily pouring-off of the water that would accumulate on the surface, hoping that between evaporation and pouring off that the clay would thicken a bit every day. The couple of days I was able to let the boxes sit out in the sun did help, but it wasn’t working quickly.

 

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The slowly thickening slip.

 

On one sunny day I cut open a bin liner and laid it out on the grass like a small tarp, then I poured the thickened slip out on the plastic. This increased the surface area the sun could reach and it was noticeably thicker by the end of the work day, but it still wasn’t drying out fast enough. We had to rearrange the experimental schedule and move pottery back a week – I had only a week to get some workable clay and I was running out of ideas!

 

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Spreading out the clay to increase the surface area for evaporation.

 

My final effort involved pouring the clay into an old pillowcase, tying it closed with string and hanging it from a tree to allow the water to drain out with gravity and air. The better part of the week passed before I noticed much of a change, but much to my relief, the night before we were scheduled to make the pots we had somewhat sticky but relatively workable clay!

 

 

Step 3: Forming the pots

Before beginning our pot making, the students used rocks to crush up a few soft pieces of sandstone sourced from Trench 6; we used this sand as temper.

 

 

Since wheels were not used by prehistoric potters, the students learned to use the two most common methods of building pottery without a wheel: the pinch method (formed by pinching a solid ball of clay into the desired shape) and the coiling method (rolling out rings of clay, stacking the rings, and smoothing them together). A small amount of temper was added by each individual to their own allotment of clay. Of course we had some creative minds in the mix who ventured beyond the utilitarian forms like bowls and jars, and by the end of the day we had quite a collection of unique creations! We set everything we made on two log disks that would be easily moveable and would absorb moisture. After that we just had to let everything dry out completely to prepare them for firing.

 

 

Step 4: Firing

When it was time for firing, we began by building a small fire in our fire pit on site. Pottery has to be heated very slowly, so we began by placing the dried pots around the edge of the pit and then slowly moving them in close to the fire. Once the pieces were against the central fire, we began placing larger branches over and around the pots, completely covering them and creating a kiln effect. We kept a large fire burning for about an hour and a half, then allowed it to die down to coals. Since our time on site was limited to 5 hours and the pots needed to be cooling before we left site, we weren’t able to keep the pots firing for the ideal amount of time, which for our purposes would have been around 4 hours.

 

The final step of firing is allowing the pots to completely cool before removing them from the pit. Before we left site for the day, we dug the pots (none of which had broken!) out of the coals, stacking them against one wall of the fire pit and shoveling the coals to the opposite wall. We then covered the pots with a layer of grasses and sedge, placed a couple of metal sheets over the pit to protect the pots from rain, then left for the night.

 

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The fired ceramics hot from the fire.

 

Upon examining the cooled pottery the next day, I was pleased to see that none of the vessels had cracked or exploded during firing. Additionally, the pieces had fired, if not completely through, then most of the way through despite the shortened firing time. The fired pots are noticeably brittle and not completely water tight, but with a little more practice we could probably produce vessels that would be more serviceable. Since we accomplished our goal of using only raw materials from site and a fire to create prehistory-inspired pottery – and we had fun doing it – I’m calling this experiment a success!