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!

 

Bradford Kaims – Trench 14 Update

Trench 14 is actually a combination of two earlier trenches: 8 & 11. 

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Trench 14 and the stone feature within it.

Trench 8

Trench 8 was opened in 2013 and contained an artificial mound comprised of larger stones (30-45 cm in diameter) underneath a layer of smaller stones (4-10 cm in diameter). 

A quarter section was dug out to determine the depth of the mound, and we discovered a thin layer of peat under which lay a brushwood platform. As the season ended, we backfilled the quarter section and left it to future investigations.

Trench 11

Trench 11 was opened in 2015 in an attempt to further understand the stone mound feature by examining the surrounding area, as well as determining if any relationship existed between Trench 8 and the western end of Trench 9 – where a large post was discovered in situ at the end of season 2015. 

A paleochannel with layers of sand and brushwood was discovered at the southern end, which was less than a metre from the north end of Trench 8. One side of the channel edge looked like it may have been cut intentionally though further investigations are required to determine if that was the case. 

Also within the trench, we discovered over 10 pieces of wood around 6 cm wide & ranging from a half metre to one metre in length lying within the peat layer. Two had potential cuts in them, giving us an indication that at least a couple of them were used by early humans. 

So far this season…

We have expanded Trench 14 to include both Trenches 8 and 11, and are in the process of expanding the quarter section to give us a fresh understanding of the stratigraphy of the artificial stone mound and the brushwood platform lying under the peat layer. We also plan to expand the trench into the western edge of Trench 11 to understand if a relationship between 8, 9, 11 and 14 exists. Our plans are to extend into the palaeochannel to determine if it was cut intentionally and to excavate at least partially into the edge of the peat layer to discover if more worked wood exists. 

Experimental Brewing Summary and Student Reflections

In a follow-up to our earlier blog on prehistoric brewing, these videos record a summary of the process from Becky Brummet, Experimental Programme Director:

As well as comments and reactions from two of our students who were there on the day:

Experimental Beer Brewing

We began last week’s experimental day by gathering ingredients, trying to use as many prehistoric resources as possible. Though some tools were still modern (the trough, matches to start the fire, chainsaw to cut firewood, a mesh sieve, and a pot) we used a variety of other resources during the day including:

-Un-malted Barley (already acquired from a local source)

-Rocks for the fire (from the T6 spoil heap)

 

Julie collecting stones

Student Julie gathering stones for firing,

 

-Water & a trough (modern trough, sourced from local farmer, James Brown)

-Elderflowers (gathered from site), and

 

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Assistant Supervisor Charlie, gathering elderflowers.

 

-Firewood (fallen deadwood gathered on site)

 

And after talking through the process, we began the beer brewing!

 

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Super visor Becky, teaching students and volunteers.

 

We started the fire, and heated the rocks for about one hour.

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Fire Starting

 

During that time, we broke the husks of the barley to release the yeast. There was an added level of experimentation in that our barley was un-malted. We’ve had some success with this in the past, and were attempting to replicate those successes in order to test several hypotheses we had developed.

Julie and Ian grinding barley

Students Ian and Julie breaking the barley husks.

 

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Close-up of the grinding process.

 

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The barley after the husks were broken.

 

When the rocks were hot enough (we didn’t verify an exact temperature, just made sure they sat in the fire for an hour), we added water to the trough, added the barley to the water, then added the rocks to the water to heat it up.

 

 

We needed about 7-8 rocks to get a warm temperature. We did not measure the exact temperature, rather we made sure it didn’t get too hot to the touch.

We stirred the mash, and rotated hot rocks in and out of the trough to keep the temperature up.

 

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Supervisor Becky stirring the mash tun.

 

We had lots of down time while we kept the fire going, kept the rocks hot and the mash tun up to temperature, so we gathered local sedge (tusset grass) & began weaving platters & baskets – a skill we recently learned from a local community member, Paula Constantine who teaches basket weaving.

 

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Assistant Supervisors Rachel, Sophie and Charlie weaving sedge.

 

We also took some malted barley (leftover on site from previous beer brewing attempts) and sedge oil (created from pounding sedge root into a pulp and adding water), and created a paste which we then put on the fire to bake. We experimented with an different cooking technique than our earth oven from last year.

 

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Unleavened bread baking above a fire.

 

After the mash tun brewed for two hours, we began to sieve the mixture into our pot:

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Students Julie and Zac sieving the mash into a pot.

 

And then we added the elderflowers to the mixture.

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Students Zach, Ian and Julie adding elderflowers to the mix.

 

We’ll let the mixture brew while we continually monitor the progress throughout the week.

Next Sunday, we’ll check the ABV level with a hydrometer & let it brew for longer if need be (two weeks or so should be sufficient).

We usually can get an ABV level of 5%, so that’s our goal. If we’ve reached it by next Sunday, we’ll sample it, if not, it’ll brew longer.

Stay tuned for next week’s experimental instalment!

 

St Mary’s Middle School Visit the Bradford Kaims

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Children from St Mary’s Middle School visiting Trench 6.

 

Here at the Bradford Kaims we are greatly passionate about involving the local community with the archaeology, and we were delighted to have a group from St Mary’s Middle School visit our site last week. The children from Belford visited the Bradford Kaims on Wednesday afternoon and it was great to see the local children excited about the archaeology and engaging with the area’s past in a tangible way.

The children arrived in the afternoon and were given an introduction to the site by Project Officer, Tom Lally. Tom gave a brief history of the site, explaining the prehistoric eras during which the site was occupied and giving examples of some of our finds, such as wooden artefacts, flint tools and prehistoric pottery.

 

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Project Officer Tom Lally, giving the children an introduction to the site.

 

Despite this kind of information being fascinating us archaeologists, you could notice eyes glazing over when some of the more technical terminology began being used. Assistant Supervisor, Rachel Brewer was the star of the day. Using her previous experience as a teacher she stepped in to talk about the archaeology in a way that was entertaining and accessible to the children. She spoke to the children about Trench 6 and the wooden platform in more depth and also explained about archaeological excavations more generally. The rest of the staff were in awe of her teaching method, as she even managed to keep the children’s interest when explaining archaeological contexts. She did an amazing job engaging the children, who left the excited and enthusiastically asking questions about the archaeology.

 

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Assistant Supervisor Rachel Brewer, teaching the children about Trench 6.

 

We had planned for the children to get more involved and try environmental coring with Dr Richard Tipping from Stirling University, however due to time constraints they were unfortunately unable to join in before having to leave. Luckily the school are planning another visit to the Bradford Kaims later in the season, giving the children another opportunity to try their hand at environmental coring.

Everyone here at the Bradford Kaims hope the children of St Mary’s Middle School enjoyed their time at the site and we are looking forward to their next visit.

An Excerpt from the Promontory – Bradford Kaims

Trench 12, 13 & 42 were opened (reopened, in T42’s case) this season for sampling & investigations into the burnt mounds located on the promontory.

T12 is a 2m x 3m trench located on the southern end of the promontory. Shortly after opening the trench, we began to find some really interesting artefacts. In the peat layer, we found a piece of burnt quartz & when we continued down through the peat onto the burnt mound layer, we found more: two pieces of worked flint & two pieces of burnt bone! Quite exciting finds for a trench originally opened up for sampling.

 

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A piece of worked flint from trench 12.

 

Trench 13 is 1m x 2m trench located just off the edge of the promontory, near the waters edge. Like T12, it was opened for sampling & has also produced some really interesting finds! Just below our peat layer, we discovered a layer which consists of shells & sand moulded & formed together. In that layer, we uncovered two pieces of charcoal, nine small (4-10cm sized) pieces of worked wood & one log roughly 1m long. We think the smaller wooden pieces may have been stakes & considering their proximity to the waters edge & the fact that a couple were orientated at a 45° angle, it could indicate fencing.

 

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A piece of worked wood from trench 13.

 

A 2m x 4m portion of trench 42 was reopened for sampling, with the focus being on the burnt mound, the trough & the limestone piece. A 1m x 2m spit was dug out of the north end. We expected the burnt mound material to continue at least a half meter, but we quickly uncovered an interesting mottled orange clay layer only 4-5cm into the burnt mound layer.

 

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The re-opening of trench 42.

 

Since the weather has turned more amiable for excavations to continue in our other trenches, we have taken a break from our work on the promontory, but plan on returning to it to as soon as feasible.

Bradford Kaims Experimental Archaeology Schedule

Come and see experimental archaeology in action!

Hot rocks

Hot rocks used to heat water and malted barley as part of the brewing process.

 

19th June – Prehistoric Beer Brewing

Learn the process of prehistoric beer brewing!

26th June – Prehistoric Pottery

Using local materials procured from ongoing excavations, we will attempt to make small pottery pieces!

3rd July – Beer Decanting/TBA

If the beer has fermented sufficiently, we’ll be decanting our brew and testing the ABV (and sampling it!)! If the beer isn’t ready there may be a day of flint knapping.

10th July – Flint Knapping

Learn the basics of creating stone tools (like those discovered on-site) using flint and obsidian.

17th July – Woodworking

Learn the basics of rudimentary woodworking.

24th July – Resin Production/Hafting

We hope to create resin and use it to haft tools that we’ve made during the season.

**Activities are subject to change depending on weather conditions & ability to procure materials and/or resources**

We welcome local volunteers and community members, but for logistic purposes, please let us know ahead of time if you wish to drop by!

 

Becky Brummet

Experimental Programme Director

Email: ruthefordr22@yahoo.com

BRP Office Phone: 01668214897

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Flint blade found in Trench 6.

 

Kaims: End of 2015 season round up and a few words about 2016 from Paul Gething.

We’re approaching the end of our evaluation phase here at the Kaims. My intention was to assess how much archaeology is here, what condition it is in and how we can best approach excavating, interrogating, recording and protecting it. 2016 will probably be our last season of evaluation, in anticipation of full excavation in the future – funding permitting. An interim report should be out within the next 18 months.

In a nutshell, there is a vast amount of amazing wetland archaeology here and we have a truly world-class site spanning from Bronze Age back to Mesolithic. Surrounding the wetlands are an array of sites from all periods that we haven’t even begun to explore. The preservation is breath-taking and the sheer amount of features and artefacts is almost overwhelming.

Kaims North

This area was run by Tom Gardner. His team consisted of Alex Wood and Sophie Black who were backed up by a small army of students, community volunteers and young archaeologists. New additions to the team for this year are Rachel Brewer, Rachel Moss and Anna Finneran.

Trench 6

The platform interaction with the burnt mounds has opened up nicely. We’re beginning to see relationships and there seems to be many phases to both platform and mound which overlie each other. It’s going to be a complicated problem unpicking the relationships, but it provides us with the opportunity to do the most in-depth analysis of a burnt mound sequence undertaken anywhere. Tom has started his PhD looking into the micro-stratigraphy and I’m looking forward to seeing the results.

We have totally excavated through the burnt mound sequence in places and there are many complex features beneath, showing occupation and industrial activity from the Neolithic.

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Pit feature beneath Burnt Mounds in T6.

Trench 10

Trench 10 sits close to Trench 6 and was positioned to look at the prehistoric platform. We intended to identify how deep it is and what materials it is made up of. This has been achieved via a mix of excavation and coring by Dr Richard Tipping of Stirling University. Richard has been at the Kaims often, working long hours to gather the data to interpret the platform. At over 3m deep, heavily stratified, and over 15m wide, it really is vast and very complex.

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Trench 10 near end of season showing worked wood in abundance.

Kaims South

This area was being run by Graham Dixon. He had Becky Brummet, Tom Lally and Franzi Leja working with him. They too have had students, community volunteers and young archaeologists. Graham has now moved on to the Castle excavations and we welcome Ian Boyd and Charlotte Kerwin to the team.

Trench 9

T9 has yielded some excellent stratigraphy too. I thought we would be able to finish this trench in 2015, but I hadn’t counted on the complexity of the archaeology. The trench runs from a Neolithic land surface down into a lake edge where the organic preservation is fantastic. We’re still getting out well preserved stakes and timbers. There are literally hundreds of stake holes and planning them has been a mission. We only excavate a percentage of them, but it’s still a big task. Hopefully 2016 will provide enough information from Trench 9 for a meaningful report.

We also found a circular structure, approx. 2m in diameter. After a lot of discussion, I’m starting to think it might be a sweat lodge, similar to the ones seen in North American First Nation sites. The nearby hearth and proximity of water edge are very compelling.

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Circular structure associated with a hearth and masses of stake holes.

Trench 11

This trench is a sister trench to T9. The sheer amount of well-preserved wood is quite frightening. Much of it is worked and we have only opened a very small area. There are hints of trackways running back towards the burnt mounds, or possible sweat lodge sites, but it is much too early for any meaningful interpretation. We’re setting up hypotheses and then knocking them down, one by one.

There is also the suggestion of a paleo-channel in there too, almost certainly containing lots of wood, pollen and macrofossils.

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Trench 11 with well-preserved wood and a sand topped paleo-channel.

Experimental Archaeology

In 2015 we did a lot of experimental archaeology. We brewed beer 6 times, baked almost edible bread, worked flint tools and made tools from bone, all using prehistoric technology. Arguably the greatest success came from the woodworking. We used wooden wedges to split logs and were able to make a functioning copy of the paddle found in 2013 using just wooden wedges and a stone axe. We aim to continue this in 2016.

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Barbara and Tom splitting a log with bone and wood tools.

Community

The thing I’m most pleased with from 2015 is the community volunteers. We had 113 community volunteers on site across the season, aided by a grant from the Northumberland County Council Community Chest. We originally intended to run less than 90 person days but we were very oversubscribed, and managed to not turn anyone away. Our team of community volunteers all came from the local area and remain a dedicated and enthusiastic crew. They turn up in all weathers and I didn’t hear a single moan from anyone. They really are a pleasure to have on site and contribute massively to the excavation and general on site atmosphere. A heartfelt thankyou to everyone who volunteered last summer and we look forward to working with you again this year.

Young Archaeologist

As a part of the community engagement we also had young archaeologists on site in 2015; more than 20 in total. Their appetite for archaeology is infectious and we loved having them on site. We will definitely be having community volunteers and young archaeologists this season. They add a huge amount to the Kaims and the wider BRP.

Final thoughts…..

It’s a new season. That came horribly quickly, but we achieved a huge amount in 2015, a good deal more than I thought possible. Largely down to the hard work of a thoroughly dedicated team. Every year archaeologists gather from all over the World to come and live in Belford and dig at the Kaims. We have a truly multicultural staff and they perform miracles with limited resources. 2016 promises to be another fantastic season. The weather is good, the site is dry and we are looking forward to some hard work.

 

My thanks to everyone who helped make 2015 a brilliant season and a welcome to everyone who plans to help out in 2016.

PAG

 

If you are local and want to come and get some hands on experience then contact me at gething1966@gmail.com to book a place on one of our Community days. We are open to Community volunteers on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday throughout June and July.

If you want to come and dig for longer, at either the Castle or the Kaims, places can be booked through the BRP website.

www.bamburghresearchproject.co.uk

A Successful DVD Launch and Viewing

We had a fantastic premier at Berwick Public Library for the DVD release of A Visit to The Bradford Kaims created by the Ashington Learning Partnership Media Team. We had many members of the community attend the showing. There was a lively discussion afterwards along with the opportunity to handle some of the finds from the Kaims.

A big thanks goes out to Brian Cosgrove for organizing the film project as well as to the Media Team, Callum Lyall, Jack Wright, Cory Vallely, and Georgia Bell. Another big thanks to Berwick Public Library and staff for hosting the event.

If you never got the chance to see the video you can watch it here.

Here are some photos from the event:

Callum, Jack , Cory, and   Georgia. Photo courtesy of the Berwick Advertiser.

Callum, Jack ,Cory, and Georgia. Photo courtesy of the Berwick Advertiser.

Director Graeme Young  explaining the site

Director Graeme Young explaining the site

A packed house!

A packed house!

Director Paul Gething showing off the finds.

Director Paul Gething showing off the finds.

One last reminder about our open day at Berwick Public Library

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Just a last reminder that BRP team members and the Ashington Learning Partnership Media Team will be at Berwick public Library between 2:00 pm and 4:00 pm, tomorrow (21st April) for the public launch of the DVD on the Bradford Kaims Wetland Project.

There will be a short introduction followed by a showing of the film. Afterwards members of the BRP and the media team will be available to chat over coffee.

The library is in the town centre, on the junction of Walkergate and Chapel Street. Do make it along if you can.

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