Wednesday 25 November 2009

Egyptian Bread

Other recent bread making activity has included using the conical pots of the type used in the Valley of the Kings. Quite successful although I dont think I have got the dough consistency quite right yet.

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Sunday 22 November 2009

Roman Pottery workshops for schools

Just finished throwing 35 pots which will form the backbone of my workshop with a class of Key Stage 2 children at a Northumbrian school tomorrow. I start the day with the whole class by demonstrating how the Romans made pots on the wheel and how they made lamps in moulds. We then move on to my handling collection of replicas and sherds. during the remainder of the day I work with groups of about ten children at a time, an hour with each group and they turn my rather plain thrown pots into their own interpretations of Roman head pots. Great fun and lots of learning are generally had by all!

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Tuesday 10 November 2009

Samian at Last

I have finally managed to find the time to fire the batch of Samian Ware that I made over a month ago! Much to the relief of some of my customers!

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Monday 9 November 2009

Bread and Circuses

Although I am a potter and would normally say that this is my only real area of expertise, I have in recent years, been called upon to bake bread on several occasions. This came about because, after I built the Roman kiln for Segedunum, they asked if I could also build for them, a Roman bread oven. Not being one to turn down a challenge I said yes.

The Oven was loosely based on evidence from the ones at Chichester and Doune Primary School. It was constructed on a masonry and rubble base, using hazel withies as an integral former for the clay dome. The baking floor is made up of sandstone flags and the exterior is finished with a layer of plaster. It works on the preheating principal, whereby a wood fire is lit inside the baking chamber and the whole structure is thoroughly heated for several hours. In order to bake the fire is raked out and the floor of the oven swept, the prepared dough being placed directly onto the heated flagstones.

I have used this oven many times now and it has proved successful on every occasion. So successful in fact that it got me hooked and I just had to find out more about bread making. I started researching, making and using various pots associated with the process, from different periods of history, and possibly putting on a little weight in the process.

The Clibanus or Testum is basically a small portable oven from the Roman period and pieces of Clibani have recently been found at the Amphitheatre in Chester, where it is suggested that they were used for producing fast food. The photo shows one of my replicas in use baking bread. Again a fire is lit on a flat stone and the clibanus put next to it to preheat. The stone, once thoroughly heated, is cleaned and the dough placed on it covered by the clibanus. Hot ashes and burning charcoal are then placed on top of the clibanus, after about half an hour the pot is removed to reveal a perfectly baked loaf! Every barbecue should have one! As for the circuses? Well nobody has asked me yet!!

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It is getting cold in Northumberland!

As I think I've said before, my job is such that every day is different. I notice and am often delighted by very small and possibly insignificant things; today it was the ice from top of one of my clay processing buckets that caught my attention. It is getting cold and my tendency to work outdoors as much as possible will certainly be curtailed a little over the next few months. However cold it gets I can be certain that there I will always be surrounded by Beauty here in Northumberland. I am hoping that I can spend quite a lot of the time this winter making lots of replicas and constructing my new Roman Pottery teaching workshop. Watch this space to see if I succeed

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Saturday 26 September 2009

Experimental Archaeologist or Ancient Technology Specialist?

Who should conduct experimental archaeological experiments; archaeologists or practitioners of the particular technology under investigation? As a potter I wouldn’t dream of stomping onto an ancient site, spade in hand, and starting digging unless I was under the strict guidance of someone who knew exactly what they were doing. However there does see to be a tendency for archaeologists to construct a replica kiln, fire it, without consulting anyone who might know how to fire the thing, and then writing up the results in a learned journal as if it meant something. I’m sorry if this sounds like sour grapes but:

It was with interest that I read the recent article in Current Archaeology ‘Experimental Archaeologists Build a 14th-Century Kiln’ (CA No.235, P.7). As a professional potter and, dare I say it, ‘experimental archaeologist’ (Maybe I need a new job title!) I am delighted to see archaeology students getting to grips with ancient technology and impressed by the well built kiln shown in the photographs. But .... somewhat astonished by the timber consumption of three tonnes which is reported. In illustration 3 (not shown here for copyright reasons) the fireboxes are shown completely choked with charcoal and ash, a situation which would certainly limit or prevent temperature rise. Unlike some other heat based technologies kilns require a little and often policy when it comes to stoking, regular removal of ash build up and strict control of air flow to encourage fast ignition of the fuel.

A clean burning firebox in my kiln at Segedunum

It is also quite apparent that the walls of the structure are remarkably low, not a problem in a clamp type tile kiln where the tiles are stacked within, and well above these ‘proto walls’ which are then extended upwards as temporary daub insulation. In the illustration the chamber is not even filled to the height of the walls making it a remarkably inefficient load; fully loaded kilns fire far more efficiently than half empty ones. The top of the tile pack is apparently not capped as it would have been, again with wasters and temporary insulation. All of these factors will adversely affect the firing of the kiln.

Temporary daub dome being removed from Segedunum Kiln

The fuel itself must be completely dry; long term, managed storage of timber is something that wood firing potters accept as part of the process. Finishing of firings would often involve the use of very fast combustibles such as dried gorse (hell on the hands but great for raising temperature).

The thing that has to be borne in mind is that the people who fired these kilns had almost certainly been doing it all their lives and had learned the skills from their parents and grandparents. I have been firing wood kilns all my potting life and still acknowledge that I have a lot to learn about the process.

If this was the first firing of this kiln its firing characteristics would have been quite different to those of subsequent firings There is a risk that calculations for large scale ceramic industries are based on experiments like this one, giving a very distorted view of fuel use, manpower requirements, land usage, etc., etc.

The Norton kiln could certainly be fired on a lot less timber. I regularly fire an experimental La Tène-derived, surface built, updraft kiln of turf and clay construction, and even though this is a Romano-British kiln the firing characteristics of which are similar to this type of kiln. Its chamber would happily accommodate something in the region of 200+ Medieval tiles and yet it uses less than 150kg of timber to reach 1000 degrees C over a period of 6 to 8 hours depending on weather conditions. That is only about 5% of the fuel consumption recorded for the Norton Kiln, even given kiln differences and a margin for error it's difficult to see how you'd get up to 3 tonnes.

I’m not saying don’t experiment, in fact I’d like to see much more experimentation. What I am saying is; if you experiment with ancient technologies seek out the best expertise you can find. I love working with archaeologists and by working together we can get great results that combine the best aspects of both disciplines.

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Tuesday 8 September 2009

Stibbington Potters Wheel - Stick or Kick?




The case for classing this as a stick wheel:

Firstly I Note that radii drawn through the holes that I have marked as 1, 2, 3 on the image above (Fig.1), divide the wheel into three roughly equal segments, this would be a very sensible placing for stick holes. Furthermore holes 1 and 2 are shown in drawings, to be elliptical at the upper edge, and also appear to be so in the photograph in 'The Pottery Kilns of Roman Britain' Swan (1984), the long axes of these ellipses are at an angle of approximately 50 degrees to the radius of the wheel, descending left to right when the hole is at 12 o’clock on the wheel. The fracture of the stone at hole 3 has removed the upper surface but it too seems to exhibit an elliptical shape in approximately the same direction. When operating a stick wheel, the stick is inserted into one of the holes and force is exerted in the direction of spin, anticlockwise in the case of a right handed potter. Once the required speed is achieved the stick is withdrawn and the natural position for this to happen is when its hole is at approximately 2 o’clock, the stick is then naturally brought back to the right hand side of the potter. When the hole is at 2 o’clock the direction of drag will be approximately 50 degrees to the radius. As the stick leaves the hole it drags slightly on the trailing edge of the hole and over time this slight drag will cause the hole to wear into an ellipse. I note that some of the other holes also exhibit this same elliptical form. My own stick wheel (Fig.2) has started to exhibit exactly the same type of wear even though it has thus far made only a few hundred pots. Other, apparently random, holes may be the result of balancing, attachment to a frame, a prior existence as a mill wheel (quern), or additional stick holes when the original ones became too worn. The fact that small stones are jammed in two of the holes may be accidental but could, depending on the depth, be a device to prevent the stick sitting too deeply into the hole and becoming jammed or difficult to remove at high speed, once the holes had become excessively deepened through wear. The large central hole in the flywheel would readilly accomodate a raised wheelhead in the form of a solid log with a hole bored up the centre in which the fixed central shaft would pivot (Fig.4).


It is possible that the wheel has seen service as both a stick and a kick wheel. The worn band on the upper surface of the stone at approximately the midway point between the inner and outer rims corresponds almost exactly with the wear pattern that is developing on my own kick wheel (Fig.3). This type of wear could also develop from using the foot, or even a piece of wood, as a break, something that I do on a regular basis when using a stick wheel. A flywheel of this type could easily have provided the motive power for potters’ wheels for several generations and been required to serve different purposes for different masters. Equally it may have been used under different circumstances by the same potter. A stick wheel has several advantages over a kick wheel; not having a cumbersome frame it is inherently more portable suiting the purposes of an itinerant potter ideally; a far higher speed can be generated with a stick than can be achieved with the foot, making the production of fast, cheap ware far more attainable; its low wheel head is almost essential to the making of very large storage vessels or amphorae. The kick wheel on the other hand has the following advantages over the stick; being fixed in a frame makes it far more stable and therefore better suited to the production of finer wares such as Samian or Nene Valley colour coated wares; its setup allows for a seat and therefore much more comfortable working conditions

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Friday 4 September 2009


Just a very brief interuption to the flow of this blog to note the most joyous news that today I became a grandfather. TAAAAAARAAAAH!!

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Wednesday 2 September 2009

Questions, Questions, Questions!!!

Working at Museums, English Heritage Sites and the like, with a mixed audience of children and adults, I am constantly presented with new questions. Sometimes I have to confess that I simply don't know and I add the question to my ever growing list of things to find out!

Here I am demonstrating Roman Pottery as drawn by Katie

These are some of the more common questions and requests that I have had over the past few weeks while working as Gaivs the Potter (Yes I do dress up when needed!!):

Why do amphorae have pointed bases?
Where did amphorae come from and what did they carry?
How did the Romans make Samian Ware?
Can you show me how a Nene Valley hunt cup was decorated?
How did the Romans fire their pots?
Why do some Roman pots have faces on them?
How did the Romans use moulds to make their lamps?
What did a Roman potter’s wheel look like and how did they use it?
Can I have a go at making a moulded goddess figure?

Where did the clay come from?

These questions I can answer through a combined use of my handling collection, demonstration, hands-on activities. Other questions are not so easy to answer, some will require considerable research, some require experimental reconstruction of kilns and equipment and some will never be answered.

Some of these questions include:

Why didn't the Romans glaze many of their pots?
How long did a cooking pot last?
Why does the surface texture of Samian ware vary so much?
How hot did the Romans fire their pots?
How did the Romans package and transport their pots?

One thing I can be certain of is that; as long as I continue to engage with the public, and especially children, I will never be short of topics to research.

Someone kindly!? took a video of me working with moulds and entertaining a crowd at Corbridge the other day and has put it on Youtube: (Don't laugh, you have to entertain to teach.)

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Thursday 13 August 2009


The hypocaust under construction

It’s amazing what you can end up making as an historical potter: Children from several Skipton schools had some fun recently, when they assisted me in the rather unusual task of constructing a half scale Roman Hypocaust, or central heating system, on the pavement outside the Craven Museum on Skipton High Street. I had made and fired all the necessary parts; nearly over two hundred pilaster bricks, seventy tubular box tiles and innumerable tessarae for the floor mosaic, over the preceding few weeks and the children helped with tasks such as brick laying the pillars which support the floor, setting the floor slabs in place, constructing the walls from tubular box tiles and creating the mosaic to surface the floor. By Friday afternoon the construction phase was complete the mosaic had been set in place and all was ready for the final phase, lighting the fire and making it work. The weather obliged with a steady downpour which made the task more difficult but set the wintry atmosphere in which a centrally heated villa might seem right at home.

As the small charcoal fire beneath the floor crackled into life, the box flues drew the warm air up into the walls and modern temperature sensors recorded the steady rise in temperature above the floor seeing it soar to 120 degrees F, almost 50 degrees C. The model was so successful it has now been moved into the museum where it takes pride of place next to the architectural ceramic finds from the Kirk Sink Villa at Gargrave where it is helping to explain the function of the various artefacts.

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It's a bit of a cheat but I'm simply going to post the essence of the article that was published in the local paper regarding this topic. The pot was well featured in the programme and looked the part:

When the researcher for BBC2’s “Supersizers Eat... Roman” was looking for a specialist piece of Roman pottery to use in the programme, she knew exactly who to contact- historic potter and experimental archaeologist Graham Taylor.

Stepping into Graham Taylor’s Rothbury workshop is like a form of time travel. Neolithic urns, Bronze Age beakers, Roman amphorae and orange samian ware, sit next to jackal eared Egyptian canopic jars and medieval jugs. It’s like a cross between a museum store room and a bizarre film set. But this is the home of “Potted History”, where national museums, film makers, theatrical companies and TV production companies are coming to commission historically accurate replicas of pots.

“Most of the time I recreate items for museum handling collections- so that members of the public and schoolchildren can handle items exactly like the ones they can see in the museum display cases. But I also make pieces for archaeologists to “test to destruction” by cooking in them- using authentic historical recipes.”

“I was delighted to be able to supply ”Supersizers” a mortarium- the Roman equivalent of the food processor, as I’d enjoyed watching food critic Giles Coran and presenter Sue Perkins eat their way through various eras in the earlier series of the programme. When I heard that they were doing Roman food, I realised that it would be a big challenge for them. The Romans ate some things that we would recognise today- like bread and various meat dishes, but they also loved a fermented fish sauce known as garum or liquamen, which they exported right round the Empire in specially labelled amphorae and even added to sweet dishes. The mortarium was a vital piece of equipment in a Roman kitchen as it was used to do everything from making pesto type sauces from herbs, to grinding up meat for sausages and pates.

There’s something very special about sending a Roman replica pot off to Rome itself to be filmed in use. Apparently the Roman chef on “Supersizers” enjoyed using it so much that she became quite attached to it. But I don’t think that Sue Perkins was quite as keen! On being asked what her least favourite dish had been for the entire series she said that the Roman meal had featured three of the most awful things she’d ever eaten: a cow’s udder pâté, duck’s tongue and a pig’s womb stir-fry. So we may not be getting any delicious recipe tips from the programme, but it does sound like excellent viewing.”

Supersizers Eat Roman is scheduled to be the final episode of the new series of 6 programmes on Mondays, on BBC2 at 9pm.
In the meantime you can see examples of mortaria, liquamen amphorae and other Roman style pottery online at or on display and for sale at Crown Studio Gallery, Bridge Street Rothbury.

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Wednesday 1 April 2009

Canopic Jars and Standing Stones

Wednesday is our day off so I only unpacked a kiln before setting of on an archaeological visit, a set of canopic jars that I've made for Leicester Museum and need to be sent soon.
The visit was to the fabulous stone circle ar Duddo in Northumberland, if you haven't been there go, if you have been there go again. We absolutely loved the place, set on a small rise in the gently undulating landscape of north Northumberland this circle commands fantastic views of the Cheviots and across into Scotland to the Eildon Hills, both important prehistoric landscapes in their own right. The stones themselves are deeply grooved by millenia of water erosion a feature the has, in the past moved me to create sculptural pots (see below) but they don't even come close to the beauty of the real thing.

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Monday 30 March 2009

Back to the Wheel

Ok so I started in January with the enthusiasm of the newly converted and then............................ well I guess that the work got in the way!! Since me last entry I have been delivering Roman, Saxon and Greek pottery workshops in schools, making all manner of pots for handling collections, demonstrating Roman Pottery at Vindolanda, running a Prehistoric Pottery Workshop for adults at the Yorkshire Museum and desperately trying to get my workshop tidied up and sorted out!
The greatest highlight of the last few weeks though, has been the marriage, last week of my eldest daughter Ali and her man Charlie................Hurraaahhhh!!!!

Anyway that said, let's stick to pottery matters here with a few pictures of what I've been doing:

The Saxon Urn got fired and finished

.............As did the Gefrin pots.

and the Roman pots for Nottingham. More updates soon.
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Monday 19 January 2009

The job isn't finished till the paperwork's done!

I have just finished putting together my accounts for the Tax Man, I have great empathy with Vimes from Terry Pratchett's novel "Thud!"; "Vimes fretted through the afternoon. There was, of course, the paperwork. There was always the paperwork. The trays were only the start. .................... Vimes had got around to a Clean Desk policy. It was a clean floor that eluded him at the moment."

Anyway, the paperwork is clearing a little and it means that I can get on with the pots and the first has been the large Anglo-Saxon pot from Gefrin. So here's one I made earlier!

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Wednesday 14 January 2009

Conversations With Pots

When I handle an ancient pot it’s a little like shaking hands with the original potter; a handshake across thousands of years. I can feel the impressions made by their thumbs, the pressure of their fingers pushing the wet clay into the palm of the hand to swell out the belly of the pot, the sweep of a tool to decorate the surface. All of these movements are like frozen, or possibly more correctly, fired moments in time, preserved and waiting for me to decode. When I come to emulate their actions and re-create one of these prehistoric masterpieces, I get to know the potter a little better. A conversation takes place … “Oh I see why you did that” ….”What did you use to make that mark?”.........”Now that’s clever, decorating it like that”. The conversation may seem a little one sided but the answers come back to me from the clay. Above all the act of making a piece gives me a deep sense of respect for a fellow craftsperson.

Learning how the pots were made, how they were fired and how they were used, also tells me a little about the way these people live. People very much like us; some with time to lavish on the careful decoration of a prized possession; some making a utilitarian vessel which will fill the needs of the next few days while in a seasonal hunting camp; some making a final gift for a loved one to take into the “After Life”. I am moved by the simple rustic beauty of these pieces, but they connect me with the ancient inhabitants of this valley and these hills in a way that transcends mere aesthetics.

Sunday 4 January 2009

This month I'll be mostly making Saxon Pots

OK it's New Year and I have a mountain of Pots to make . To add to the Nottingham Pots and Samian Ware for another museum The Gefrin Trust have commissioned me to make replicas of pots from Brian Hope-Taylor's excavations at the Anglian Royal Palace of Gefrin and the Iron Age Hill fort of Yeavering. This will also include earlier pots from the site including a rather fine early Neolithic Carinated Bowl. These pots will form part of an exhibition "AD GEFRIN: PALACE OF THE KINGS OF NORTHUMBRIA" which opens on 14 February and runs till 29 March 2009 at the Old Fulling Mill Museum of Archaeology, The Banks, Durham. Further Enquiries 0191 334 1823
And last but by no means least, I am really touched and honoured to say that I have been commissioned to make a replica Saxon urn as the final resting place of the cremated remains of an archaeologist.

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