Saturday 2 April 2016

Replicating The Aldbourne Cup

I always enjoy what I do, but lately I've had some amazing commissions, here's the story of one of them: Towards the end of 2015 I was contacted by John Dymond and Alan Heasman, from the Aldbourne Heritage Centre in Wiltshire, asking if I would be able to replicate the Aldbourne Cup for display in their museum. I knew the pot well or at least I thought I did: It was excavated by Cannon Greenwell, in October 1878, from a Bronze Age barrow near the village. Normally my replicas recreate a pot as it looked on the day it was first made, however after some discussion and various meetings of members of the Aldbourne Heritage

I had replicated it on numerous occasions based on drawings and photographs but I decided to make an appointment to visit the British Museum, the cup's current home, and have a close look at it. I'm really glad that I did, because what hadn't been obvious from the images, was the fact that the perforations that formed the decoration, were circular rather than square. Many Bronze-Age beakers, food vessels and the like, are decorated by impressing a shallow toothed comb into the wet clay, forming dotted lines. These combs are almost invariably made by cutting grooves across the edge of a flat piece of bone or antler, this results in a row square or rectangular teeth. The Aldbourne cup on the other hand, had been decorated with a comb composed of round pins, probably three 2mm pins placed in a row and sharpened at the tips to produce 1mm holes spaced 1mm apart. As luck would have it the same burial produced 2 bronze pins pretty much fitting this description, which previous investigators had suggested may have been tattooing tools. A little research yielded images of Polynesian tattooing combs, that informed my reconstruction of a tool suitable for decorating the pot.

Another peculiarity of the decoration was that, while I knew that there were two holes passing through the wall of the pot, as there are with quite a few examples of accessory vessels, in this case some of the impressed decoration actually appeared to go right through the wall of the pot. I believe that this was accidental and occurred where impressions on the outside and inside, exactly coincided with one another.

One reason why such deep decoration might be desirable is if it was intended to be filled with some contrasting coloured material for decorative effect. When looking at the original, it did appear to me that this might be the case ad I thought that in some of the holes I could detect evidence of a lighter material. For this reason I went back to the Heritage Centre members asking the question “to inlay or not to inlay”. Warwick Hood, who had done considerable research, and presented a paper to the Aldbourne Heritage Group on the subject of the cup, kindly pointed out the following reference in Canon Greenwell's 1890 Archaeolgia article, entitled “Recent Researches in Barrows in Yorkshire, Wiltshire, Berkshire, etc.”:

"There is one particular in which it is of much interest, and which has not hitherto, I believe, been observed in pottery from a British barrow. The impressions forming the pattern, and which have been made by a sharp-pointed tool, probably a bronze pricker, have been filled in with some white material like finely powdered chalk applied when in a semi-liquid state. This white material was certainly not the result of the vessel being in contact with chalk, for the surrounding earth was very dark coloured and without any admixture of chalk whatever."

The Aldbourne IV barrow had in fact contained two Aldbourne Cups and in this case Greenwell is referring to the second. Nevertheless the evidence suggested that this had been the case with both the cups and the decision was made, that in the case of the cup in original state, white chalk paste would be applied. This was done by crushing chalk to a paste with a little water, rubbing it into the decoration of the fired pot, polishing off the excess and sealing it into place with a layer of beeswax. I knew it would dramatically change the appearance of the pot, but I probably wasn't prepared for just how stunning it would look. I learned so much more but watch out for a paper later.

Although the Aldbourne Heritage Centre has been open during it's development, I was delighted to be invited to attend the official opening, along with Phil Harding of Time Team fame and Neil Wilkin, Curator, British and European Bronze Age Collection at the British Museum, where the replicas were officially handed over to the Centre.

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