Wednesday 12 December 2018

Potted History On Screen

In terms of media work, it's been a busy couple of years and I'll be linking to a few of the resulting videos in the coming months, this one was made for English Heritage, Stonehenge, for whom you may recall from earlier posts, I made the replica Grooved Ware and Beaker pottery displayed in the Stonehenge Visitor Centre Museum and in the replica Neolithic Houses. This obviously shows a very much speeded-up version of the creation of a Neolithic Grooved Ware pot, but it does give an idea of the processes involved. Early in 2019 I'll be starting a subscription Vlog in which I'll produce monthly lecture/demo videos taking you through all aspects of Prehistoric Pottery making. I'll go into detail on everything from the selection and preparation of materials, the making and use of authentic tools, forming and decorating many different types of Neolithic, Bronze-Age and Iron Age pottery and the firing process. If you'd be interested to hear more about this, or keep informed about forthcoming workshops and replicas, sign up to my Mailing List. Or to book onto one of my one day workshops have a look at our website  

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Wednesday 5 December 2018

Prehistoric and Anglo Saxon Pottery Workshops

When I talk about making Prehistoric Pottery, Neolithic, Bronze-Age and Iron-Age, or indeed Post Roman Anglo Saxon/Early Mediaeval  ceramics, I often get the response "Oh, that's coiled isn't it?".  Coiled pottery is a term that jars with me, it conjours in the mind images of primary school classrooms with pots made of little clay sausages, gradually falling apart as they dry. The range of techniques used by potters before the Romans introduced the potters' wheel to Britain and in the centuries after Roman Rule ended, are wide and varied, they are robust and were carefully chosen to create strong, functional vessels. The same is true of their choice of tools, materials and firing method.  In a one day workshop, I can't teach you everything there is to know about Ancient Ceramics, but I can give you a pretty good grounding in the basic methods, I can show you how to select the best materials for the job and I can get you to make a couple of decent replicas. The first three workshops at our Rothbury Studio, for 2019, are now available for booking on our website

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Sunday 5 August 2018

The Writing Is On The Pots

I always say that I have a constant stream of new commissions that keeps me on my toes, often sending me off to my library to research a new technique or genre, but I think this is the first time that I've been asked to add Latin inscriptions to pieces that I've made. That's exactly what the Ashmolean Museum, Latin Inscriptions Project asked me to do, firstly in creating a full Arretine Ware, Terra Sigillata, (Samian Ware) production set: Punches, Mould and Finished Bowl.

Then there was the beautiful Victory Lamp, bearing the greeting, ANNV / NOVM / FAVTVM / FELICE(M) Annu(m) / nov(u)m / fau(s)tum /felice(m) which translates as ‘A happy and prosperous New Year!’  In this case the museum asked for not only the lamp itself, but the mould that made the lamp and the archaetype that was used to make the mould, again providing an insight into the complete making process.

And last but by no means least this set of Pan Pipes, or Syrinx. The brief did not require that the pipes should actually be able to be played, but as I had all the measurements I felt I should at least try, and they do in fact make quite a passable tune, which can be heard here  All are now in use at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford 

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Sunday 4 March 2018

Fragments: The Peregrini Lindisfarne Landscape Project


One of the biggest projects that I've been involved with this year, saw me returning to my roots as a craft/artist potter, but still with a strong history and heritage theme. This project explores the culture, heritage and landscape of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne just off the Northumberland coast.

The project is described on the Peregrini website: “Fragments is a multi-disciplinary community arts project to celebrate Holy Island and the adjacent coast, and the experiences of those involved with the Peregrini Lindisfarne Landscape Partnership” and for my part involved “the creation of six ceramic pieces that evoke the area’s rich natural and cultural heritage” with the intention being to “create a legacy for the Creative Arts and Landscape Appreciation”.  Also creating work for this project were; photographer Jose Snook, and poet Katrina Porteous with whom I had several discussions and who kindly allowed me to include passages from her poems on my pots

The project kicked off with a series of meetings with people who, in corporates talk, I suppose one would describe as “Stakeholders”.  I met with members of the local community, people from local history societies, wardens from the Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve, fishermen and many more.  From these meetings I gained a good understanding of what this landscape means to the people who live and work in it, and while there was no way I was going to be able to use all of the ideas generated, the experience gave me a really good starting point.  Beginning in August, I ran a series of clay sessions with community groups, giving each person the opportunity to create ceramic “fragments” that would form part of the final exhibition, and go on display alongside the vessels in Berwick Museum and Art Gallery in 2018. In addition each participant created their own “Fragment Vessel” which was fired and will be returned to them after the exhibition. Again, ideas and designs gleaned from these workshops have helped to inform the design of the final vessels.

Peregrini Fragments Vessels

When Archaeologists excavate a site what they find are fragments of the material culture of past civilisations but they are also the fragments of peoples lives.  Likewise palaeontologists find the fragments of fossils. Many visitors to this coast spend at least a few minutes picking up sea-worn fragments of pottery and may find along our beaches sherds that date back as far as the early Neolithic, 6000 years ago, broken clay pipes smoked by sailors and coal miners as they plied their trades, pieces of blue and white porcelain that graced the Sunday tables of fishermen and women at the end of an arduous working week, and fragments of stoneware pop bottles discarded by children after a trip to the beach.

I've been a potter all my life, always aware that the vessels I create will remain in existence, even if only in fragmentary form, for many thousands of years, I have made my mark, left my legacy. But eventually, clay being a natural material, the forces that made the clay in the first place will grind these pots to dust and return them to the earth.  Most of my work over the past fifteen years has involved working with Museums and Archaeologists to replicate the pottery of ancient cultures. More often than not this process begins with me handling and interpreting a few small fragments of original
pot.  This is what I call “Having a conversation with the original maker” I feel a real bond with my predecessors.

Almost every element of these pots has been shaped by the input that I have had from the community groups, with whom I worked during the development stages of this project.  It would however have been impossible to incorporate every memory, story, legend, important building, object, feature, character, animal, plant, etc., the final “edit” is therefore my own, so if I have missed out anything vital please forgive me.  I would however point out that I didn't want these vessels to be a “one glance” event, I want you to work to find the secrets and connections that they hide, and I hope that there are many. So if you  don't find what you are looking for on your first visit to these pots, go back for a second and third look.

Cocklawburn Vessel
The form of this vessel was inspired a Bronze Age collared urn, but greatly stretched in length, the decoration on its surface is in layers or strata, as it became clear during the community sessions that most of the things that people remembered about Cocklawburn were connected to its geology. Included within the design you will find references to the lime burning industry, coal mining, the railways and farming, but also more recent use of this landscape for recreational purposes. Look out for fossils including the now famous Rhizodont.

Sea Vessel
Taking it's form from a Post Mediaeval Jug and topped by a traditional Northumbrian Fishing Coble, albeit much forshortened.  The sea is many things to many people, especially those who live on an island and I've tried to capture some aspects of the sea in this vessel.  The lines of Katrina Porteous poem not only describe the tide but for me the describe human impact on the landscape!  

Sanctuary Vessel 
Based loosely on a traditional slipware country pottery figure group, atop a blue and white pottery vessel, ceramic colours that dominate many of the fragments found along the shoreline.  I've tried to represent the idea of refuge, safety, tranquillity and sanctuary, from war, religious persecution and everyday life.  The lines from Katrina Porteous poem “Refuge Box” dominate this vessel.

Myths & Legend Vessel
In the form of an Anglo Saxon Urn, this vessel incorporates fragments of stories myths and legends, from Cuthbert's Beads and the Laidley Worm, through the Franks Casket and visions of Dragons to the legend of the Glass Beach created by one of the youngest participants in the Community Workshops.

Conflict and Defence Vessel
This vessel is in itself a fragment, a sherd,  broken and wounded.  In it you'll find references to conflicts ancient and modern.

Teeming With Life Vessel
What it says on the pot!  In the form of an egg, itself the prototype form for most pots. You will really have to search the surface of this vessel to find all its secrets just as, when you walk in the landscape, you know it's teeming with life but it's often very difficult to see.

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Friday 2 June 2017

Firing The Vindolanda Kiln

On May 31st I, with the help of two of the stalwart Vindolanda volunteers, fired the newly built replica Roman pottery kiln at the Vindolanda Museum: See my earlier post Roman Pottery Kiln and Workshops at Vindolanda.

44 pots of varying sizes were packed tightly into the chamber, tile/amphora sherds (actually roughly made curved slabs of fired clay) were then laid over the pack.  On top of this a very coarse mix of mud, gravel and organic material was spread and finally I plastered a mix of sand and clay over the surface, leaving three exit flues at the back of the kiln, through which hot gasses could escape.

I'd made the decision to attempt a black-burnished ware / greyware firing which involves starving the kiln of oxygen towards the end of the firing causing an intensely reducing atmosphere within the chamber.  This has the combined effect of pushing carbon deep into the pores of the clay and converting iron oxide within the clay body from its red Ferric form to black Ferrous oxide.  In the case of this firing this was achieved by closing down some of the exit flues for the last 200 degrees and, once we had reached the target temperature of 900 degrees, completely sealing the top of the kiln then stoking as much fuel as possible into the firebox and then sealing it closed.

The kiln was lit at 8:30am and we began sealing the kiln at 6pm giving a total firing time of nine and a half hours and an average temperature rise of 95 degrees per hour. Once begun, firing is a continuous process, even being distracted for a few moments can result in a temperature drop. As a 21st Century potter I have the advantage of an thermocouple and pyromenter (High temperature thermometer) my Roman predecessors would have had no such technology at their disposal.  Their temperature measuring techniques would have relied on their senses: in the early stages of firing a potter needs to take things very slowly, ensuring that trapped moisture in the clay doesn't blow his/her pots apart, a hand placed over the exit flue will give an indication of temperature and whether the gasses are moist or not; once the kiln is over 600 degrees C the colour of the pots in the chamber, seen through the exit flues will give the potter all the information they need.

I arrived to open the kiln at noon the following day and upon opening one of the exit flues was surprised to smell smoke, and by the level of heat emanating from the kiln. I realised that the fuel in the firebox had converted to charcoal and that, with the influx of oxygen caused by opening the seal, it was about to reignite.  We therefore opened the firebox and immediately raked out all the accessible fuel which did indeed immediately burst into flame. We then resealed the kiln because the pots were obviously too hot to unpack, unfortunately not having anticipated this turn of events, I had not brought the pyrometer with me and there fore while I knew it was hot, I didn't know how hot!  If fired pots are cooled through the 250 to 200 degrees stage too quickly they can crack, known as "dunting", this is caused by the fact that silica molecules within the clay rearrange themselves at 226 degrees, so it's safest to wait till the kiln is below 200 degrees to open it. After a trip to my workshop to collect the pyrometer, we returned to the kiln at 4pm by which time the temperature was 186 degrees  and the decision was taken to open it.

I think the results speak for themselves, everything was well coloured by the reduction, the variations from pale grey to black being very much in keeping with Roman originals.  If you'd like to own one of the pots from this firing watch the Vindolanda website and my Blog for news, or drop me an email and I'll let you know when they come up for sale.

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