A Pennsic Pottery Kiln Interlude

I am not sure how many years they have been building a pottery kiln at Pennsic, on Long Way between Fosse Way and Wroxeter road (across the street from N31). Our household has been in its current location (N30) for over twelve years. I walk past it every year and I don’t remember it not being there. Every year I watch for the arrival of “the tarp”, and I try to get at least a couple of pictures of the process of building and using the kiln. This year my hubby took a bunch of pictures, too, so between the two of us, we have a fairly decent chronicle of the building and use of the kiln. I have never had the opportunity to actually participate in the firing process. But I am none-the-less fascinated by the kiln and I wanted to share it with all of those who may never have seen it, in the hopes that others may consider creating a similar endeavor at other locations.

This is the view of the kiln area from the street.


But when the process starts, this is what the area looks like.


The kiln is right along the edge of a small stream and takes advantage of the naturally occurring clay in that area. One of the first things that has to happen is the digging clay and the air tunnel.


Once the air tunnel that provides a solid draft for the kiln is dug, a clay liner is created for the kiln.


Here the fresh liner of gray clay has been surrounded by a combination of dirt and pieces of baked clay that are left over from previous kilns (the reddish chunks and lumps). The air tunnel is also covered with clay and then dirt and baked clay lumps, and it winds up looking like this.


The kiln after the first firing. You can see that the liner is now completely dry. The dried pottery and tiles will be stacked inside this area for firing.


After the first firing the kiln is ready to be loaded and fired up for a considerable number of hours. I had hoped to get a picture of the kiln in full firing glory this year, but they fire it overnight, and I fell asleep.

According to the description in the Pennsic gatebook, this is an English style pottery kiln. The number of firings that they manage to accomplish during Pennsic depends largely on the weather. According to the Pennsic Independent, in 2011 there were at least three firings during the war. Master Simon de Okewood teaches a class on kiln construction and then follows it up with a class on firing in a Medieval Pottery Kiln. The tiles and pottery from the children’s pottery classes are sometimes fired in this kiln, too. Allowing folks to actually take home finished pieces that they have made at Pennsic creates one of the coolest souvenirs that I can possibly think of.

Hmmmm. I guess I am going to have to move this set of classes much further up my list of things to do at Pennsic for next year. Taking a closer look at the process has made me want to take the classes even more!

Lies My Docent Told Me: Part 4

So we have discussed improperly trained docents, bad labels, out of date digital collection entries, and clerical errors in digital entries. But where does this leave us as researchers?

Simply put, you have to educate yourself. The days of just accepting what we read in a book or see in a museum have to end. They really never should have existed, but before the internet researching really was a lot more difficult. It is our job as researchers to know at least the basic science behind the artifacts that we are looking at, so that scientifically based errors will jump out at us. and it is also our job to know as much as we possibly can about a culture so that mistakes relating to cultural artifacts will stand out. And believe me, I do know how difficult this is. When I am in the shop I often get questions about some fairly obscure cultures, and sometimes I really can’t be very helpful, but I don’t make up answers.

An excellent example of why you should try to know as much as you can about a culture and its neighbors comes from several articles that I had run across many years ago. They were all excited about a female Anglo Saxon grave in England. There were whisperings of magic, you know, the standard “high priestess” stuff that we usually see in Russian news articles from Siberia. Well, let me say that there are generally no specific items that instantly made the grave anything other than a high status grave. The single exception to this that I am aware of is the presence of an iron staff in Scandinavian graves. That is legitimately thought to be something of extreme significance. But getting back to our Anglo Saxon woman. She was buried with a “magic spoon and a crystal ball”. Now she really was buried with a crystal ball – literally a piece of rock crystal in the shape of a ball – as I recall it was about 1 1/4 inches in diameter and held in a crude silver suspension loop. These crystal balls were traded all over Europe and would definitely have been a prized possession. Could they have been used for magic? Sure, why not? But it is not something that we have anything factual about. But the clincher was the spoon – obviously used for magical rites. Umm, maybe, but if you had any knowledge of Roman culture you would have instantly recognized it as a wine strainer – designed to keep the chunks from the bottom of the wine container out of your glass. The Anglo-Saxon’s used them, too, and in fact there are a couple of wine strainer spoons with Christian words and symbols on them. In fact here is a picture from the British Museum of a nice wine strainer with a chi rho and the link to the artifact record.

Chi Rho wine strainer

Aside from education, you really have to keep good records of the research that you are doing. A lot of folks are now using Pinterest as a way of organizing photographs of artifacts that they find and want to keep a record of, but there are other ways to save information, including plain old Word documents. My oldest research is located in physical file folders in a filing cabinet, but most of my newer work is organized in Word documents in folders. Starting in November of 2014 I did a eleven part blog series called “Researching on the Cheap”. The series covered all of the tricks and hints that I could think of at the time to help people research online, and keep track of their results. Here is a link to the first blog in the series. If you feel that knowing how to do better research would be helpful, I highly recommend that you read the series.

I hope that this blog inspires you to question, and then seek correct answers. That is the best that any of us can do.

Lies My Docent Told Me: Part 3

Last time we talked a bit about museum labels and digital collections. Tuning in to the details of a museum’s digital collections can really help you with your research. This record for a body chain from the Hoxne Hoard in England is an example of the best of the new British Museum artifact records. The record has good quality digital photographs, actual research data with references, and a history of the piece at the museum, including when it was purchased and when and where it has been exhibited. Unfortunately there are still many artifacts that have not been photographed, or that are represented by “old style” artifact entries. This entry is fairly typical of one of the artifacts  that does not have a picture available. And this entry is typical of one of the older records. There is no photo, only an “artists rendition” and the amount of information about the artifact is minimal. This is also an “old style” record for a Roman coin that contains really minimal information about the artifact.

It is important to be aware of what the “new” verses “old” entries in a museum data base look like. The new ones may have mistakes, but they are much more likely to be more accurate and have good photographs and references associated with them.

And lest you think that I am picking on English Museums, let me tell you about my adventures in Boston. I was in Boston on business and I had a few minutes to waste before I had to be to a meeting. I noticed that a nearby office building had small displays from the Harvard Museum collection, so of course, I went to take a look at them. The displays were in nicely lit Lucite cases on the landings of the building. There were multiple cases with collections of ivory pieces from Rome – hair pins, writing stylus’s, and small carvings. I was thoroughly enjoying looking at the well lit pieces until I noticed a carefully labeled piece – “ivory hairpin”. And there before me sat a perfectly lovely top whorl ivory spindle. It was almost completely intact, with only a tiny piece broken off of the very bottom of the shaft of the spindle. And it was labeled as an ivory hairpin. So I went to the lobby and asked who I could contact about the display of Harvard artifacts. They easily gave me a name and phone number. A couple of days later I started trying to actually track down a real person to talk to. To cut a long story short, I probably made at least 20 calls over the following month and a half, and left a couple of dozen voicemails. I called the number that I had been given, and I went online and called other numbers. I never received a single call back, and I finally gave up. I decided that if Harvard wanted to look stupid, I guess they were allowed to. And believe it or not, I found a picture on the Harvard Art Museums website – of a top whorl ivory spindle, the very one that I had seen. And it is listed as a top whorl spindle.

top whorl roman spindle

Next Time: Where Do We Go From Here?