The feel of ancient clay

In this post, Graham Taylor aka @pottedhistory on Twitter – a potter and Experimental Archaeologist tells us about recreating the pots that visitors can see, touch and learn about in the Neolithic Houses at Stonehenge.

solstice houses 2

The opportunity to handle a pot that was made four or five thousand years ago is something I get to do relatively often these days but it still give me a thrill. I don’t just feel the surface of ancient clay, I feel the movements of the potter’s hands, I understand the way clay behaves and it speaks to me.Stonehenge Group fullWhen English Heritage asked me to make the replica pottery for the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre and Neolithic Houses, I was given the opportunity to handle, interact with and then replicate some of the most iconic pots from prehistory.

The surface of a pot and particularly any decoration, records information about any tools that were used in its manufacture, their shape, the way they were used and sometimes the materials from which they were made. So my first task in replicating the pots, was to replicate the tools themselves. For example the beautiful little collared urn from Wilsford G7 is decorated with beautifully rounded incised lines probably using an antler tine, impressed twisted cord had been applied inside the rim and what archaeologists often refer to as “maggot marks”, actually impressed whipped cord, built up a chevron patten. All of these tools were made to emulate the size and regularity of the original decoration.

Neolithic Tool Kit

For the Wilsford G1 beaker, careful examination of the decoration revealed number of teeth per inch, and the width of the comb that applied it. This tool I made from bone and to finish the surface of the Carinated Neolithic bowl, I made a suitably shaped scraper from oyster shell.

Next comes the preparation of materials and again this comes from close scrutiny of the original pot. What type of clay has been used and what colour is it? What inclusions does it have; sand, grit, quartz, flint, shell? Was there any organic matter, such as animal dung added to it?

Armed with this information I gather the necessary materials together (yes there are some very strange things on the shelves of my workshop) and I begin mixing, wedging and kneading.

Working on Collared Urn sm

While all Neolithic and Bronze-Age pots in this country were hand formed, that is to say without the use of a wheel, I am at great pains to avoid the term “coil building” favoured by many archaeological journals. I feel it conjures up the method we were taught in primary school: rolling out long sausages of clay, then shaping them into a pot and then smearing them together. The actual process is far more robust, involving pinching, pulling and scraping the clay into its final form. In the case of the beaker I took great care to recreate the very refined form, then finish it with a layer of fine red slip (liquid clay), while the much less refined Neolithic bowl was roughly formed then burnished with a smooth pebble.

IMG_4232 Sm (800x533) Once the pot has been finished and decorated I must consider how I will fire it. Received wisdom is that all prehistoric pottery in Britain was fired in an open hearth rather than a kiln, although the finest beakers show signs that the hearth allowed for considerable control of the fuel and air supply, like a rudimentary kiln. This was also the case for the collared urn, although the carinated bowl was fired in close contact with the fuel in an open fire. Again in each case I try to emulate the original conditions as closely as possible. The resulting replicas do not look as they do after four or five thousand years in the ground, but rather as they did on the day they were made.   IMG_2603   You can find out more about Graham Taylor, the pots he makes and the workshops he runs on his website Potted History and you can learn more about Graham’s pots and the other artefacts on display in the Neolithic Houses at Stonehenge by volunteering as a house interpreter or an education volunteer. You can find out more about these opportunities on the English Heritage website. IMG_2601


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