Saturday, September 20, 2014

Turf to Tools - Input and Output

Regular Readers -  I am way behind in documenting my recent 5 weeks in Scotland, primarily at the Scottish Sculpture Worskhop and the Turf to Tools project!

One thing those interested in the mechanics of the visual arts / historical work might find illuminating : How 'what you say' gets formed into 'what they read'.
The following were my original responses to a series of questions from Emily Wyndham Grey - fully intended to be re-shaped into a blog entry.

The final blog posting (with images) that Emily crafted can be seen on the SSW blog.
It might be useful for comparison to open that link in a separate tab / window...

 Darrell, you and Eden are both collaborating for an SSW Slow Prototype, how did this come about?

Eden had send a sort request abour advice for finding natural 'primary bog iron ore' to an discussion group 'Early Iron' (on Yahoo). Since I was one of the moderators (and instigators!), and had some small experience in looking for bog iron in Canada, I answered him back. This lead to a back and forth, as he worked up to his first epxerimental iron smelt last year. One thing lead to another, gradually shapping into the Turf to Tools project. I was quite flattered to be asked to lead the project, and certainly jumped at the chance too come to Scotland and SSW.
From a rough concept last fall, a lot of pre-event planning and background research was undertaken over this last winter. I also did some experimental and prototype work on both Pictish Late Iron Age iron smelting methods and towards the Rhynie Man Axe in particular in early spring at my home workshop.

Can you give us an overview of some of the roles, responsibilities and activities that are taking place?

The *end* result of Turf to Tools is intended to be a replica of the (somewhat puzzling) Rhynie Man Axe, carved some point about 600 AD. The outline of the methods undertaken are based on the archaeology of the Culduthel site, just outside Inverness. Guiding the project are concepts of how the local environment, through available raw materials, shapes possible process. Overall, the technical and cultural references are centred on the local region, and to what could be called 'Pictish Late Iron Age' (so post Roman and pre Viking).
The whole is also an exercise in experimental archaelogy. As much as possible, we will be working with individual elements at least suggested by historic methods, attempting to reduce more modern practice as the project progresses.
There are four major components to the chain of Turf to Tool : Gathering materials / smelting ore to iron bloom / compressing the bloom to working bar / forging bar to object.
We are intending three individual iron smelting attempts. A first smelt needs to include the building of a furnace, in this case patterned after the archaeological remains of those found at Culduthel. (A site with a longer occupation, but with a total of 9 furnaces uncovered, the latest dated roughly 200 + AD.) The plan for the second smelt is to utilize the specialized 'Macaulayite' ore, a type distinctive to only the local area around Lumsden / Rhynie. (Scheduled for Saturday August 16.) For the last smelt we hope to utilize human powered air - using an early period drum bellows. Scheduled for Saturday August 23, this will be more of a public demonstration event, with planned assistance of staff from the  Scottish Crannog Centre and visiting archaeologists and researchers.
A less understood element is the conversion process of compacting a raw iron bloom down into a working bar. There is more art than science here, as each bloom can be quite distinctive in terms of quality, size and shape. In simple terms, the spongy bloom needs to be cut to working sized pieces, then compacted down. This is all done at a high 'welding heat, formed under the hand hammer, and repeatedly drawn, folded and welded to remove slag impurities and seal voids and cracks. 'Bloom to Bar' work is scheduled after each of the individual smelts, working with the blooms produced.
It is only once all that is accomplished that the work turns to actually forging out a replica of the Rhynie axe. Before the valuable bloom iron is used, several prototypes of modern steel will be made. The axe is actually an 'unusual' object, for which there no existing examples are known from Scotland. Just what the Rhynie Man represents, or what the axe might have been intended for, is open to several interpretations. Those in turn effect the possible shape in detail of the object, which also effects the possible way the forging itself needs to be undertaken. The intent is to make a number of replicas, so to examine these possibilities. Finally, one axe will be made from the bloom / bar material created within the project.

What in particular inspired you regarding the archaeological finds in Rhynie?

For myself, my primary research and practical experimentation as been with slightly later Vikng Age / Norse archaeology. The raw technology utilized to smelt iron ore, then compress it to working bar, is certain to be much the same for the Picts of the post Roman era. Axes themselves are working tools, and as such generally conform to basic shapes and methods of production. If anything, one of the overall problems in shaping Turf to Tools is the how uncommon axe finds are for pre Viking Age, with only 15 found, all to the south in England. Rhynie Man's Axe thus depicts a 'rare' and quite distinctive object in itself.
The technical requirements of a correctly functioning iron smelting furnace are always modified by the interplay of available raw materials. Even in ancient times, there would be modifications required from a kind of 'theoretical template' furnace into something best suited to those precise local resources. One of the challenges of any attempt to replicate past process is having an awareness of how centuries of human activity have in fact modified, or in fact totally consumed, what where the original resources.
One of the most interesting aspects to the puzzle of history is attempting to get some understanding of just what might be the original intent of a figure like Rhynie Man. A king at cerimony? A mythic figure 'chained' in a representation? The defeat of an invader memorialized?
Creating a working replica of the Rhynie Man Axe may yield some clues. An object in hand can often tell you far more than a carving by some long dust ancient artist.

How have you found your experience of collaborating with SSW so far?

I am long used to working quite alone inside my interest in ancient object and processes. I extremely excited by the chance to put my past experience in 'Early Iron' into the mix for the Turf to Tool project. (And honestly, at first a bit intimitated by a potential leadership role.)
There is nothing like SSW existing in my home region of Ontario in Canada. So, as an artist, the concept of working inside a larger collaborative group is outside my noral experience. The oportunity to shape a project within a larger framework of working artists is one I know will enrich my own practice, even after this project is over. 

Saturday, September 06, 2014

As Rhynie Man - 2

Image by David Porter

the Rhynie Man

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

First Iron Smelt for 'Turf to Tools'

This is a fast overview of the progress so far at the "Turf to Tools' project at the Scottish Sculpture Workshop:

Team : (L-R) Thomas, James, Eden, Darrell

Air System, just as first graded charcoal is being added.

Initial Compaction - slag mass has been struck off at this point.

Forging the edges of the bloom.
I arrived at SSW later on Friday.
Saturday was filled with general preparations, and forging up some of the specialized tools expected to be needed for the smelting processes.
Sunday was preparing the ore and charcoal, then mixing the materials for the furnace and building it. (For a general description, see the earlier blog posts.)
Monday was smelt day - expected to be the first of three over the project.

31 kg of mixed ores were prepared. Primarily this was a mix of the local (unusual!) Macaulayite ore, with added industrial taconite. There was a small amount of red iron oxide analog used as well.

The furnace ran extremely well, consuming 2 kg of graded charcoal an average of every 11 minutes. This rate was much more consistent than normal in fact. Charges started with 1 kg, and mounted up to 2 kg per charcoal measure.

There was in fact more slag produced than normally seen.
The slag bowl formed higher than usual, and had a sharp edge turned up only about half way across the furnace. This was thought to be because of the blower used, which likely was not producing as much delivery pressure as the standard unit employed back in Wareham.

The finished bloom weight was just over 2 kg, not the best yield. This is considered to be an effect of the Macaulayite ore, which in fact may be a bit low in iron content. (Visually, this material looked quite 'sandy'.)
The extracted bloom, cleaned of slag, was a saucer shape, about 5 cm thick at the edges and roughly 20 cm in diameter.
Several compression steps were taken  on a large block using two strikers. At this point the 'plate' was transferred to a coal forge, where the edges were worked in and the entire mass was further compressed.
Work for this day (!!)  finished up by cutting the bloom into two rough half pieces, ready for further compacting and welding to consoldate the iron to a working bar - the work planned for Wednesday.
The initial furnace build was done

Monday, July 28, 2014


Copied directly from the SSW web site:

NEW Course!

Tuesday, 8th 2014f July, 2014

From Turf to Tools - The Aristotle Furnace
Artisan Blacksmith Darrell Markewitz will be leading a weekend course in bloomery iron production. Darrell, joining us from Canada for the Turf to Tools project, has over 35 years experience as an artisan blacksmith, with particular experience in ancient bloomery and forge processes.
This course is for anyone interested in metal as material, as well as those studying historic ironworking processes – in production or research. All participants will find the Aristotle a quick 'table top' method for producing small amounts of useful metal. The 'Aristotle Furnace' is a small charcoal furnace that will convert any kind of iron into a cake of metal with a set carbon content. In effect it allows conversion of scrap into a tool making material. The resulting 'puck' has the physical texture of a bloomery iron, but at a carbon level suitable for cutting blades.

In this two day / 16 hour-long hands on workshop, participants will first build, then operate their own furnace. A number of roughly 500 gm 'pucks' of metal will be made, experimenting with different starting materials. Finally, using a coal forge, individual pucks can be consolidated into working bars. If time permits, a small Iron Age style chisel or blade can be rough forged.

The course is open to all regardless of previous experience or ability, although those with background or knowledge in metal processes will definitely gain an invaluable experience – not to mention a new table top furnace that you can take away with you. All materials are included in the course fee, and participants will be provided with all the tools and safety equipment needed. Students must come dressed in long pants, all clothing of natural fibres (cotton, wool) only. Boots of some sort are required, ideally above ankle height.
Your instructor is Darrell Markewitz. He is a professional artisan blacksmith from Ontario, Canada, with over 35 years experience at the forge. A major area of his work has been with objects and processes from the Viking Age. He designed, created and implemented the living history program at L'Anse aux Meadows NHSC for Parks Canada, ongoing since 1996. His involvement with Ancient and Early Medieval bloomery iron smelting started in 2001, and he has undertaken over 55 experimental smelts since then. He is one of the founding members (and instigators) of the Early Iron movement in North America. Find out more via his web site
Title:   Aristotle Furnance
Date:  10am - 6pm Saturday 30 August to Sunday 31 August
Venue: Scottish Sculpture Workshop
Price: £180
To Book: please emaily or call 01464 861372


February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

COPYRIGHT NOTICE - All posted text and images @ Darrell Markewitz.
No duplication, in whole or in part, is permitted without the author's expressed written permission.
For a detailed copyright statement : go HERE