Thursday, December 31, 2009

AVATAR (yet another) Review

An old description of 'Critic' is : ' A commentator, not being creative themselves, who thus hates ALL creative people equally.'

I was set back a fair amount by all the pre release commentary by the film critics related to AVATAR, especially those from those few who I actually (normally) respect the opinion of. What I saw in early stills and clips as some obvious swiping of Roger Dean's visions in the concept art also displeased me. But frankly, neither would have stopped me from seeing this film.

Now I personally found that the oh so obvious duplication of American Indian cultural aspects in the alien Na'vi NOT as annoying as I thought I might (given the Critic's harping on this). The sequence with our hero Jake Sulley (as Na'vi) being introduced to the tribe was almost a rotoscope from the 1992 'Last of the Mohicans'. (I kept waiting for that first blow to fall, like it did on Hawkeye as he entered the Mohawk village.) I did find the circle chants of the mystic calling of power near the end of the film a bit trite. It is a bit disappointing that after Cameron insisting on so much loving detail. The language of the Na'vi and the depth of care on the environment of Pandora as the best examples. I was thus surprised that the anthropology of an ALIEN culture was not delved into. Did Cameron think the audience could not empathize with The People if we could not see something oh so familiar? Even considering our human tribal cultures as a model, there could have been much more use of gesture in communications as a good example. (Anyone remember 'Quest for Fire'?) Personally, this lack of depth in the Na'vi culture I found the films biggest disappointment for me.

Like others, I would have like to have seen a bit more depth to the dialog, a few more characters not so very black and white in their depiction. And 'Unatainium' - come on! I also found the care lavished on the ecology of Pandora and the language of the Na'vi did not extend to the human military depictions. Although the smaller ducted combat machines were wonderful, the larger craft 'hung in the air the way a brick doesn't'. There were just too many plain stupid aspects to the human ground combat equipment and behaviours of the troops. A hand gun worn in an off leg reverse draw holster? It may have looked kool - but just plain dumb for what was supposed to be a long seasoned veteran.

But this film is a visual triumph. And perhaps those of you out there hooked on dialog might consider AVATAR as an artist would - as story through images. Yes, there could have been more development of sharing of opposing world views between Jake and Neytiri. But really, its all there in the visuals.
If the overall plot had a weakness for me, it was its predictability. Yes, sometimes two cultures just will NOT have a point of understanding and intersection. "We just don't have anything they want" precludes the kind of (often tedious) deep phsycological angst that the critics seemed to be insisting on from James Cameron. Yes the hero gets the girl, saves the day and makes the predictable choice at the end of the film. What did you expect?

As for the use of digitalized performances - was just astounding. I was completely drawn in after the first five minutes of the introduction of the avatar bodies. Maybe because the integration of actor and animation was itself a convincing avatar, and there was so much other eye candy to focus on. The facial features and reactions were visibly correct, so quickly I just stopped considering it a 'trick'. Sigourney Weaver, in digitized alien form, was instantly recognizable. And forget any whining that actors are being replaced here. Body language and all the details of facial expression were clearly the actors own. Truthfully, I was completely drawn in by the characterizations.

As a piece of stunning visuals around a solid piece of action adventure, Avatar delivers. I quite enjoyed it, and very glad we made the difficult trip through bad winter weather down to Orangeville to see it on the big screen. (Others have commented on the power of IMAX and 3-D - never to be seen in small town Ontario!) As fate would have it, the blowing snow had us arrive mid way through the trailers (and bloody commercials!) so we ended up sitting dead centre, and pretty close. Not IMAX maybe, but close enough to fall into the action.

A quite intelligent review from Grondzilla is worth reading too.

Images seen here are stolen from the 'Coming Soon' web site (

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Vinland 2 Smelt - Report Available

The detailed report on the second smelt in the Vinland series (Ocotober 10, 2009) is now finished and available on the main Wareham iron smelting web documentation.

I'm also in the process of going back and adding a new topic label L'Anse aux Meadows to help those interested in that area specifically to more easily find related postings.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Modern Iron Smelting

Readers following the experimental iron smelting discussions here will find this of interest:

How Stuff Works - Ore to Steel
Watch the YouTube Video

" Turning low grade iron ore into the most used metal in the world is no easy task. Learn how this hot process works on Discovery Channel's "HowStuffWorks" show. "

Two things of note:
First is the raw scale of modern industrial smelting. Aspects that our experiments measure in single kilos are scaled in hundreds of tonnes.
Second - the use of the INDIRECT process, not the DIRECT process that we use.

Modern industrial process avoids the whole problem of carbon control inside the primary smelt, but simply allowing the developing metal to absorb enough carbon to create 'cast' iron. This results in a liquid, which is easily poured off from below the upper slag layer. A secondary process (involving straight oxygen, not described on the video) is used to burn out carbon from the metal to the desired amounts.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Spreading Flat Bar

This is another 'work in progress' clip I shot yesterday while working on the Richards House Railing project:

A new clip on YouTube

The work shown is preparing the ends of each of the heavy flat bars that compose the individual upright elements of the railing. The starting material is 3/8 thick by 1 1/2 wide. As you can see in the clip, these are slightly upset and knocked to a diagonal as the first step. Then each is spread under a Hoffi style crown die under my small air hammer. You will see that the construction of the hammer only allows me (easily) to use a profile die on the bottom surface. Next the surface is worked over with a hand hammer (1000 gm)to remove the marks from the die. The finial step is to straighten one side of the bar and even out the curved line on the other side.

The next stage for each element is drawing down from the centre of each bar towards the spread line at the end. At the narrowest part of each element, the stock is hammered to roughly 1 inch wide, increasing the thickness to about 1/2 inch. These tapers run about 34 - 38 inches long (depending on the individual element. Last each element is formed into a wide semi elliptical curve to fit the overall layout.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

2009 'Vinland' Smelt Reports

For those of you looking for iron smelting / Viking Age related topics!

I have been trying to get the images and information documented for the 2009 'Vinland' smelt series together and up on to the main iron smelting web site.
If your check, you will see a number of changes :
- Inclusion of all the available iron smelting clips on YouTube
- A fast index of the individual postings related to the research for the Vinland series
- Individual report on the Vinland 1 smelt (May)

I'm still working up the longer written report (with images) for Vinland 2 (October)

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Far From Home - but not Forgotten

An open letter to members of the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan:

I have wanted to write someone 'over there' for a good while now, and a recent mention of a remotely known fellow re-enator, now serving in Afghanistan, served as a spark. So yesterday I sat, just up on Christmas morning, gifts delayed while I typed this note. The post here is edited from that letter.

I served four years in the Canadian Reserves, just after the Viet Nam War. Split between the Hastings and Prince Edward in Peterborough and the Toronto Scottish. Maybe not the best of soldiers, in terms of following BS orders. The times were significant, as a goodly number of the older hands who taught me had served in 'Nam, and I did pay attention to the lessons that leaked out. This did not sit well when I transferred to the Toronto regiment, which was full of real armchair types, who as urban dwellers had not one clue about life in the field. When these bozos started enforcing their obsolete paper manual regulations on personal kit, I just figured I had about enough. I just could not face the (remote) possibility of ever having to actually enter combat with any of these people at my back.
In those days, they used to give away even remote, much less foreign, postings like special 'atta boy' prizes. If you bucked the system, you were just never were going anywhere. At the time the UN component was in Israel / Egypt and in Cyprus. I had close friends who did tours in both, but I never got the chance.
So I guess you could say I'm slightly better informed about the life of a Grunt than the average Joe Canadian Public, but admittedly both limited in scope and a good generation out of tune with the modern day. I have listened close to (once Major) Dr Neil Pritchard, who I know somewhat through a mutual close friend. Neil served in one of the field hospitals in Kandahar, and was openly honest and critical about Canada's and NATO's role. "Ether get frightfully serious - or get the hell out". He was busted back to Captain when he got back after his last rotation, not surprising if you know him (yet another shit disturber from way back).

Anyway, the point of all that background is this:

Sent far from home, not understood by the public, and not given clear orders by the politicians, there you and your comrades squat in the dust. May the gods keep you all.

A good while back (last year?) the CBC had aired a documentary centred on a section operating as security along a section of road between two of the major 'secured' towns. The reporter just didn't get any of it. With a little experience, you could clearly see what the troops had clearly been instructed NOT to say. When your on patrol and walking through four inches of liquid dust, through land cut with 1000 year old irrigation channels, when you sleep with your webbing on - well, I felt the unease. What a fucking situation to send soldiers into!

So, some of us know - or at least can put the pieces together enough to suspect and understand. I would like to see you all come home. No outside force has ever been able to make a mark on that place, going back at least to the British of the 1800's, and more like for thousands of years. If neither the Brits or the Russians in their time could alter the life patterns of the Afghans, its just typical American Government* arrogance to think they and their 'Collation of the Willing' can make a dint. The cost in your blood is just too high.

But the politicians decided to send you, and young and willing, our soldiers have never failed to 'answer the call'. Now you ARE there, in my opinion, Canada's support has to be total. Both while you are in that rat hole, and for long after. For me, it is the sacred contract between the pampered civilian and the warrior who stands in harms way: Never to send the troops unless you are willing provide absolutely everything that is needed. Allow the soldiers undertake their tasks with massive frightfulness if that is called for, never attempting to micro-manage from the sidelines. And when its over, never to forget the price paid on our behalf, rewarding that service for as long as required.

I am heartened, back here 'in the World' how despite increasing discomfort about Canada's role in Afghanistan, the support for the soldiers themselves has never wavered. As the butchers bill is added too, the public still understands that the men and women themselves deserve our honour, and everything we can provide them.

So stay loose. Catch zees when you can. May your rations be fresh and hot, your mail get to you quickly, and showers plentiful. May the odd beer find you, cold and crisp.

Get home.

(once MCpl) Darrell 'Monk' Markewitz

* Addition :
I would invite any readers to check the well considered comment left by Sean Valdrow.
He says in part:

" As an American, I take exception to your remark about American arrogance. ... specifically: 1) the American government is what shows the arrogance, and not so much the people of America. ..."
He is of course, absolutely correct. It is not reasonable for me, or anyone, to attribute to my many American born friends, as personal qualities, attitudes which particularly the recent Bush administrations pretty much rammed down the mouths of the American people. I have changed the text to reflect this.
Few of us in Canada (at least within my group of friends) would want to be blamed for the attitudes of OUR current (Harper) government either.

Monday, December 21, 2009

'Does anyone here remember - Roger Dean?'

Well - Now that Avatar by James Cameron has officially been released, and a few more video clips and stills are available, I think I really have to comment on something that struck me the very first time I saw the first images:

Did British artist Roger Dean get any credit for what is clearly an extension of his own imaginative works from the 1970's?

(Note - the remote access images sometimes do not load - so use the links)
"The above image is one of the best concept art images released to date for James Cameron’s Avatar. The image is by artist Dylan Cole"
Floating Mountains - from AvatarFlying Creature - from Avatar
Floating Jungle is the picture created by Roger for the Yes box set "In a Word: Yes (1969 - )".Flights of Icarus, one of the images from the worlds of Roger Dean's Floating Islands

Now, I would have bought my original copy of Roger Dean's book 'Views' pretty close to when it was first published in 1975. I started art school just about that point, and I know that volume of illustrations, album covers and concept designs, had a profound effect on my own developing style. (If you are interested, check the profile of my 'Riverdale' metalwork style and the influences that I drew on.)

Nothing comes out of a vacuum, I would be the first to admit. But those who are familiar with the striking set of covers for the British band Yes illustrated by Dean over the early 70's can not fail to see the outright duplication of ideas, lines - even colours.

When LIFE imitates art, that can be amazing.

When ART imitates ART, well, there is another word for it...

PS - I would recommend readers to take a look at Roger Dean's own web site at :

Addition : 1/21/10

In the month since I first posted this piece, a couple of things of note have happened:
First, I have gone and seen AVATAR, and quite enjoyed it. I published my review of the film in general as 'Avatar (yet another) Review'.
Second, there has been this weird and massive increase of readers. An increase of something like 3 X the number of readers in the last month. Admittedly, most of them starting right at the piece you see here. I can only hope any of you parachuting in on the Avatar target might take a look at some of the other offerings. If you are a fantasy film buff, you might find my work on objects for Outlander of some interest. (If you are *really* interested, search above for 'Outlander', there are a good half dozen plus posts altogether.)
Third, I would suggest you take a look at the comments (below) from other readers related to this topic. Seems I'm hardly the only one who noticed the similarity to Dean's work. And no, there was no mention of Roger Dean in the film end credits (I sat through them all). According on one comment, Cameron quite specifically denied that Dean was a source of any inspiration.
Imagine that!

I have drawn most of the images directly from the official web sites containing them. The bottom image was scanned from the cover of Dean's second volume of work - 'Magnetic Storm'.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Richards House Railing One

On an earlier post (Where do IDEAS come from?) I had described the design aspects of the current Richards House project in Toronto. The first of the hand rails was installed on Saturday.
Comparing the design rough with the finished metal gives you some idea how in my work, there is almost always a translation between concept and execution.
For me, part of the 'art' lies in appreciating and integrating the shapes as they develop, rather than slavishly copying a blueprint.

Original rough for the north side railing

View from the front walkway.

View from the top of the porch.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

*Iron* Age vs *Viking* Age?

Re - "A 'New Age Fake Mystic Cash Cow' Design"

Ny Björn Gustafsson had left a comment :

" I'd say that someone saw an early Iron-Age belt hook (before ~100 AD buckles weren't used to any greater extent in Scandiland) and got creative...

Here's a page displaying 2 (admittedly quite corroded) hooks from south-west Sweden: "

Thanks to Ny for that reference!

Without delving deeper into this, one thing does strike me right off the top : Iron Age does not equal Viking Age.

Now, this points out an important problem, which I have run into myself when talking to those from Scandinavia. I mean, these are the descendants of the Norse themselves, from the very lands all these artifacts are coming from in the first place - right?

The 'problem' is this: The pegging of a specific 'Viking Age' is a British concept, based on the historic events inside England. The Scandinavians themselves see the slicing up of history differently!

To the British, the impact of the Norse is an external force, normally determined by two major events, the sacking of Lindisfarne in 793 and the Conquest in 1066. The most typical short hand dates thus given for 'The Viking Age' are 800 - 1000 AD.
The problem with this view is that obviously the Norse material culture did not spring fully developed out of nothing. The men on that initial raid had technologically advanced (and a mature technology) ships, a fully developed artistic style, a distinctive world view and religion. This was hardly the first such raid on to English soil, it was just the one that finally shocked the British at large.
Obviously the Conquest of England is completely a British centred event. These were Normans on top of all that, and it should be pointed out that William little resembled any Norse cousins he might have had back in Denmark.

You even have to be careful of the use of the term 'Norse', which I define as a specific material cultural set. To an Icelander, Norse means exclusively 'from Norway'. You will find recent writings on Greenland's history will refer to the Norse as the period extending up to the final collapse of the original European settlement about 1425. Obviously someone living there in 1400 is, in terms of material culture, really 'Medieval'.

In Scandinavia itself, the dividing lines that are used are quite different. Most typically 'Prehistoric' means quite literally 'before written records', meaning before books and Latin. Some texts I've read use the 'official adoption of Christianity' as the break point. So most commonly (and certainly in the case of older museums and reports) there is a dividing line is between Prehistoric and Medieval, ranging from 1000 - 1100 AD. The 'Viking Age' materials are usually placed at the end of the 'Prehistoric Iron Age', which in Denmark for example, extends back at least to 1000 BC.

Now this has changed over the last 30 years, as the interest in the specific material culture we would consider 'Viking Age' has intensified. I did find even still, smaller museums I visited in Denmark still had those Viking Age objects placed alongside much earlier objects from the same locations. Remember that outside of specific town sites (many of which were founded in the Viking Age) many occupation areas had been in more or less constant use for thousands of years.

How different was your own life on the first morning of the 21st Century?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Objects - Authenticity Levels?

One of the things that all of us in DARC are struggling with right now is gathering the collection of objects we will need for our presentation at L'Anse aux Meadows in August of 2010. This is a major undertaking for the group, and we all want all aspects of our presentation to be at the highest standard possible.

Picking 'what they carried' is key to the image of the Viking Age that we will create. Objects define the characters and shape the activities undertaken. By serving as jumping off points for conversation, objects help mold possible discussions.

To avoid some confusion, often there is a differentiation made between 'reproductions' and 'replicas'. Reproductions are generally held to be duplicates of the artifacts as they now exist (partial or corroded for example). Replicas are generally considered to be a duplicate of an object when it was 'new'. Our interest here is primarily on replicas, be it duplicates of a specific objects, or something within a known type of object.

There are a number of criteria under which any specific replica object might be evaluated. This can get a bit confusing, as there is considerable overlap in the qualities expected, especially at the higher levels of detailing.

One set of considerations involves the general historical authenticity of a purpose made object. This primarily as assessment of the specific artifact prototype chosen :

Level One : Historic / Not Modern

This is perhaps so obvious that sometimes as a separate level it is disregarded. Here, obviously modern era objects are avoided and replaced with a sample from past history. An axe is used instead of a chain saw, a flame for lighting over electricity, clothing has the feel of 'costume'. Generally the combined effect of a collection of such objects is to leave the viewer with the impression of the scene being 'not modern day' but the exact historic period being represented may not be immediately obvious.

Level Two : Time Period

The object now will fit into the general types known from artifact samples from over the spread of the historic period of interest. A elements from a number of specific sources may be combined into one replica. An axe has a specific shape to head and handle, an oil lamp may replace a candle, clothing now has the feel of 'ethnic costume'.

Level Three - Cultural Set

At this point objects begin to draw on quite specific cultural prototypes. (Danish rather than Saxon for example.) There may be a narrowing of selection to reflect individual geographical locations. There will start to be a narrowing of focus to match the artifacts chosen against their specific functions. A combat axe as distinguished from a felling axe for example.

Level Four - Specifics

The last level is a bit harder to define, as it relates to quite specific narrowing of the artifact prototypes under consideration. Ideally, the choice would be all of A/B/C. In actual fact, it is often not possible to find an existing artifact that can fit all three characteristics. At this point, the detail of the persona characterization may become an important factor in determining the specifics chosen:

Level Four A - Date
Which may be extended backwards by 'heirloom objects'. The turtle brooches in Iceland a perfect example.

Level Four B - Location
Which may be extended by trade networks. Birka having a wider assortment than the backwoods of Iceland for example. Care needs to taken to avoid the obviously 'one of a kind' samples (See the 'Golden Buddha Rule')

Level Four C - Social Status
Which is often something that restricts the range UP - not as much DOWN. Even a king might use a wooden spoon! Most often this restricts overall quality and choice of materials, a brooch of simple iron rather than one of engraved silver.

A second evaluation can be made by looking purely from the standpoint of experimental archaeology. This is an assessment of the production methods used to create the replica. Potential historic accuracy of any object inside a living history presentation can be made on the following four point scale:

Level one is 'Form':

Here the rough appearance of an artifact is duplicated. This produces an object which is essentially decorative only ( a stage prop), and where the both the physical materials and production techniques used may be modern. Such an item will be acceptable when viewed from a distance of several feet. For example, most clothing used in historical presentations falls into this category - the cut may be loosely based on period types, but usually the fabrics are modern and sewing machines are used in the construction. Generally only the simplest of information may be gathered through the use of objects of this level.

Level two is 'Function':

Here the utility of an artifact is duplicated. Some care has been used to match materials and processes to match an existing artifact type. This item would be acceptable when held in the hand and would match the general performance in use of an original. A good example would be a hand forged axe properly heat treated and balanced. Although made using modern materials, there would not be a large difference in handling between these items and an original artifacts. Basic information about the characteristics of an object can be gained at this level.

Level three is 'Materials':

Here the original materials and production methods are duplicated, with special care made to duplicate the exact measurements of an individual artifact. A reproduction shawl made of wool and hand woven; with careful choice of colour and thread textures would be an example. Although it would not be required that the fleece to have been naturally dyed or hand spun, there would be no observable difference to indicate modern steps in the chain. The process of creating the object is now a source of information as well as that supplied by its actual use.

Level four is 'Processing':

At this point the raw materials themselves are created using period techniques, followed by using period production methods to produce an exact replica of a specific object. The item will be acceptable even using detailed analysis. At this level, the chain of production often becomes quite involved. For example, the production of an iron boat rivet (such as found at L'Anse aux Meadows) could involve recreating a charcoal kiln, processing bog iron in a bowl furnace to produce the iron rods, then finally the manufacture of the rivet itself using period styled forge and tools. Because of the complexity and scope of such experiments, the amount of data gathered is large and can often result in unexpected findings.

Applications :

When considering the objects to be included in DARC''s presentation at L'Anse aux Meadows in 2010:

Considering Historical Authenticity (Prototypes):

Every attempt should be to include as many objects as possible that exist at the full range of Level 4 (Specifics). Ideally all of date / location / status should be matched to individual characterizations.
(The original set of objects for LAM were detailed between Level 2 and Level 3, this primarily in an attempt to portray the wider range of Norse material culture.)

Considering Historical Accuracy (Production):

Ideally the majority of our objects will confirm to Level Three (Materials). Those demonstrating individual crafts specialties should endeavor to include some objects at Level Four (Production).
(The original set of objects for LAM were detailed between Level 1 and Level 2, with a selected few at Level 3. This primarily due to a quite restrictive budget.)

A possible third set of qualifications can be to sort objects by their effective contact distances. That is the distance where any differences from historic prototypes become obvious.

Across the room - 10 feet
During conversation - 3 feet
In the hand - 1 foot
Detailed look - 6 inches
Scientific observation - a magnifying glass

Steve Strang made an important observation, based on his experience working a number of different historic periods :
'Any object should have a level of authenticity which matches its normal observation distance.'
What he is getting at here is that differing objects are intended for different 'contact distances'. At a minimum there should be no easily observable modern aspects at that distance. A piece of clothing should have hand sewn seams on the outside edges, but any seams underneath are not observed, and can thus be modern machine stitching. A knife blade could be made of roughly polished stainless steel, as normally it is never placed in the hands of visitor. A drop spindle, which might often be placed in the hands of a visitor, needs to have a high level of detailing.

Generally this means that all our objects must pass observation at a distance of at least three feet (conversation distance) as a bare minimum. A very good number need to pass observation at one foot (in the hand). There may be some rare few that need to withstand observation at six inches (close to the face).

One last general guideline is from Bruce Blackistone - 'Uncle Atli's Bronze Buddha Rule' :
'No more than one really weird/exotic/semi-improbable item in the camp at an event; and it must have a logical, historical explanation.*'
* Such as: "This odd statue came from my uncle who traded for it in
Miklagard" NOT "When I ventured through China and Japan after being
kidnapped by Gypsy pirates, I became a Buddhist."
(Note: This is an expansion of a segment I wrote for 'Interpreting the Viking Age' in 2000. It should be considered to be FULLY COPYRIGHT material. )

Monday, December 07, 2009

Vinland Smelt - Matching the Evidence.

How close are our experimental attempts to the actual recovered Archaeology?

The purpose of our most recent series of experimental iron smelts is to attempt to match, as best we can, the single firing that occurred at 'Leif's Houses' some time about 1000 AD.

Leaving aside all the problems and issues related to the difficulty of ever being able to reproduce a historical event, especially one so poorly understood as what may have actually happened at Vinland, what does the archaeological evidence indicate. Do our attempts leave similar traces on the ground?

For the LAM 3 smelt (November 7, 2009), the primary equipments were all Viking Age types. Most importantly, this included the use of human powered air via a double chamber bellows. One of the possible interpretations of the large pit in the front left of the LAM site is that it marks the location of a slack tub*. (For a full discussion on how the current experiment series was designed, see the earlier postings : 'A Furnace for Vinland', 'Construction Possibilities', 'LAM Smelt Working Area' )

Diagram of Furnace Hut.
LAM 3 Rough Equipment placement.
Overview after LAM 3 smelt.

Of course, the archaeology records only the remains of the complex series of steps that combine for a successful iron smelt, and its secondary processes in compacting the bloom and converting the mass to a working bar. First, the archaeologists will remove materials down to the original ground surface, removing (and hopefully carefully recording) materials above this. Second, it will only be the last of the working stages in the overall process that are likely to remain as evidence. The images of our 'excavations' have been altered to roughly match the scale, orientation and size of the original LAM excavation photograph.

Furnace Hut, Remains of Hearth (to ground surface)
Remains of LAM 2 (to ground surface)
LAM 3 Remains after extraction

The large stone found to the left of the hearth in the Furnace Hut at LAM is interpreted as being used for some form of blacksmithing work (compacting bloom to bar?). It is my opinion that it was placed after the primary smelt sequence.
The central photograph was taken after the LAM 2 smelt on October 11, 2009. The next day the smelting area was 'excavated' by Anitoly Vencovcey. The image shows the remains cleared away to the original ground level, 'surface polished' as in the LAM excavation photo to the left. The primary difference is that the cleared surface is flat, while that at LAM shows a shallow bowl shape.
The third image is of the LAM 3 experiment, the remains of the smelter base just after extraction. In this case the extraction process was undertaken a bit too slowly, so dropping temperatures inside the furnace caused the slag mass to congeal around the bloom. The effort of pulling the mass free resulted in the top 2/3 of the furnace being pulled away.
Now, if work had continued past the initial extraction and primary consolidation step, the furnace base as it remains would have been retained and used as an oversized forge hearth. The fire required for consolidation of a multiple kilogram bloom needs to be significantly larger than that needed for general blacksmithing work*.

* A separate discussion of these topics and interpretations will be made later.

Friday, December 04, 2009

A 'New Age Fake Mystic Cash Cow' Design

I will get requests like this one about objects that claim to be 'Viking Age' :
Someone on an SCA list noted the following design of buckle and said that he seen provenance in an article but that he had forgotten where the article was.

I have never seen such a design and if he hadn't seen he saw in an article, I would assume that it was another fantasy fabrication like the ring belt. I've never seen this design before, but it may be a new discovery. Are you familiar with this design?

First - I have not seen anything like this specifically tagged as a 'belt buckle'

Second - No, I don't think its likely for a Norse context (many reasons given below)

Third - I think this is actually (yet another) New Age Fake Mystic Cash Cow Design

Why this is NOT Norse:

- Period samples I am most familiar with are 'D with tongue', or maybe 'D loop through and knot', some plate with peg types (The buckles from Sutton Hoo). I can't remember ever seeing this kind of mortise and tendon type.

- The shape is identical to a decorative terminal often seen in forged iron objects - a specific dish fry pan comes to mind. One of the standard things a smith can do to finish a long bar - split and forge a pair of reversal spirals. So I can see a fragment that would appear this shape - but not this application.

- The one place I think I may have seen something that looks like this general form (WAG!) is as a linch pin for holding waggon wheels on to an axle. But only in forged iron, and for that application, the long tapered pin needs to be considerably longer to correctly function.Link
- The material of this 'buckle' is just plain wrong. Hammered copper?? I'm not aware of any Norse hammered copper objects. The web site selling these also offers them in 'iron', 'silver', and (get this) 128 layer damascus!

- The copper replica is made of maybe 1/2 x 3/16 flat stock. It looks to me (for various reasons) to be cold hammered. It has been over pounded with a ball peen for effect. This looks way too much like the modern 'fuzzy barbarian' effect - not at all what a real Norse metalsmith would have done in the first place.

As a side note, the asking price is an insult: In 'iron' - $51 US / copper - $72 US / silver $139 US
Maybe $15 - 20 worth of labour, in copper best plus $2 for the material. Asking $51 /$75 (US) is at least 3x too much!

Readers might also be interested in an earlier post, debunking the popular 'Viking Knife' design.

Note: for obvious (legal) reasons, I have chosen not to include the direct link to the Amazon store page selling these objects.

(Addition 12/6/09)
I had run this object, with my initial comments, past a couple of other people I know that have good experience with Viking Age artifacts. This came back from one:
"...I would impose the "Bronze Buddha" rule- no more than one really
weird/exotic/semi-improbable item in the camp at an event; with a logical,
historical explanation.*

" * Such as: "This odd statue came from my uncle who traded for it in
Miklagard" not "When I ventured through China and Japan after being
kidnapped by Gypsy pirates, I became a Buddhist.""

(Uncle Atli)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Finding Primary Bog Ore?

This is a response I drafted for the ArchMetals discussion list (where I many lurk and post infrequently). The original question was a request for some advise on how to find primary bog iron ore - in Ireland.

My experience on trudging through bogs is limited. A couple of days in Newfoundland. A lot more searching around middle Ontario without a lot of luck. A lot of talk about sources in Denmark with the smelting enthusiasts there.

Now, what I know about this I learned from Arne Espelund. The comments here are based on the physical geography of 'Mid North' Canada - which is likely much different than your situation in Ireland! Forgive me for this more practical advise, this will certainly not be given in the language of geologists.

In Newfoundland (and on the Canadian Shield in the Mid North) the organic top layer is relatively thin. The bog ore accumulates in the boundary between this top organic layer, and the sterile sub soil underneath. In the places I have searched, the boundary was from 12 - 18 inches down from the surface.
First thing to look for here is a chain of iron bearing rock with shallow upland bog pools over it. Then you find a small stream that empties out one of those bogs, ideally with enough drop in elevation that there is a 'babbling brook' kind of effect to tumble the water (introducing more oxygen). Then what you do is reach down along the edge of the bank, where the water has eroded the top vegetation layer away. If you run your hand along the boundary line, you can feel lumps of the accumulated bog ore. The stuff feels about the consistency of a hard window putty, or quite hard clay. At first you think its gravel, but it does not cut into your hands. The pieces I have gathered from sizes ranging from about pea size to some about the size of a dog turd. The amount of ore accumulated along a given bog and stream combination varies significantly. One stream I followed had only small traces over a kilometre of checking - then in one section of about 10 metres I found enough to gather two 20 litre pails worth in about twenty minutes.

Primary Bog Iron Ore, sample from St Lunaire, Newfoundland (after roasting)

There is no doubt that this is just one of several types of deposited primary bog iron ores. I did find a small amount of a form of 'lake ore' along the margins of larger bog pools down at the southern end of Newfoundland as well. This is maybe more like the stuff that you might find in Ireland?
One note of caution here! I was on my own, and at one point lost my balance while leaning over on hands and knees at the edge of a pool. I put my arm out to catch myself - only to find my hand quite rapidly sinking down into the goo. With images of Ancient Irish 'Bog People' flashing through my mind, I gave a massive jerk to throw my body back away from the water (at my chin by that point). Obviously I didn't end up a discovery for some future archaeologist, but it was a near thing. I keep to stream deposits now.

One other tip (blame Arne). You can roughly check the relative purity of the bog ore in the field - by eating it! Take a small (half pea) size piece and put it in your mouth. As it dissolves, the iron oxide component will turn into a fine powder and wash into your spit. The organics (like bits of grass) and most importantly the silica, as sand, will remain. By comparing how much sand is left from the starting lump, you get at least a rough idea how 'pure' the sample is. Not perfect to be sure, but good enough to keep you from hauling out kilograms of ore that later proves to be mostly sand.

Readers (who have not seen it) might also be interested in our work here to develop a bog ore analog. We are mixing powdered potters iron oxides with sand and flour (as a binder) to create a good working material. We have been able to match our mixes to roughly duplicate specific natural primary bog iron ores. (Our focus is the Viking Age smelt at L'Anse aux Meadows, but we are working some 3000 km away in Central Ontario.)

Friday, November 27, 2009

'Christmas in the Country'

Again this year, I will be demonstrating as part of the 'Pioneer Encampment' at the Saugeen Conservation Authorities annual event:

2009 Dates
November 27
(Fri. 5-10pm),
(Sat. 2-10pm) & 29th (Sun. 2-7pm)

Web Site for Details

Headquarters Conservation Area
(south of Hanover off of Grey Rd. #10)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Don't look like much...

...for a week and a half's work!

My current shop work is on the Richards House railings, which are covered in more detail in an earlier post.

These are the sculpted bars that will make up the support elements for the two matching diagonal stair hand rails, each finished to about six feet long. The starting stock is seen in the centre, a length of 1 1/2 x 3/8 inch flat, for most about four and half feet long. The ends of these have been flattened out under the air hammer using a Hoffi style crown die. The finished shape is canted to one side, roughly to 2 1/2 x 1/4 inches. Each of the bars has a long tapered section, reducing the width to roughly 1 inch and increasing thickness to about 1/2 inch.
The next step in the process is forging each bar into the curves seen on the layout drawing underneath. The bottom ends of the arches also needs to have a 2 1/2 inch offset step added. This so the finished hand rail will clear a protruding cap stone beside the mounting points.

Work continues!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Where do IDEAS come from?

How can the work of one artist inspire the designs of another? Especially, how do you do so without obviously merely copying another's work? Sometimes the general lines and 'feel' of an existing piece can be enough to springboard you off to a new and original direction...

A railing for Richards House - Toronto.

I had been approached back in the late spring about a possible commission for a set of front porch railings for a private home in Toronto. I was deeply involved in the Reade-Maxwell project at the time (which has been well documented here). So I must admit there was a bit of a false start, totally my fault.

The home was originally built in the 1920's in the Arts and Crafts style. The interior of the home is almost entirely original, with wide plank oak floors and trims. The owners have been able to match the architecture with matching Rennie Mackintosh styled furniture. On the exterior, there has been considerable renovating done, most especially the replacing of the old windows with the arch shaped panes. Ageing concrete was repaired and caped with ceramic tiles.

Originally I did not understand the client's urgency. It turns out that despite there being no building code requirement for a handrail, their insurance company was insisting one be installed!

I wanted to keep to the spirit of Arts and Crafts : clean lines, obviously forged elements, sweeping curves. My best work is with the more organic 'Rivendale' style, but this design called for a more 'architectural' look. Going to my source materials of historic and contemporary work, I was drawn to a couple of specific pieces by other artisan blacksmiths:

F. Christ & D. Munn
D. Miller

In terms of the rough lines of the design, I wanted to pick up on the large curve framing the porch, plus the series of smaller arches of the windows. These were the major features from the architecture. On the technical side, the construction of the brick pillars and planters framing the steps meant that (happily) there would not be the usual building code restriction for an upright every four inches or 'no climb'. I was however, concerned about the fragility of the mounted tiles, so wanted to install the finished piece against the existing brick work.

As usual, a number of potential design roughs were generated. At first I was considering working with some aspect of the mortise and tendon style seen (wonderfully) in Miller's candelabra above. In the end this proved to be to complex to well suit the specific application here. For the same reason, a layout inspired by the more organic 'bundle' design seen in the work by Christ & Munn was not chosen. The final layout needed to be strong enough to make a statement about the design tastes of the owners, but not so complex to overpower and dominate the entire front view of the house.

'Arches' Design Layout

This is my final working drawing of the layout chosen by the client. ( Shown here is the railing on the left side, as you look at the house. Note that the drawing shows both the front and left side views.) Although the lines are clean and relatively simple, all the individual elements are aggressively forged. This will allow the installed railing to stand out in a sea of cut and paste work. This quality of the individual elements will be subtle, but immediately visible - in keeping with the subdued good taste of the entire home.

The top handrails are from 1 1/2 inch thick walled square tube. This is forged down on the diagonal to create a diamond shape roughly 2 inches wide by 1 inch tall. The final profile will remain slightly irregular, a result of the hand forging process.
The individual support elements are forged from 3/8 thick by 1 1/2 wide flat stock. Each is first spread out to a tapered wedge on one (or both) ends. Then the bar is drawn out to a long taper (ideally increasing thickness as it reduces width) over its length. In final position, the individual curved elements interlace as they cross over each other.

As with the Reade-Maxwell project, I hope to document the work as it progresses, both for the information of the clients and the general interest of my readers...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

CANIRON 8 - Comes to Ontario!

Fergus, Ontario
July 28 - August 1, 2011

the Ontario Artist Blacksmith Association is pleased to announce we will be hosting the next Canadian National Blacksmith's conference!


Active participation from the Membership is being sought.
YOUR ideas and suggestions are needed to help shape this event.

Find out how things are progressing by visiting the CANIRON 8 Blog ( )
Make your comments / weekly polls / the latest information.

Yes - I have been talking about this for most of this year, and OABA is going full speed ahead with this event. The event Chair is well known Ontario blacksmith Mick Smith. Also on the organizing team is Brad Allen, who worked on the amazing CANIRON 5 in Annapolis Royal NS in 2005. I expect to have a major hand with the conference, and am working on the internet aspects. Right now Brad and I are working up a list of potential demonstrators. Anyone considering attending should feel free to make suggestions on who you would like to see!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Vinland 3 on YouTube

Re-Creating the iron smelt by the Norse in Vinland, circa 1000 AD. Members of the Dark Ages Re-Creation Company ( undertake their third smelt in this specific series on November 7, 2009. The result was a 2.9 kg bloom produced from 18 kg of bog iron ore analog. This smelt used all human powered air, supplied via a Norse style double bag bellows.

Footage shot by D. Markewitz & K. Thompson

Iron Masters : Darrell Markewitz & Ken Cook
Charcoal : Sam Fallezone
Ore : Neil Peterson
Records : Steve Strang
Bellows operators : Dave Cox, Marcus Burnham, Sam, Ken, Darrell
Consolidation: Ken, Darrell, Dave, Sam

Saturday, November 14, 2009

the Everyday as Artifact - 'Motel of the Mysteries'

"In 1985 a cataclysmic coincidence of previously unknown proportion extinguished virtually all forms of life on the North American Continent.
" In spite of the number of significant clues, however, the picture of these fascinating people (the 'Yanks' of the Usa)remained disturbingly incomplete until forty years ago (4022), when Howard Carsons startling discovery at the Motel of the Mysteries.
" The mysterious burial customs of the late twentieth-century North American were finally (and as it turned out, magnificently) to be revealed."

All from 'Motel of the Mysteries' by David Macaulay

Long time readers here know that the way surviving artifacts can (or can not) define the past is of great interest to me. (see an earlier article "Aunt Martha's and Damthings")

'Motel of the Mysteries' is both insightful - and delightful. Macaulay takes a world with which we are familiar (the strip-mall motel of the late 1970's), and transposes it through the imagined viewpoint of future civilization (still much like Victorian England). The presentation is as an exhibit catalogue, complete with background on the 'find', short 'interpretations' of the featured 'artifacts' and even details on the available 'replicas and reproductions' from the gift shop.

I had used the book as a text when I taught the 'Interpreting the Viking Age' college level course in 2000. It is a wonderful example of how our present day bias shapes our view of the past. Although admittedly this volume is primarily an entertaining read, it also certainly illustrates how misconceptions build on wild ass guesses to often create a vision of the past - that is just plain dead wrong.

The first book I had seen (back in the late 1970's) with this type of stance was called (something like) 'The Age of Aquarians'. As with 'Motel', this book was presented as a future exhibit catalogue, only this case (mis)interpreting objects common to the late 1960's. I never did have my own copy of that volume, and a fast web search this morning did not find any references to it. (??)

Curiously - in a case of Life Imitating Art, I did come across this article:
Former commune is site of archaeological dig
Too weird!

I certainly highly recommend that anyone seriously involved in living history, or museum work, acquire and read Macauly's 'Motel of the Mysteries'.

The single page scan from 'Motel of Mysteries' is used without permission in this review. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979 - ISBN 0-395-28425-2
The book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and direct from Houghton Mifflin.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On "the Guns of 24/7"

(To Rob and Braun - and anyone else who has ever worn the Colours)

We are not the men we once were. I stand close to comrades who Know, while I have only stood on the edge of the long grass, and truthfully have never seen the Beast. I remain thankful that I have been included in your company. But our time for doing is long past, and for myself I see the time for effective leading is also starting to wane. Most certainly I personally have gotten 'Too old for this shit'.

But what I don't understand is this:
At twenty we were full of the patriotic fever. We were bold in our strength. We knew we could not die. Then, the Right was obvious, and Evil was to be thwarted - and we were just the men to do it! Fun, Travel, Adventure.
Along the way, because although we were innocents, we were not stupid, we started to catch a glimpse of the men behind the curtain. The cracks in the masks worn by those who extolled 'For God, Queen and Country'. Questioners even at the beginning, it became obvious that there were in fact no neat and tidy answers, that the world was nothing if not various shades of grey. That we were being offered up on the altar of The Big Lie. So more and more the cry of 'Hurrah!' was answered with 'You've got to be fucking kidding...'.
And now we sit. Not exactly the ones who pull the levers, but more and more at least contemporaries of those placing political gain first above all other things. The grey men in their grey suits who loudly demand for sweat, tears and blood - but never their own. I never have understood how they can be so ignorant. How can they possibly have shared the events that we have seen, yet grown to have a world view that is just so - wrong?

The young men still answer the Call. In their youth and enthusiasm, they are as we once were, lacking wisdom and perception that can only come from experience. May the gods keep them. May their arms be strong, their legs fast, their reflexes quick. May they have luck.

But we know Valhalla is full of those who thought it was going to be 'someone else'....

And most importantly, I wish we would stop sending those young men off to wager their skill against mere political expediency. Sometimes, yes, there IS a Good Fight to be fought. This most certainly is NOT one of those times.

'For Our Honoured Dead' - 2008

Monday, November 09, 2009

Vinland 3 Smelt - Draft Report

Members of the Dark Ages Re-creation Company undertook their third smelt in the 'Vinland' experimental series over the weekend.

Smelter and Bellows System
Leather Y at Tuyere, Clay Furnace supported by stone slabs.
Later in the smelt, tap arch open showing slag bowl inside furnace.
22 cm interior diameter
55 cm tall
5 - 7 cm wall thickness
construction of clay mixed 50 / 50 with course sand
'Boxed Short Shaft' - a clay cylinder supported by stone slabs, wood ash packing
tap arch at 45 degrees to tuyere position

2.5 cm ID steel pipe
started smelt with end taper to about 1.5 cm ID
inserted 5 cm past interior wall
set at 25 degrees down angle
interior tip set 15 cm above hard floor of smelter

Human powered
Norse style double bag bellows
estimated air delivery (@ average one stroke per minute) 700 LPM
Attached to tuyere via a leather Y joint, allowing both observation and ability to clear blockages.

Dark Dirt 2 analog (about 65 % Fe)
18 kg added
Basic charge was 1 kg, added by 'standard scoop' at approximately 250 gm

graded to normal ' golf ball to pea' size (through 2.5 and .5 cm grids)
Basic charge was 2 kg, added by 'standard bucket'

Bloom - 2.9 kg (after initial compaction after extraction)
further 1 kg of lacy metal was recovered (mostly too fine to compact)

High temperatures above Tuyere.
During Extration - bright mass to top of the smelter is the bloom.
Second sequence with the 'Thumper' to loosen the bloom.

General Notes:

The use of a steel pipe (standard 1/8 wall thickness) always results in erosion of the tuyere. Typically, this works back to the furnace wall, then causes significant erosion of the furnace wall itself. This was extreme in this case, the wall immediately around the tuyere was egg shell thin (about 2 mm) by the end of the smelt. At one point the wall burned through and had to be quickly patched. Continued use of our standard ceramic tuyere would certainly have avoided this problem.

The specially built 'smelting bellows' proved both easy to operate and able to produce volume required. There appeared to be some problem maintaining the correct pressure. Lower force levels used by some bellows operators resulted in an obvious shifting of the heat zone both towards the tuyere and also further up from the bottom. This in turn caused the slag bowl to sit higher and closer to the front than is ideal. Some problem with a shallow slag bowl attempting to drown the tuyere resulted, requiring tapping / modifying bowl position, especially early in the smelt.
The most obvious solution is better training for the bellows operators to allow for more consistent air delivery. (This *was* our first use of human powered air since our very first attempts, some years ago. Many of the operators 'taking turns' had no experience with any type of bellows at all!)
Increasing the angle of the tuyere slightly may also help with lowering the slag bowl formation.

This smelt also marked an absence of one modern aspect - time. In past experiments, elapsed time has been the main control point for our actions. For this smelt, a consistent air flow was established, and a set of standard measures for charcoal and ore used. The pattern of ore to charcoal additions was based on past experiences (rather than being modified to suit elapsed time). This did not appear to present a major problem, as the team has accumulated enough experience at this point to utilize other cues (primarily sound).
One thing that did become obvious is that some counting method is required. Over the long course of a smelt, things like 'how many buckets since...' and 'how many ore scoops so far this bucket...' become difficult to remember. A simple set of stone counters is the suggested method for keeping track.

It was clear that the end segment of the smelt sequence was rushed slightly. It was decided to merely cover over the last ore charge added with a partial bucket. The reason for this was the extreme fragility of the eroded sections of the lower furnace walls. In the end it was found a significant amount of reduced metal did not have time to adequately attach itself to the developing bloom. This resulted in the loss of a good 25 percent of possible bloom mass.

Hammering on the bloom to remove adhering slag, and compressing the mass.
Close up of bloom after initial compaction.

Despite these small problems, overall the experiment was a success. The bloom produced appears to be soft workable iron, and certainly closely matches the actual production by the Norse at Vinland which we are working to replicate.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Undersea to Shore

These images are from the second installation of the Reade - Maxwell project - the segments that run from the basement to the first floor. These elements comprise the 'undersea to beach' aspects of the overall 'Sea to Shore to Sky' theme of the project.

Standing in the basement, looking up through the open concept layout up the stairs to the main floor of the house, this is what you would see. The light from the floor to ceiling bank of windows along the south side of the house spills over the hardwood stair cases.

The bottom diagonal is a design inspired by sea kelp. The end newel post is a gathering of these leaf shapes, swirling in a spiral as if caught in a whirlpool. Each of the kelp frond elements progressing up the stairs is forged to an individual set of reversal curves. All the undersea sections are painted a dark green.

About two thirds the way up, there is a small landing, where the stairs turn a right angle. On the left, the kelp elements continue, the leaf sections getting longer and more chaotic. Turning the corner, the pattern changes to one of waves, now painted a deep blue. A sweeping set of reversal curves marks the undertow, sweeping up over the framing wall.

In detail, it can be seen that the right and left sides, although similar, are in fact unique patterns. There is depth to the swirling curves with their terminal spirals. Two quite separate layers on the more predictable undertow section, but merging to an interlacing chaos at the wave forms break close to the top of the stairs.

Looking up from under the landing, you can see up through the open work of the undertow pattern to glimpse the waving lines of rushes, standing along the shore line that marks the edge of the main floor.

Those following the blog in detail will have seen a large number of earlier posts related to this project, my primary work since April this year. Those interested should search under 'Reade Maxwell' to find these pieces (including a number of 'work in progress' video clips).

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

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