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.