Saturday, August 19, 2023

Ireland and Scotland

I have a major trip planned to Ireland and Scotland coming up.

This has been in the (seemingly endless) works since the start of 2023. The major purpose initially was to finally attend the Caherconnell Furnace Festival (originally Woodford) which I have missed every year since it started in 2018. I had been considering attending in 2019, but the aborted Iceland iron smelting project overlapped, and I had already committed to that. Then my involvement there was cancelled virtually at the last minute (like 7 days before departure), so I ended up missing both. 

Then COVID hit...

The 2020 Festival was done as a virtual international smelting day, with boxes of Irish bog ore shipped out to various locations. (DARC had contemplated undertaking a smelt using this material and our standard furnace, but the cost of shipping 30 kg to Canada was beyond our reach.) I had supplied a video presentation, but with the everyone still not too familiar at that point in remote access, this never got included in the program. 

In 2022 the Festival returned, moving to the Caherconnell Stone Fort site, but between my major effort for Parks Canada at L'Anse aux Meadows early summer and lingering concerns still over COVID, I decided not to make the trip. Significant for that year was the development of both a furnace design (short shaft with bellows plate and blow hole) and working method (multiple top extraction of smaller blooms in a continuous sequence), that ideally suited the extremely rich bog iron ore available locally in Ireland.

Caherconnell Furance, 2022 - image by Jens Olesen

Between my uncertainty of the working situation at Caherconnell, and more significantly my own recent decline in physical ability, my direct involvement is expected to have shifted for me personally from a chance for further experimentation to more limited participation, some observation, and generally just hanging out. There may be some chance to work with Irish blacksmiths on the bloom to bar phase, but given the expected (normal) limitations of field equipment I'm not sure how much I will be able to contribute. I had initially suggested a prototype for testing slag pit furnaces (known for early Irish at other locations) but there was less interest in that build, largely because of local surface conditions (bed rock) and limited materials supply. I certainly hope to help out my old friend Jens Olesen from Denmark, who will be taking on a teaching element over Thursday and Friday. Likely also 'working the rope line' explaining the combined undertakings to the visiting public (something I do have significant ability and experience with!)

Another major element of this trip was the potential to present at the European Archaeology Association annual conference EAA23, which was happening immediately after Caherconnell - in Belfast. I had submitted an abstract early on, and was quite pleased that the paper / presentation was accepted. Originally I did not think I would be able to physically attend, as the lodging costs in Belfast were simply astronomical (even the cheapest hotel rooms were running $300 a night, or significantly more!)

Late in organizing, I did manage to get lucky on affordable lodgings for at least two nights in Belfast, so will be able to attend part of the EAA-23 conference, including the day of my own presentation there. This being :

SESSION - 729 : Friday Sept 1
Session title
EXARC: Reconstructing Past Narratives Through Experimental Archaeology
4. People of the Present – Peopling the Past
Presentation : #2296 (set later morning)
Title :
Experiment, Archaeology & Art - The Turf to Tools Project
Turf to Tools (2014, 2016) was originally conceived as “ ... an ongoing investigation in to landscape, material and craft, inspired by local archeological investigations in Rhynie, Aberdeenshire.” The archaeological foundations centred on the work of Dr. Gordon Noble’s investigations of Pictish sites, notably the ‘Rhynie Man’ stone, and later the excavations by Ross Murray at the ‘Iron Age Craft Working Site’ of Culduthel, nearby. To date, a total of nine bloomery iron smelts have been undertaken for T2T, the two main series at the Scottish Sculpture Workshop at Lumsden (close to Rhynie). These included tests of the unique local Macaulayite ore and peat as a potential fuel. Local materials would be utilized using prototypes established by the archaeology, through methods refined by experimentation, with an aim to replicating a specific object, being the axe depicted with Rhynie Man.
Taken together, this project illustrates an interface between archaeological research and practical experiment, extended into artistic vision.

This all does mean a lot more moving from one side of Ireland to the other, so I guess most of what we will see will be through bus windows.


For those who may not of caught it via Facebook, the Scottish side project work on this trip has completely fallen apart. The original intent was to mount a public demo of iron smelting, but I could not find a hosting organization to even offer up a location. (I was going to cover all the supplies and my lodgings - Guess I am not the draw I thought I was). So the third project component, Turf to Tools Phase 3, has been reduced to only a personal deposit of a replica axe into a bog, now on Skye. (This provided I can get the consolidated from blooms made during earlier phases into the replica Rhynie Man axe in the two working days left me before departure!) Taken together, this is overall very disappointing and demoralizing. 

With no institutional support (and my applied for Canada Council grant unknown until we return in September) this trip is quite expensive, taking a big chunk of my personal savings (especially now I am on OAS income here). Between the costs involved and my own increasing physical decrepitude, this was likely going to be my last major and working trip. 

PS - Note to regular readers. 

Sorry for the general decline in additions here. In the past I had attempted one contribution here each week, lately one every month has been more the case. A number of major writing projects, preparing for helping at the Gallery for CanIRON 13, (finally) a railing commission, the time with my co-op student in the spring - and what seemed endless fooling around trying to organize this trip. 

Will try to get better into the Fall...


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

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