Friday, 2 June 2017

Firing The Vindolanda Kiln

On May 31st I, with the help of two of the stalwart Vindolanda volunteers, fired the newly built replica Roman pottery kiln at the Vindolanda Museum: See my earlier post Roman Pottery Kiln and Workshops at Vindolanda.

44 pots of varying sizes were packed tightly into the chamber, tile/amphora sherds (actually roughly made curved slabs of fired clay) were then laid over the pack.  On top of this a very coarse mix of mud, gravel and organic material was spread and finally I plastered a mix of sand and clay over the surface, leaving three exit flues at the back of the kiln, through which hot gasses could escape.

I'd made the decision to attempt a black-burnished ware / greyware firing which involves starving the kiln of oxygen towards the end of the firing causing an intensely reducing atmosphere within the chamber.  This has the combined effect of pushing carbon deep into the pores of the clay and converting iron oxide within the clay body from its red Ferric form to black Ferrous oxide.  In the case of this firing this was achieved by closing down some of the exit flues for the last 200 degrees and, once we had reached the target temperature of 900 degrees, completely sealing the top of the kiln then stoking as much fuel as possible into the firebox and then sealing it closed.

The kiln was lit at 8:30am and we began sealing the kiln at 6pm giving a total firing time of nine and a half hours and an average temperature rise of 95 degrees per hour. Once begun, firing is a continuous process, even being distracted for a few moments can result in a temperature drop. As a 21st Century potter I have the advantage of an thermocouple and pyromenter (High temperature thermometer) my Roman predecessors would have had no such technology at their disposal.  Their temperature measuring techniques would have relied on their senses: in the early stages of firing a potter needs to take things very slowly, ensuring that trapped moisture in the clay doesn't blow his/her pots apart, a hand placed over the exit flue will give an indication of temperature and whether the gasses are moist or not; once the kiln is over 600 degrees C the colour of the pots in the chamber, seen through the exit flues will give the potter all the information they need.

I arrived to open the kiln at noon the following day and upon opening one of the exit flues was surprised to smell smoke, and by the level of heat emanating from the kiln. I realised that the fuel in the firebox had converted to charcoal and that, with the influx of oxygen caused by opening the seal, it was about to reignite.  We therefore opened the firebox and immediately raked out all the accessible fuel which did indeed immediately burst into flame. We then resealed the kiln because the pots were obviously too hot to unpack, unfortunately not having anticipated this turn of events, I had not brought the pyrometer with me and there fore while I knew it was hot, I didn't know how hot!  If fired pots are cooled through the 250 to 200 degrees stage too quickly they can crack, known as "dunting", this is caused by the fact that silica molecules within the clay rearrange themselves at 226 degrees, so it's safest to wait till the kiln is below 200 degrees to open it. After a trip to my workshop to collect the pyrometer, we returned to the kiln at 4pm by which time the temperature was 186 degrees  and the decision was taken to open it.

I think the results speak for themselves, everything was well coloured by the reduction, the variations from pale grey to black being very much in keeping with Roman originals.  If you'd like to own one of the pots from this firing watch the Vindolanda website and my Blog for news, or drop me an email and I'll let you know when they come up for sale.

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Friday, 12 May 2017

Skara Brae Neolithic Pottery Demonstrations

At Easter 2017 you'd have found me absolutely in my element, working for Historic Environment Scotland, at Skara Brae, the amazingly well preserved Neolithic Village on the Bay of Skaill, Orkney Mainland not far from the Ness of Brodgar, the Ring of Brodgar, The Stones of Stenness and Maeshow. Built about 5000 years ago, that's before the stones were erected at Stonehenge and before the first Egyptian pyramids were constructed, Skara Brae is a truly remarkable survival. Occupied for about 500 years it was abandoned around 4500 years ago and as relatively quickly covered with sand, preserving not only the structure of the buildings and some wonderful artefacts, but the flagstone furniture as well; beds, storage tanks and display shelving know as "the dresser".  Several of these houses are preserved almost to level of the roof, the exact structure of which is not known.  For conservation reasons it's not possible to enter the original houses, so Historic Environment Scotland have created a replica of house seven and it was here that I was stationed, inhabiting the space, making replicas and filling up the dresser with my pots.

During the five days that I was there, using tools that were based on finds from the site, I made several large Grooved Ware vessels and a few Unstan Ware Bowls. This was a great experience for me and it seemed to be much appreciated by the visitors, many of whom stayed for some considerable time, talking to me about the houses, life in Neolithic Orkney, but mostly the pottery. Two guides who brought several groups round the site during my time there, were most emphatic that I must stay permanently and that the dresser should remain filled with my pots. Unfortunately that's not going to be possible at present but i am hoping that Historic Environment Scotland will invite me back again.

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Thursday, 11 May 2017

Roman Pottery Kiln and Workshops at Vindolanda

I'm really excited about this new collaboration with Vindolanda Roman Fort near to Hadrians Wall, the first stage has been to create a reconstruction of a Roman pottery kiln as a permanent feature of the site. Built with the help of a very enthusiastic team of Vindolanda volunteers, the kiln is sited in the valley, beside the burn, near to the museum and visitor centre, so look out for it next time you're there.

This fully functional replica of a Roman up-draft pottery kiln, is based on information gained from the excavation of such kilns at archaeological sites across the North of England. The body of the kiln itself (1) is constructed entirely from a mixture of materials found on site, Clay, Earth and plant matter such as straw. The internal floor and central support, (2) also known as Kiln Furniture are made from specially selected clay which will survive repeated exposure to high temperatures.

While the kiln is cold, dry, raw pots are packed into the Ware Chamber (3) the top of the kiln is closed off with a temporary dome of clay and straw (4), leaving small holes as exit flues. A small fire is then lit in the Fire Box (5) allowing hot gasses and flames to pass through into the combustion chamber (6) then up through the ware chamber. Starting slowly and steadily building up the fire the the pots are brought up to a temperature of between 8000 and 10000 Centigrade.

The first firing took many hours of constant stoking as we not only needed to fire the pots, but to dry out the structure of the kiln itself. Nevertheless we achieved a temperature of between 700 & 800 degrees Centigrade, hot enough to fire the kiln load which included two amphorae.

This type of kiln would have been used by potters working in this region, to manufacture coarse wares such as Black Burnished Ware and Gray Ware cooking pots, indented bakers, plates, bowls, flagons and the like. While fine wares such as Samian Ware, Terra Sigillata and the Aphorae that carried produce around the empire would have been imported from production sites in Gaul and elsewhere in the Roman World.

The latest firing of this kiln is recorded here Firing the Vindolanda Kiln

From now on I will be running regular Roman pottery workshops at Vindolanda where you will be able to learn the techniques and skills that went into making the ceramics of the Roman Empire. Workshops and courses will include: Kiln Building & Firing; Samian Ware; Barbotine Ware; Black Burnished Ware; Lamps & Goddesses; The Potters' Wheel, Roman Head Pots. For more information on these workshops, follow me on Twitter @PottedHistory, visit the Vindolanda website or email me

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Saturday, 25 February 2017

Mithras at Wetherspoons

Although most of the pots and ceramic pieces that I make are direct replicas of archaeological artefacts commissioned by museums, universities, reenactors and collectors, I also receive from time to time, commissions from architects and interior designers. My most recent commission for such a piece came from Robert Renak Interiors, for a new Wetherspoons in Chester and as such he was looking for a Roman themed statement piece, over two meters wide, to dominate a wall in the venue. When it comes to spectacular Roman wall panels it's hard to beat a Mithraic Tauroctony and it seems the client agreed.

The panel still in its wet state

Hand sculpted from Terracotta clay, this panel known as a “Tauroctony”, represents the Roman God Mithras killing the Primordial Bull, possibly giving rise to all other life on earth. It would have been mounted on the wall of a Mithraeum, or Temple of Mithras, above the altars. There is still much that we do not know about the cult of Mithras, but in this scene Mithras is flanked by Cautes and Cautopates holding raised and lowered torches, probably representing the rising and setting of the sun. Sol, the Sun with his crown of rays and Luna, the moon winged with the crescent behind her head, look on from above. A raven brings messages to Mithras and above the arch of the heavens displays the signs of the zodiac.

On each of the side panels Mithras is seen hunting while fires burn on altars in woodland. These panels I have created using what is known as Barbotine method, that is to say slip applied using the same coloured slip as the background clay to achieve a low relief decoration. It's a technique that the Romans used in the Rhine Valley, and in the Nene Valley to create hunt cups and magnificent vessels like the Colchester Gladiator Cup.

This is not the first interior design commission that I have made for Wetherspoons, these Amphorae now grace the entrance of “The Mile Castle” on the Westgate Road in Newcastle.

If you're looking for something spectacular and ceramic be it a pot, a sculpture or a wall panel, from whatever historical period or culture, give me a call.

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Monday, 11 April 2016

Neolithic, Bronze-Age & Roman Pottery Making Classes/Workshops 2017

You may have seen me, in Further Tales from Northumberland on ITV, teaching Robson Green to make a Roman pot. You could do far better, (sorry Robson) if you join me on one of my one day pottery workshops coming up soon, email or phone to book:

Roman Barbotine Pottery Sunday  26th March 2017: Learn about this roman slip trailing technique and make your own Roman Hunt cup, or celebrate the Roman Circus by making Chariot Racing & Gladiator Cups. One day workshop £65

Roman Samian Ware - Saturday & Sunday  8the & 9th April 2017: Learn about the pottery that conquered the ancient world, by making your Roman pottery tools then creating a replica Samian Ware Bowl. Two day workshop £98

Prehistoric Pottery - Saturday  22nd April 2017
Learn the basics of Neolithic and Bronze Age pottery, making your own Prehistoric pottery tool kit then creating and decorating replica Beakers and Bowls. One day workshop £65

These workshops are designed for adults. No previous experience is necessary, but if you have made pots before or have an interest in archaeology, they will add to your skills and knowledge of the subject. They combine basic pottery making techniques and history, but most of all they are fun.

Contact me for further information:
Phone; 01669 621238
Mobile; 07989871504
Twitter; @pottedhistory
Potted History
Gregory Court
NE65 7PJ

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Saturday, 2 April 2016

Replicating The Aldbourne Cup

I always enjoy what I do, but lately I've had some amazing commissions, here's the story of one of them: Towards the end of 2015 I was contacted by John Dymond and Alan Heasman, from the Aldbourne Heritage Centre in Wiltshire, asking if I would be able to replicate the Aldbourne Cup for display in their museum. I knew the pot well or at least I thought I did: It was excavated by Cannon Greenwell, in October 1878, from a Bronze Age barrow near the village. Normally my replicas recreate a pot as it looked on the day it was first made, however after some discussion and various meetings of members of the Aldbourne Heritage

I had replicated it on numerous occasions based on drawings and photographs but I decided to make an appointment to visit the British Museum, the cup's current home, and have a close look at it. I'm really glad that I did, because what hadn't been obvious from the images, was the fact that the perforations that formed the decoration, were circular rather than square. Many Bronze-Age beakers, food vessels and the like, are decorated by impressing a shallow toothed comb into the wet clay, forming dotted lines. These combs are almost invariably made by cutting grooves across the edge of a flat piece of bone or antler, this results in a row square or rectangular teeth. The Aldbourne cup on the other hand, had been decorated with a comb composed of round pins, probably three 2mm pins placed in a row and sharpened at the tips to produce 1mm holes spaced 1mm apart. As luck would have it the same burial produced 2 bronze pins pretty much fitting this description, which previous investigators had suggested may have been tattooing tools. A little research yielded images of Polynesian tattooing combs, that informed my reconstruction of a tool suitable for decorating the pot.

Another peculiarity of the decoration was that, while I knew that there were two holes passing through the wall of the pot, as there are with quite a few examples of accessory vessels, in this case some of the impressed decoration actually appeared to go right through the wall of the pot. I believe that this was accidental and occurred where impressions on the outside and inside, exactly coincided with one another.

One reason why such deep decoration might be desirable is if it was intended to be filled with some contrasting coloured material for decorative effect. When looking at the original, it did appear to me that this might be the case ad I thought that in some of the holes I could detect evidence of a lighter material. For this reason I went back to the Heritage Centre members asking the question “to inlay or not to inlay”. Warwick Hood, who had done considerable research, and presented a paper to the Aldbourne Heritage Group on the subject of the cup, kindly pointed out the following reference in Canon Greenwell's 1890 Archaeolgia article, entitled “Recent Researches in Barrows in Yorkshire, Wiltshire, Berkshire, etc.”:

"There is one particular in which it is of much interest, and which has not hitherto, I believe, been observed in pottery from a British barrow. The impressions forming the pattern, and which have been made by a sharp-pointed tool, probably a bronze pricker, have been filled in with some white material like finely powdered chalk applied when in a semi-liquid state. This white material was certainly not the result of the vessel being in contact with chalk, for the surrounding earth was very dark coloured and without any admixture of chalk whatever."

The Aldbourne IV barrow had in fact contained two Aldbourne Cups and in this case Greenwell is referring to the second. Nevertheless the evidence suggested that this had been the case with both the cups and the decision was made, that in the case of the cup in original state, white chalk paste would be applied. This was done by crushing chalk to a paste with a little water, rubbing it into the decoration of the fired pot, polishing off the excess and sealing it into place with a layer of beeswax. I knew it would dramatically change the appearance of the pot, but I probably wasn't prepared for just how stunning it would look. I learned so much more but watch out for a paper later.

Although the Aldbourne Heritage Centre has been open during it's development, I was delighted to be invited to attend the official opening, along with Phil Harding of Time Team fame and Neil Wilkin, Curator, British and European Bronze Age Collection at the British Museum, where the replicas were officially handed over to the Centre.

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Sunday, 14 February 2016

Roman Samian Ware or Terra Sigillata Pottery Workshop

Just had a great weekend running a Roman Samian Ware or Terra Sigillata workshop here in my Rothbury studio, and if you like the sound of it, you might like to join me on my next one. Email me if you're interested
A great group of participants have made their own set of Samian Ware punches based on designs from original archaeological finds. Punches were used by Roman potters; impressed into the inner surfaces of moulds in order to transfer their patterns onto decorated pots and bowls. That's exactly what the people at my workshop did, using their own punches along with some of my own to build up their own design. While some of the participants had a go on my momentum wheel, I'd made a blank mould for each of them, to ensure that everyone went home with a finished mould.
Now the next part of the process is to fire the moulds, but as it wasn't possible to get the moulds fired, as this can only be done after several days of drying, the participants used some of my own moulds for actually making their pot. As the mould spins quickly on the wheel, clay is firmly pressed into it to pick up all the decoration, then it is set aside to dry overnight. After a few hours the pot has dried to leather-hard and shrunk back from the mould, sufficiently to allow it to be removed. 

It now goes back onto the wheel, but this time upside down, a ring of clay is applied, shaped and smoothed to form a foot-ring. 
After drying again, the pot is dipped into the specially prepared colloidal slip, which dries to the beautiful satin sheen that makes Samian Ware so special. In addition to making some great replicas the participants learned about the history of Arretine and Samian ware, about the ceramic chemistry that makes this pottery so special, about the amazingly advanced kiln designs that made it so durable that it emerges from the ground looking brand new after two thousand years, about the slip trailing technique that decorated closed forms not suitable for mould making and hopefully much more.
Most importantly everyone had fun!

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Saturday, 19 September 2015

It's been a busy time just recently, to start with I've moved premises, I'm still in Rothbury, Northumberland, and only a few hundred metres away from my old workshop, but with much more space. In addition I now have an assistant, my daughter Sarah Lord, who will not only be expanding the range of replica pottery that we can offer but be bringing her expertise as a costume maker to the business.  Sarah holds a degree in performance costume design from Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) and worked for several years as a costume maker with Scottish Opera. She also has a Post Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE), and has worked as a Key Stage 3 & 4 (KS 3 & 4) Design Technology Teacher, so is perfectly equipped to deliver school workshops.

Sarah has also been working on our range of retail goods for museum shops, in particular small Neolithic and Bronze Age pots for the Stonehenge Gift Shop.

In the meantime I've been all over the country from Caithness to Wiltshire, from Glasgow to Lincoln delivering workshops and demonstrating, as well as running workshops right here in Rothbury.

I've also been entering the world of Academia by uploading my CBA paper "Mud and Fire" to and having had the honour of being asked by Dr Neil Wilkin to co-present a paper at the European Association of Archaeologists conference in Glasgow.

And last but by no means least, I've been inundated with requests for replicas which I'm now working on, sorry if you've been waiting for yours, it will be with you soon.

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Saturday, 18 July 2015

Bronze Age Pottery Workshop


Contact me if you'd be interested in attending one of my Two Day Neolithic or Bronze Age Pottery Workshops at Potted History - Rothbury, Northumberland

This workshop will equip participants to; prospect for natural clay and prepare it for pot making; make their own prehistoric tool kit; make and decorate replicas of prehistoric pots and fire them in an authentic manner. 

No previous pottery or archaeological experience is needed.All materials and equipment will be provided, although wearing old clothes and/or bringing along an apron would probably be a good idea. All pots and tools that you make during the workshop are yours to keep. Information sheets will be provided to help you continue potting once you return home.

The following timetable is a framework and may be varied according to the interests 
and or ability of the group.

Day 1: 
10-00  We will start off by Looking at the Pots:Using replicas and some original potsherds we will look at making methods, clay bodies, raw materials, tools used, firing methods, potential uses, methods of deposition, preservation vs. decomposition, etc. We will look at the types and sources of raw materials and their storage. How to find and prepare you materials.

11-00: Tools of the Trade: All participants will make their own Bronze-Age Pottery Tool-kit including; combs, scrapers, cord, modelling tools etc., using materials such as: Birch bark, Bone, Antler, Slate, Shell, Wood, Flint etc. The tools will be based on marks found on the pots and archaeological finds.

12-00: Introduction to Basic Making Methods: including; thumb pot, coil etc

13-00: . Lunch (not included but Rothbury offers numerous options, from bakers & deli sandwiches to hotel lunches)

14-00: Making & Decorating: Beakers, food vessels, etc. With lots information, hints, tips, help where needed and encouragement, all participants will have the opportunity to make at least two pots.

16-00 Finish

Day 2:
10-00: Making & Decorating; A chance to make larger pots or hone skills learned on day one.

12-00: Open Firing:  The pots will be fired in an open or “bonfire” firing, this is a slow process and will involve quite a lot of sitting around the fire. Firing is a slow process which cannot be rushed, so there will be the opportunity to make more pots, discuss the work that we have done during the workshop and stare distantly into the hot coals of the fire. I would suggest a “bring and cook” barbecue lunch may well add to the “Hunter-Gatherer” atmosphere and could help with a theory of mine thatmost Bronze-Age pots would have been made around the domestic hearth.

16-00 Finish
Bronze-Age Firing is an outdoor activity therefore it would not be possible in heavy rain or high wind, in these circumstances, the workshop will continue with an additional indoor making session and full instructions for firing will be given.Price: £90 per person If you require any further information on the course please do not hesitate to contact me:

Accommodation and travel are not included but list of local accommodation providers
can be found here Do 
be aware that not all of these are in Rothbury village so do check before you book.
Rothbury is situated on the edge of the Northumberland National Park and you may 
want to bring along your walking boots and stay in the area for a few days, to take in 
the magnificent landscape and visit some of the many historic and Prehistoric sites in
the area. The area is accessible by public transport, but having your own wheels will 
allow you to get to many of the less accessible beauty spots. You may like to take 
advantage of the local bus company offers some 
great routes around the area. If you feel like putting your boots on and getting out 
into the hills, maybe visiting an ancient hill fort, rock carving site or stone circle, then 
Patrick Norriss be just the man to guide 

People attending this workshop may also find the following of interest:
Roman Wheel Made Pottery
Roman Mould Made Pottery
Making Roman Samian Ware
Building Roman Kilns
Build Your Own Roman Potter’s Wheel

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Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Neolithic Carinated Bowl: complex simplicity

At first glance a Neolithic carinated bowl, the earliest type of pottery in Britain, looks like a very simple pot. Certainly they were hand formed often from very coarse natural clay, to function as humble cooking pots. In fact when making an average sized bowl, up to about 20cm in diameter, its form flows almost naturally from the process itself. The curve of the bowl nestles nicely in the hand, the concave form of the upper body conforms to the curve of the thumb, while the fingers stretch down inside to push out the carnation.  All well and good, but when one comes to make a bowl as big as the one I made for Stonehenge, it's a different matter.  For a start there's the weight; at over thirty centimetres in diameter it requires nearly five kilos of coarse clay in its construction. This makes it virtually impossible to hold the soft vessel in one hand.  If I start building on a base (flat stone, grass mat whatever is handy) this gives it a flat base, which can only be expanded out once the clay has stiffened.  Alternatively working into the base of an old broken pot does allow one to make a round bottomed piece but only to a predetermined form and, as clay shrinks on drying it will easily release from its "mould" but will also be considerably smaller than the former.  Once the pot becomes firm enough to support itself it can be picked up and worked on but this brings with it its own problems, the stiffened clay becomes brittle, the least deformation of the rim and the pot will crack, a flaw which, in the firing, could result in total failure.  One possible solution to this is to add organic fibrous material which will act as reinforcement in the unfired pot and one of the most suitable sources of this is animal dung. Finally, once the pot has reached a leather hard stage, the entire inner and outer surfaces need to me slip coated by rubbing with a wet hand and finally burnished all over, again without putting undue stress on the rim.

Firing small pots in an open fire is a relatively simple matter provided a strict set of rules are adhered to, a large pot on the other hand is quite a different matter. That pot needs to be absolutely dry before it comes anywhere near to a flame. In a Neolithic hut it would undoubtedly have spent several days on the outer edges of the hearth, occasionally being turned to present a new face to the warmth of the fire.  Only once the potter was certain that all moisture had left the clay would the firing process begin: The pot would be moved a little closer to the fire, inverted, and with its rim supported on three stones a few embers from the fire would have been pushed underneath its dome, their rising smoke and heat filling the vessel. Replenishing and increasing this small glowing fire over the next couple of hours the potter would have carefully and steadily raised the temperature until, at around about 400 degrees C the organic matter in the clay would have begun to burn, turning the outer surface of the pot dark brown or black.  This would also be an indication that it was ready to move to the next stage of firing, surrounding the pot with embers and eventually immersing the pot into the fire, bringing up its temperature until at seven or eight hundred degrees, in the darkness of the hut interior it could be seen to glow deep red. The firing complete, the fire would have been allowed to burn down and go out and the pot would have been cooled while protecting it from sudden cold draughts that might cause it to crack.

Simple as that!

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Monday, 5 January 2015

Childlike Exuberance

One of the best things about running historical pottery workshops in schools, is seeing the uninhibited exuberance of the children's work. Unlike many adults, they are not afraid to express themselves in paint or clay and as a result the pots and sculptures they produce have a vitality, often lacking in the more carefully considered work of their seniors. When I return the fired pots to the schools, the children are amazed and delighted to see how the fire has changed and preserved their artwork. 

For more information about my pottery workshops for schools and museums see my earlier post HERE.

Egyptian Canopic Jars by Blackhill School Children
Egyptian Canopic Jars by Blackhill School Children 
Egyptian Shabti Figures by Blyth School Children
Roman Head Pots by Keilder School Children

Mediaeval Green Men by Bedlington School Children

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