Whilst we are talking fire and cracking pots, I would like to move on to pot-making. I had never before tried to make pottery, my school taught wood-working and metal-work which I embraced and became reasonably proficient at the former, at least. My first attempt at firing was a spindle whorl. I made it from some of the clay we got from the quarry, shaped it into a disc, put it into a tin can in an open fire and there was an almost instantaneous explosion shattering the drop-spindle into a thousand pieces. Back to the drawing board and spindle whorls made of wood and metal which worked exceptionally well.

As we started to uncover more and more sherds of pre-historic pottery my curiosity got the better of me once more. Could I fire a whole pot? The majority of the sherds we recovered consisted of hand-made pots tempered with either crushed calcite, iron slag, grog (broken fired pot) or various grades of grit which may not necessarily have been temper but inclusions present in the raw clay. There is undoubtedly a long tradition of calcite-gritted pottery in the Vale of York stretching from at least the later Bronze Age, through the Iron Age and into the Roman period. This made it hard for the experts to date the material and they had to resort to identifying hand-made from wheel-thrown, and soft to hard fired. Anyway, on a walk up in the Wolds I gathered lots of calcite nodules which is extremely abundant in the fields forming, as it does, in the chalk, took them home and crushed them up. I then collected some more of the Hemingbrough clay and puddled it turning it into a soup to allow the impurities to sink to the bottom. I then poured off the soup leaving the impurities behind and left the mixture to settle over-night. The following day I poured off the bulk of the, now clear, water and allowed it to dry out slightly naturally over several days checking the consistency daily. Finally I mixed in the crushed calcite and here is the result which I then left again to dry slightly until became malleable enough to work.

My second attempt at firing clay was to try to create a full pot with the new knowledge that I needed to ensure the clay was fully dry before it was introduced to heat. First, I rolled out a circle of clay to make a flat base. I then made rolls or coils of clay to gradually build up the sides of, in this case, a bowl. As I was building the sides, I kept smoothing out the coils using a flat smooth stone on the inside and wooden paddle on the outside. Here is the finished article prior to drying. I also made a smaller bowl which you will see in the next slide.

I put the finished bowls in the greenhouse to dry out. When I thought it was dry enough, I got the farmers permission to build a fire pit in his field and here it is As you can see it is laid on a bed of straw acting as kindling and I made an air vent into the pit which turns out to have been a mistake. I then packed the pit and around the bowls with wood lit the fire and covered it over with the sods of grass I had removed when I dug the pit. I left it burning for 24 hours. On returning I found that the smaller bowl had become damaged by too much heat, a direct result, I suspect of the air vent and the larger dish had cracked which, I think, might be because the larger vessel had not dried out sufficiently and may have had walls that were too thick.

My third attempt involved making an Arras Culture beaker, typically found up in the Wolds with cremation burials and a vessel of a type that the experts told me we had been finding in our archaeological record; plain, undecorated, bucket-shaped utility storage jars. On a whim I decided to place a rudimentary pattern on the beaker and I did not take the care about it had I known what the result would be. I felt sure that this creation would not survive the firing so I didn’t take the care that I now wish I had.  So, same procedure as before, permission, hole, much smaller air vent this time, kindling, wood, straw, and light it covering it with the removed sods and leaving for 24 hours.

The third attempt was a great success and even had the right colour and texture of the sherds we had been recovering from the excavations. Pity about the crude decoration but at least I had proved that anyone can make pottery with little or no experience. I had learned from my previous attempt in that the beaker was much thinner walled than the other vessels I had made. The image shows two real Arras culture beakers.

Clay mix

2nd attempt

Clamp kiln


Dried pots pic 1

Fired pots

Real beakers