As a more hands on person who tends to learn best by doing, rather than through books or other media, I often feel there is far too much emphasis on the theoretical in what I am learning in college and not enough on the practical (don’t even get me started on the Economics side of my course ), so when I heard the University was running a 3 day experimental workshop in Bronze/Iron age casting techniques, I jumped at the chance to get out and get my hands (and arms as well as the rest of me) dirty in the name of archaeology. And dirty it was; by the end of the 3 days I would truly appreciate the never ending uses of horse manure which was used in almost every stage of production.
The first day started off with us assembling to learn the “lost wax” method, where the item you wish to make is first sculpted using wax, then covered in various clay mixtures which are hardened by heating. When this mixture is heated, the wax melts leaving you with a hollow in the mold shaped like the wax item for you to pour your molten metal into (this is a one time process as the mold is broken to get the metal object out). After spending most of the first day sculpting the wax, our creations were then covered in a clay slip (clay and water mix) which is fine enough to catch the details on the wax. This was left to dry overnight.
After spending the first day indulging my artistic side by creating a few wax items (which is a lot harder than it looks), we then got down to the nitty gritty part. The wax had to then be covered in what as far as I know has no technical name, but was affectionately referred to by the team as the “shitmix”. This was a mixture of sand, clay and horse manure that was given a good mix and smoothly applied to the outside of the wax items.
While we waited for this to dry, we got to start work on another method of casting, using stone molds that the molten liquid could be poured into. There were a mix of stones to use, with soapstone looking like the easiest to work with; it was so fine you could carve something using only your fingernail. Sadly the stone I ended up working on was a little bit harder and after several hours and many blunted chisels, little progress had been made.
We then cleared an area in the newly formed University College Dublin experimental archaeology centre to work in and dug three holes, 2 for the fire pits which were created with generous helpings of our old friend the horse manure mixture, with either a ceramic disc or pottery shards at the bottom to prevent anything blocking the bellows. The third hole was filled with sand to hold the molds in during pouring. A separate fire was also created to heat the wax molds in order to dry the clay and melt the wax.
We wrapped up the second day by testing out the stone molds, casting various metals including the main one which was bronze. I was able to discover my love of using the bellows, (which are a lot trickier to use than you would think) plus it kept me low to the ground so the smoke wouldn’t get in my eyes ..
Day 3 was dedicated to casting the molds created with the lost wax method. We were running a bit short on time and metals so unfortunately we didn’t get to cast everything we wanted to. That said, I’m really happy with how my stuff came out and spent most of the day polishing my axe from the previous day.
Overall I thought the workshop was a great success and showed the potential of the new experimental archaeology center in the college. I’m looking forward to seeing what they manage to do with it over the coming years and hope to come along to the pottery workshop they will be running there over the summer aswell as take part in the experimental archaeology course UCD offers next term. Special thanks goes to Billy (for teaching us everything), Aidan O’Sullivan and Conor McDermott for organisng this. All images courtesy of University College Dublin Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Ancient Technologies
For more information on Bronze age casting and anything Bronze age in Ireland, check out Umha Aois (bronze age), the group Billy is involved with