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Showing our metal

Archaeometallurgy! Long word, great fun, as any students on the past few years' courses will tell you.

The course is run by the amazingly knowledgeable and creative Dr Eleanor Blakelock, whose deep knowledge of ancient metals and how to work them comes from a variety of sources. Ellie brings all of this experience to this six-day course, which in 2018 will be run in Week 6, commencing Sunday 5 August (see here for further information and bookings).

Here is 2017's happy band of metal-workers, and the beautiful iron-smelting furnace they made. (Note for those interested in joining us for 2018: tribal face-paint is encouraged, but not compulsory.)

The merrie band of metalworkers

The focus of the 2017 course was iron-smelting. This was done in a furnace made from scratch, using clay and locally sourced muck. It was a bit of work, but enjoyed by all.

Ellie says: "This course will comprise of informal on-site tutorials which will introduce all aspects of the prehistoric and historic production of metal, along with the human relationship that developed with this process. We cover raw materials, smelting technology, casting and metalworking techniques. The course is tailored to the student attending, with discussions on site in groups or on a one to one basis if the student has a particular interest. In addition to the new knowledge gained, each student will get to take away at least one metal object that they have designed and cast themselves."

In 2017 the archaeometallurgy students bonded over mud, muck and metal. They worked long days but had a great time, creating cuttle-fish moulds and pouring their own molten metal from an open hearth. The adventure culminated in the day of iron smelting in the furnace they made from scratch, putting on a spectacular light-show for the whole campsite as night fell.

Mixing mud and muck for bricks

Building the smelter

The result: symbols for iron and fire

Hard at work bellowing (and face-painting)

Working metal as night falls

The magic fire of metal-working

Pure iron: some of the precious results

Alongside preparations for iron smelting, an open hearth and crucibles were made to melt pewter for personal projects.

Does it look like hard work? There is a fair bit of work involved, but the course can be tailored to suit most ages and abilities - though unfortunately due to the nature of the work students under 18 cannot be accepted.

Ellie advises:

"It is a practical course and we spend our time outside and doing physical activities so it can be hard work, e.g. mixing clay, building the hearth, using bellows. But it is also very rewarding. It is however not always hard work as there are also times where we do less physical activities, such as making moulds or during discussions/teaching sessions. However the course can be tailored to the students needs or requirements, and we can adapt aspects of the course for those with injuries/disabilities so all are welcome."

And there is no prior knowledge or experience required. "The course is designed for those with no experience, and starts from the basics," says Ellie. "As it is quite a practical course even if you have the theoretical background there will be plenty of new experiences."

Overall, the class of 2017 thoroughly enjoyed their week, and came away with a new understanding of the complexities of ancient metallurgical techniques, as well as a great respect for the technical expertise of our forebears. Not to mention some precious new personal adornments!

Ellie brings considerable training and expertise to teaching this unique course, and as always at SHARP we are grateful and fortunate to have her as one of our own.

Ellie says:

"I received my PhD in 2012 from the University of Bradford studying the technology of iron knives. For part of my undergraduate degree course I did a placement where I worked for six months with the English Heritage Technology Team studying a range of ancient materials. Following this I was the main scientist analysing the precious metals of the Staffordshire Hoard. My main research interest is in the archaeometallurgy of the early medieval period, but I have a wide range of experience of metalworking practices and time periods. I have also carried out a number of experiments and casting days."

(Typically modest, Ellie doesn't note here that as part of the work she did on the Staffordshire Hoard for the British Museum, she actually handled items from the Sutton Hoo hoard, including the shoulder-clasps and Great Buckle *swoon*. Here are a couple of Ellie's own photos of those famous pieces including a rare close-up of the cloisonné work of the shoulder-clasps.)

While sadly we can't guarantee access to the Sutton Hoo treasure, a great time is certainly guaranteed working metal and creating new treasures. The practical component of this year's course* will focus on copper-alloy casting using the lost-wax method, as well as covering the theory of materials collection and processing, iron smelting and working and the history of human metal-working.

As far as we know, there is no other short course in the UK that covers this amount of hands-on experimental archaeology in ancient metal-working. If it tickles your fancy, book soon - places are limited to 12 and they will go quickly!

For further details and to book, check out the Archaeometallurgy course page on our website here: and read more about SHARP generally here.

Questions? Contact

(*Due to time and effort involved, not everything Ellie teaches can be covered every year: iron smelting will be offered again in 2019.)


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