Artwork by artists Lorraine Whelan & James Hayes

Umha Aois '03, August 11th - 21st 2003
Rathlin Island, Co. Antrim
by participant Cordula Hansen

Arriving at Ballycastle after a long bus journey from Waterford had been a relief. Finally time to relax while we were waiting for the ferry to Rathlin. Waiting with myself were Julie Forrester from Cork and Anders Soderberg from Stockholm, laden with bags and suitcases that contained all sorts of weird things no normal present-day person would haul all the way from Sweden. Or even Cork for that matter. Bellows. Chisels. Wax patterns, ready to be imprinted into clay.

But we were about to travel back 4,000 years or so - as you occasionally do - to re-create and experiment with Bronze Age techniques and materials for eight full days. With the sun scorching, the crossing to Rathlin was a refreshing experience. We were greeted by the organisers, already familiar with the place and ready to start work the following morning.

And work we did. With unbelievable enthusiasm everybody got stuck into setting up the casting area, preparing materials and starting the first experiments. This buzzing activity was not going to stop until the last night of the project.

Mixing Clay was one of the favoured activities during the project. Holger Lönze was creating lost wax patterns with different clay mixes for the core using things I had never connected with ceramics, such as oatbran and the ubiquitous donkey dung. Anders also made use of this local supply of fibres and built an up-draught furnace, re-creating a 5,000 year old design.

Fiona Coffey test-drove the local Rathlin clay, which proved to be very sandy and also had to be enriched with our favourite ingredient of the week. With lots of patient building up, Fiona created perfect moulds for small axe heads, which needed just a little bit of polishing when broken free from the clay.

Using what seemed to be an Umha Aois special recipe, a lot of us made lost wax moulds from clay, sand and lots of fibrous donkey dung. After a low firing these moulds were strong enough to hold the bronze during a pour, afterwards, however, crumbled away easily from the cast object.

I was amazed to see this simple material withstand the heat from the molten bronze and the precision with which the heavy crucible could be manoeuvred around the small pieces. The most impressive pour had to be the one at night, with a pale green flame dancing on the furnace like a fire spirit, the silence when the burner was turned off and the tension releasing once the molten metal had disappeared into all the moulds.

I learnt the hard way (never giving up, though!) how bronze casting technology had been developed and refined over a long time, and that ancient people deserve more credit than is usually given to them for their skills and knowledge. Also I thought it was impossible to dismiss the curiosity of ancient peoples, their travels and trading of materials and knowledge.

It was great to see so many people being interested in different aspects of the project; for example, some of us began to explore the history of beekeeping as part of the discussion whether or not Bronze Age people might have used lost wax techniques. Some of the islanders took a particularly strong interest in this subject and proceeded to conduct their own experiments, which resulted in beautifully worked spearheads, perfectly cored and presented to Umha Aois on the final day.

Considering that we managed to keep up an insane pace over eight working days - this includes nightshifts and really early mornings, plus that extra bit of socialising by those in training - most of us would undoubtedly have liked an extra few days added on to conclude some of the experiments and to improve on the moulds.

Seeing processes like bronze casting and firing ceramics performed with the simplest of materials, such as found materials and a handful of charcoal, had to be one of the most empowering experiences during the project. I was sceptical when reading in the project's description that most of the set-ups used could be recreated in anybody's backyard. I am now converted. My backyard fits two wheelie-bins and not much else.

As I am writing this, the remains of my first pit firing experiment are still smoking in the back, reminding me that I have to learn a lot before I will get the results I want. In short, it completely backfired! I suppose, "Bronze Age" firelighters are not such a good idea after all. And ultra-refined newfangled clay only works with lots of donkey dung and sand, not straight from the bag... Besides, having a group of fourteen enthusiastic artists in the one place definitely helps, at least when your experiment blows up you've had a laugh! So for the next firing (pit, back or otherwise) I'll get some friends together and pretend it's a barbecue. But once I'm over the initial little difficulties, my backyard foundry will be well underway - hopefully!

Cordula Hansen

The Umha Aois Organizing Committee would like to acknowledge (and thank!) all the participants, technicians and facilitators:

Julie Forrester, Cordula Hansen, Irene Benner, Bernd Hansen, Parra Ó Síocháin, Marie Ní Gabhann, Eilis O'Baoill, Anders Söderberg, Fiona Coffey, Pádraig McGoran, Holger Lönze, Cliodna Cussen, Dympna Molloy, Niall O'Neill, and James Hayes.

We would also like to thank our sponsors:

The Rathlin Island Co-operative Society Ltd., The Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Foras na Gaeilge, BOC Gases, Bronze Art Ltd., Cast Ltd., Coldec, P.J. Dix, Isaac Mullen Ltd., Fordham Thermal Systems, James Murphy & Son, RPM, Scarva Pottery Supplies Ltd., Silica Sand Co., and Weldtech.

Artwork by artists Lorraine Whelan & James Hayes