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