Experimental Archaeology at The Cairns

The Cairns Excavation looking across the ditch to the exterior broch wall

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute student Paul Jack is preparing to start his exciting Carnegie Vacation Scholarship project at The Cairns dig in a few weeks time.

Paul took a few minutes out from his busy day to talk me through his project which will involve working at The Cairns excavation to re-create an Iron Age furnace.

Paul takes up the story, “So, under guidance from Martin Carruthers, I’ll first be building a traditional ‘bowl’ type furnace based upon archaeological examples from Iron Age Britain. The furnace itself will be constructed from local clay and I’ll be using some form of a bag bellows to blow air into the furnace.”

“The plan is then to construct a series of little thumb bowls out of the clay with varying quantities of grass, wood, stone, and hopefully bone as a temper before placing them in the furnace to be fired. This is to examine if the different temper materials affect the properties in such a way that may be beneficial, or detrimental, to the construction of a mould for bronze working. I’ll also use shell so that there is a point of overlap with Bronitsy and Hamer (1986) to compare my results against.”

Two moulds for casting penannular brooches unearthed last year at The Cairns

Paul continued, “There is a section of academia that believe that experimental archaeology should purely be concerned with providing hard data, but there’s been a growing corpus over the past few decades focusing on interpreting the bodily experience through the archaeological record. I want to try and marry this data driven side of experimental archaeology with the experiential side of experimental archaeology.”

The metal working area at The Cairns

“To do this I will be reflecting on the process of constructing the furnace and processing some bog ore. I’ll also be measuring heat within the furnace (as we are doubtful about the possibility of actually being able to smelt some iron ore). This means that my ability to keep a consistent temperature within the furnace will be used as a proxy for the success of our pretend smelt. The difficulty involved in the process coupled with the hard data produced from the temperature of the furnace will be reflected upon and will hopefully lead to a better understanding of the experience of prehistoric metalworking. The research will then progress by converting the bowl type furnace to a short shaft furnace and the whole experiment will be repeated to compare the two different furnace types.”

Bronze pin re-created from the moulds found at The Cairns.

This is of course not the first time that research has been completed concerning metal smithing at The Cairns. Three years ago Ben Price, one of MSc students created a 3D model of a pin and then cast it in bronze, revealing for the first time in 2000 years a metal article that was to be produced at The Cairns. To remind yourself of that ground breaking research check out the blog post here

The Carnegie Trust Vacation Scholarships provide funding for undergraduate students who wish to develop their own research projects over the summer. Students learn how to manage a research project and prepare for postgraduate study and will have the opportunity to see their research results published in academic journals or presented at conferences

2 thoughts on “Experimental Archaeology at The Cairns

  1. Kyle Devin Vaughan 31st May 2019 / 1:47 pm

    What a fantastic piece of research! If Paul needs an assistant for grunt work in this endeavor please let me know. I’d work clay, grind temper, pump the bellows, you name it! I’d book a plane ticket over from the states tomorrow…. Hell I’d start swimming tomorrow to be a part of this project.

    • seanlisle1 2nd June 2019 / 9:27 am

      Thanks Kyle. I’ll let Paul know! Many thanks for your interest in his work. And yes you would be welcome to come over and visit us. Cheers. Sean

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