Archaeology, Archaeology Conferences

HMS Accidental and Experimental Archaeology Conference

Last week I volunteered at the Historical Metallurgy Society’s Accidental and Experimental Archaeology Conference. The meeting was organised by David Dungworth of English Heritage, and Roger Doonan of Sheffield University, and took place at West Dean College, near Chichester.

A number of UCL students arrived on Tuesday to help with the set-up for the conference, and I joined them on Tuesday evening. Normally volunteering at a conference is a good way of getting in cheap/free and not having to do too much. Not this time! We were crushing charcoal and ore, mixing clay, chopping wood and building furnaces! I can’t remember the last time I was covered in so much dirt and dust.

The conference itself ran Thursday and Friday, with papers on Thursday morning and Friday afternoon, and seven or more experiments running on Thursday afternoon and Friday morning. Thursday’s focus was iron production, and Friday’s was non-ferrous metallurgy.

I missed some of the Thursday morning papers due to helping out with the furnaces, but the papers I saw by David Dungworth, Roger Doonan and the Crews were extremely interesting. It was quite amusing to see Roger attempting to lever some theory into experimental archaeology, and he essentially gave a fantastic justification for undertaking reconstructions as a way of getting into the pre-historic mind.

Unfortunately the Crews weren’t able to come to the conference, but their paper was given by someone else and it was interesting to hear the details of a number of unpublished experiments, as well as their own thoughts on experimental techniques. David’s paper noted a number of inbalances in experimental archaeology, including the male dominance. Much to my irritation, but perhaps predictably, at least one of the commentators stated that women weren’t strong enough to take part in many of the activities of iron smelting. I won’t go into a long and protracted refutation of that, but suffice to say I made a good effort at disproving that.

The experiments themselves were really interesting. I was extremely lucky that Terry invited me to help him with his bloomery experiment, and I got to experience building and running a furnace. It was a fantastic experience and I came back from the conference extremely keen on taking part in more experimental work.

The real ‘experts’ (though they wouldn’t allow anyone to call them that) were Lee Saunder, Shelton Browder and Stephen Mankowski who had travelled over from the US and were certainly the most successful of the experimenters, producing several blooms and demonstrating an innovative technique for creating steel from iron in a miniature furnace. Gerry McDonnell’s furnace produced a bloom which when forged appeard to contain liquid metal – he had been attempting to produce cast iron so he may have been successful.

Whilst those experiments all ran on electric blowers, the hand-blown furnaces were less successful, though in most parts this was due both to the relative inexperience of the experimenters (at least when compared to the Americans!) and the focus on much older and less substantial structures.

It was remarked at the conference what a shame it is that we don’t get together to experiment more often. Having so many experienced people in one place meant that it was really easy to get advice, opinions and information from a variety of different areas of expertise. The main problem is presumably the cost – the quantity of charcoal used over the two days was quite staggering. The real barriers to experimental work is this cost, as well as the difficulty in obtaining ores. Of secondary difficulty, but in the cases of city-dwellers still significant, is the difficulty in arranging a venue for the furnace and obtaining clays.

However the conference relieved all these issues, largely down to David Dungworth’s hard work in providing all the necessary materials, even down to haemtite ores. As a result, it was a fantastic opportunity for both the experimenters who were able to share experience and debate long into the wee hours, as well as the attendees who were able to witness experimental archaeometallurgy in some cases for the first time. I know I for one have now got the bug, and desperately wishing I had a big enough garden to build a furnace in!

I think I can say that, from my point of view, the conference was a resounding success. The papers were good, the experiements were interesting and varied, and people were abel to get involved with them as much as they wanted to. Everyone was happy to have people volunteer for bellows duty! It was a fantastic opportunity to learn about experimental archaeometallurgy first hand, and to meet and talk with a good number of the researchers currently at work in Britain. The venue was absolutely beautiful, and almost entirely nothing like a college, and the catering and service were fantastic.

Whilst I imagine some of the experimental sessions could have lacked the immediacy of oral papers, all experimenters were more than willing to chat about their work and to accept volunteers if approached. All in all, a splendid way to spend a few days, and a brilliant chance to mess around in the mud with some really fantastic people!

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