I’m going to disappoint you now – despite what my title may imply, this blog post does not include witty dwarves, dragons, unexpected death twists, or Sean Bean.
It does, however, include a really long storyline, foreign languages, Bronze Age metal casting, weapon destroying, and stone mould making.
As part of the amazing Europe-wide OpenArch project, I was given the chance to travel to Modena in Italy to study Bronze Age stone moulds and produce replicas. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity despite not really knowing what it was going to entail, other than that I’d be doing some experimental archaeology in Italy; it turned out to be so much more, hence why this blog post, much like its parodied namesake, is so long! First and foremost, though, I must get the formalities out of the way and express my huge thanks to Dr. Linda Hurcombe, Dr. Alessia Pelillo and the OpenArch project for organising and funding this incredible experience.
As with any trip, getting there involved lots of waiting, delayed flights, uncomfortable bus journeys, and the uncertain feeling that you have absolutely no idea whether you’re going to end up in the right place at the right time with all the right things. Needless to say I did, and on my first morning I met up with Monia, who is something of an expert on stone moulds and was going to guide and tutor me through my next two days. We had a whistle stop tour round the wonderful Museo Civico Archeologico Etnologico di Modena, where I had an enjoyable couple of hours handling hoards of axes, broken swords and daggers, fragments of ‘horned’ pottery, and the main focus of some of Monia’s past research: stone moulds.
Monia has spent several years doing an in-depth study of the stone moulds recovered from the Terramare culture – a Middle Bronze Age (1650-1150BC) society that consisted of hundreds of villages across the Po plain in Northern Italy. She assessed the raw material used and the techniques involved in producing stone moulds for a range of objects. It was this that would be forming the focus of my time in Modena. We would be sourcing the stone for ourselves and Monia would teach me how to produce a mould for casting my own object. Excitement does not even come close to describing how I feel!
Having gained my fill of touching Bronze Age things, we departed for a local stone outcrop in Montale and began hunting for rocks to be shaped into moulds. I had expectations of clambering up some sort of cliff and chiselling off suitable chunks, but as it turned out, it’s more a case of scavenging the forest floor for suitable rocks, which have fallen away from the main formation over time.
We carted these to the Montale Terramare Open-Air Archaeological Park (or MTOAAP), which is an impressive reconstruction of a section of a Terramare village on the very site it had been excavated. Terramare villages tended to be set on constructed embankments, surrounded by a body of water and enclosed within a wooden palisade, and no expense had been spared in creating the same effect in the reconstruction. A wooden bridge leads you across a moat of water to a great wooden to a great wooden façade, with solid doors that creak menacingly as you push through them.
Inside stand two mighty houses on stilts – one is a farmer’s house and one is the warrior’s house adorned with endless replicas to admire and experience.
Playtime over, it was time to work on the mould. There’s a huge amount to consider when designing and making a mould which I won’t delve into too much here (but please get in contact if you’d like to find out more!) The initial step is to essential bash your raw stone into a usable shape with flattened workable sides for the object you have in mind, eliminating natural flaws so as to have a durable piece to work with. I’m sure a trained eye could do this more ably than I, but alas, I managed to turn a stone larger than my head into a lump just larger than your average burger through a combination of poor strikes and unfortunate natural flaws.
I was aiming to produce a mould for a simple flanged axe, like the ones I’d seen in the museum, for which my initial piece was now too small. We instead used it as a practice piece to familiarise myself with the bronze chisels and various stone, antler and wooden hammers.
Monia informed me that making her first mould took about 20 hours, which I clearly wasn’t going to be able to achieve in the time available. So in true Blue Peter style, Monia wandered into a wattle-and-daub storage hut and returned with a large piece of flattish stone that she had made earlier.
I try to find a balance in these posts between being interesting, entertaining, and informative, but here I’m afraid I’m just going to diverge into a bit of a lecture on Bronze Age moulds for those who have never done any study of Bronze Age metalworking practices and are interested (apologies for those of my friends and family who have stuck with it this long out of loyalty only to be rewarded with a Bronze Age lesson! I’ll buy you a drink next time I see you*)
*Small print: promises made here may in fact be false and it is highly unlikely I will be buying you a drink.
Flattening the stone is probably the most important part of the mould-making process, and unfortunately also one of the most tedious. If, like me, you’re producing a mono-valve mould (i.e. a mould consisting of only one carved piece) you can cast into it in two ways:
- Open: This is as simple as it sounds. You take a mould of an axe. You lie it on the ground, leaving it open, and you pour into it. This can create casting flaws as too much air might get into the mould.
- Closed: This is also as simple as it sounds. You secure a flat piece of stone to your mould, make it airtight and closing it off and then you pour the metal in through a gate at the top. This was what I was attempting. Easy, right?
Wrong. Finding two stones that fit together so flush there’s no chance of liquid metal escaping through gaps is pretty difficult. Thus it becomes necessary to manufacture this flattening by grinding the mould against another flat surface, using a combination of sand and the coarseness of the stone to steadily erode them flush against each other. This takes a really really really long time.
After an hour or so, Monia and I elected to take the risk of shaping the axe negative into the mould and then grinding it flat afterwards, though in hindsight I probably should have been more patient (You’ll find out why in part 2!)
Creating a negative is actually fairly simple:
And you repeat this on and on and on for a while until it starts to resemble the negative of an axe. Before we knew it, it was 7 o’clock and definitely time to stop for beer. The next day was going to be a long one, and I’d be seeing if my mould could actually cast an object! But for now, I was pleased with what I’d achieved, even if it did still bear closer resemblance to a piece of stone, than an axe.
Read Part 2 here.