A Life In Fragments

Home » My Research Trips » A Song of Metal and Fire: Games of Stones (Part 2)

A Song of Metal and Fire: Games of Stones (Part 2)

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Okay so I know part 1 was a bit longer than necessary and basically a self-indulgent recount of how excited I was to look at things and be in Italy, but this second part contains the really good stuff, including smashing swords, casting objects and my failed attempts to convey to Italian children that I could not understand a word they were saying to me.

Sadly still no dragons...

Sadly still no dragons…

2nd June is a national holiday in Italy celebrating the day it became a republic in 1946. As part of this the Archaeological park was opening its doors for free to the public, offering tours of the preserved excavation site, free-roam around the reconstructed huts, experimental castings, and children’s activities (which obviously I took part in).

This bracelet only turned my wrist slightly green...

This bracelet only turned my wrist slightly green

My job was to sit and work on my mould and engage with the public as best I could. I was provided with a slightly too large t-shirt and gravitated to the casting area where the three metal casters – Federico, Claudio and Luca – were preparing the bellows. Naturally I wanted to know everything about they were doing.

I naively envisaged some sort of elaborate kiln or hearth set up for metal smelting and casting, but these guys do it in an open hole in the ground and it works fantastically. The pit is filled with charcoal and lit, and then air is pumped directly into the pit using leather bellows through a clay pipe. A clay crucible is filled with scrap metal or bar ingots and placed within the charcoal and then heated to about 1000°C to melt the metal ready for pouring.

The casting set up is really minimalist

The casting set up is really minimalist

Fun fact of the day: tin-bronze has a melting point of 903 degrees Celsius

Fun fact of the day: tin-bronze has a melting point of 903 degrees celsius

Claudio also knew of my inclination towards intentional destruction so showed me how they break up old swords to be resmelted.

First you heat the swords up to about 5-600°C...

First you heat the swords up to about 5-600°C…

AND SMASH IT WITH A HAMMER

and then you SMASH IT WITH A HAMMER

I’m not joking, I really did then just bash it with a series of wooden, antler and stone hammers and the sword just broke into a series of pieces as I hit it, with intervals taken to reheat the sword. The heat makes the metal brittle and sections just break off under force. These pieces can then fit nicely into a crucible ready to be cast down and reused. There’s certain compositional complications with doing this of course, but for all extents and purposes, Claudio tells me it works just fine.

MATT SMASH!

MATT SMASH!

Ahh fragments :)

Ahh fragments 🙂

Anyway, having begun my day ending the life of an object, it was time to go back to beginning the life of one. I continued chiselling away at my mould piece, indenting the outline to help me deepen it further. This was really therapeutic:

I’d been warned before the day started that visitor numbers for the day are completely unpredictable though we were hoping for a couple of hundred across the day. By lunch we’d already done nearly three hundred, which had meant I’d spent much of the morning fending for myself as Monia was required elsewhere. This in itself is no big issue – I had my work and I was happy – but the public also wanted to know what I was doing, and by lunch I decided that a blank, terrified face and “non parlo italiano” just wasn’t going to cut it anymore so Monia taught me “prepare uno stampo per asce” (“I’m making a mould for an axe”) to keep the public at bay until she could sweep in and save the day telling people that I wasn’t a complete idiot – I was just English.

NB This did not stop small children continuing to talk at me in a flurry of Italian regardless and looking at me expectantly. Upon one child finding out I was from England, he compared me immediately to Robin Hood and I’m pretty ok with that.

Obviously the Disney Robin Hood - not Kevin Costner.

Obviously the Disney Robin Hood – not Kevin Costner.

But I digress…

Armed with my new phrase I continued on my mould into the late afternoon with the form steadily taking a noticeable axe-mould-like shape. As I neared completion I had to return to the problem I had avoided the day before – the mould was still not flat, which meant metal would leak when poured in. So I began flattening it using the same method as before, which took nearly two hours to get right. The problem then was that I had had to grind it so much that I had worn into my negative, which essentially meant that a huge amount of the work I’d done that day already was now redundant and needed to be redone – you can see why a sand mould might be preferable!

In between all of this I took a break to blindly attempt some casting and I’ll say one thing: it’s tough. It was nearly 30 degrees and the casting guys were sat there working the bellows seemingly effortlessly, pumping air ceaselessly into the fire pit. After a failed attempt at working the bellows, I tackled the other side of the process – namely a pouring the molten metal into a mould. The intended mould pieces have to be heated by the fire first (so the molten metal doesn’t instantly cool or otherwise fracture the stone) and then whilst hot the two pieces are strapped together tightly using leather binds and a wooden splint. Actually casting the metal involves a wooden stick for stirring, long wooden tongs for sticking in the fire to grab the crucible, and then a steady hand as you poured the vibrant glowing liquid into a gap in the mould. I was attempting to cast a circular ornament Monia had been working on and for which they had not successfully cast properly before.

I didn't fare any better (it's meant to be round!)

I didn’t fare any better (it’s meant to be round!)

I’m told that this failure to fill the mould is more to do with perfecting this type of mould, rather than my pouring technique though. In any case, there isn’t a video of me attempting this and I don’t think it would have been very educational except in learning what I look like when I’m terrified of pouring molten metal everywhere. Instead, here’s Luca casting a replica spearhead:

As you can see, it’s a very swift process and one that takes many years to perfect. If inclusions or air is trapped in the metal it creates casting flaws, which is a key explanation for why many Bronze Age metal objects broke.

Sweatier and dirtier, I returned to grinding and chiselling stone until Monia thought it was acceptable. As the final visitors finished their tour around 7pm, and after about 9 hours of preparation, it was finally ready for a casting.

Ready for casting!

Ready for casting!

 

A bit more aware of what I was getting in for, I opted to deal with the pouring side of the process.

Casting my axe (1) Casting my axe (9)Casting my axe (22) Casting my axe (26)Casting my axe (24)

I spilt some, but the cast went relatively well. I unfortunately didn’t clean the metal well enough as I poured and a charcoal inclusion is apparent near the blade edge. A fault of my mould also became apparent – it wasn’t deep enough. The blade was very thin towards the edge, which means that there would be no allowance for work-hardening and sharpening (essentially hammering to produce a usual cutting edge). This would be easily rectifiable, but unfortunately I was out of time.

The day was over, it was time to clean up, indulge in pasta and wine, bid a fond farewell to Monia and the rest of the Montale team, and get ready for my next (slightly less glamourous) trip to Newcastle. Italy, as ever, was fantastic and I learned so much more than I expected. Plus now I had a bag of metal and stone to get through security at the airport…

Spoiler Alert: They let me through, spears and all!

Spoiler Alert: They let me through, spears, swords and all!

About Me

hill9869I’m Matt, 26 years old, a glutton for academic punishment, a lover of all things Bronze Age, always willing to continue talking even when my friends have lost interest, and never happy unless overwhelming busy. Find out more here and be sure to follow me on Twitter @mgknight24.

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5 Comments

  1. well done, Matt! your axe is quite perfect…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Stuart says:

    Interesting and enjoyable read

    Liked by 1 person

  3. […] Various experimental trips have shown me that by far the easiest way to break a bronze object is to stick it in a fire and hit it. Doesn’t matter what with – antler, wood, stone, bronze – the heat makes the metal brittle and the impact essentially shatters fragments off. Hitting it cold, on the other hand, produces bending before breakage, though leaves limited other indicators. […]

    Like

  4. […] to play about with variables and react accordingly to things as they happened. I knew from past experiences that the easiest way to break a sword was to heat it and hit it. As a rough guide I’d been told […]

    Like

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ABOUT ME

I’m Matt, 26 years old, a glutton for academic punishment, a lover of all things Bronze Age, always willing to continue talking even when my friends have lost interest, and never happy unless overwhelming busy. Find out more here and be sure to follow me on Twitter @mgknight24 and Facebook

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