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Going For Bronze - Heritage

PUBLISHED: 14:07 21 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:35 20 February 2013

Going For Bronze - Heritage

Going For Bronze - Heritage

As part of an exhibition about life and death on Dartmoor during the Bronze Age, an attempt is being made to recreate some Trevisker pottery using original materials. BY Michael Nendick

I am humbled by the craftsmanship: the wall thickness is even, the rim is level and beautifully shaped. There is nothing primitive about the way this pot was made

Dartmoor is famous for containing one of the best preserved and most complete Bronze Age landscapes in Western Europe. This is made up of ceremonial and burial monuments, round houses and extensive field systems. The quality of this preservation is partly due to the use of granite as a building material, which is virtually indestructible, and partly due to the relatively non-intensive use of the Moor in the recent past and today.

Consequently the imprint made by Dartmoors Bronze Age inhabitants on the landscape remains much as they left it over 3,500 years ago, whether this is a stone row leading up to a circular burial cairn, or one of the many thousands of Bronze Age homes (round houses) still set in its walled enclosure.

Excavations of Bronze Age sites on Dartmoor have revealed glimpses of domestic life in the form of everyday tools, weapons and pottery. Pottery styles on Dartmoor changed little during the Bronze Age. Throughout the period it had two distinct uses: vessels used by the living for domestic purposes; and those which served either as containers for (or to accompany the burial of) the dead.

Trevisker ware is the most commonly found pottery, belonging to a distinct south-western tradition, and dating between 2,000-1,000BC. They were decorated with impressions of plaited and twisted cord, or impressed circles or slashes. It would appear that vessels were often treasured possessions as some have clear signs of having been carefully repaired.
Recent excavations at a round house in Bellever Forest found pottery sherds thought to have come from at least 16 different vessels, all of which were of the typical Trevisker style.

The Trevisker Project
The process of producing these vessels was a highly skilled job as Dartmoor potter Joss Hibbs can verify. Joss has begun a journey of discovery during which she hopes to learn how middle Bronze Age pottery was made, and then try and do it herself.

The project was initiated after Joss was asked to make a replica pot for an exhibition at Dartmoor National Park Authoritys (DNPA)"High Moorland Visitor Centre this July. DNPAs archaeologists Jane Marchand and Henrietta Quinnell, and geologist Roger Taylor, provided an overview of the nature of the materials used, where they may be found, typical shape, thickness and size of such a pot, decoration, and how it is thought it may have been fired.
And this is what Joss, from her base at Powdermills, near Postbridge, needed to replicate. But instead of knowledge and skill passed on by the previous generation, as was probably the case in the Bronze Age, Joss had to work by trial and error.

Close examination of Bronze Age pottery sherds found during excavations at Teigncombe on Dartmoor have revealed almost a quarter of the composition of the pot was growan (Dartmoor river gravel). Joss collected clay samples from the Teign estuary as it has been identified that estuarine clay was used in the Teigncombe pot. The clay was then mixed with growan to try and get the crucial consistency as the clay needs to bond well to create the pot shape before firing.

Joss comments: Bronze Age pots were built using flattened coils, and I aim to build the pot the same way. So I roll the clay into round sausages, flatten them into a more rectangular shape, and fix them on the rim of the growing pot. Apparently the coils were overlapped and melded together one on top of the other. And so the pot slowly grows.

After the pot has grown up about two inches, I have to pause and allow the clay to dry to a less floppy state, so that the walls can support the weight of more coils being put on top. While I wait, I stop and look at original pieces of Bronze Age pot, and I am humbled by the craftsmanship: the wall thickness is even, the rim is level and beautifully shaped. There is nothing primitive about the way this pot was made.

The first attempt at production failed as the clay collected from one site on the Teign would not hold together. Joss had to begin the process again using clay from another site. If that stays whole, then it can be fired.

Joss continues: And so the pot-making has begun, and progress is slowly being made. As I work, I am being very careful to do my best by the original craft-maker. At the same time I am also aware that the first pots I make may well crack when I fire them. As I make the first replicas, I plan to discuss improvements in the authenticity of the shape. As I progress, hopefully the replicas will improve and I will start to succeed in getting them out of the bonfire whole!

Actually, just one before the exhibition starts would be a relief. Heres hoping!

Going for Bronze is at DNPAs High Moorland Visitor Centre, Princetown, 3 July 29 September. The exhibition is a partnership between DNPA and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM), Exeter.

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