4000 years young: ancient and contemporary ceramics

Artist Helen Marton shares her exploration of gabbroic clay, and discusses how digital technology can help us to reinterpret ancient pottery into contemporary ceramics.……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Work by Helen Marton. Photo copyright Matthew Tyas 2017

Work by Helen Marton. Copyright Matthew Tyas 2017 

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“As a ceramic and mixed media artist, I aim to encourage a new understanding of archaeology by developing new narratives and shifting people’s perceptions. Making work responding to archaeological finds of domestic objects is, for me, a way of connecting us to ‘the everyday’ across time.

My current site-specific research focuses on Tremough in Cornwall – a triangular plateau overlooking the Fal estuary and the Carrick Roads, now home to Falmouth & Exeter Universities. Three archaeological digs have established this location as a long-standing place of making.

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A 1.5 metre dress pin made from gabbroic clay. Photo courtesy Helen Marton

A 1.5 metre recreation of a Bronze Age dress pin, made from gabbroic clay. Photo courtesy Helen Marton

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Discovering an ancient clay

I’ve been paying particular attention to gabbroic clay: an iron-rich body, found only in a 1 km2 area on the Lizard Peninsula. Gabbroic clay was used in the production of pottery in Cornwall from the Neolithic period onwards for approximately 5000 years. Comprised mainly from feldspars, olivines and mineral augites, this versatile material can be worked immediately and easily modelled.

The Royal Cornwall Museum gave me four sherds found on site. These 4000-year-old gabbroic clay sherds were made into thin sections, mounted in resin then scanned at the highest possible magnification.

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The QEMSCAN machine. Photo courtesy Helen Marton

The QEMSCAN machine. Photo courtesy Helen Marton

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At the heart of this investigation is a machine owned by Exeter and Camborne school of Mines; QEMSCAN, a machine providing automated mineralogy and petrography. With fewer than 100 of these sophisticated machines in the world, it’s remarkable that one of them would be situated directly on the ground where the 4000-year-old sherds were dug. This scan gave me data on the formulation of this ancient material, which led to the creation of digital prints and fabrics based on the computer’s imagery.

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CAD reconstruction Bronze Age pin. Photo courtesy Helen Marton

CAD reconstruction of Bronze Age pin. Photo courtesy Helen Marton

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4000 years in the making

Clay and stone moulds were excavated from Tremough during 2011. One of the most exciting discoveries was a mould for a round-headed pin. The three parts of this mould were digitally scanned and transferred into data, then converted to CAD files. The virtual recreation of the mould fragments allowed for the creation of a new pin.

In a large-scale digital milling machine, I produced a 1.5 metre copy of the pin from blue foam. The giant foam version allowed production of a plaster of Paris mould, from which I was able to produce several large-scale pins using my own gabbroic clay mixture.

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 Helen Marton dropping a giant clay pin. Photo courtesy the artist

Helen Marton dropping a giant clay pin. Photo courtesy the artist

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The large gabbroic clay pin was purposefully dropped on site at Tremough and the smashed pieces buried in different locations, mapped using GPS co-ordinates. Future archeologists could, one day, find these fragments and create their own reconstruction.

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Work by Helen Marton. Copyright 2017 Matthew Tyas

Work by Helen Marton. Copyright Matthew Tyas 2017 

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Bronze Age standardware today

These contemporary pots were made using several digital processes. I wanted to emulate some early Bronze Age pieces found in Cornwall to produce a standardware form suitable for the present day. Shapes were sketched by hand and the designs transferred into CAD software, ready for the forms to be CNC-milled in blue foam, producing solid models. I then created the vessels using press moulds. The gabbroic clay mixture I used contains 20% paper pulp, 20% hyplas ball clay, and some heavier grog.

The life history of an object is referred to as its biography. This is suggestive of artefacts as a sequence of events and interactions, living through something akin to a lifetime. This starts at the procurement of raw materials, then the making process, usage, and finally being deposited in some resting place. In this case, the biography of these Bronze Age pieces has been extended and expanded by transforming aspects of these finds into new objects.

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Helen Marton creating a giant version of a Bronze Age dress pin. Photo courtesy the artist

Helen Marton creating a giant version of an ancient dress pin. Photo courtesy the artist

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Archaeological enquiry increasingly understands material culture as fully sensory, and objects as inseparable from our daily lives. This approach acknowledges what most makers already understand: that our everyday experience is visceral, as hand, body, material, tool and mind engage in a never-ending cycle of interactions. A digital process can help to reveal much about ceramics over time. By travelling between past and present using digital technologies, I’ve been able to create a unique translation of history today.”

– Helen Marton

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Helen Marton’s exhibition 4000 Years in The Making can be seen from Saturday 14 October until Friday 22 December at The Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro.

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