The End of an Era: A Year in Perspective

The End of an Era: A Year in Perspective

On the 16th of August I handed in my master thesis, titled ‘The Ironworker’s Craft’, which I submitted at University College Dublin, as the final part of the MSc in Experimental Archaeology in Material Culture.

Thus ends an 18 year period of my life, which was mostly spent in various educational institutions, although those who know me can testify, that I was quite proficient at distracting myself with various ‘side projects’ during that period.

Six years of this period were spent in college. First as an undergrad at the University of Ljubljana, with a year spent on exchange in Prague. Then as a postgraduate at University College Dublin. In between, there was a year spent going on conferences and working odd jobs while finishing an undergrad thesis. This was followed by year of pretending to do an MA in Ljubljana, while instead digging up artefacts on various constructions sites and working on international projects involving living history and experimental archaeology. The former more often paid the bills than the latter. I  am not sure anymore about when I stopped believing that I would finish any of those classes.

Like I said, there never was a shortage of distractions. People also tell me that I travel a lot. I am not quite sure about that either. I always say that I get around more than some, and a lot less than others.

Most importantly this was the end of a year spent as a postgraduate student in Dublin, Ireland. It was busy year to say the least. Turns out that doing a one-year MSc does not leave much time for less pressing matters, such as having a life. So how about I do one of them flashback-laden recaps?

…It all started in the summer of 2016, when I decided that jumping on the chance to do a degree abroad would be a great idea. Before that, I spent several months jumping in between projects and events across Europe, getting progressively disillusioned with the prospects of ever achieving anything worth mentioning in Slovenia. Thus I found myself moving into Dublin at the beginning of September, with the plan of finishing my education, while figuring out what I am actually trying to do with this life of mine…

experimental archaeology students
The 2016/17 vintage of experimental archaeology students on the first day in college. Thus began the joys of being a guinea pig for a new study programme. (Photo: A. O’Sullivan)

Semester 1: Writer’s Tears

Things started moving quite quickly then. It turns out that Dublin has one hell of a housing crisis, combined with one of the most inefficient public transport systems in the so called ‘developed world’. Subsequently the fight for ‘affordable’ (i.e. still overpriced) accommodation is fierce one. I spent days sending out emails and messages, inquiring about real-estate ads and walking to viewings across south Dublin. I soon found out that living in a hostel, while also attending college lectures in the mornings, and running from house to house in the afternoon is not fun.

To put things into perspective, let me tell you that the room in the shared house that I ended up in had an open viewing. When I got there, there was queue of people stretching down the street leading to the house door. A hundred of the people present expressed their interest in the room. Somehow I made enough of an impression and got the room. (Tip: Dress a bit dapper and quirky on such occasions.)

At the same time the lectures were going on at full sail, while the deadlines for the first essays were looming dangerously close. Quite a change from my first department, where the professors would sometimes take a few weeks before showing up to their own lectures. The first semester was marked by a lot of theory and a serial production of essays. Theory of experimental archaeology, cultural heritage communication, marketing and management, GIS, materials analysis, you name it.

At the end I added everything up, and it turns out that I somehow produced 33,000 words of graded work in those first 12 weeks. Was all of it necessary? I am not quite sure. A lot of it definitely seemed like writing for the sake of showing that you can produce an essay, without really giving you time to immerse yourself in the subject. Nevertheless it did teach me how to just get on with it, and write the bloody essay instead of overthinking things. The chance to dedicate yourself to a topic came later, when there was a thesis in need of writing.

During this time, the only practical work that we were doing was spending the progressively colder (and shorter) Friday afternoons weaving hazel rods into a Viking house. There was also some very creative cursing going on during this process. It was quite therapeutic.

The end of the essays brought forth the long winter holidays. We were left with a few weeks to catch up on sleep in between handing in the last essay and the beginning of the next semester in late January. A sweet taste of freedom, which would soon end.

I made good use of the time by first spending Christmas with some dear friends on the Isle of Man. Then my restless, workaholic nature kicked in and I started acquainting myself with the state of research on early medieval ironworking in Ireland, in the hopes of finding a thesis topic somewhere amidst the slag reports. At the same time I came up with the idea of finally getting myself a domain and setting up this blog. You can see how that turned out.

Needless to say, the holidays were quickly over.

viking house building
A more relaxed team of Viking house builders. Wattling hazel walls has proven itself to be quite an effective form of stress relief. (Photo: A. O’Sullivan)
dublin viking house construction
A winter evening inside the half-built house, after erecting the stout roof supports.
bronze age figurine carving
In the beginning of December, a group from visited us and brought along the project of carving ‘Red Men’ – bronze age anthopomorphic figurines, carved out of alder and deposited in bogs. (Photo: A. O’Sullivan)
bronze age figurine carving
Whacking away at an alder log with a bronze axe. (Photo: A. O’Sullivan)

Semester 2: Method & Madness

The second semester brought a few less assignments, and a bit more practical work. It was also the time to decide what sort of experiment I was meant to run for my thesis, and how all of this was meant to be realised.

So I found myself delving deeper and deeper into the questions of early medieval ironworking, and at the same time, ever more frustrated with some of nonsense written by previous scholars. That probably means that I was finally ready to find a specific question to address and start doing my own research.

My project ended up focusing on the different way of processing iron blooms, and included smelting, forging and metallography. The latter I had never done before. But that was a challenge for much later. First the needed equipment and materials needed to be sourced, procured or even produced. Charcoal, bog ore, steel, hammers, bellows, anvils, tongs, metallographic equipment etc., etc. It was a long list and the clock was ticking.

Some of the preparations I was able to perform early because we organised a bladesmithing workshop during one of the modules. We also ended up dedicating a week of spring break to some of the initial iron smelting experiments. Nevertheless, what I originally envisioned had to be given a good trimming before the end, and dreams of setting up a proper blacksmith’s workshop at the Centre for Experimental Archaeology had to be abandoned. There were other classes and assessments in need catering to as well.

Somewhere amidst all of that, some of us somehow made our way to Leiden for the 10th Experimental Archaeology Conference. That was a very entertaining experience, which led to some interesting acquaintances being made, but I have written about that before.

Upon returning there was little time left to the semester, but still there were a few essays and projects left to hand in. Once that was done, there was little time to rest. A night spent sharing food, wine and thought among friends; then it was high time for some original research.

dark age blacksmith's workshop
The makeshift workshop which I used for the bladesmithing course, as well as for most of my experimental work.
dark age forge
The forges running at full blaze.
bloomery smelting bog iron
Smelting some bog iron at the end of the semester. My friends and colleagues were a great help and source of support through all for this.

Semester 3: Technological Non-Sense

The summer semester was the first time that all (well… most) of the focus could be dedicated to one paper – The Thesis. All in all, producing 15,000 words of academic text is no record-breaking achievement. But if you first have to run an experiment, then 3 months can fly by quite quickly.

The practice of spending whole weekends at the office was by now well established. Weekdays were spent doing practical work at the UCD Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture, while the weekends were dedicated to writing and digging through books.

My research project focused on ironworking, starting at collecting and smelting bog ore, then processing the blooms, forging knife blades and finally cutting them up and metallographically analysing them. In the end I ran 2 smelts, processed the blooms in 3 different ways, forged 12 blades, prepared and analysed the 12 samples, and produced loads of features, debris and photos.

I was of course not the only one performing mischief in a fenced of field at one corner of the UCD Campus. My colleagues dealt with the making and using of bronze woodworking tools, Roman oil lamps, shaggy woolen mantles, Leinster cooking ware, a Minoan pottery kiln, early medieval rotary querns. It all added up to a a very varied and entertaining working environment.

The main result of it all was confirming the notion that a lot of archaeologists who make authoritative statements about craft, ancient technologies and materiality, have a poor understanding of said matters. And in the end, pointing such things out and demonstrating fallacies might be one of the main objectives of experimental archaeology.

But first I had to learn how to do metallography in the first place.

Learning how to perform a new analytical method in the last moment might not be the smartest, or at least the safest, way of playing this game, but as they say: ‘Fortune favours the bold!’

Learning how to do metallography well takes some practice, and there are some initial hurdles which need to be overcome.   But with a combination of luck, sheer bloody-mindedness and some initial (much appreciated) guidance by Dr. Barry Molloy, I was able to somehow pull of this thing.

Should you be a bit more interested in how archaeological metallography works, then you might be pleased to know that a PDF David A. Scott’s (1991) manual, ‘Metallography and Microstructure of Ancient and Historic Metals’, can be freely accessed.

I wrote the paper, had it printed and bound, handed it in, had a (quite) a few drinks, and kissed Dublin’s ‘Fair’ City goodbye.

Also, in case you were wondering. The final thesis will be uploaded to Academia, once it is officially graded.

iron smelting bloom consolidation
The ironworking journey started in the field, with smelting bog iron in a bloomery furnace, and then turning this into usable iron bars.
bog iron knives
The bloomery iron (and steel) was in turn forged into knife blades.
bog iron metallography
The work then moved from the field and into the laboratory, where they were cut and mounted in epoxy for metallographic analysis.
bog iron metallography
I spent day after day grinding and polishing the samples, periodically checking them under the microscope, finding a scratch, questioning certain decisions in my life and finally producing 12 samples with a near-perfect mirror-polish. These could then be etched and observed under a microscope.
bog iron metallography
What started of as dirt in a bog eventually became the focus of laboratory-based study, involving hours and hours spent behind the microscope, taking and combining microphotos.
bog iron metallography
Once all the fancy cross-sections were produced, they still had to be analysed and compared, before I could write anything meaningful about them.

The Aftermath

Looking back on it all, it was a pretty decent year for writing. After all, I did come up with this blogging experiment during the winter holidays. It might have something to do with the fact that I got used to producing thousands of words of essays on a weekly basis. Sitting down and producing a couple of thousand words of text (of variable quality) became something natural to do. Now I have to maintain the habit writing down my thoughts.

On the other hand, there was precious little time for travelling around Ireland. Of course I did go to the usual spots just around Dublin, such as walking the Cliffs of Howth and visiting the Dublin Mountains. There happened to be a school trip to the archaeological sites of the Ring of Gullion and Co. Down in the beginning of the year. At one point I happened to pay a visit to the area around Wexford and the Irish National Heritage Park. With the help of friends I even paid a few short visits to Ireland’s picturesque west coast. The most spectacular of these was a day spent driving across the rocky landscape of Co. Kerry, and the oak woods and lakes of the Killarney National Park.

A view of the Upper Lake in the Killarney National Park. (Photo: A. McCall)

On the other hand it was pretty bad year for living history. Not that there was a lack of interesting events to which I was cordially invited. I simply did not have the time to run away for an extended weekend in another country. Nevertheless, I did manage to take a week off to attend Times & Epochs: The Gathering, an international living history convention held in Moscow by Ratobortsy. Needless to say, it was a lot of fun. Next year might be more varied on the events front.

viking on the moscow metro
My only living history experience was an entertaining multi-period event, which involved a lot of moving around central Moscow in period costume. Surprisingly, Vikings do not get searched for weapons on the Moscow Metro.

Yet the road goes ever on and on…

The end of every chapter in life also has to be the beginning of another. Now I can maybe stop breathing caffeine and get back to producing articles for this page. Thus I started writing this post on a train between Copenhagen and Stockholm.

The next chapter in my story will be dedicated to getting back to being artisan and becoming a much better blacksmith than I ever was. A year in college was interesting, and I have met a few interesting people that shared my path for a while. Hopefully we stay in touch as long as possible. But now I have to maintain a balance between theory and practice, so that I do not become that which I often despised: someone who just talks and does not actually do much.

I have moved on to the rocky woods near Kopparberg, to named Kvarnfall. Here I shall spend some time thinking about ancient tools, and most importantly making them in the company of my friends Götz and Mari. More about that in a future post.

Needles to say, there are many interesting things lurking in the future.

holmsjo kopparberg
A new chapter begins…

Did you also pass an important milestone this year? Do write in the comments bellow.

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