On Saturday 9th June, FLAME’s Dr Peter Hommel and Samantha Bowring led a team of able helpers from the Oxford University School of Archaeology “from Mine to Metal”! Taking over the Pitt Rivers museum, the team led a series of activities i intended to introduce members of the public to various aspects of ancient metallurgy, the history of archaeometallurgy, and the direction of current research in Oxford.
The day was funded by a University of Oxford Public Engagement with Research Seed Fund grant, secured by Dr Hommel (with additional support from Studiocanal, Aardman Animations and The Oxford Charcoal Company), and was based in and around the Pitt Rivers Museum and Natural History Museum.
Highlights included the chance to handle minerals, ores and real archaeological artefacts with experts to hand to answer visitors’ questions. Thanks to Dr Robert Knight of the NHM, visitors had the chance to see native copper, sky-iron, and experience the varied colour of ores. They also were able to explore the history of archaeological analysis through a range of materials loaned from the Coghlan and Tylecote archives. On top of this, there were arts and crafts, prehistory themed colouring, and a chance to win a range of Early Man themed goodies (courtesy of Aardman and Studiocanal). Meanwhile, the Pitt Rivers lecture room was transformed into a Bronze Age mine where those that dared crawled through dark and bumpy tunnels lit only by glowworms and the etherial glimmerings of the tunnels’ walls. Visitors challenged themselves to enter in search of the metallic ores hidden within the depths, winning a chance to be entered into our prize draw. Participants were mostly children with or without their accompanying adults. However, we had a few unaccompanied adults too! Once they had entered, these older participants unwittingly demonstrated why we think children would have been such an integral part of most ancient mining operations; it often took several minutes for them to struggle back out!
Throughout the day, Dr Peter Hommel and Dr. Chris Green tirelessly demonstrated the process of smelting, transforming malachite into copper and casting and recasting small objects to demonstrate one of the most magical properties of metal. This was an incredibly popular spectacle with many visitors returning staying to watch the whole process and even returning later in the day to see different stages of the process. Over the course of the day we produced just under half a kilo of copper, which we distributed to the audience.
In the evening, another smelting and casting session took place, this time aimed at adults and teenagers. Members of the public had a chance for some hands on experience pumping bellows and casting their own small axe head.
One thing our display clearly demonstrated is how much easier it is to cast an object by melting down some existing metal compares with getting new metal from rock!