The table that I sat at during the portion of the Craft Fair when it was not raining cats and dogs was the ceramics table.
The ceramic table displayed several examples of the ‘Anglo-Saxon funerary urns’ that my classmates and I had made in the College’s pottery studio early in the term, as a means of striving towards a holistic method of understanding material culture. Essentially, one of the best ways to learn about something, especially if that thing is traditionally hand-made, is to make it yourself, with your hands, and with as much of authentic materials and methods as you can achieve.
Students beginning to create coil pots
Of course, there are limitations on the authenticity that can be achieved by a bunch of undergraduates an ocean and a millennium away from the original makers of the crafts. However, through our time in the pottery studio we were at least able to gain an appreciation for the amount and work and skill that goes into making in a lumpy, asymmetrical pot.
Like traditional pots from this period, the pots that we made were coil pots. This kind of pot is easy to make, even for a person as unskilled as me and my classmates or an unspecialized Medieval farmer. Making a coil pot involves creating a flat, circular base and coiling thick strings of clay around the perimeter of that base. The layers of coils are smoothed and blended as they are stacked, and the length of each layered coil controls the radius of each part of the finished pot. In the case of funerary urns, this results in a curvy shape that is narrow at the base, wide in the middle and tapers at the top before flaring outward at the lip.
an example of a traditional Anglo-Saxon funerary urn, from a crematory site in Suffolk
Coil pots are made without the usage of a pottery wheel, and usually without the usage of a turn table, so they tend to end up being lumpy and/or asymmetrical within both the archaeological record and college pottery studios. Traditionally, these pots were fired in bonfires rather than in kilns, and were not finished with a glaze like many modern wares, so they lack the shine and durability of many ceramics that would be found in a pottery shop today.
The urns that we made were also featured at other locations throughout the Craft Fair.
Some urns were used to weigh down the tarp under the body that was used for the mock burial at the end of the Craft Fair
One was used to hold quills at the calligraphy table
And another few were filled with ashes and placed around a mock crematory pyre
The ubiquity of ceramic vessels around the craft likely resembles how commonplace pottery would have been in rural Early Medieval Britain, as these wares were created on the household scale.
The interactive element of the Ceramics table consisted of quantities of play dough that I made from scratch with the help of a friend.
The play dough was made with common ingredients, and was pretty easy to make.
For one batch, we used two cups of flour, one cup of salt, four tablespoons of vinegar, two cups of water, three tablespoons of vegetable oil, and a bunch of chopped up grass from behind the house that held the kitchen we used. I also kneaded in a handful of ash from the fire during the craft fair.
Grass and ash are not usually used in play dough, but I decided to incorporate them as a way of mimicking how the clay used in creating traditional Anglo-Saxon pottery was ‘dirty’- containing fossils, ash, vegetative matter, and whatever else was in the ground where the farmers dug up their clay.
I also put food coloring in the play dough. This resulted in it being somewhat unfortunately flesh-colored, but also similar in color to the fired ceramics on the table.
measuring out ingredients…
mixing them over medium heat…
until a mass of play dough begins to form.
Spreading it out so that it can cool…
before balling it up so that it could be taken to the craft fair! This was one batch out of the three we made.
As a part of my exposition at the table, I would briefly discuss the nature of traditional Anglo-Saxon ceramics, talk about why and how our class made ours, and invite people to make coil pots using the play dough.
The table had few visitors (as did most of the craft tables, as an hour and a half into the craft fair it began to thunderstorm and all of the tables had to be covered. Most of the fair’s visitors came to the later half of the event, for food and for the mock burial. However, the people that did visit the table seemed to enjoy it.