Death and Clay

I’ve been in North London for the last week, celebrating various birthday related things. While my eldest went roaring off up the M1 in his auntie’s red MX5 to the Harry Potter Studio Tour for his birthday (don’t worry, she was driving), I was rattling over to Dalston Junction on the Overground to do a porcelain course with Jo Davies for mine. I’ve been making pottery for almost as long as I have been studying it as an archaeologist. I started working with clay at Southampton Student’s Union as a Wednesday afternoon diversion whilst I was a PhD student. At the time I wanted to understand hand building and bonfire firings, because that was how the Neolithic pottery I was studying was made.

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Since then, however, I have got much more interested in making wheel-thrown pieces in glazed stoneware. Over the years I have developed a style of making which is probably best described as robust. Being a part-time night-class potter is a very good way of never getting out of any bad habits you have ever picked up and stoneware lets you get away with a certain amount of chunkiness in your handles and bases. Lots of my stoneware pots, like the one above, look as if they would be best used in an eighteenth century tavern brawl. Porcelain is a very different, less forgiving, material than stoneware. Last year I did a three day porcelain course with Jo at West Dean College in Sussex (which has a history and ambience worth a whole post on its own), trying to move on from my ‘Gin Lane’ aesthetic. As a follow on from this, I spent my sessions in Jo’s studio last week working on being a bit more delicate in my throwing.

While I was making mugs, and Jo was unpicking the glitches in my technique, we were talking about pottery and the connection between making things and memory. Learning to make things is a really good example of the kind of bodily ‘muscle memory’ that Paul Connerton refers to as ‘habit-memory’. There are loads of examples of this kind of remembering in all craft processes. What is interesting about this kind of memory is that it is a three way process involving your body, the physical thing you are trying to do and feedback from the person teaching you. When you are making something you can see and feel if it is working. This means that the habit-memory of learning to make something is directly connected to the physical form of the actual thing you made.

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We were also talking about materials and memory in pottery, particularly about this bone tempered Collared Urn from the Moseley Heights ring cairn I wrote about a couple of years ago. There is a temptation to think about this pot as special in some way, because it is tempered with what may be cremated human bone. This seems like a very good example of a memorial object. This pot preserves the memory of a person because it contains ground up bits of their body. However, most Bronze Age urns are tempered with ground up bits of other pots. These pots would have been directly connected to the actions of the person who made them. I don’t think we can assume that the pot tempered with the remains of someone’s bones is any more directly ‘memorial’ than one which is tempered with the remains of their actions.

At this point Jo asked if I knew the work of Julian Stair, which I didn’t. Being a diligent student I went away and looked him up later. The first thing my reading showed was that I absolutely should have heard of him, a major exhibition –  Quietus – was commissioned by mima (which is in my hometown of Middlesbrough) and one of its other venues was the National Museum of Wales (where I used to work and where 90% of the pots I studied for my PhD are kept). Quietus used ceramics to explore the containment of the human body after death and included Memorium: an installation in which audio visual memories of one person’s life were projected around a bone china urn which contained and was tempered with his ashes. Apart from the congruence between Memorium and the Moseley Heights urn, there is a lot of interesting overlap between archaeology and Stair’s writing on objects and memory. I need to read a lot more of this, but to start with I have put a paper of his on craft and the body on the reading list.

Rick

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