Monday, 18 October 2021

Learning from the ancestors - by Lu Hersey

 This month I've been indulging in one of my favourite pastimes - practical research. Not just library research or falling down a google rabbit hole research - actual, practical research where you go out and attempt something a character might do in your book. 

To be honest, my latest heroine doesn't really need to know how her ancestors made coloured pigments - it's not as if she's painting shamanic wonders in the caves at Lascaux. In fact the most she does is pick up a bit of ochre and draw a pattern on a cave wall. Did I really need to spend an entire day making my own ancient pigments? Of course not. But it was both interesting and fun, and you never know when you might need this knowledge in the future. 

The point of the experimental archaeology courses held at Berrycroft Hub (based at a farm in Oxfordshire) is to learn about the past and how our ancestors achieved the things they did. This isn't the first time I've been there for some practical research. I've previously cast a bronze age dagger, flint knapped a hand axe (very badly - turns out flint knapping really isn't that easy and I'm hoping if society collapses, I can still get hold of a stainless steel kitchen knife) and made a birch bark container like the one Otzi the iceman had with him over 5000 years ago (a surprisingly beautiful and useful object. Or at least his was. Mine makes a handy pen holder on my desk).

One of the best things about Berrycroft Hub is hanging out with Harry the Jackdaw, who fell down the chimney when only two days old. He was hand-reared by entomologist Sally-Ann Spense, who lives on the farm and schedules all the courses there.

Anyway, back to the ancient pigments. Of course you could google how to create your own pigments, but would you actually go to all the effort of making them? On workshops like these, organised by experimental archaeologists (people with highly specialised knowledge and skills), you're provided with everything you need to have a go yourself. So on this one, Caroline (@pariogallico on Instagram) provided all six participants with a pestle and mortar, a selection of coloured clays & sandstones, jamjars, fixatives and basically everything we needed to make our own pigments. We even learnt how to make our own paintbrushes from feathers, sticks, plant fibres or animal hair.

A day spent grinding various rocks and clays, making jars of colourful cocktails and separating out the pigments, heating ochres to make colour changes, chewing sticks to make paintbrushes etc, might not be everyone's idea of a grand day out, but I think everyone at the workshop had a really good time. As the workshop progressed, we ended up chatting together like old friends. And when it finished, we got to take home our own handmade pigments in little pots, like the best party bags ever. What's not to like?

Another benefit of a day spent doing something like this is not having time to worry about writing, the current book out on sub, work, family - or actually anything at all. It makes me wonder if I'm in the wrong occupation. In another life, I'd be happy digging up clays and chipping at sandstones to make amazing coloured pigments. Probably wouldn't help pay the bills, but living in a cave, maybe I wouldn't need to.

So if you fancy some practical research, take a look at the workshops available at Berrycroft Hub - or find some course that sounds interesting and you might enjoy nearer to where you live. Spend some time free from worry and learn something useful. Sometimes taking a step back from writing can help it flow better or even inspire new ideas. I'd highly recommend it.

Lu Hersey

1 comment:

Joan Lennon said...

That sounds FABULOUS!!! Thanks for this, Lu!