Week 11–Opening the Kiln

Savannah de Montesquiou
My name is Savannah de Montesquiou, and I am Sophomore majoring in History of Art and double minoring in Entrepreneurship & Management and Visual Arts. In addition to my historical and academic studies of art, I have a strong background in studio art, particularly in painting as well as surface and graphic design. I am especially interested in comparing the graphic nature of the ancient vessels we will analyze to modern design as well as understanding the relationship between sculptor and painter in their collaborative process. Studying these objects from such close proximity and having the opportunity to handle the clay will extend my studies in a fully immersive way, transcending the physical barriers of museum glass and time.
Several apprentices, visitors and the camera crew observe the first layer of the kiln where two “test” kylikes were fired.

Several apprentices, visitors and the camera crew observe the first layer of the kiln where two “test” kylikes were fired.

Our dedication, fear, and excitement reached their heights as apprentices, scholars, and master potters gathered around the kiln. Other scholars, many of whom we had the privilege to study and even meet, precede us in attempting this great feat, but our own methods make our firing unique, and its outcome unknown. There were no longer any sources or evidence from ancient Greece to rely on; the results of our efforts were completely in our own hands, legitimizing us as scholars in our own rights.

Matt and Cami straddled the kiln to remove the first half of the dome and reveal our success. Two test kylikes resting on the top shelf sat entirely intact and displayed darkened areas of scorch marks, possibly blackened slip and burnished sections. This was not a reflection of what occurred in the other layers of the kiln, but it was clear that something definitely happened below. Removing the first shelf exposed two groups’ kylikes and several students’ tiles on the second level. The pottery on this level was red, and the slip had not fully vitrified. The darkest areas of slip were visible in the contour lines and some relief lines, likely because these areas had the thickest slip layers.

The third shelf, predicted to be the ideal position in the kiln, supported the second pair of group kylikes and more tiles. At this layer, our only casualty was found: a masterfully painted tile which had exploded into many sherds. This tile was probably responsible for the loud pop heard only an hour into the first oxidation phase, and most likely broke off the handle of the adjacent kylix. This loss was disappointing, but likely occurred in the master workshops of ancient Greece. In that sense, the breakage brought us closer to understanding the production process, and should not be though of as a wasted tile. The tile placed flat and in the center of this level reflected the most successful firing result with consistent black slip throughout the image. We have attributed this result to both the ideal positioning in the kiln as well as a thick application of slip.

Two group kylikes and several tiles were fired at the third layer of the kiln. One tile did not survive firing.

Two group kylikes and several tiles were fired at the third layer of the kiln. One tile did not survive firing.

The fourth and bottom shelf, which experienced the most heat in the kiln, was the most successful in producing consistently black slip. The pottery reacted to heat in several ways on this level. Some tiles experienced considerable warpage with totally charred areas. The two kylikes on this level exhibited the darkest areas of black slip, but not consistently throughout the vessels. The slip turned black on the inside of the bowls.

The two most obvious lessons learned from our first firing were that a significant amount of slip, four layers if not more, should be applied, and that positioning within the kiln makes a huge difference. It was very clear how some tiles and kylikes were affected by their position in the kiln, showing dark slip only where the object faced the outside of the kiln or obvious brushstrokes across the surface. In other cases, more mysterious phenomena occurred such as glowing red splotches and even an explosion. All of the objects were influenced by the others in positioning and even in evidence of chipping from the explosion. We toasted the success of our first firing with grape juice and noticed that the less vitrified cups absorbed far more of the juice and weren’t very water-tight! And then we made plans for a second firing in June. Next week, we will return to the museum, try to associate our firing flaws and failures with images of our objects in the kiln before the firing, and also compare our replicas with their source of inspiration.


12 Responses to Week 11–Opening the Kiln

  1. Awesome post! Even though I couldn’t make it, reading this is just as good.
    I found it interesting that the best wares were on the bottom level (excluding the tile belonging to Ross, of course). It could make sense that it was because they received the most heat. But how could the Greeks be able to stack their kilns to the brim and not run into a similar problem? They must have had a method that we missed or didn’t administer, like a shelf or even a different arrangement of the objects. I suppose only more experiments will tell. I’m looking forward to the discussion over our wares to see what everyone else thinks.

  2. Great post Savannah! I was surprised at the vast difference between the shelves. There could be as much as a 200 degree difference from the top and bottom of the kiln, but the importance of that difference became clear when comparing the pieces from the top and bottom shelves. It’s also interesting that the middle shelf, which was considered the “sweet spot” did not vitrify the cups as successfully as the bottom shelf. I wonder if the vast temperature difference could be alleviated by using a smaller kiln.

  3. Since there are tentative plans to fire a second time, it might be interesting to put some of the objects from this firing back into the kiln to see if we can get them to fully vitrify a second time around. If this proves feasible, it could have a large impact on how we think about the economic realities of an ancient Greek ceramic workshop. If it is possible to correct an underfired vessel with a second firing, firing mistakes may not have been as disastrous for the workshop as has been previously thought since a second firing is much less economically costly than creating an entirely new vessel.

  4. I was so excited to open the kiln. This is the culmination of so much time and effort! I wasn’t surprised at the variation that the kiln produced because we knew there was inconsistency in temperature between layers in the kiln. It was really cool to see which methods worked and what results were produced. The linierhaar came out really well in the firing. Overall, most of the pieces came out scorched or gunmetal in some regard, indicating that our firing was inconsistent and over the delicate threshold of black glossy vitrification in some regards.

    I was very happy with how my group’s kylix came out and surprised at the fact that parts of the glaze fired on the exterior of the bowl and others not at all! I hope we can do a second firing (possibly on my group’s kylix again) to see if we can fix that with another application of slip?

  5. Opening the kiln was so exciting! It was great to see the result of our semester’s work. Of course, there’s still more to do!

    My group’s kylix was on the third level (from the top) of the kiln. I think that the most interesting part of our cup is that half of the outside turned black, while the other half was a streaky red and black. Based on pictures of the kylix in both its kiln location and removed from the kiln, the part that turned black was facing the outside of the kiln. This is in agreement with Savannah’s statement “It was very clear how some tiles and kylikes were affected by their position in the kiln, showing dark slip only where the object faced the outside of the kiln”.

    I am looking forward to analyzing our results!

  6. Great post! I painted my tile with a thickened slip but I did not dip the brush very frequently, so the beginning part of each brushstroke had more slip and the later part had very little. I am very delighted that this actually translated into black surfaces and non-black surfaces after firing, accounting for the amount of slip from start to end of a brushstroke.

  7. A great post about a great event! It was amazing to see the extreme variations that resulted from putting the pieces in different sections of the kiln! Matt brought up the idea of trying out the perforated shelf method to try and prevent the obvious effects of the fire only moving along the sides of the kiln walls. It seems that this may have been what led to the vessels on the periphery of the kiln becoming blackened. The perforations would hopefully allow the fire to travel more freely through the kiln, interacting more with the vessels in the interior and (hopefully) resulting in a more uniform firing.

  8. Great post! After going through this entire process, I must say that I am in complete awe of the the ancient pots we held during the second week of class.The fact that these vessels–after over 2,000 years–still retain their original sheen is absolutely magnificent. Even with the aid of modern technology we were unable to produce pots of the same quality. Although the results of our firing were very informative, there is still so much left to learn.

  9. Savannah, loved the post. When I saw my tile peeking out from under the first layer, complete with black and red portions, I was giddy.
    Every one of our tiles and cups has a story to tell about the production process. I really appreciate your last paragraph, because it speaks to the excitement of wanting to run through this process again, iteratively fixing what had gone wrong previously. I would be entirely game for another attempt, knowing what we do now.
    And actually drinking from our cups! Briefly, the class could have been called “Recreating Ancient Greek Symposia.” I’ll remember that forever.

  10. One of my theories for further improvements for heat circulation within the kiln would be the inclusion of perforated shelves rather than solid ones when staking. Or even the exclusion of shelves (if we felt confident that stacking the cups atop each other would be stable enough), since you don’t often see shelving in ancient depictions of the kilns. I think this might explain some inconsistent firing on the cups and tiles and maybe what restricted heat from rising up the core of the kiln. Then again, I’m not kiln expert but addition supports seemed to make notable “ghost” marks in the black slip.

  11. Great post! My tile, unfortunately, split right down the middle. I was extremely upset when the kiln opened and my poor tile hadn’t garnered any vitrification, as when it split, it leaned against another tile and I believe it affected its firing. I guess storing it in an air-tight plastic bag for weeks did a little too good of job protecting it!

  12. Thanks Savannah!

    I thought my heart was going to burst when we were opening the kilns! I was just praying that my tile ended up intact enough that I could see the results of some of my experiments. Seeing the two casualties we did have was truly disappointing… even though they weren’t my own, I really empathized with the poor luck that had a lot to do with positioning in the kiln. But in the end, I think we all learned a lot about the importance of the firing process as well as the density and formula of our slip. It seemed that certain slips would vitrify at very specific temperatures. In our cup, several relief lines that were painted with one slip formula vitrified beneath the contour lines of a slip of a different formula! How’s that for mind boggling?

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