The Ride to Machu Pichu

To begin with I must note that this entry is being written some time after the experience. The internet in Peru did not serve me well and in fact prohibited me making posts to this blog. As such I am forced to write about my experiences from the comfort of the United States.

Our trip to Machu Pichu was inevitable. One does not visit Peru for what was the first, and possibly last, time in ones life without taking the trouble to visit one of the most extraordinary ruins in all of South America! After solidifying the complex bus reservations, coordinating train tickets, and finally hostel arrangements we prepared ourselves and set forth. Our journey began in another one of the ever present Peruvian van buses. We, along with several tourists from varying nations, set out and soon left behind the smog of Cuzco. As we drove through the highland countryside, jagged snow capped mountains loomed in the distance. They were the vanguard of the Andes, and we would soon find ourselves amidst these sheer granite guardians of South America.

Our first stop was in the small unpronounceable town of Ollantaytambo. An ancient Incan resting area it have massive terraces covering the hillside, along with more decorative ruins dotting the arid, and nearly sheer, hills. We were still at a high altitude and the sky was without much cloud. After spending time walking around the town, exploring the local markets, and witnessing the butchers at said market cut a cow head in half, I bought myself a drink before heading down to the train station. Soon we found ourselves amidst a flock of peruvians and tourists trying to get the train to Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machu Pichu. We boarded and began the ride down through the mountains.

As our train followed the path of a river down through the mountain the scenery slowly changed. With the dropping altitude plants took advantage of the greater oxygen by growing in profuse abundance. Soon we were rolling through beautiful rain forest by a sky blue river. Huge granite mounds stood all around us, covered in their green foliage. The beauty was all I saw as we rode through the forests for a few more hours before reaching our destination. Soon we would be preparing ourselves to see the ruins set amidst this jungle.

On the Road: Machu Picchu

“El escritor escribe su libro para explicarse a sí mismo lo que no se puede explicar”

“The writer writes his book to explain to himself what he cannot explain.”- Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The long road to Machu Picchu was mostly made troublesome by all the arrangements that had to be made beforehand: from the bus to the train to the hostel to the bus to the site. After picking a van from the crowds of drivers yelling “Ollanta?! Ollanta?!” we winded through the roads of Peru where lanes and turn signals are only a suggestion. Upon arrival into Ollantaytambo we separated for a few hours and met for the train after having a Pisco Sour in the local bar by the train station. The train was beautifully new and full of tourists from all over the world trying to find their way to the site of anticipation. Upon arrival into the next city Aguas Calientes, which lies at the foot of Machu Picchu we decided to wander by the tracks and into the jungle. The boys took off to climb things and fulfill their male inhibitions and i sat in a clearing by the river where couples go to be alone. Upon sitting i could find that nothing was comparable to the sights of the mountains that reached heights that seemed to caress the skies. We rested that night and awoke the next morning for a 4am breakfast that would start the trek to the bus up the mountain and to the bottom of the site. The excitement could be felt as the people bustled in from all over to enter the Inca site. As we reached the top or bottom depending on where you choose the beginning to be, not much could be seen from the fog of the early morning. We separated again and i went off to find the Inca bridge. I headed out towards the signs and soon found myself in hardly wide enough paths of stone that led me down to a closed bridge. I didn’t even second guess the heights until i returned later that day as the skies had cleared to see the depths below the cliff i had previously walked down. The incredible heights and beauty of structures upon them were unlike anything explainable. Even after having taken pictures and looked upon them later, the sights don’t seem to be awesome as the feeling they brought while being amongst them. The people were all so kind and it felt as if we mostly shared a sentiment after having hiked throughout the site all day. As we headed down in the bus again it was almost overwhelmingly sad to leave such beauty and wonder when and if my eyes would lay upon such sights again. Upon arrival back to Cusco there was an amazing feeling of being home again and sleep that night was unlike any other. However, Machu Picchu, you and I will meet again.

To Catch up on Events

I write this blog at about the halfway point of our archeological project here in Cuzco, Peru. So far this has been an experience unlike any other as I find myself in the midst of the bustling cultural capital of the Peruvian highlands. Far from my previous journeys Peru is a much more earthy and less flashy country that is doing what it can to get by. As a “gringo” I am targeted left right and center by trinket sellers, beggars, fake art sellers, and even restaurant waiters trying to ring in customers. Currency is frequently inspected for signs of counterfeiting and shady figures on street corners and near banks keep their eyes on the unwary. As I have been working on my Spanish (or Castelleano as they call it here) I have learned ever more sarcastic ways of turning them down. During the week when fewer tourists are about I tend to attract less attention from the scrupulous natives. When wearing our pot dust caked work clothes we attract less attention than the flashy backpacking, short shorts wearing tourists that wander around in packs not knowing which way is up. American and European women are particularly conspicuous for their trousers (or shorts), money, and air of independence that is considered unthinkable by the traditional Peruvians.
       The city is a jungle of wires, cobblestones, warn down adobe, Spanish tiles, ancient Incan walls, and dirt. Dogs exhibiting varying degrees of life adorn the dusty doorsteps of the more prosperous shop owners, and can often be found wandering the streets at night, intent upon their mongrel business. When it rains the adobe and gypsum walls disintegrate by small increments, producing the ever present dirt and dust in a city that has almost no unpaved surface. The smell that at first offends ones nose soon becomes unnoticed as it permeates you and your belongings. I know I must wash my clothes first thing upon my return. Occasionally one comes across a happy game of “empty plastic water bottle soccer” that the children in this city are very fond of. Native women from the countryside are easily noticed in their out of place traditional skirts, hats, and hairstyles that have not changed for at least two hundred years. The little country girls (similarly adorned in colorful skirts and long braided hair) that often accompany these “cholas”, as they are called here, are often wide eyed and shy at the bustle and noise of the city. This is a country where strong tradition clashes with the struggle to modernize, and where a few miles outside of town is equivalent to a few centuries of difference in lifestyle. Open air markets entice one with their aromas of meats and soups that would spell days or weeks of intestinal agony for any tourist hapless enough to indulge in such street food. It is definitely a different world from the US or Europe, but life finds a way. Here in this exotic land the people go about their lives knowing nothing better than what they have except for what they can wring from gringos. I am enjoying myself thoroughly and by now feel quite at home weaving my way through narrow streets and dodging the dirty overcrowded vans and bugs that crowd the Peruvian streets. My Spanish is always improving and I am becoming ever more comfortable amongst the people of these highlands. Even the thin air is compatible with time to adjust and a morning cup of coca tea! Though we are about halfway through our time here there is still so much to do and see. Soon we will be visiting one of the most famous ruins in the Americas.
-Phillip M.

Sailing at 11,000 feet.

Shipwrecked, stranded, day eleven: 20th August, Two Thousand and Twelve.

The sun is hot, the nights cold, we are constantly haunted by infernal pounding. I fear the time passes too quickly and the pottery-gods are closing in… Must keep working.
The native population seem fairly calm, but become hostel at the sight of coin, for which they promise to give you all kinds of services—from shoe shines to massages—in return for the small-valued currency they seem to use down here. There also seem to be occult worship of geese every Sunday where all the children and youngsters take large and high steps through the center of the village. The local population have these mal-fangled contraptions in the shape of Beetles, or bugs, with four wheels which speed around like cars, and try to hit you when you cross the street. The local food is quite adequate, and mostly interesting and delicious, seeming to be drawn from all corners of the globe. The streets are exciting and full of life. On the Saturdays and Sundays one can see many other fellow stranded travelers from many ships from many countries, but mostly during the week one only sees the indigenous population.

In all, this is the most agreeable of spots in the best of all possible worlds in which to be stranded. I would most gratefully exchange many things from home for the things here, and believe this to be the most enjoyable of ventures.

Faithfully submitted,
Rafferty O.L. Lincoln
HMS Surprise, Jack Aubrey commanding

Mate Mate Coca en Cusco

Its been more than a week since the big arrival day into the city carved into the valleys that lie between the Andes of Peru…or Cusco. Between the exploring and the altitude, panting has become a regular activity. However this has yet to stop the Cusco gang here from running up stairs, climbing natural rock formations, nor skipping down Av. Pardo arms linked singing “We’re off to see the Wizard.” Between adventures in the city have been adventures of the past hidden in Body Class III sherds from Chokepukio. These adventures have been some of the greatest as they have introduced us to a mummified dog and a monkey jar. They have also been the cause of some lab fever that has encouraged us to analyze everything we can lay our eyes on with the typology including our own typology stylized creation made of andean bread. The constant threats of rain and burning sun however have kept us up and about with attempts to close and open windows upon nature’s whim. We soak up the sun like turtles during tea breaks and hide from it as it slowly climbs over the neighboring buildings and burns through the windows in the afternoon. We do however know the schedule now as it has become as regularized as the constant sound of whispering panpipes in all of Cusco. As our lungs and stomachs slowly adjust with the tastiness of coca tea and comida tipica of Peru I hope we do as well into this space where we can learn an incredible amount from the pottery as well as from the people.

Drying Fire

Finally, we have something resembling a kiln. The latest concern is determining how the mass of pitcher’s mound material will cope with heat. Experimental kilns typically have a clay lining on the interior of the ware chamber that, in effect, makes the chamber a pot in and of itself. Like pots, the lining needs to dry or it will suffer the same fate as wet pots fired too soon: spalling, breakage, catastrophic failure. However, the San Francisco Bay area in January is not a dry time of the year and we can’t wait for a lining to dry. One excavated example of a kiln found at East Heslington last summer has no lining:

The advantage of using the ground as the lining is that you don’t have to worry about compatability between the lining and the earth. However, the ground still needs to be relatively dry before firing so that the leather hard pots don’t absorb ambient moisture. This is most likely to happen as the kiln heats up and the walls of the ware chamber start to steam.  The other issue is spalling of the wet clay, shooting chunks of clay from the walls to the pots.  To prevent either of these problems, we conducted a drying fire in the open kiln. We built a small fire in the ware chamber and let it burn for about 3 hours, to dry off as much water as possible. The dryness of the tunnel walls was less important because the tunnel will be roofed with layers of sod.


With a great deal of rain in the forecast over Christmas break, we went to lengths to keep the clay mountain mound well-covered. We pulled a canvas tarp over the entire mound and anchored it with granite cobbles along the sides and corners to keep water from puddling in the ware chamber. The other challenge was in keeping the sides of the excavated area from caving in, particularly higher up near the top. To secure this area, we place two boards on each wall and wedged braces in between. In the end, both solutions worked quite well.

In keeping with the various kiln reconstructions found in Britain, we opted to use turf, cut into strips or bricks, to constrict the opening over the ware chamber.  Sod was the closest available relative, although considerably thinner than sod. We were prepared to have a quantity of sod on hand when we removed the tarp and found that various seedlings had sprouting in our clay mixture, indicating that enough soil was present to sustain plants! We took this opportunity to landscape the mound. Kate Rose, an undergrad, proved invaluable in heaving the sod on top of the mound and unrolling the heavy sod rolls down the side of the mound. The mound surface was scored using a rake and wet down a bit to prime the surface.Kate with our partially sodded kiln

Another issue of design is the shape and size of the fire tunnel. The height must be tall enough to allow airflow without compromising heat retention. Furthermore, ash and coals accumulate in the tunnel throughout the firing, which chokes the fire of the oxygen needed to increase the temperature. It is unclear how ancient potters in northern England resolved this issue and not all plan drawings of excavated kilns give a view looking down the tunner. Modern potters specializing in replica pots sometimes use metal grates, allowing the coals to drop down under the flaming logs. The coals and ash can then be removed.  One excavation that did happen to document the fire tunnel was at Crambeck:

 Crambeck fire tunnel (Fig. 24, Corder 1928, in Wilson 1989). The term “flue” is not in its common usage here.
The tunnel on this kiln is narrow at the bottom, possibly to allow the potter to wedge wood into the tunnel between the two walls and create space for airflow. We replicated this concept by digging a trench into the floor of the fire tunnel:

 With the kiln fully sodded and the granite cobbles making the interior ledge, we are almost done! The remaining parts are the clay bars to make the ware chamber floor and the roof of the fire tunnel, and install thermocouple ports.

True Love! 

Participants have become attached to our kiln!

Kiln Interior

The cobble lining of this kiln serves two purposes. The first is to help the ware chamber retain heat. The second and more important function is in supporting the floor onto which the pots get loaded. Having pots situated higher that the fire permits air circulation and promotes a more even distribution of heat. These used-granite ‘cobbles’ were purchased from Peninsula Construction Supply in Sunnyvale. They vary in size, but the average is about 4” x 5” x 10”.

The trench is a 2 feet wide, 6 feet long, and about 3 feet at its deepest. This was a little deeper than what I had originally intended. I manually expanded the ware chamber width and embedded the granite using the extra clay pulled out of the trench. Before use, a cobble will be planted in the center and clay bars (in manufacture now) will spoke out from the center cobble and rest on the cobbles lining the perimeter. To give a better idea of where this project is heading, here are some figures from Vivien G. Swan’s The Pottery Kilns of Roman Britain (1984):

Clay bars found in excavated kiln, collapsed across ledge and center pedestal. (Swan 1984:60)

In this case, the clay bars are sitting on a ledge, but examples have also been found where the clay bars are lodged into the wall of the kiln, directly into clay or between bricks.

Top and side views of a late La Tène-derived surface kiln (Swan 1984:68)

In addition to the job of serving as the floor of the ware chamber, the clay bars are used over the fire tunnel as support for the insulative sod that will be layered on top of them. There is a perforated clay plate on the level of the clay bars at the juncture of the fire tunnel and the ware chamber. This plate prevents the hot air from escaping straight up and out of the kiln without circulating through the chamber.

Another decision to be made is whether or not to give the kiln a clay lining, as is sometimes found archaeologically. This kiln is dug into a clay-based soil, and because of this there is no need to plug holes or cracks between bricks or stones used for the superstucture. At the moment, there is no obvious need to add more clay to the interior, but we will keep that option open.

Building the Mound

Work on the kiln began with the help of the road maintenance crew on campus. After going over the kiln designs with Dave, the supervisor, he was able to locate some clay-like soil for the mound that might work for our purposes. It was a Baseball Field Blend that used to make pitcher’s mounds, which has a higher clay content than the rest of the infield.  Our material contains about 40% clay, 40% sand, and 20% silt, and arrived wet after several days of rain leading up to the project.  We compacted the first batch into a12’ x 12’ x 2’ box, anchored with two posts on the exterior of each side.  Although sticky, the clay mixture compacted nicely using the hand held plate.  The second batch of clay was a different story. It arrived dry and appeared to have a higher sand/silt content that the previous batch. We attempted to dump it onto the compacted clay, in hopes that there was enough water in the first batch to hydrate the second batch (see photo below). This didn’t work.  Using a bulldozer to mix it, we hosed the dry soil down, alternating between scooping and patting. Once wet, we let the second batch set for a few days to let the water disperse evenly throughout the clay.

Clay batch 2 on compacted clay batch 1

After sitting for a few days, the second batch was still wet and sticky, but we needed to press forward.  After piling it on top of the first layer, we attempted to compact it using metal tools. The clay stuck to all the equipment, so we threw a tarp over the clay and used the compression plate on top of the tarp.

Compacting the mound.Even with equipment, it isn't always easy.

Compacting the clay is an important step in recreating a ground-like body for the kiln. Loose clay won’t  maintain its shape when we dig the fire tunnel, which is a critical part of the kiln design. After letting the mound consolidate for a day, we came back with a back hoe to dig out the trench that would become the ware chamber and fire tunnel.


The force of the backhoe pulling the clay out of the trench causes large cracks on the exterior part of the kiln.  Before leaving for the day, we put up a brace on the interior to keep the  sides from caving in.

Future ware chamber and fire tunnel

 After removing the extra clay, the next step is the line the interior with granite cobble.

Binchester Kiln Project

I like fire. As part of my research, I get to fire pottery using preindustrial methods.  The purpose of this blog is to document my study of ancient firing methods through experimentation using raw materials found near archaeological sites. For the past couple of years, I’ve had the opportunity to bring field clays back from foreign countries and make replica pots with them.

The project currently underway is a replica of a Romano-British kiln being built on campus. We are starting with this composite design, derived from various published archaeological examples, but will likely adapt it as we move through the process. After this effort, we aim to construct a sister kiln near the Binchester Roman Fort near Durham, UK.


Initially, I had planned to dig a simple updraft kiln directly into the ground. However the logistics and aesthetics of campus life required something more cosmetic with good air circulation.  After coming up with a composite design, I consulted with the road maintenance crew on campus for materials and options in general for “clayey soil”.  After calling around, they actually found something plausible. More clay than soil, this mixture is used to construct pitcher’s mounds on baseball fields. Once we had settled on the primary material, it was simply a matter of dodging rain systems and sick days.

The concept of this kiln is to replicate a hybrid firing technology by combining aspects of Late Iron Age (La Tene-derived) kilns and later Roman kilns, while adapting the design to limitations of its location on campus. The design above calls for a 12′ x 12′ x 4′ mound, with a 3′ x 3′ ware chamber, stone lined, and a 2′ wide fire tunnel. Clay bars will be manufactured to span the fire tunnel so that we can layer sod on top of the bars and even out the surface of the mound. More clay bars will be made that will spoke out from the central pedestal in the ware chamber and rest on the stone ledges.

Water drainage for the kiln weighed heavily on my mind. Had we put the kiln into the ground, we would have risked coming back to a water-filled kiln. Instead, we designed the kiln above ground and a drainage ditch to catch and direct extra water away from the kiln interior.