Earth scientists have growing interest in clay

Javier Cuadros, Clay Mineralogy Researcher, is one of Clayground’s advisers.  He sends news of exciting developments in the world of clay.  The latest is a piece about the environmentally beneficial interaction of clays and mangroves.  Thank you to Javier.

Mangrove forest, with typical system of aerial roots and light-toned clay soil. Everglades National Park. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Mangrove forest, with typical system of aerial roots and light-toned clay soil.
Everglades National Park. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Mangrove forests are ecosystems found on tropical coasts all around the world. They develop in river estuaries, where some physical obstacle causes water currents to slow down and sediment from the river to deposit very quickly. The sediments produce an island inundated at high tide lying at the frontier between the continent and the sea. A rich ecosystem develops, ranging from micro-organisms to higher animals and plants.  Trees called mangroves flourish, hence the name of these habitats. The trees have developed an ability to survive in highly saline conditions. Mangrove ecosystems are important biologically, protect and stabilize the coast from erosion, high tides and hurricanes, and they provide sustenance to local communities.

The connection with clay is the sediments forming the soil for the mangroves are clay-rich. Javier Cuadros is studying these clays with colleagues from the University of Sao Paulo, Piracicaba, in Brazil. Typically the main clay component in the sediment of mangroves is kaolinite with abundant iron oxide. These two components are found together in the tropical continental soils washed into the rivers and transported to the coast. When they reach the mangrove however, all the conditions change abruptly: there is a lot of decaying organic matter in the soil and the salinity is high. In these conditions, the iron oxide dissolves and becomes extremely reactive with the kaolinite. Immediately, a sequence of reactions takes place in which kaolinite is transformed into other clay minerals containing substantial amounts of iron and potassium.

Clay reactions elsewhere on earth are very very slow, taking hundreds of thousands to millions of years, whereas the reaction in the mangroves is much quicker, taking only thousands of years. It may seem a long time but, from the geological point of view, this is a wink. There is another important point to note. On the surface of the earth, clay reactions go in the “opposite” direction, that is, kaolinite is one of the end products. In mangroves the reaction goes backwards to “reconstitute” more complex clays, clays that typically form in very different environments, deep in the Earth. In the reconstitution of complex clays, the mangroves are consuming significant amounts of potassium entering the sea due to mineral dissolution in the continents. So mangrove forests are a very fast clay mineral reactor helping to maintain equilibrium between types of clay and the total amount of potassium in the oceans.

Mangrove forests are attracting increasing attention from Earth scientists as their processes and far-reaching effects come to light. Clay is a central player. However inert clay may look to us, it comes alive in mangrove forests.


Latest finds on the Thames Foreshore


Clayground’s current project, Clay Cargo 2014: London to Stoke via Birmingham, renews links between ceramics and the waterways today.  Archaeologist, Mike Webber, calls on his encyclopaedic knowledge of London and the river to illuminate the city’s trading history through ceramic fragments turned up by the tide.

Amongst the spectacular finds during our walk on September 27th there was a significant piece from the rim of a Roman mortarium and a piece of medieval jug handle.

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Secondly, a curious pipe-bowl exquisitely modelled.  After extensive research, we discovered on the site of the Archaeology Group that this is likely to be a rare caricature pipe dated around 1880-1900, known as a ‘Yankee Doodle’.  A fuller explanation by the Archaeology Group is given below.

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“Comparable to the later image of Uncle Sam, the Yankee Doodle image represents the American nation, and was based on the song widely used in the American War of Independence. The song had a continued popularity during the 19th century, encouraged by the publication of American music. The figure wears a style of hat that is an attribute of the ‘Uncle Sam’ but the face appears to be based on the distinctive long features of Andrew Jackson, president of the United States 1829-37. Jackson was a national hero after his victory over the British at the battle of New Orleans in 1812. In his later career he fought to preserve the Union.”

We’re not convinced about his similarity to Andrew Jackson, but it certainly looks like a ‘Yankee Doodle’ pipe.

Please contact us if you are interested in joining us on a Thames Foreshore Walk.  We are setting the next dates soon and are compiling a mailing list.

Don’t forget you can find a visual aid to help you date your fragments on a post here.

CLAY CARGO 2014: digging deeper into clay, canals and waterways

Clay Cargo takes inspiration from Josiah Wedgwood’s pioneering role in establishing the canals.  It sets out to renew the historic links between ceramics and the canal system by staging clay workshops on boats and canalside locations in three cities: London, Birmingham and Stoke on Trent.  This year we have also commissioned poets and ceramic artists to respond to each site.  The results will appear in a publication and exhibition from late November in the new Camden City Hall from late November with images and words from our adventures along the waterways from the Thames to Stoke on Trent.

Our busy summer has encompassed scuba diving in the canal at Middleport, Stoke-on-Trent; digging in Doulton’s ex clay pit at Saltwells, Dudley (courtesy of Ikon’s Black Country Voyages); clay workshops on the hospitable Fordham Gallery boat moored on the Regent Canal and at the Olympic Park; experimental kiln firings courtesy of Crisis and London Sculpture workshop and a symposium at Central Saint Martins highlighting the significance of hand skills today.

Two glimpses of our work on video can be seen by clicking here.

On 1st November, with Ikon, we marked the unveiling in Birmingham of Gillian Wearing’s A Real Birmingham Family.  Hosted at the City Library, we led a public workshop attended by around 400 people.  Participants were invited to celebrate family mealtimes and create in clay their favourite feasts.  A Birmingham Banquet was laid out on the 7th Floor of the library.

London – late November, Camden City Hall, 5 Pancras Road, London N1C 4AG

Launch of exhibition and publication with poems and images of ceramic works commissioned for Clay Cargo 2014

More details soon.

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Clayground/Project Phakama Bursary Award News

In May 2012, Clayground Collective teamed up with International Youth Performance organisation, Project Phakama, to hold an auction to raise funds for a bursary for a Phakama student to study ceramics. Thank you to all those who contributed items and stories to enable a student to study ceramics who otherwise would not have had the chance to do so.

The award was made to Cedoux Kadima, a committed visual artist who had not tried ceramics before.  Cedoux has made impressive progress through the year and has now embarked on an Art Foundation course at Morley College.


Auctioneer Régis Gnaly (Centre) and Phakama Colleagues at the auction in Morley College Ceramic Studio

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Cedoux Kadima is awarded his Bursary certificate from ceramics tutor and Clayground Co-Director, Duncan Hooson








Cedoux learned basic ceramic skills and made pierced and repeat forms.  His first pieces were exhibited in a group exhibition in Morley Gallery (Left below) and he went on to refine his techniques to complete his end of year piece, Green Holly, (below right).  Cedoux’s inspiration was how things grow and change, sometimes having a direct influence on people’s lives and sometimes not.  This piece expresses Cedoux’s personal experience and his concept of living creatively.

Cedoux Kadima's pieces, Morley Gallery exhibition

Cedoux Kadima’s pieces, Morley Gallery exhibition

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Green Holly









We aim to raise funds for another bursary at some point and will let people know when this is in prospect.

Champion clay digger and bearer, Terry Noel, and Melodians Steel Orchestra at the Venice Biennale

Terry Noel is Clayground’s champion bearer of clay to London, bringing clay from wherever he and his steel orchestra play around the world including Azerbaijan, Austria, Norway, Trinidad and Turkey.  Terry leads the Melodians, a steel orchestra equally dedicated to playing for community groups in Wandsworth as it is for British Consulates from Baku to Vienna.  The Melodians’ latest international appearance is part of artist Jeremy Deller’s British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.  The Melodians recorded interpretations of  Vaughan Williams’ Symphony in D Minor, UK acid house track ‘Voodoo Ray’ by A Guy Called Gerald and David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ as soundtrack to Deller’s ‘English Magic’, a fierce critique and celebration of contemporary Britain.  Watch it here. 

Here is Terry collecting clay in Arima, Trinidad, with his colleague, Cristo Adonis; being presented with Austrian clay by Embassy staff member, Sian Stickings, and moving those big pans around for rehearsal in Wandsworth.

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Congratulations to Terry and the Melodians.  Clayground is proud of our association with you.

LIFE ON MARS? Clay reveals its evidence

Clayground adviser, mineralogy researcher Javier Cuadros, gives us the latest news of his research into clays on Mars, the background arguments to where the Curiosity rover has landed and where it is searching for evidence of life.

Liquid water was relatively abundant on Mars in the early stages of its history, as shown by numerous ancient clay outcrops. This suggests the possibility of life. The Curiosity rover is investigating habitability, which means investigating rocks where life could have existed or may exist even now. Curiosity moves very slowly on the Martian surface and can only cover a small area, so it will take time for it to hit on evidence of life if it is there or ever was.  It may never succeed in doing so.

In the meantime, we have an enormous dataset collected by the several satellites orbiting Mars and used this to investigate whether it might be possible to search underground for remains of life. First of all, we argued, life on Mars is as much or more probably to be found underground than on the surface. Why?

Here on Earth, the amount of biomass underground is the same as that on the surface. Think of it: there is a living world underground as big as the one you see on the surface of the continents and in the oceans, made up exclusively of microorganisms. We also know that some of these microorganisms are among the oldest forms of life on Earth. So it is possible that life on Mars could have also developed underground. And there is good reason: conditions at the surface have been very harsh. Mars has been very cold, dry and bombarded by high-speed particles from the Sun for a long period of time. Life on the surface in these conditions is impossible. Underground however, microorganisms may have found a protected environment.

We used satellite data to investigate deep impact craters that may have excavated rocks inhabited by microorganisms. One of the craters we found has features suggesting groundwater upwelling. That is, a meteorite impacted Mars excavating a huge crater and then underground water seeped into the crater, half way from its walls, as seen in the satellite photographs. The crater also contains clays and carbonates, indicating the water seeping out had the right type of chemistry to support life. We proposed that this and similar craters, although not abundant, are good candidates for future Mars expeditions focusing on habitability. There, the rovers could investigate sediments derived from underground waters. Because the sediments are clay-rich, they are good preservers of remains of life. Clay does not only provide an environment suitable for life to develop but also preserves dead organisms from complete degradation and disappearance.

Mclaughlin craterMcLaughlin crater on Mars. The arrows indicate possible channels generated by seeping water. The black lines show lobes interpreted as sediment deposited by the waters seeping into the crater and forming a lake. Keren Crater, below, formed later by another impact.

For anyone wishing further information, see the article by Joe Michalski, Javier Cuadros and colleagues published in Nature Geoscience: ‘Groundwater activity on Mars and implications for a deep biosphere.’ Nature Geoscience 6, 133-138. doi 10.1038/ngeo1706.


Thames foreshore fragments and visual references

At Clayground we like to think we are encouraging people to make future archaeology by getting involved in clay today.  We work with archaeologists to delve into London’s collections to illuminate the capital’s amazing history and inspire contemporary makers and ceramic appreciators.  Many ceramic items can be found in the collections of the Museum of London at London Wall and at Docklands and local museums across the capital; some are in London’s archaeological archive and some are just lying around on the Thames foreshore.

With leading Thames archaeologist, Mike Webber, we conduct walks to gather some of these traces of London history.  We will be conducting further walks next year at some point.  Please let us know if you would like your name to be added to the waiting list.

We have found some treasures.  Each fragment, its clay, the use and type of glaze, opens a window onto the social, technological and trading history of London.  We see traces in clay of human fingers, some small enough to be those of a child, often employed for long hours in London’s potteries.  In another, the imprint of a potter’s fingernail can be made out.  We have found clay pipes aplenty; fragments from Roman domestic pots (no glaze/ greyish clay); medieval pottery with sparse green glaze on the outside; no less than two tile pieces from Tudor heating stoves (lovely green glaze and terracotta clay); the finial from a Tudor money box (green too); fragments of decoration from Bellarmine ware (brownish  salt glaze called “orange peel”) and bits of creamy white Victorian dairy crocks.  The money box probably once containing the takings from theatres on the south bank ferried across the river to be banked in the City.  The clay pipes were doubtless dropped by men waiting on the piers for cargo to arrive or enjoying a well-earned beer at one of the many riverside taverns.  We find evidence of London life in other materials too: bones, metal, wood, 17th century shoe leather and abalone shell fragments, waste from a button-making factory.

Tile from a Tudor heating stove with figure from a coat of arms
Finial from Tudor money box

Here are visual references prepared by Mike to help you identify any sherds you may come across.  (sherds = pottery; shards = glass fragments).

Clayground Collective