First Thames Foreshore Walk of 2016: 12 March 2016


Clayground regularly hosts walks on the Thames foreshore led by Mike Webber, leading archaeologist of the River.  The beach is, as Mike says, the biggest archaeological trench in the country, littered with potsherds.  During the walks, we forage for ceramic fragments and Mike calls on his encyclopaedic knowledge to illuminate not only the history of ceramics but of London itself – its development, its social and trading history.  Once a foreshore walker, you will never see the city the same way again.

Fee for the walk for adults is £20, for young people 8-18 it’s £15.  For planning purposes the walk lasts 2.5 hours.  It starts near Cannon Street at 1015.  For precise meeting point and instructions, please contact Clayground to book a place.  Booking is essential as places are limited and go fast.

NB The walk is not for anyone who lacks confidence using steps or walking on uneven ground.  Please do not bring a dog.

Proceeds above costs go towards Clayground’s work passing clay skills to the next generation.

Pottery from rain and Saharan dust: An article from Javier Cuadros, Clay Mineralogy Researcher

Javier Cuadros, Clay Mineralogy Researcher at the Natural History Museum, advises Clayground on all things clay and here describes an extraordinary weather phenomenon.

“Saharan dust can travel long distances in different directions across the Atlantic and Europe, sometimes in episodes of high dust concentration. These dust events can have beneficial effects, such as soil and ocean fertilization, because they provide mineral nutrients that tend to get depleted in the sea and soil. But they can also have negative health effects for humans. In recent years one of my colleagues, Jose Luis, working in Granada, Spain, found that on certain occasions part of the dust aggregates into very large spheres like the ones in this picture.

image001Large aggregates of Saharan dust. The spheres are between 0.05 and 0.1 mm of diameter.

This was an entirely new phenomenon, so Jose Luis worked hard to try to understand how these very large particles (the large sphere in the bottom left corner is almost 0.1 mm across) came to be. The issue is that the dust was known to come from the Sahara, but these large particles could not travel the distance to Granada. So how were they formed? The process is complex and starts in clouds in the stratosphere. In a simplified way, we can say that these aggregates form inside raindrops. Some of the dust grains are probably the seed for the raindrops. Then, other mineral dust is captured as the raindrop moves in the cloud and grows until it starts its descent. When the raindrops fall, in certain atmospheric conditions, the water evaporates and in this process shapes the mineral particles inside into a sphere. By the time the particles get to the ground they are entirely dry and they preserve their shape.

What is in these aggregates? More or less, everything that is in the dust. The reddish colour of the particles above are the typical colour of the Saharan dust clouds that can be seen in satellite images, like the one shown here.

image003Photo acquired by the Aqua satellite, NASA, on 16 July 2003.

Together with other colleagues from Spain, Jose Luis, Antonio, and one more Antonio, we investigated the mineral particles in the aggregates. Clay is very prominent. In the picture below, the yellow and pink particles are clay.

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Artificially coloured section of a dust aggregate indicating the type of mineral grains that make it up.

This image was obtained sectioning one of the aggregates, doing chemical analysis of the particles inside and colouring them artificially according to their chemical composition. It is apparent that the very little particles of clay place themselves in between other bigger particles, while they are still within the water droplet. When the raindrop dries out, the clay provides the cohesive forces to keep the sphere together, very much like in a piece of pottery. We may think of pottery as man’s invention or an exclusive human activity, but actually it is not. Interestingly, the first aggregates of these type discovered by Jose Luis had by chance fallen into a forest fire so that some of them probably underwent the whole process of pottery making.

These aerosol aggregates are a unique phenomenon resulting from very specific atmospheric conditions and they are not common at all. They have been termed “iberulites” due to their discovery from aerosol deposits in the Iberian Peninsula (; They teach us something new about clay properties and remind us that art is indeed an imitation of nature.”

Next Thames Foreshore Walk: 12 March 2016

We had an especially interesting walk on Sunday 29 November.  On an atmospherically cloudy day the river revealed several Roman finds, small fragments of English Delft, early pipe bowls and an intricately sprigged part of Tudor ceramic bottle.

The strangest find was a contemporary and somewhat disturbing one: a little bottle filled with strange liquid and a small snake! Lashed to the bottle with long narrow red velvet ribbon was something  we thought was probably a drug pipe.  The River has a long history as the site of ritual.  Perhaps the bottle and its attachments were offered up in the hope someone would abandon their drug habit.  The item was found by Hugo Thompson.

The next walk will be on March 12th, the one after that, April 10th.

These walks are led by leading Thames archaeologist, Mike Webber.  Mike is a leading archaeologist of the Thames.  We invite you to forage for ceramic fragments on the beach.  Through these, Mike illuminates London’s trading history and development from Roman times to the present.

Please contact us to book a place or to add your name to the list if you wish to know of future dates.  Please add ‘Foreshore walk’ to the subject line of the message and let us know how many adults and children you wish to book for. Children over 8 are welcome and usually find the best bits!

Clay Cargo 2013-2015

Clayground Collective combines public art, education and research in a series of initiatives to engage people in clay and pass on ceramic skills. We connect with experts in a range of fields, commission artists and stage small and large scale events for the public.  We conduct research into the significance of hand skills’ development and gather advocacy material for retaining clay studies in schools.

For the last three years, we have led Clay Cargo, a project making connections between clay and canals devised in partnership with the British Ceramics Biennial and Canal & River Trust.  Inspired by Josiah Wedgwood, ceramic industrialist and one of the first investors in the canal system, Clay Cargo renews historic connections between clay and the canals through workshops on boats and a series of events at canalside locations.

Over the three years of Clay Cargo, we have worked in London, Birmingham, Dudley, and Stoke-on-Trent, have commissioned poetry, ceramic works, film, photography and music, and have staged numerous events for the public.

Using 5 tons of raw clay over the weekend of 15 and 16 August 2015, we created with members of the public A Monument to London’s Anonymous Makers on the steps leading to the Regent Canal.  We portrayed well and lesser known buildings of King’s Cross reflecting the area’s industrial past and changing present.

Here is a film of events with a soundtrack composed by Dead Rat Orchestra musicians Nathaniel Mann and Daniel Merrill and played by steel orchestra, The Melodians.  Cylindrical containers, known as saggars, thrown by Duncan Hooson formed part of the installation.  These were decorated with clays dug by volunteers around the world and relayed to London.  Click on the film to view on Vimeo.

From September to November, a Clay Cargo project exhibition was installed in the former Spode Factory, Stoke-on-Trent, as part of the British Ceramics Biennial.  The exhibition, created by Claire West and Nicola Skinner, depicted the three-year story of Clay Cargo. It was based on the length of a canal boat – 60 feet – and the fall and rise of the canals and locks on the journey between London and Stoke-on-Trent.

Part of the presentation were works by artists specialising in clay: David Binns, Rob Kesseler and Matthew Raw; 150 saggars (cylindrical containers) thrown by Clayground’s Duncan Hooson and slipped with a selection of the world’s clays dug by volunteers from around the world.

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Clay Cargo project exhibition with some of the 150 saggars thrown by Duncan Hooson in former Spode Factory

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Saggars decorated with the world’s clays and some of the many clays collected by volunteers

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Work by artists specialising in clay: David Binns, Rob Kesseler and Matthew Raw.

David’s piece, Metamorphosis, integrates ceramic material found by scuba divers at the bottom of the canal at Middleport Pottery; Rob’s images portray clay and micro-organisms at 8000 magnification from Doulton’s ex-clay pit, Saltwells; Matt’s piece, Churn, is in response to the Thames Foreshore and the ceaseless movement of the tides and their action on ceramics from Roman times to the present.

Images: Caroline Gervay

We also led sessions at the British Ceramics Biennial combining making and writing skills.  This included sessions for teachers and readings of poems commissioned in 2014 from Barry Taylor, Elisabeth Charis and Rachel Long.

Clay Cargo 2013- 2015 was supported by British Ceramics Biennial, Canal & River Trust, Potclays and Arts Council England, Ikon, Middleport Pottery (13 and 14).  Clay Cargo 2015 was supported by King’s Cross, Camden Libraries, Central Saint Martins, Genesis Housing Association, The Headley Trust, Fordham Gallery and Sound & Music.  Individual donors this year included Joan Scarrott and Peter Campbell, Sarah Donaldson and Penny Hunt.  Clayground Collective is supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and is a BBC Get Creative Champion.

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Jeremy Theophilus 1949-2015 In Memoriam


Jeremy Theophilus 9 March 1947 – 18 May 2015

Jeremy was a friend and dear colleague.  It was he who helped us build the foundations for Clay Cargo, our current project, gently and carefully encouraging us to weave all the relationships and resources to make it happen.  As co-founder of the British Ceramics Biennial, he immediately saw the potential interest of efforts to link London to Stoke-on-Trent via the canal system by staging clay events and workshops at various canalside locations en route.  He encouraged us too in our research into why hand skills might matter today to professional fields beyond ceramics and design.

Jeremy’s encouragement was always quiet, steady and reassuring, accompanied with enthusiasm and a dash of wry humour.  His help was intensely practical, always at the end of the ‘phone to talk through the wrinkles of funding applications or artistic emphasis.  His support to artists and to the world of ceramics was inspiring.  He is greatly missed yet leaves behind a network of colleagues strengthened and emboldened by his vision and commitment.

Image: Caroline Gervay

Latest from our Martian clay expert, Javier Cuadros

Clay on Mars

The Curiosity rover drills into the Martian soil to investigate minerals allowing scientists to assess the type of environment. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSS.

Javier Cuadros, Clay mineralogy researcher, writes occasional pieces for Clayground to update us on progress in the search for life on Mars.  If it existed, traces are most likely to be found in clay. And those traces have a chance of being found through the amazing engineering and research collaboration that is Curiosity, the rover currently exploring Mars.

“Curiosity is now starting to climb Mount Sharp on Mars, the enormous mountain at the centre of Gale Crater, where it landed 3 years ago. Since then, the rover has been checking and testing all its equipment, having a look around, taking many data of the atmospheric conditions, investigating the most interesting rocks and moving slowly towards and up Mount Sharp. The main goal of the mission is to test for past habitability: conditions that may have allowed the development of life. Clay is a very good lead for that because it points to the existence of water in ancient times, and because remains of life are best preserved in clay. So Curiosity always keeps an eye on anything that looks like clay.

There was no advance news there was clay at the bottom of Gale crater, but Curiosity found it and, sure enough, there was a stop to study the rock carefully. The rover drilled, took a sample of the soil (similar to that shown in the picture), put it inside one of its apparatuses and investigated the minerals using X-rays as well as the chemical composition of these minerals. It took two or three days to go through this operation because Curiosity uses certain equipment only at night, when it cannot do other operations that involve moving around, and because the measurements were long. The result was that the samples contained clay, yes, and precisely of the type that Javier, our scientific clay correspondent, and his colleague Joe have been studying these recent years: clay rich in magnesium and iron. Comparing the clay-containing soil and the hard rock that probably originated it, the scientists have been able to conclude that this was probably a lake and that the amount of water flushed through the lake was not very large: an ephemeral lake with water only at intervals, perhaps.

In their investigation, Javier and Joe have been using clay of similar composition collected from the bottom of the ocean to have a detailed description of it and be able to get a lot more out of the information that Curiosity and the satellites orbiting Mars send to Earth. They have come up with a way of telling, from remote sensing data only, how much magnesium and iron there is in these clays, how the atoms are arranged in the clay structure and what are the likely environments where they may have formed. Javier and Joe have also found that the range of possible clays on Mars is greater that it was thought. Talc (as in talcum powder) is a very good candidate.

The finding of clay at the bottom of Gale crater is good news because it indicates that there is more clay out there (on Mars) than the remote sensing data indicate. We can expect new discoveries also all along the ascension of Mount Sharp. It is very good news in particular for Javier and Joe, who find their own study linking directly with the findings of Curiosity. Because the rover can perform analyses of the soils, very similar to those that Javier and Joe carry out in the laboratory, the comparison between the Martian and Earth results is very accurate. This is the closest we can get for now to study samples from the Martian soil in our Earth labs.”

Clayground a contributor to groundbreaking new handbook for artists

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Playing for Time: Making Art as if the World Mattered is a resource for artists, community activists and anyone wishing to reach beyond the facts and figures of science and technology to harness their creativity to make change in the world.

This timely book explores the pivotal role artists play in re-thinking the future; re-inventing and re-imagining our world at a time of systemic change and uncertainty. Playing for Time identifies collaborative arts practices emerging in response to planetary challenges, reclaiming a traditional role for artists in the community as truth-tellers and agents of change.

Sixty experienced artists and activists, including Clayground Collective, give voice to a new narrative – shifting society’s rules and values away from consumerism and commodity towards community and collaboration. Inspired by the grass-roots Transition movement, modelling change in communities worldwide, Playing for Time joins the dots between key drivers of change – in energy, finance, climate change, food and community resilience – and ‘recipes for action’ for readers to take and try.

To order, go to Oberon Books website

Next Thames Foreshore Walk: Sunday November 29

The next Thames Foreshore walk with archaeologist, Mike Webber, is on Sunday November 29 at 0945. Part or our current project, Clay Cargo,we forage for ceramic fragments on the Thames foreshore.  With each tide, new material is turned up, revealing traces of London’s trading history and social development from Roman times.

If you would like to confirm a booking, please contact us with your contact details, number and age of any children in your party. The fee, payable on the day, is £20 per adult and £15 per child over 8 and under 18.

The costs go towards Clayground’s work with communities in London and Stoke-on-Trent.

The walk lasts approximately 2.5 hours and ends near the Millennium Bridge.  Precise meeting point is sent on confirmation of your booking.

Click here for a filmed interview with archaeologist, Mike Webber.


Kiln construction with Martin Brockman at London Sculpture Workshop

Clayground Collective invites people to engage with all things clay.  Last summer as part of our current project, Clay Cargo, we worked on kiln construction and kiln firing as a focus for community celebration.  Core participants were members of Crisis Art Programme.  We were hosted by London Sculpture Workshop based at the Bermondsey Project, an arts hub in South London.

Specialist kiln artist, Martin Brockman, taught us how to make kilns from paper, from shopping trolleys, how to suspend a kiln and transport kilns in wheelbarrows.  We made a brick-built updraft kiln, decorated by participants with oxides. Clayground’s Duncan Hooson demonstrated a raku kiln.

The creation of a “field of fire” became a focus for the public celebration to mark a final chapter in The Bermondsey Project.

Film-maker, Luke Glover, made this and two other films posted below.  These are of workshops aboard the Clay Cargo boat and about an archaeology session with Mike Webber at the Skip Garden, King’s Cross.

A film made by Matt Edwards of our visit to Middleport Pottery, Stoke, with poet Rachel Long and artist David Binns, can be seen by clicking here.

A conversation between surgical educator, Roger Kneebone, and Clayground’s Duncan Hooson, can be seen by clicking here.

Sessions on the Clay Cargo boat, hosted by Fordham Gallery

Taking inspiration from Josiah Wedgwood, ceramic industrialist and pioneering investor in the canal system, Clay Cargo renews connections between clay and canals.

Clay Cargo activities last summer about the Fordham Gallery boat were filmed by Luke Glover.  Here you will see workshop participants, from Crisis Art Programme and from Camden Libraries, learning about the changing shape of pots throughout time and traditional making methods.  There is much archaeological evidence of the import and export of pots via the Thames and via the inland waterways.