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

Opportunities to get involved in Clay Cargo 2014 events

In July and August we led canalside events with the public in Saltwells (Sandwell) with Ikon’s Black Country Voyages and at Middleport Pottery (the home of Burleigh) in Burslem, Stoke on Trent.  Watch a film of our activities at Middleport.

Coming up are events in London and Birmingham.

London – Friday 12 September – FREE
5.00-9.30 pm
Sculptural Kiln Firings

In partnership with London Sculpture Workshop led by Kiln Artist Martin Brockman
Bermondsey Project
46 Willow Walk
London SE1 5SF

Come and see the results of a kiln building course using experimental forms created from paper, shopping trolleys, suspended containers and brick.  This is part of a celebration to mark the culmination of the Bermondsey Project,

Led by kiln artist, Martin Brockman, a series of firings will take place through the evening. Over his long career, Martin’s kilns have taken many forms, in response to specific sites including beaches at the turn of the tide, at Tate Modern, National Theatre and with renowned theatre organisations, Welfare State International and LIFT.

The kilns will be firing pieces made by participants during sessions at London Sculpture Workshop and on the Clay Cargo boat moored on the Regent Canal near Central Saint Martins, Kings Cross.

Click here to discover more about the Bermondsey Project, London Sculpture Workshop and this event celebrating the Project’s creative and collaborative achievements with exhibitions, screenings, craft and art market and more.

London – Saturday 27 September – fully booked
Thames Foreshore Walk. Contact Clayground for details. £20 donation requested. Numbers limited.

If you are interested in joining a future foreshore walk, please contact us and we will add you to the waiting list and let you know the next dates when we have set these.

Clay Cargo 2013-2015 is devised in partnership with the British Ceramics Biennial and the Canal & River Trust. It is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, by Central Saint Martins, Potclays, Camden Libraries and numerous other arts and community partners in London, Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent.

Birmingham – Saturday 1st November, City Library

Free family workshop 11.00-4.00 – more details soon.


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2014 Thames Foreshore Walks

Saturday, July 5th
Saturday, August 2nd

new date Saturday, September 27th

We are delighted to announce dates of the next Thames foreshore walks led by archaeologist, Mike Webber.


Clayground’s current project, Clay Cargo 2014: London to Stoke via Birmingham, renews links between ceramics and the waterways today.  Mike will call on his encyclopaedic knowledge of London and the river to illuminate the city’s trading history through ceramic fragments turned up by the tide.  If you’ve ever wondered about the origins and development of our great city, join us for a few hours foraging for clues on the beach.

The walks are for a maximum of 30 people on each date and booking is absolutely essential.  The walk is around midday on both dates and lasts approximately 2.5 hours. Places are allocated on a first come, first served basis.  A £20 donation per person is requested, payable on the day. Children over 8 are welcome (£15).  Please do not bring dogs.

Contact us to book by clicking here.  You will be sent further information about time, location and practicalities.

Prompt arrival is essential as the tide does not wait.  Proceeds above costs contribute to Clayground’s participatory art projects.


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

photo 2

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

Cedoux DSC_2461 (532x800)

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.

Terry Noel and Cristo Adonis collect clay in Trinidad  DSCF1771  IMG_2925

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 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 conducted walks on November 17 and 18 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 certainly found some treasures in November.  Each fragment, its clay, the use and type of glaze, opened a window onto the social, technological and trading history of London.  We saw 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 could be made out.  We 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 found 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

How is clay formed? Is it inorganic or organic?

Javier Cuadros, Clay Mineralogy Adviser to Clayground Collective, explains the latest findings.

Clay is the product of chemical reaction between silicate rocks and water. Different types of clay and their different physical and chemical properties are determined by their individual chemical composition and structure. Two well-known clays are kaolin and “expansive clay”. Kaolin is used in numerous industrial applications, but it is best known for being the main component of china clay. Expansive clay is a group of minerals we refer to as “smectite” that expands through absorption of water within their structure. Smectite also has many industrial applications, but creates great problems in construction because it absorbs and releases water depending on environmental conditions.  This can result in ground movement with catastrophic effects on buildings.

So how do these very different types of clay form? Why does sometimes kaolin and sometimes smectite form, or indeed any of the many other clay minerals? Most research into this question has focused on inorganic factors including: composition of the original silicate rock, chemistry of the waters producing chemical attack of the rock, temperature, water pH, etc. Temperature can refer to the ambient atmospheric conditions, the temperature of rainwater attacking the rock, or to attack by waters from a specific source such as a hot spring. Today, the inorganic conditions producing the various types of clays are reasonably well understood.

One thing is missing, however: life. Living organisms, particularly microorganisms, have been around for most of the lifetime of the Earth. How important are they in the processes that generate clay? How much of the clay around us is like it is because life is “interfering” with it? Imagine, for example, that bacteria literally cover the surface of every rock or mineral grain on Earth, from the surface down to as much as 3 kilometres below the surface. Life forms are so different and their activity so complex that this information is very difficult to gather and systematize. We are only very slowly making headway.

Recent research by me and other collaborators has investigated the reaction of waters of very different chemistry and microbial populations on volcanic glass. Microbes thrived happily in the experiments as can be seen in the photo below: where the black sand shows volcanic glass and the whitish fluffy stuff are the microbial colonies.

When looked at using an electron microscope, one could see how the microorganisms stuck to the glass grains, as in the pictures below, where you can see cells and biological tissue on glass (the very smooth surface on the picture at the left) and other mineral surfaces (polygonal shapes on the right-hand photo). Everything in these pictures is micro-metres in size (1 micro-metre is 1 millionth of a metre).

Was there some effect as a result of this contact? Well, not always, but at other times there was. The main effect observed was the microbes generating a “biofilm” eventually enclosing all the glass grains seen partly developed in the top colour image. At the end of the experiments, the entire mass of the glass grains formed a single body due to this entrapment by the microorganisms. In some cases, the chemical conditions within the biofilm were rather different from those in the water outside, and the clay that formed was also different from the clay formed in control experiments that had no microbes, only the glass and the water.

What sort of clay formed? This was mainly smectite, but with different chemical compositions, and some kaolin here and there. The specific composition of the smectite is very important to understand the life-cycle of rocks. The effect of having smectite with a lot of aluminium is very different from having smectite with a lot of magnesium. This is exactly the difference that the microorganisms made in the experiments. In nature, smectite clays of different composition are expected to come from different environments. But this experiment shows that microorganisms can create a different environment at a very small scale, next to the rock that is chemically attacked, and can effectively override the large-scale environmental conditions.

You will be happy to know that clays containing both aluminium and magnesium are good for modelling, although they do not behave exactly the same when fired.

Watch out for news in the coming months about clay as an indicator of life on Mars.



Clay on Mars, evidence of life?

Javier Cuadros, Clay Mineralogy Researcher at the Natural History Museum advises Project Clay.  Javier will in due course analyse information returning to Earth from Mars.  Here he explains the significance of clay as an indicator of life.

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) continues its voyage and will land on Mars on August 6th at 5:10 am GMT. If you want to follow its approach, see

One of the mission’s goals is to investigate habitability on Mars, which involves looking for evidence of past life. The Curiosity rover will have to search for organic remains in the sediments. Organic material is quickly destroyed and their constituent elements incorporated into inorganic sediment and gases in the harsh conditions on Mars surface, so the best chances to find it is in sediments that provide some sort of protection. Clays afford such protection as they are able to retain organic matter within them and avoid direct exposure to the physical and chemical elements in the environment. For this reason clay-rich sediments on Earth are frequently black: they are loaded with organic matter, which gives them the dark colour. On Mars, Curiosity will be taking clay sediments where it finds them and checking for organic content. However, not any organic compound is necessarily related to life and detailed analyses of composition (the exact type of organic molecules present) and isotope content (weight or the present carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, etc.) are needed before a result can be considered positive.


A selection of the world's clays gathered to date

A selection of the world's clays gathered to date

Clay diggers and bearers continue to source clay from around the world. Champion clay bearer, Terry Noel, has brought clay from Austria, Norway, Trinidad, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. Collected from countries where he and his band, the BT Melodians, travel to play steel pans.

Terry Noel and Cristo Adonis collect clay in Trinidad

Terry Noel and Cristo Adonis collect clay in Arima, Trinidad

Most recent clay arrivals have been relayed to London by retired medics Bruce and Sarah Noble from a pottery in Marginea, Romania.  The clay was exchanged for a drawing by Bruce of the potter, Corneliu Magopat.

Corneliu Magopat at the wheel.  Ceramica Marginea, Romania

Corneliu Magopat at the wheel. Ceramica Marginea, Romania

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