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

PFT image

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: June 13 early evening

Date of the next Thames Foreshore walk with archaeologist, Mike Webber, is Saturday 13th June at 1715. We will be exploring the the City foreshore, a site we have visited before.

If you would like to join the walk, please contact us to book a place/s.  Places go fast and are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis.  All directions will be sent on booking.

The £20 cost (payable on the day) goes towards Clayground’s work with young people in London, Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent.  Children aged 8-17 are welcome (£15).

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.

Film from Clay Cargo 2014: A Roman archaeology session with Mike Webber

Over the next three weeks, we will be posting films of Clay Cargo activities last summer made by Luke Glover.  The first is of a session we held at the Skip Garden, King’s Cross, with archaeologist Mike Webber.  Mike displayed tens of pieces of Roman ceramic he had found over the years on the Thames Foreshore.  We invited participants to handle these objects and try their hand at various decorative techniques common in Roman, medieval and Tudor times: rouletting, carving and slip trailing.

For those interested in conducting their own search for ceramic fragments on the Foreshore, Mike is leading another Clayground walk on March 22nd.  See below and contact us for further details.

Next Thames Foreshore Archaeological Walk

Date of the next Thames Foreshore walk with archaeologist, Mike Webber, is Sunday 22nd March at 9.15 am.

If you would like to join the walk, please contact us to book a place.  Places go fast and are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis.  We will be exploring the north bank of the Thames near the City, a site we have visited before.  All directions will be sent on booking.

The £20 cost (payable on the day) goes towards Clayground’s work with young people in London, Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent.  Children aged 8 and over are welcome (£15).


Clay Cargo 2014 Collection: the Thames Foreshore

An exhibition of poems and images commissioned as part of Clay Cargo 2014 can be seen until February 15th in Pancras Library, part of the new Camden City Hall, 5 Pancras Square, London N1C 4AG.  The library is open 8am-8pm Monday to Saturday and 11-5 on Sundays.  The associated publication can be obtained by contacting Clayground.

Barry Taylor and Matthew Raw on the Thames

Barry Taylor, poet, and Matthew Raw, artist.

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Clay Cargo 2014 Collection: Saltwells Nature Reserve

Our second location was the pit once quarried by ceramic manufacturer, Henry Doulton (1820-1897) at Saltwells, Dudley, near Birmingham.  Arriving by canal with Ikon’s youth programme, Black Country Voyages, we walked through the woods to the site now a spectacular nature reserve.  We travelled with poet Elisabeth Charis and collected clay and botanical material for artist Rob Kesseler.  Rob works with electron microscopy and has revealed the deeper molecular structure of the clay and plant material gathered.  Elisabeth has written about the canals, the pit, clay’s ancient origins and qualities.  Here are glimpses of their work.


CLAY WITH DIATOM: clay sample with a Marine pennate diatom frustule. Diatoms are unicellular phytoplankton enclosed within a cell wall made of silica. Magnification 8000x, hand coloured SEM micrograph, Rob Kesseler 2014.

Elisabeth Charis at Saltwells

Elisabeth Charis, poet, at Saltwells

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Clay Cargo 2014 Collection: Stoke-on-Trent

We started the Clay Cargo 2014 journey with a visit to Stoke-on-Trent with poet Rachel Long and artist David Binns. Delving under the surface of the Canal at Middleport, the home of Burleigh pottery, we retrieved ceramic fragments dropped during loading of barges; we visited the pottery itself and another, Steelite International.  David has created new material out of the found fragments, embedding history in his architectural ceramics.  This piece is called Metamorphosism: the act of altering the appearance and structure of pre-existing minerals through the action of heat.

Rachel Long, poet, and David Binns, artist in Stoke

Rachel Long, poet, and David Binns, artist in Stoke

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