Leamington Spa lamps project

As part of the Making Histories project I was invited to take part in through Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum, I was asked to see if I could approach one of the local schools – with the particular challenge being to investigate the potential of local materials for making ceramics. Following the key idea behind the project, I hunted through the museum store, looking for something that might be a starting point for a project with the local children, something that would have a purpose and be simple / logistically practicable to make with whole classes of children across a year group. I quickly encountered a Roman lamp, made in Egypt in the first century AD which took me back to one of my favourite ever moments during my years in archaeology, where stumbling about on a Sicilian mountain top, the site of a ruined Greek city, I found a tiny oil lamp – that has stayed with our family ever since…..

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Clay was dug, working with the Year 5s from a Leamington Spa primary school, that lay only a few hundred metres from the likely site of one of the many clay pits that radiated from the nineteenth century Leamington and Lillington Brick Works in the town. The clay pit lies on the edge of Newbold Comyn, a beautiful stretch of public park extending to rolling hills and woodland, with old kiln sites and other historic monuments within its bounds. Digging was carried out with permission from the local council – who were incredibly supportive and helpful.

The children not only helped dig the clay, they helped hand process it, hammering the dried clay to granules, slaking, blunging and sieving it, drying it on plaster slabs. They then experimented with making thumb pots and finally in making small palm held oil lamps – similar to the Sicilian lamp I referred to above. The lamps were fired in a sawdust / dustbin kiln during arts week, and were lit as part of a small celebration of light at an open evening for parents at the end of the weeks activities.

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