The University of North Dakota has had a long tradition of producing ceramics. This grew initially out of the University's interest in exploring the potential of natural resources in the state. In 1910, the Department of Ceramics (originally in the College of Engineering) hired Margaret Cable, a noted potter, to direct a program dedicated to the use of North Dakota clay. Today, "Cable Pottery" produced by Margaret Cable or her students at UND, is a sought after collectors item and many would argue that it marked the high-point of the North Dakota ceramics industry.
This past weekend, the modern descendents of Margaret Cable, Wes Smith, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Art, invited me and my wife over the check out their firing of a wood kiln on UND's campus. Since I spend lots of time looking at pottery on the ground, on my computer screen, and converted into pixels in various funky-colored GIS maps, I figured it was a good opportunity to do some ethnoarchaeology and attempt to understand the process of pottery production.
The first thing that struck me was how small and simple the kiln was. It was built of dry bricks (no mortar) with a simple vaulted roof which was constructed initially in a wood form.
One side of the kiln has the chimney and the other a brick wall that is constructed after the pots have been put in the kiln. The kiln has several sets of "passive dampers" which were basically loose bricks that the operator could slide in and out to control the amount of oxygen entering the kiln space.
When some of the dampers near the chimney were closed causing the kiln to draw more violently from one end, the resulting flame was impressive.
Students were in charge of stoking the kiln with wood and it fired to over 2000 degrees!! It ran all day on less than a chord of wood.
I was struck by the relatively simple construction of the kiln and its efficiency. Wes built the kiln in less than a weekend. Certainly these kinds of kilns must have dotted the ancient landscape producing much of the everyday utility wares.