Myself (Niall Kenny) and Brian Dolan plan to dabble in experimental archaeology and produce charcoal in the traditional way just like it would have been made in early medieval times (except with the possible use of a chainsaw). We plan to dig, fire and (hopefully) control a charcoal production pit kiln (and possibly a charcoal production mound kiln).
We will be basing our experiment on a pit kiln excavated on an archaeology site in recent years. We have shortlisted a number of excavated kilns and will single one out for our upcoming experiment. Essentially we plan to dig a pit in the ground, stack it with oak wood, cover it with vegetation and soil and then ignite it. However it is not as easy as it sounds and we will have to be very careful in stacking the wood and creating a firing space as well as controlling air flow into the kiln throughout the process. This may prove tricky and the experiment could easily end up in tears and flames! However fingers are crossed and hopefully all shall go well!!
As part of the experiment we have also felled 15 oak trees aged between 15-20 years. Oak was the preferable wood species used for charcoal production (associated with metal working activities) in the past as it did not crumble as easy as softwood charcoals and because of its high calorific values and its longer and higher heat burning properties.
I have been carrying out some research on charcoal making in early and late medieval Ireland and while a good deal of information can be gleaned from traditional charcoal making practices and from the ethnographic evidence we want to gain a better understanding of the actual process, in its entirety, through experimental archaeology. In particular we want to investigate how charcoal kilns were constructed and controlled but also we want to scrutinise the various nuances associated with the charcoal production process. Brian is currently undertaking a PhD on early medieval ironworking in UCD and so if all goes well and we successfully produce a charcoal yield then Brian will use this charcoal in an experimental iron smelt he plans to carry out in Ferrycarrig (Wexford) in March.
We are basically indulging in and flirted with pyromania :-) and we whole-heartedly encourage anybody interested to join us!