Art conservation students bring ancient pyrotechnology to life during 'Days of Fire'

Sep 22, 2018

Students at Buffalo State College are spending the weekend bringing Iron Age technology to life.


Standing on the lawn outside the school’s Campus House building, Art Conservation Professor Jonathan Thornton began Friday with a lesson on constructing an Iron Age furnace.

As he pointed out to students the proper way of knitting together handmade clay bricks, Thornton explained, “They’re going to be taking iron ore and charcoal as the fuel, and hopefully producing a wad of iron at the end of two days.”

Art Conservation Professor Jonathan Thornton instructs students on the building of an Iron Age smelting furnace.
Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News

Building the furnace and creating iron is just one of many activities planned during “Days of Fire,” an event held by the school’s Garman Art Conservation Department.

Students will also learn to cast bronze and pewter, burn limestone, and even cook using ancient methods and ingredients.

“Mostly we’re going to concentrate on foods that would have been available to early North Americans,” said Thornton’s fellow Professor of Conservation Science, Aaron Shugar. “So pre-European contact ingredients. They’re building a pit for fire, and they’ll be cooking in and around the pit.”

In a city known for metal production, these activities are a far-deeper look at the past. Most of the technology being experimented with has origins as far back as 2,000 years.

“Days of Fire” is held every two years, and students from around the U.S. and Canada are invited to join in and learn. But not all have a focus on ancient art.

Natalya Swanson travelled from the University of Delaware with hopes to learn more about ancient glass bead making. She studies conservation, but focuses on modern materials like plastic and foam.

“Learning about ancient techniques and materials is so applicable to all aspects of conservation,” said Swanson. “With modern materials and contemporary art, they really utilize all materials of our world. So it’s helpful regardless of specialization.”

Students construct an Iron Age smelting furnace during Buffalo State College's 'Days of Fire' event hosted by the Garman Art Conservation Department.
Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News

“This is just really exciting,” said Nicole Schmidt, a first-year graduate student in the Garman program. “It gives me a chance to understand the material that I’ll be conserving in the future. And it’s just going to be fun to experiment and get dirty.”

And that’s the point – getting a hands-on experience creating the kind of materials that someday she’ll be working with. But that work likely won’t be in Buffalo – there simply isn’t much work for a conservator here.

With only three masters of conservation programs in North America, Thornton said each of the ten graduates a year from the Garman program are guaranteed work in museums around the country – something he considers to be very important.

“I mean, it’s our human heritage. It’s what people try to save,” said Thornton. “Everybody does in their own family, and of course in our major institutions. Brooklyn Museum, Metropolitan Museum – that’s where our students are going to be working.”

“Days of Fire” will culminate with the creation of the iron wad, known as a “bloom” Saturday around 5 o’clock. The public is invited to observe the day’s activities on the lawn outside Buff State’s Campus House building.