Dragon kiln breathes fire in Wytham Woods

In 2015 Dr Robin Wilson of the Department of Anthropology, and a resident artist at the Wytham Studio, together with expert potters from Japan, and artists from Whichford Pottery, built two traditional Anagama kilns in Wytham Woods.  Anagama means ‘cave’ and the kiln was constructed to plans based on archaeological investigations of this ancient type of pottery kiln, brought to Japan from China in the fifth century.

The project’s patron, Isezaki Jun – a so-called Japanese ‘Living National Treasure’ – brought together potters from Bizen, the oldest of the traditional ceramics centres in Japan, and from Whichford, the largest artisan pottery in Europe.  Wytham was chosen for the project because it provides the robust research environment required for the construction of the kilns, the firing process and the production of traditional material objects.

The first kiln was made in the traditional manner from a woven willow tunnel which is covered in hessian and two different fireclay mixes and then fired to burn out the willow interior structure, leaving the baked clay shell as the kiln. 

Kiln - Wytham Woods

Family day attracted 350 visitors

Wood-fired and burning constantly at up to 1300°C, the first ‘dragon’ kiln (so called because when lit it resembles a fire-breathing dragon) was first fired in August of 2015 and burned for a constant nine days.  The event was celebrated with a family day attended by over 350 visitors. During the firing period of Anagama kilns, the interaction of ash, flame and minerals from the clay creates a natural glaze that depends on the location of each individual piece within the kiln. After firing, it is many days before the kiln is cool enough to be opened and entered.

A week of events surrounding the visit of Isezaki Jun in October included lectures and workshops, and the opportunity for visitors to purchase pots produced in the dragon kiln.  It culminated in the loading of the second, larger kiln which was constructed using traditional firebricks.

During Arts Week in November, amateur potters had the opportunity to make pots with resident Japanese potter Kazuya Ishida. The second kiln was fired in January 2016.

Kiln 2 - Wytham Woods

International collaboration

The master potters visiting from Japan brought this ancient and secretive form of pottery and shared this with Dr Wilson and his team, but were also able to learn from the British potters in a collaborative intellectual and physical space.

In Japan, potters are akin to pop stars – very rich, famous and powerful people – in contrast to the UK, where pottery is considered a minority craft. The Anagama team hopes the high profile of this project will help build public understanding and appreciation not only of the art that goes into creating this pottery but also of its cultural heritage, history and science.

A wealth of information is provide online and on social media, but ambassadors from the project have also travelled to Japan to meet with potters, ministers, and other influential figures. Back at home, members of the University as well as local organisations and individuals have been encouraged to interact with the Japanese artisans working here on the project.

Researchers from the Ruskin School of Fine Art, the Departments of Anthropology and Archaeology, and from other Universities, are also part of the project, which is supported by 40 volunteers who help run the operation.  

Want to know more?

Visit the Oxford Anagama website, the Facebook page, where many images and videos are available, or follow the project on TwitterFire in the Woods, the eighth in the Laboratory with Leaves series of four-minute films is about the project and can be seen on YouTube.

Published May 2016