'Feed the fiery dragon' | University of Oxford
Anagama 'cave' kiln will look like a fiery dragon once lit
Anagama 'cave' kiln will look like a fiery dragon once lit

'Feed the fiery dragon'

On 11 August, researchers from Oxford University will fire up a Japanese potters’ kiln in Wytham woods. It is styled on the design of the anagama kiln, meaning ‘cave’ kiln, a wood-fuelled type used all over Japan and Korea for hundreds of years. 

The art lies in baking the pots inside at around 1150 degrees Celsius and holding that constant heat for several days round the clock. Once lit, the 11-metre-long, roofed-tunnel kiln promises to look like a big fiery dragon as flames and smoke billow from holes running along both sides. Before the kiln can be fired up, however, the researchers need members of the public to volunteer to help stoke the fires for a few hours each as part of a rota. On 15 August, there will be a family-friendly party in the afternoon near the kiln where visitors will be able to see the kiln at its peak heat.

Project leader Dr Robin Wilson, a social anthropologist from the University of Oxford, said: 'This is a great opportunity for artists, potters and people who are just generally interested in getting involved to experience this community event of baking stoneware pottery. This is a major project involving researchers from different disciplines across the University and will result in a series of exhibitions and talks that will be open to the public later this year. It will be a social experience as well as an educational one, sitting around the kiln poking the fire through the stoking holes just as the Japanese and Korean communities did for generations.'

Such kilns were first used in Koreans in the 6th century and later adopted by the Japanese. They largely disappeared in the 17th century apart from in the province of Bizen where Japan’s oldest pottery-making technique still carries on today. A team from Bizen in Japan will arrive in Wytham at the end of July to prepare and help supervise the firing of the kiln. It is designed rather like a chimney on a hill-side with the hot exhaust drawn out of the far end and nothing to separate the stoking space from the stoneware baking inside. Around 200 pots of all sizes will be stacked onto an interior kiln shelf in the middle of the kiln before the firing. It will then take three days to build up the heat, five days of baking, and an additional three days before the kiln is cool enough to unpack the fired pots.

The kiln was fashioned from a woven willow mould covered in hessian and clay before being left to dry out for a full month.  Before it is fired, the willow structure will be removed to leave a hard clay shell, which is the kiln chamber. It will be fuelled with around eight tonnes of wood, a mixture of sustainably sourced hard and softwood from Wytham woods. A variety of wood types produce different flame temperatures at different points in the firing. ‘The beauty of the anagama stoneware lies in its great variation in colour and texture,’ said Dr Wilson. 'A sort of alchemy happens inside the kiln due to the interaction of the flames, the ash, and the minerals in the clay. Every piece comes out looking unique.'

The patron of the project is 80-year-old Isezaki Jun, who is designated the Living National Treasure of Bizen by the Japanese Government and is highly venerated in Japan. His former apprentice, Kazuya Ishida, who has produced many of the pots for the project, will be at the first firing and is the chief kiln loader. He has the job of crawling through the very small kiln entrance to stack up the pots before the fires are lit   One of Britain’s best known potters, Jim Keeling, founder of Whichford Pottery in Warwickshire, is also co-directing the project.

The temperature is slowly built up by feeding a large fire within the lowest space within the kiln shell. The entrance to the kiln at its base is sealed with fire-bricks, which are stacked and unstacked to allow wood to be fed into the kiln.  Eventually the firebox will start to block up as the amount of charred ash becomes too great to continue the fire.  At this point, fires will be kindled via the side stoking holes and this way, the fire climbs up the kiln as firing progresses.

A larger kiln made of bricks is also being constructed alongside the historic willow anagama kiln by a professional kiln-building team who have been sent from Bizen by Isezaki Jun. This second kiln is due to have its first firing in November when Isezaki Jun is expected to make a special visit to Oxford. The project will involve the Pitt Rivers Museum, the Ashmolean Museum, and research teams from Bizen, as well as Oxford University researchers from anthropology, geology, archaeology and woodland science, and traditional potters from all over the UK.