Museum of Ethnography
H-1146, Budapest, Dózsa György út 35.
Phone: +36 1 474 2100
According to the museum’s inventory log, in 1910, Baron Albert Nyáry (1871-1933), on a visit to the Nógrád County village of Piliny, collected two fired clay objects, which he described as an “Olah Romani idol and candlestick”.
On the same journey, in the same village, Nyáry also took a number of photographs showing oven builders and wooden trough carvers both during work, and posed as groups. The time was probably around late July, as stacks of grain can be seen standing behind the trough carvers. The carvers, also known as the beás Romany, belonged to a semi-nomadic group named for the language it spoke: Oláh, meaning “Romanian”. The brick makers, on the other hand, were a settled group and, according to contemporary birth records, may well have come from the nearby village of Endrefalva. Described variously as brick makers, brick firers, earth rammers, or even simply mud workers, the families in question lived in Piliny from late spring to early autumn, occupying temporary huts.
The village of Piliny is a rich source of archaeological sites: the Bronze Age people who once occupied its Castle Hill have been dubbed the Piliny Culture; while a separate site has revealed a cemetery from the time of the Magyar Conquest. Albert Nyáry, too, conducted excavations on Castle Hill, aided by archaeologist Ferenc Kubinyi and the local landowner. It was during the time that the two brick making families worked on the Wattay or Kubinyi estates and the trough carvers carved their wares, that Nyáry – simultaneously an archaeologist, ethnographer, and artist – acquired the two objects shown here, and as no earlier finds of the type have come down to posterity, there can be little doubt that they date to his time. So why, then, did the collector refer to them as of “Olah Romani” manufacture? Had they been obtained from the trough carvers, rather than the brick makers? Or did he fail to distinguish between the two linguistic and ethnic groups, choosing what he knew to be the more “archaic” group name to describe the objects? And why “idol”? Did they revere the object as a pagan god or saint? Did they attribute to it some power over their success in firing bricks? Or was it merely produced as occasional art: a decoration for the hut, a toy, or a gift to the landowner who had ordered the bricks made? We can only guess. When a hundred years later, in the 1990s, the descendants of these people were shown a reproduction of the artefact and asked about its history, it was discovered that a group of oven builders from Becsked still remembered giving children miniature fired clay animals and building bricks to play with.
Though the history of the figure remains obscure, the process of brick making itself has been well documented. The first step involved the removal of repositories of clay from the hillsides. Once dug, the earth was spread to a thickness of 30 to 40 cm, wetted through, worked by foot, then turned three times with a hoe. This having been completed, the men shuttled the pliable mud by wheelbarrow to a table where the women cast it into moulds, then turned the smooth bricks out onto a clear patch of ground strewn with sand. Halfway through the drying process, the bricks were turned onto their sides for better exposure, after which they were taken to a specially constructed open shed to make room for the next batch. The first bricks to dry were arranged in the oven to form a firing cavity and smoke channels. When this was ready, the bricks were dried a few days on “low heat,” until all traces of water vapor had disappeared. Then the oven exterior, known as the “cape,” was daubed all around with clay mud, its opening narrowed, and the actual firing (on “high heat”) begun. From this point forward, the oven was fed a continuous diet of cord wood for two to three days, during which time any red-hot areas at the top were covered as they appeared with mud. Once the entire roof of the oven had been covered, the firing process was complete. The oven was filled with cord wood one last time, the firing chamber walled in, the opening daubed shut, and the tens of thousands of bricks inside left to cool for a week.
Presumably, when at the end of this time they were removed, ready for use, the fired clay figure and candlestick came with them.