Students build earthen ovens using inflatable molds, learn about colonialism, food studies, sustainability

three people standing in front of a yellow wall
June 6, 2022

The course was part of the program New Strategies for the Humanities at Berkeley, a Mellon Foundation grant housed in the Center for Interdisciplinary Critical Inquiry (CICI) under the Division of Arts & Humanities. It was also designated as a course in the Course Threads program under the Environment and Humanities. 

This Spring, Students in the collaborative research seminar Tres Hornos: Earthen Ovens and Foodways of the Southwest experimented with design and construction techniques to build and use earthen ovens, also known as hornos, using a traditional brick mold process combined with a newly designed inflatable mold. The experimental tempering of bricks and the new inflatable mold process is designed to provide sustainable and efficient materials and methods that can be easily transported and deployed by those experiencing displacement due to humanitarian crisis and migration. The course was taught by Ronald Rael, Professor of Art Practice and Architecture, Stephanie Syjuco, Professor of Art Practice, and Jun Sunseri, Anthropology Professor. With a mission to bring together undergraduates and graduates from across the campus, the course welcomed students into a mentorship model as they worked together around topics such as food studies, sustainability, and colonialism.

three people standing in front of a yellow wall

Throughout the semester, the course focused on the design, construction, sustainable use, and experimental variables in archaeological feature visibility of earthen ovens. By collaboratively building the hornos, students learned about cultural and historical intersections while incorporating contemporary construction methods using 3D clay fabrication, a technique frequently employed by Artist and Architect Ronald Rael. The hornos were used to cook a variety of indigenous and introduced foods as well as fire ceramics and to provide thermodynamic data.

Students were introduced to ethnobotanical histories by way of a small garden in order to understand how contemporary food growing and preparation practices have been shaped by colonization. The garden, grown in the courtyard of the Art Practice Building, was informed by Professor Stephanie Syjuco’s ongoing project “Empire Garden,” which she says involves “growing crops significant to the formation of empire, colonization, and the Industrial Revolution.”

Professor Jun Sunseri, who specializes in community-accountable archeology, worked with leadership of the United Auburn Indian Community to arrange a campus visit of Maidu and Nisenan elders and UAIC Tribal members, who shared samples of traditional foods hunted and gathered on their land. They also invited UC Berkeley faculty and students to build similar hornos on Tribal property this summer. Additionally, the Mono Lake Kootzadika’a donated heavy fraction flotation gravels from partnered archaeological research to temper the adobe bricks, allowing for precise measurements of gravel sizes and portions for adobe thermal capacity studies. Sunseri said of the construction of the earthen ovens, “As a participant observer and experimental archaeologist, I have found that the construction and use of such features are not only important aspects of my research, but also serve as the foci of social experiences that bring people together through labor and food.”

people working outside

In April, the class had the opportunity to use one of the three constructed hornos when they gathered together with members of the United Auburn Indian Community and Oakland-based chef Crystal Wahpepah of Wahpepah’s Kitchen. Tribal leaders cooked wild venison, students and faculty brought vegetables, meats, acorn gruel, and wild-harvested teas and the whole meal was supplemented by Wahpepah’s Kitchen. The group also used the hornos to wood-fire ceramics and small sculptural objects.

oven horno with food inside

During finals, students presented their work—ranging from handmade to 3D printed ceramics, prepared traditional recipes, poetry, visual presentations, and more—to invited guests from campus and the community. When reflecting on the class, one student said “the opportunity to build something so tangible and grounded was already a beautiful experience, but to see how others in the class engaged with the history, how the hornos became a catalyst for memory building, it’s a special memory I will have with me for a long long time.”

Professors Rael, Syjuco, and Sunseri hope to produce a collaborative paper to capture the course outcomes and encourage more collaborative pedagogy. The outcome produced a genuinely rich environment that brought together students that otherwise might have never crossed paths in their departments.

The experimental model also provided a way to test inflatable molds engineered by professor Rael, who was recently announced as the Artist in Residence by global humanitarian organization Alight International. Rael has been working with Alight since 2018 to build hornos at shelters on the US/Mexico border to bring joy and community to displaced people awaiting asylum. In the future, Rael hopes to provide the molds to individuals experiencing displacement and humanitarian crises in order to provide a functional tool and foster community.