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Rough Science 3 New Zealand: Ellen McCallie's diary: The big smelt

Updated Tuesday, 27th February 2007

Finding the gold is one thing – but how will the team go about smelting it and making a pair of earrings, perhaps?

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Ellen hammering the gold flat Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team

Day 32 – melting gold

What is the goal of the program? Our challenge is to cooperatively make things out of gold. Things, plural, out of gold. Make things, very difficult because the only pure gold we have is the nugget we found in the treasure box. The gold we collected ourselves has many other metals and elements mixed in with it. Purifying gold, need intense heat.

Purifying gold. Intense heat like none of us has ever used before. Make the furnace ourselves out of available materials. Not much time. Even less experience. We’ll be mighty lucky if it gets hot enough. Different styles. Irrational, imperfect beings, who often say things they do not mean.

By mid-morning today I think we were doing pretty well. Mike L went off to build bellows. The rest of us identified and discussed the main factors that will determine the success of the furnace we are building: insulation, heat source, and airflow.


  1. Insulation: good clay, free of air bubbles and mixed with charcoal.
  2. Heat source: supposedly we have coke, which is a very hot-burning form of coal.
  3. Air flow: position of fire with relation to openings in the furnace, bellows.

Hard work. Cooperation, a must. Steep learning curve for all. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.


After dinner

At dinner we were asked to talk about how we, the five of us, work as a group. Jonathan was sick in bed, so he wasn’t there. This is a tough conversation to have, as well as a huge one, especially during programme 6 and with one person missing. Also, what is the goal of talking about how we communicate? I would like to see our goal to be to devise ways to work together better and to communicate more effectively with one another. Without a shared goal, however, this kind of conversation can degrade quickly. I think it stayed right on the edge for a long while. When it looked like it might slide into bashing, I chose to leave. I want to be productive and effective. We are hired as scientists and professionals. I’d like to see us have as a common goal to work effectively as a team to produce high quality science programs for television, but people have different agendas.

Day 33 melting gold

I smell of smoke. I taste smoke in my mouth. We sat very comfortably for hours heating the gold and pounding it gently, all without noticing the smoke from the fire. Then, when removed from the immediate situation, the lingering effects of the fire hit my senses full force.

And the gold. I will probably dream in gold this evening.

The day started off with gold as a brittle, impure substance. Luckily we started with only half of the gold nugget that Jonathan and I found in our treasure box. Kathy and I split the half into fourths and each pounded. We pounded the gold hard, fast and furiously only to find jagged edges, holes, and chunks of silver impurities. With a goal of gold leaf, this would not do. It quickly became clear as well that our tools were too bulky and crude. The surfaces of our hammers were nicked and pocked, as was the anvil on which we could beat the gold. What to do?!

Goals: Something had to be made of gold by the end of day 3. We currently had some gold to work. The rest of it had to be smelted with that which we collected ourselves. The furnace and its effectiveness were unknown. A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush, so we decided to start again, trading our banged-up bits of the treasure nugget for the other half of it. This time Kathy and I exhibited much patience. We built and maintained a manageable, but roaring, fire to continually heat the gold. We pounded gently, taking care to set the gold on as smooth a surface as possible and hit it with a clean, nearly smooth mallet. Slowly, slowly. By the end of today we had a slightly misshapen piece of gold thick enough to hold its own weight as pieces of jewelry, but thin enough to have produced a respectable size of gold with which to work.

Kathy made a good call, let’s cut our losses and make something that has a good chance of succeeding - a pair of dangly earrings. Plus, we can each have one. We designed and cut them out to shape and will finish tomorrow with Maori and New Zealand symbols: koru, the fiddlehead of a fern, which indicates life.

Day 34 melting gold

Hooray! We made things out of gold. The furnace actually worked, concentrating most of the gold into globules. Jonathan then set out to melt them using a carbon arc and then carve a final product.

In terms of the earrings, Kathy and I had a ball heating, bashing, stippling and polishing. Amazingly enough, the earrings really look good. The rich color and luster of New Zealand gold is quite striking. We left the shapes organic, allowing the materials and tools to dictate edges and textures. We tried to attach garnets to the center of each koru, but the glue we had didn’t stick, and we couldn’t make nice mounting holes - the gold was too thin. So it goes.

The last three days were quite pleasant, too. Neither Kathy nor I are practised artists or craftspeople. Instead, we both approach the challenges with a bit of planning, the desire to do a good job, and a lot of enthusiasm. We figure if we aren’t having fun and figuring it out, we aren’t doing it right. Plus, we add several amusement breaks into each day; they usually involve dancing, singing and laughing heartily. It’s also kind of nice to know someone in a different part of the world will be wearing the other earring of a one-of-a-kind set that you made together. Hoorah! Good day! Good programme! Good series!

The next morning

Ever woken up after a fabulous night and just been happy to be alive? It’s an elated, yet warm feeling, festive with acceptance of self and others.

The party for this series started early - 6:30 pm - so everyone was dancing up a storm by 8 pm. Even better, all of our new friends from Franz Josef who helped with the series showed up to celebrate with us - laughing, dancing and creating general merriment.


Transit: in transition; not here, nor there; trying to get somewhere. I want to be doing things or being with people during transition times. For this series it took four days from the end of the shoot to actually be home. Some of us cleaned up the sawmill the day after the party, and then we all met for a great hangi, Maori barbecue, hosted by Robin, the owner of the sawmill. The next day we headed for Christchurch, a six-hour journey by car. We didn’t fly out until the afternoon of the next day. Then it is about 24 hours of air travel. Lots of hanging on, waiting, wanting to stay, yet longing to get back to our typical realities. Jonathan and I had some really nice talks during this transition period. He’s wonderful at reflecting on experiences and allowing them to be, while growing from them. Kathy and I laughed and laughed. You also have touching moments with almost everyone else as well, remembering a fantastic piece of the trip that we shared together. Funny how we spend so much time together for 40 consecutive days and then we leave to perhaps see each other in passing during the year, or, in my case as I live in the US, maybe next year if we’re hired back for a new series.





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