Meet the Artist: Ashleigh Airey
Interview with Ashleigh Airey, creator of archaeologically-inspired scented candles
Many people will likely have this response, but the pandemic had a big impact on how I engaged with archaeology and, especially, how I interact with archaeological sites. During that period, many sites closed, funding reduced and heritage as a whole suffered. People weren’t able to visit or engage with archaeological sites in the traditional sense. They couldn’t travel to them, so I thought, what if I brought the sites into their homes? What if I got people to engage with these sites when they couldn’t visit them and keep them in their consciousness?
And so, I started researching. And I realised that I could create something that would embody those sites on a corporeal and sensory level, but it needed to be something that most people have in their homes: a candle.
Creating candles that are meant to be physical representations of specific sites, specific time periods, was a response to a need within archaeology—to be seen, to be remembered, and to be accessible. I realised quite early on in my career, that archaeology isn’t always accessible and it needs to be. Our future as archaeologists lies within outreach, accessibility, and community. And so, I wanted to be part of that, in my small creative way. I wanted to create a site in the most accessible form, something that people would interact with on a daily basis, that could tell a story and give people just enough information to spark an interest in archaeology so that they would—hopefully—start to engage with archaeology in their own way.
Material culture was the basis of my postgraduate degree and part of what I decided to specialise in, so creating an object—a candle—that would reach past its own biography and have agency that extended beyond its last burn enough to hopefully inspire and support future archaeological interest was, and still is, the catalyst behind my candle business. My main goal is to get people thinking about archaeology; to wonder about the sites behind the candle. After they’ve picked up one of my candles, I want people to visit these sites, to support the archaeologists that record them, and to realise that they too are part of a deeply woven narrative that spans across landscapes and time.
Both! Sometimes I work from home, sometimes I work from larger creative spaces. It depends on the batch size I’m working on. Pouring larger batches requires more space and storage. Design work, I can take anywhere and work from many different locations. It can be a juggle but it's great to have the freedom to be able to work from many locations across Scotland.
Candle making is a bit of a science. To make a candle might sound simple and in theory, it is: gently melt wax, add scent, and pour it into a wick-ed up container. But, it’s a bit more complicated than that. It takes time, testing, experimentation, testing again, and a whole lot of practice to make that candle burn correctly.
Initially, you have to decide on a few things like what wax and materials to choose, what you want your candle to look like, and how you want to go about testing that candle in order to bring it to your market. For me, the environmental impact of my candles was a big motivator and something I took time to research. Afterall, protecting our environment and archaeology go hand in hand. I wanted to create candles that weren’t going to cost or impact our world and our heritage.
Then, it was a matter of trial and error. My first collection was The Standing Stones collection. It took me months to figure out each recipe and to individually test them. I have pages and pages full of notes—test burn records, flash burns, timings, safety documentation, scent profiles, wick tests and creative processes for each collection, each candle. They’re a very boring read. I wouldn’t recommend it. But for me, they’re integral to the candle-making process. No two candles are the same; each candle has a unique recipe tailored to make it the best candle possible.
Three years down the line, I’ve got it down to a few key steps: research, scent profiles, mixing, pouring and curing.
Research: I have to really research the scent I was to explore and the candle I want to make in order for it to fit with the site I want to represent. For me, that starts in the archaeological record. I look at site records, publications, and, if I haven’t been there before and if the site is still visible, I try to squeeze in a field trip. From those notes, I head onto the next step.
Scent profiles: I look at the type of scents that were around in each period or what scents are currently found near each site. Then, I try to replicate them. For example, for our Roundhouse candle I knew I wanted an earthy scent. Something that would immediately make you think of digging out a posthole or hewing wood for your settlement. For this, use the basic principles of perfumery: top notes, heart notes, and base notes. For Roundhouse these are: bergamot and evergreens; balsam and woods; citrus, oakmoss, and pine.
Mixing: Next, I have to mix the scents in with my wax. Depending on wax, it has an optimum temperature for adding your fragrance. This is in between its melting point and its ‘freezing’ point. Adding it before or after has an impact on the disruption of your fragrance molecules. Too hot and the scent will burn off, messing up your carefully calculated percentages. Too cold and your fragrance won’t distribute evenly.
Pouring and Curing: Here I wick-up my containers, measure my mixture out and pour it carefully into its awaiting container. This can take me anywhere from one hour to three days, depending on the number of candles within my batch. Then, I have to wait two weeks for the candle to cure—allowing the scent to distribute more throughout the wax—before taking a test sample out of the batch and doing a flash test.
Candle making is a strange beast, it can be both extremely relaxing and absolutely infuriating. My processes have definitely evolved over time. Many of my recipes and mixtures have changed as my skills have developed. I always want to make the best candles I possibly can, so I always like to revisit them and change elements within each mixture and test each new batch as they evolve.
As you can see, it can be a long process, which means that many of my candles have been in the pipeline and testing phases for some time before I finally make them available to the public. I plan seasonally. Usually at the beginning of the year, I know what candles and what sites I want to make. But candle making isn’t always so simple—some scents don’t work, some wicks don’t burn as well as they should and tests fail—and so sometimes, those ideas have to be pushed back or allocated more time before being released to the public.
Usually, I pick a site first. However, I have stumbled across a scent profile that inspires me towards a specific time period or reminds me of a certain time or memory in the field. Archaeologist’s Desk was one of those scents—it reminded me of crumpled up old context sheets and I knew I had to make it into a candle.
Some sites my candles are based on are ones I’ve visited or worked on myself—Isle of Iona is an example of that. I use that personal experience to frame my scent choices as well as research. I’m a researcher at heart, so I like to dig deep—pun absolutely intended—into the available archaeological reports and look at what evidence there is within the archaeological record about what people were doing, eating, and what materials they were using on that site too. And I try to incorporate the nice smells into that candle.
When I haven’t been to a site, I try to speak to an archaeologist who has or someone who has worked on a similar site or period. Each of my candles are site and era based, so I try to pick scent profiles that would match that time period. Sometimes that isn’t always possible; climates have changed, materials aren’t always accessible or easy enough to distil into a scent. And so, I try to find modern matches to old scents that are no longer available or, well… palatable.
Yes, I do. I was initially trained in archaeological illustration, so I brought that skill into the creative process. Since most of my candles as based on specific sites, I thought that having a reconstruction of those sites, incorporated into the label design, would evoke the past on another sensory level—not only could you smell it, but see it too.
It’s one of my favourite aspects on the job. I love recreating sites, making them into an accessible form, adding a story to them which allows people a glimpse into the past within their home.
I’m also a bit of a material culture nerd, so I do put little easter eggs into each label—artefacts, art styles and patterns, even a small nod to archaeologists who worked on them—all directly linked to the sites. Only the keen observer will recognise them!
Yes, absolutely. There are so many sites that I want to recreate. There are a few sites outside the UK that I’ve been working on, but they may not be out for a little while. Trying to find the right scent takes time and I want to do it right. You only get one shot at recreating a site—if it isn’t accurate, believe me, someone will let me know it!
This interview was produced as part of the 2023 Festival of Archaeology's Archaeology and Creativity Theme Day sponsored by Thames & Hudson.
Thames & Hudson are one of the world’s leading publishers of illustrated books. They publish high-quality titles across all areas of visual creativity. Their mission is to create a ‘museum without walls’ and to make accessible to a large reading public the world of art and the research of top scholars.