Hitting things

Sarsen hammerstones

Sarsen hammerstones

Seeing my little bit in Operation Stonehenge  – and being held up with all bar one of my current pieces of work because of problems with raw materials – made me look over the range of the “hitting” tools in my workshop.   So here’s a little photographic review of some hammers, dressers, mallets and mauls.

Raphael Salaman (1975, 1982:218-236) describes 70 tools under the headline “hammer” in his catalogue of woodworking trades’ tools.   Some of these entries describe more than one type of the hammer in question, increasing the number of distinctive hammers beyond 70; such as the entry for the Cooper’s Hammer on page 223.   This includes the London or Burton pattern of hand hammer, the Scotch pattern of hand hammer, the Flue Hammer; and two types of two-handed hammers, the Sledge and the Set.   Salaman describes the  specific characteristics of these five hammers, including their shapes, sizes and uses in coopering.

Salaman records an additional 41 alternative hammer names amongst the tools that he has described in full.   He also has six mallets (pp267-269), one dresser (p380) and there are trade-specific mauls (p270) – see also batter, beater, beetle, cudgel, froe club – for the shipwright, cooper, basket-maker and other greenwood-workers.

Being a record of tools used in woodworking, this book doesn’t include all the hammers belonging to smiths, jewellers, watch- and clock-makers, cobblers, and a myriad other trades.   So there are a lot of hammers out there.

Most of the hitting tools described by Salaman are used for driving.   That is, they knock a thing into, onto, or from, another thing; like a nail into a timber, a wedge into a log, a hoop around barrel staves, a sheet of lead around roof timbers.

In a trade like quarrying there are hitting tools which drive another tool – such as a sledge hammer to drive plug and feather wedges into stone to split it open – and hitting tools which hit the stone directly, to remove material.   These include things like the pick, hammer-axe and walling hammer.   So when is a stone-working tool a hammer, a pick or an axe?

A pick pecks – an axe cuts – a hammer strikes.   These words describe the action, the movement, of the tool at work.   The result of the action depends on a number of different factors, such as the shape of the tool, the force used in the action, the nature of the struck stone, the angle of the strike, the position of the point of impact.

The pecking stones, for example, which are made from nodules of flint, remove tiny grains from a stone surface.   I am using them to pick away at a piece of sarsen stone to make an even surface finish.   The knapping hammers, however, remove whole flakes – from large flakes which themselves might be knapped into other tools, to tiny little retouching flakes to finish a tool edge.  Here’s a short video of Karl Lee describing some of his knapping hammers.

The knapping hammers have characteristic damage at certain places which show where they hit the flint and how they are held to do it.   They are more like the hammers in the top group of photos, which also have one or two main surfaces that come into contact with the thing being hit, and which are held in a particular way.   In contrast, the pecking stones can be held any-which-way.   They have many angular, sharp edges all over that abrade the surface they hit.   Eventually these will all wear down and the stones will become useless.

All these different types of hitting tools…how can an archaeologist usefully talk about them?

In 1901, William Gowland carried out a small excavation at Stonehenge prior to straightening one of the huge sarsen stones.   Stone 56 looked like it was going to fall over.   Other sarsens had come crashing to the ground and broken into pieces in the past; but stone 56 is really handsome and the only part of the Great Trilithon still standing.   No one wanted to see it come to a sad end.   Here’s a pair of before and after photographs on Timothy Daw’s blog to show you what Gowland did.

Gowland was the first person to identify and classify tools used on Stonehenge’s stones.   During his excavation he found a range of beaten-up nodules and rocks which he interpreted as the tools used to shape and dress the standing stones.   Using a sample of 100, he divided them into five groups by material and weight.   He called the smallest groups axes and hammerstones; the middle group weighing from 1lb to 6½lb, hammerstones; and the largest, weighing more than 36lb, mauls (Gowland 1902:62).   He then described the different tasks he thought the tools would have been used for, such as the biggest mauls for knocking off lumps of stone to make the rectangular shapes of the standing sarsens.

This is a bit like the difference between a lump hammer and a sledge hammer.   One is a larger version of the other, and because of the sledge hammer’s greater weight, greater striking area and longer handle, it can do heavier work than the lump hammer.

On the other hand, you could think about classifying the lump and sledge hammer in terms of the action used to wield them (one-handed, two-handed…); the people that use them (brick-layer, navvy, convict…); the shape of the head (four-sided, eight-sided…); the shape of the handle (short, long, straight, curved…); the other tools each is used with (chisel, pick, crow-bar…) – and probably a hundred and one other ways, including the manufacturer, the forging technique, the source and quality of the metal…

Since the nineteenth-century, archaeologists have been grouping and dividing classes of object into types – typologies – with the aim of putting the things into relative chronological order.   Working out the age of something is a really important question to answer.   Working out what something was used for, and who used it, are just as important –  answering different questions like these might require the archaeologist to group the same objects in different ways.   It all depends on what you want to find out, like Salaman grouping together the hammers of many different trades, or Gowland dividing tools for one specific job (preparing bits of Stonehenge).

However you group or divide the hammers depends on how like or unlike one is to another.   Are my mauls more like my lead dressers, because they are each made of one piece of wood?   Or are my mauls more like my lump hammer and railway track hammer, because they are similar weights?  Are my pecking stones more like my sarsen hammerstones, because they are made of a silicified type of stone?   Or are my knapping hammers more like my mason’s axe because they chip bits of stone away?   Should I just lump them all together as “hammers”?   Or are they all so different that I should split them up into sixteen different types of hammer?

Archaeology has numerous techniques to cluster objects together or to divide and sub-divide them into ever smaller groups.   It all depends on what you are interested to find out – and whether you are a —

...lumper or a splitter.

…lumper or a splitter.

Gowland, W. (1902) “Recent Excavations at Stonehenge”  Archaeologia 58(1): 37-118

Salamon, (1975, 1982) Dictionary of Tools Used in the Woodworking and Allied Trades, c.1700-1970   London: George Allen and Unwin

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