Prizes! Antler and bone.

This is the third post of a group of posts about the prize objects that I made earlier this year for a lucky Young Archaeologists’ Club Branch.

artefacts 03

I needed to make things which could be easily posted – small, and/or lightweight.   Some bone and antler artefacts seemed in order.

This also meant I could stretch the date range covered by the objects in the group.   The oldest and the youngest are made of bone.

Courbet Cave rib

Courbet Cave rib

Courbet Cave rib

Courbet Cave rib

These incised horse heads on a rib are the oldest.  The animal portraits are based on a find from Courbet Cave, in the Aveyron Valley (France). The original (in the British Museum, Palart.508) dates to around 11,000BC, and both sides of that rib are carved with horse heads. The original is also broken, but as the bone ends would then be jagged, sharp and fragile (not good for handling by YAC members!) I have kept the whole rib.  It has been suggested that the horses are running, because their heads are raised, necks out-stretched and ears back.  Showing the shape of the lower jaws and manes with shading lines rather than solid lines makes these very naturalistic depictions; the artist was depicting a symbol of a real thing, which is an important accomplishment for more than 12,500 years ago.

The youngest is this pin, cut and shaped from a piece of cow’s canon bone.

Bone pin

Bone pin

Bone pin

Bone pin

It is based on a find from Jarlshof, Shetland.  Pins with axe-shaped heads have been found from the late Roman period onwards; this example is Viking.   Buttons didn’t come in until the medieval period, so until then pins and brooches (and straps and ties) were the commonest ways to fix clothing. Pins were probably used to fix hair, too.

In the middle of the date range are these antler dice.

Antler dice

Antler dice

The large die is based on a Romano-British find from Frocester Court villa (Gloucestershire). The two small dice are based on an early Anglo-Saxon find from Gilton Town (Kent). The Frocester Court die is actually made of ivory, but all three copies are made of antler.  Ivory is not easy to get, for good reasons; and many archaeological dice were made of antler.  Cube-shaped dice were a Roman introduction.  Before then, dice were longer and thinner, made from shafts of small long bones, and only had the numbers 3 to 6 carved on them. The commonest Roman numbering system for dice – which we still use today – is for the values of opposite sides to add up to 7.

Cook, J. (2013) Ice Age Art. Arrival of the Modern Mind  London: The British Museum

MacGregor, A. (1985) Bone, Antler, Ivory and Horn. The Technology of Skeletal Materials since the Roman Period  Beckenham: Croom Helm Ltd

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Antler – recycling the leftovers.

A short radio programme was broadcast recently, part of a BBC School Radio series, which dramatised the working lives of three Victorian street urchins.   Described in the accompanying Teachers’ Notes .pdf as “historically accurate fictions”, the three stories had much in common.   Children around the age of 11 years, sleeping rough at Billingsgate Fish Market, scratching a living in central London, no family to speak of, no education – straight out of Dickens or a Comic Relief appeal film.

All three children were depicted trying to make money from waste, from things that no one else wanted.   Recycling, in its multifarious forms, is big business today.   We are familiar with the current staples of kerbside collection – glass, paper, textiles and tin cans – with the bottle bank, and even, not that long ago, the rag and bone man in our streets; but we add to the modern list plastics, batteries, even mobile phones for their valuable component materials.   There are, however,  many trades and activities, based on un-wanted things of one sort or another, long lost to the British economy.

In the radio programme, Maddy described hand-collecting puer to sell by the bucket to the tanners; Jacko was catching rats in dockside grain stores to fuel Soho dog-fights; Gyp graduated from mud-larking for coals on the Thames foreshore to digging out lost household items that had been flushed into Bazalgette’s sewers.

Tanneries are especially interesting because they made use of a range of natural waste and by-products.  The animal hides to be made into leather are a by-product of butchery and knackery.   Urine could be used to help slip the hide of its hair.   Puering, to soften the hide and make it more flexible, used bird droppings or dog dung (as collected by Maddy in the radio story) before other bate became available, such as dried animal pancreas.

Tanning is the part of the leather-making process which then preserves the hide.   Vegetable tan requires tannin-rich plant material, perhaps the best known being oak bark, to make a waterproof, strong yet flexible leather.   Brain tan is used to make soft and pliable buckskin.   Animal brain oils work not by chemically preserving the hide, but by preventing the fibres in the drying skin from sticking together; buckskin is usually, but not always, smoked to give it better drying properties when it has been washed.

Brain tan is a method associated with traditional native American leather-making.   There is now only one commercial oak tannery in England.   Most leather production these days uses mineral and synthetic processes such as alum and chrome tannages.

Antler is another by-product which, along with other animal bone and horn, did for thousands of years the jobs that plastic often does now.   Combs, buttons and beads, toggles and fasteners, jewellery, pins, dice, gaming pieces, handles, bobbins, hinges and more – all manner of objects used to be made from skeletal materials.   Antlers can be broken down into a myriad of pieces and even the smallest bits can be made into something.

Which brings me to the question in hand.   Keith Pickering, who makes fabulous walking sticks, sells his antler leftovers so I have bought a batch.   Collected in Scotland, the antlers make their way to Keith’s workshop to make thumbstick “V”s and other handles.  I’m turning his offcuts into keyrings and zip-pulls to raise some money for two archaeological education charities.   The slideshow below follows my manufacturing process.   All I need to do now is make a load more!

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I usually use Harvard referencing in my blog posts to show my information sources, but this time it didn’t seem to suit the generalised commentary; so instead, here are the books on my shelves that are relevant:

Blair, J. and Ramsay, N. (eds) (1991)  English Medieval Industries   London: The Hambledon Press

MacGregor, A. (1985)  Bone, Antler, Ivory and Horn   London: Croom Helm

Riggs, J. (1979-2003)  Blue Mountain Buckskin   Cave Junction: Backcountry Publishing

Woodroffe, D. (1953)  Leather Dressing, Dyeing and Finishing   Teignmouth: Quality Books