The Death and Birth of a Cannibal Fork

Sometimes my firewood delivery includes some wood that I prefer not to burn.  A few months ago the last load included some spalted something: I’m really not sure what tree this was from, it’s so spectacularly eaten.  Here’s a bit of a slightly less munched log:

A piece of spalted wood

I ought to burn it if only to reduce the number of grubs and beetles that might still be lurking in it, waiting to make their way to better-quality material in reserve for carving. Or my workshop roof.

These logs were on the way out.  Full of big holes eaten away by burrowing creatures, patches of soft fibrous white rot, and crumbly brown rot.  But spalting can be beautiful, making swirling lines and patterns, and contrasting colours.  The interleaving, revealing, maze of vacant tunnels lead into and out of the wood, little squints into its heart.

Some of this dying wood would be just right for an elderly, crotchety, worn out cannibal fork that’s come to the end of its life almost before it’s started.  It’s a poor old thing.


What’s in the box?

My second carving of the recently-excavated Bronze Age Must Farm wooden box, found along with other remarkable archaeological remains in a collapsed roundhouse in the Fens, has left me with more questions.  That’s what fact-finding is for.

As you can see from the photos, it’s a lovely little box, small and delicate.  Vicky Herring’s fabulous drawings show more details, including the suggestion of an interior seat for a lid.  But no lid was found with the surviving parts of the box.

Maybe it had a lid but at the time of the round house fire and collapse this had been taken off and left somewhere else.  Maybe the lid fell away in the collapse and will be found in lower deposits.  Maybe it burnt up in the fire.

So should I carve a lid?  The only evidence is negative evidence – the seat inside the box, which itself is partial.  Not much to go on.

Well, what use is a box without a lid?  Especially a small box like this that ought to have little treasures tucked away in it.

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First thoughts

The wood is so green – the tree was cut down just a few weeks ago – that the sap was coming out of fibres as I cut them.  The lid is very thin, especially as I cut out a recessed panel like those in the long sides and base of the excavated box.  The surface area is therefore large in comparison to the volume of wood; this means that the very green wood can dry out really fast.  And even faster, because I brought the box and lid into my warm house.  So already the lid has shrunk.  It’s not such a good fit as when I first made it just 24 hours ago.

There are two choices.  Make the box from green wood or from seasoned wood. Each has advantages and disadvantages.  I can’t wait to find out more about the wood that the Bronze Age box is made of.  Hopefully the post-excavation analysis will reveal the species of tree.


Box of tricks

This afternoon I completed my second fact-finding version of the fabulous Must Farm Bronze Age box. The first attempt involved making an approximation of the box excavated at Must Farm to show me some of the general problems I would be likely to encounter.  The second was more about all the little devils in the detail.


Must Farm box #2

The first task was to study the fabulous artefact drawings and note the box’s measurements.  The box was found in pieces and one end is very poorly preserved.  This means that whilst the width and depth measurements are fairly reliable, the length is not.  The finer details, like wall thickness, are variable.  That’s probably for more than one reason, including the different parts that have survived and the way the waterlogged wood has changed shape over time, as well as the original dimensions as carved.

Having settled on the dimensions that I would carve to, this is what I cut:

Version 2 is closer to the original, in terms of shape and size, than version 1, and I have included an internal lip as suggested by the drawings.  This might have been the seat for a lid, although no lid was found with the box.  Like the first, this second version is willow.

First thoughts

The willow again was problematic: whilst its fresh, green, state made it really easy to cut, the open fibrous nature of this wood makes it difficult to get a good clean finish in the small, confined spaces of the box. To make progress I’ve got to the stage where I need to know the original wood species – and will have to wait for the post-excavation analysis.

In dealing with some of the torn and hairy wood fibres I have over-cut in various places, so that the dimensions aren’t quite perfect.  In trying to make the interior of the long side walls close to vertical, I have over-cut the depth of the interior by a couple millimetres.  This has left the base rather thin, whilst the two short end walls are too thick at the base and slightly over-cut at the top.

On the flip side, I have to make assumptions about the dimensions to cope with the missing parts.  The lid seat is a good example of this.  There isn’t much information in the drawings about it, I have made decisions about the shape and size, so the spots that I am unhappy about are only where I have failed to meet my own instructions – not necessarily what the box really looked like.

I have cut the lid seat around the whole of my box.  A lid for my version 2 would therefore have to press down onto the top of the box, engaging with all four sides.  One short end of the Bronze Age box, however, is (mostly) missing, so I can’t actually tell if this is how it looked originally.  It might have been open at the missing end, so that a lid could slide onto the seat – like a wooden pencil or domino box.

That interpretation is less likely, because there the original doesn’t seem to have channels cut in the long sides for a lid to slide along.


Probably not like this…

Hence my interpretation of a seat to house a lid engaging vertically with the box.

Box of delights

Have you seen the amazing archaeology being excavated at Must Farm by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit?  Must Farm is one of the most important Bronze Age sites in Europe, because of the spectacular preservation.  The remains that survive are wonderfully intact, including things that we’ve never seen before.

This includes, for example, the roofing timbers of the settlement’s roundhouses; whole pottery bowls with their contents; a fleet of log boats; animal tracks and footprints in the mud around the settlement. Check out the photos from the past few months’ of digging – there’s even the most complete Bronze Age wheel!

Amongst the staggering preservation of organic remains, one of the many lovely things is a small wooden box, SF2747.  The Must Farm team has already shared Vicky Herring’s scale drawing of this find and I’m planning to make some facsmiles and replicas.  This weekend I made a preliminary rough-out to discover what problems I might encounter.  I picked up some fairly straight grained willow on Saturday that had only just been felled, so it’s really green and good to cut with edged tools.  This is how I got on:

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We don’t yet know what species the box is carved from, but it’s a hollow form; meaning it was carved from one piece of wood, not made from panels jointed together.   My rough-out is approximately the right size and is carved from a billet cut from the same portion of branch as the Bronze Age box.  Its base and two long sides have recessed panels like the original, although their depth and shape need adjustment.

Inside, I have carved roughly the right shape but didn’t cut a groove to seat a lid. The original seems to have a groove for a lid to fit into, but no lid was found with the box and I’d like some more information before working on this.

First thoughts

The internal dimensions are challenging to carve.  The box is about 37mm wide inside and 29mm deep, making for a very narrow, shallow space to get tools and fingers into.  Working with very green wood is a great help, but the thin sides and base are at greater risk of splitting as the wood dries out. And the dimensions will change as the wood dries, that’s something to compensate for.

The drawing suggests that the corners in the bottom of the box are rounded, concave, curves.  I achieved this using my spoon-knives.  It’s not clear to me whether this shape was original or the result of use, or of change over time in the waterlogged mud.  If original, then this suggests that the Bronze Age carver did not use a straight edge to cut right-angled corners into the box.

That’s an issue because there are many cutting tools from the Bronze Age with straight or flat edges, but very few that cut in the way that spoon-knives cut.  And although there are various types of gouge, the internal space of this box is tiny – hardly any space in which to turn the cutting edge of a tool to make these complex curves and so that the wood fibres are cut, not torn.  A closer examination of the original might throw some light on this.

The type of wood will make a difference to its cut-ability too.  The willow I bodged has an open, fibrous, texture making it tricky to get a good finish in that tiny inside.  Also, the fibres tend to pull out giving the outside a slightly hairy look where I haven’t finished it tidily.  The widest growth ring shown in the box drawing is about 5mm, and in the c47mm radius in the end-grain of the box there are 15 rings.  It looks like a diffuse-porous tree species (one in which the Spring-grown and Summer-grown vessels are of an even size across the growth ring).  It will be interesting to see just from where in the tree the specialist analysing the box thinks the wood was taken.

The Yew Fork

A new cannibal fork, carved in yew from the great yew tree of St Mary’s.

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I love the contrast between the pale, creamy sapwood and the vibrant red heartwood.   But in these photos you can spot some of the problems in the wood that come with the tree’s venerable age and illness.

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“Double-fatal yew”

This post is about my frustrations with wood.

You see before you the great yew tree of St Mary’s.  It has stood hard by the church’s South Porch for more than 1000 years.  It is a magnificent tree.

It is also wounded, and sickly.

One hundred, maybe two hundred, maybe three hundred, years ago, wrought iron bands and staples were bolted into the tree to try to hold it together.  Now grown around with wood, the yew is clinging to this elderly corsetry.  The huge bole is entirely hollow.  It seems a miracle that the weighty, spreading top can be supported by the thin, twisted remains of the trunk.  Mary must be looking kindly on the tree.

yew tree

The latest work to prolong the tree’s life has included considerable surgery.  This resulted in a large pile of logs.  Raw materials.  Fire wood at the least; but hopefully bowls, spoons, hafts and other useful things.  But the tree’s illness, its stresses and strains, show through.

yew shakes

The wood is full of shakes, splits and cracks.  Look at those rings and stars in the red heartwood.  These are causing my frustration.

The creamy sapwood contrasts the red heartwood.  I wanted to carve another parti-coloured cannibal fork, like the Elder Fork, so I took a length of branch about 10cm diameter and started to open it up.  But the shakes inside the branch extend even to this narrow branch.  Hidden splits run through it almost, but not quite, where I wanted to make cuts in the wood.

“Double-fatal yew”.  It kills you with poison, it kills you with power – unleashed from a longbow.  Something is doing its best to kill the great yew of St Mary’s.

Prizes! Frullini.

This is the last 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.  The final object I decided to include is something that has fascinated me since I first discovered frullini back in 2009.  Like the birch bark containers, this is another object excavated from waterlogged deposits in Alpine lake settlements.



This little wooden whisk is based on Bronze Age examples from Fiavé. There are ethnological and historical examples of these tools used in cooking. The archaeological examples are most commonly made from the tops of Picea abies; the Christmas tree! At Fiavé, the numbers of frullini increase through time as the numbers of domesticated cattle increased, so the excavator proposed that the frullini were being used to make butter, as dairying became more important to the villagers.

It’s good fun making these and even more fun trying them out.



Prizes! Birch Bark Containers.

This is the first 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.   Having some Birch bark, stripped from some Silver Birch logs that I had been given by a friendly tree-surgeon doing a job in a nearby town-centre, it seemed a good idea to make a container.   Here it is:

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The bark wasn’t the best for the job.   It was old, thin, cracked, lumpy, papery.  It had to be soaked to make, and keep, it pliable.   There is a little repair to stitch up a crack.  Silver Birch trees do not grow well where I live.   The trees being cut by the tree surgeon were ornamental plantings that hadn’t been very successful.   But I was lucky to have been passing as he was at work, and to gather up the logs into the back of my car with his blessing.   Otherwise, I couldn’t have got the bark at all.

I made the container using modern tools – specifically, a metal cutting blade and needle – so really it is a type of facsimile.   Here is my definition of replica and facsimile.   The container is based on a range of European finds from Neolithic sites. This means that it is not a direct copy of a single archaeological artefact.

The shape and general method of construction were taken from the containers found with Ötzi in the Ötztal Alps on the Austria-Switzerland border.   Otzi seems to have had two containers, one of which survived fairly well.   This was about 20cm tall.   Its oval base measured about 18cm at its widest point.   There was no evidence for a lid.

Only a tiny amount of the stitching survived in one of Ötzi’s containers. Details of the side stitching and base stitching methods in my facsimile were taken from finds at Sutz-Lattrigen-Rütte and Twan-Bahnhof, two Swiss lakeside settlement sites.

The containers that I used for reference had been stitched with un-braided bast strips, so I used lengths of hemp (gathered as part of a raw materials swap for sinew and raw-hide, thanks Sally!) without twisting them into cord.  However, I did braid up the lengths of hemp to go around the outside of the base, purely out of convenience and hopefully to give it a longer life.   If something goes wrong, it will be harder for the new owners to fix than for me, if like Ötzi I was carrying the container as part of my own kit.

The hemp smells wonderful, sort of smokey and sweet and sharp all at the same time.

This “composite” approach, using information from different sources, was necessary because the evidence comes from fragile, partial, archaeological artefacts.   Artefacts made of organic materials are rare in Europe unless from waterlogged or frozen contexts; and although birch bark technology is still used in North America, I would only use techniques and materials from that analogy if I thought they were appropriate to the task in hand and to the archaeological evidence.

And then a friend contacted me, asking if I knew of someone who could make him a particular type of stone object for a Neolithic handling collection he was compiling.   Along with some suggestions, I offered him a (one-third size) version of the container:

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Birch Boat Bowl

My oak and my ash have been giving me nothing but trouble.   Hence no recent progress on the Kingsteignton Idol or the hilt for the bronze sword that belongs to our local Young Archaeologists’ Club handling collection.

But I have finished my first attempt at a boat bowl.   It’s not based on an archaeological artefact.   I was inspired by some of the bowls and the toy boats that I saw in Denmark last year.   Making it has been an exercise in carving – a practice piece.

The silver birch came from a local farm.   There are very few silver birch trees growing where I live, the conditions aren’t favourable for them.   I jumped at the chance to get hold of some logs, because it’s lovely to look at and lovely to carve.   Mostly I get oak, ash and field maple, but the farm has a few silver birches dotted throughout its woodland.

The logs had been in my store for a few months, so the wood isn’t fully seasoned but it’s not sopping-wet either.   However, it has spalted.  The spalting is the patterns of colours brought about by fungi growing in the wood.   If the rot is too far gone then the wood is useless for carving (unless you can impregnate it with an acrylate to hold it together as you cut into it).   If you can catch it just right, however, the wood will hold up and your carved piece has all these amazing patterns and colours in it.

The bowl hasn’t been oiled yet, it needs to dry out fully first.  The oiling should really bring out the effects of the spalting and I can’t wait to see it – so I have to restrain myself and wait until the right time to do it!

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Spalting is one of the ephemeral characteristics of biodegradable materials that is missing from the archaeological record.   However, just as there are beautiful prehistoric axe heads made of multi-coloured and patterned stone, I think people in the past would have enjoyed wooden objects with different colours too.