Green oak

This post was going to be about scrapers.   Unfortunately most of the literature that I wanted to catch up on is in journals which are proving difficult to get hold of.   So it will have to wait.

In the meantime, let’s think about oak for the Kingsteignton Idol.

This male figure, carved in the Iron Age and left on a ground surface near what is now the River Teign in Devon until excavated by workmen in the nineteenth-century, is made of oak.  To make my copy of the Idol, I must procure some oak with just the right characteristics.

Oak!

Oak!

The Idol was carved from a piece of roundwood – that is, a length of branch.  We think this, because the centre of the branch runs right through the middle of the Idol, from crown all the way through the torso.  The branch’s growth rings radiate out in concentric circles from this point.  The Idol’s head is full of radial cracks like a great star-burst, because of the characteristic way that the roundwood shrank (most likely after the figure was excavated from its waterlogged deposit and dried out).

It was also a straight piece of wood, and, as the line of least shrinkage in wood is longitudinal, the Idol when newly-carved was probably not much taller than the 340mm recorded by Bryony Coles in 1991.   At its widest point (across the shoulders), the Idol measures a shade under 60mm. Or at least, its drawing in Coles’ paper does; but that’s for another post.

Let’s deal with the issue of width first.  Oak has a very pronounced heartwood/sapwood boundary.  The outer sapwood can be quite thick.  The inner heartwood is dense.   It’s an exaggeration, but axing through the sapwood on the oak I’m using is a bit like chopping through honeycomb; it has a sort of crunchy feeling and sound to it, whilst the heartwood is solid and smooth in comparison.

This piece of oak roundwood is about 10cm diameter.   The sapwood is really thick, so the heartwood isn't wide enough for me.   Not only that; the pith of the branch isn't in the centre of the heartwood. The Kingsteignton Idol is 6cm wide at the shoulders, with the pith running right down the centre. This branch won't do!

This piece of oak roundwood is about 10cm diameter. The sapwood is really thick, however, so the heartwood isn’t wide enough for me. Not only that; the pith of the branch isn’t in the centre of the heartwood. The Kingsteignton Idol is 6cm wide at the shoulders, with the pith running right down the centre. This branch won’t do!

Although neither Pengelly (1875) nor Coles (1991) say, the Idol must be made of heartwood given that the centre of the branch runs down the middle of the figure.  Without a close look at the original I am assuming that the whole figure is heartwood, with no sapwood at all left.  So although at its widest the Idol is only 6cm, I need a branch that is a good 10cm or 12cm in diameter, maybe more.  By the time all the bark and sapwood has been cut away, I should be left with about the right amount of heartwood to work with and some to spare.

Is it straight-grained? Unlikely...

Is it straight-grained? Unlikely…

The branch also has to be straight-grained for at least 34cm.   Just because a branch looks straight doesn’t mean the grain inside runs true.   The grain may run round a knot.   If a leading bud dies and a side shoot takes over the growth of a sapling or branch, the grain will bend.   These might not necessarily be obvious from the outside of the branch.

Roughly chopping away the bark and cutting into the sapwood reveals...all sorts of problems.

Roughly chopping away the bark and cutting through the sapwood reveals…all sorts of problems.

So much for this length of branch.   Here’s what happened when I cut down this billet (using a fabulous Disston rip saw, how I wish it was mine…) and let it start to dry out:

This brings me to the final characteristic that the piece of oak must have.   Coles (1991:327-8) argues that the Idol, along with other prehistoric carved figures, was carved from greenwood – that is, unseasoned wood retaining a high water content.

Greenwood is great for carving with nice, sharp tools.   Mike Abbott (1989,2007:21-4) lists six reasons for preferring to work with unseasoned wood, including the ease with which the softer greenwood can be cut with edge tools.   I love it, greenwood carving has a long pedigree, and am very happy to believe that the prehistoric figures were carved – with stone, bronze or iron tools, depending on their age – from greenwood; and that’s what I’ll be using for my copy of the Idol.

However, I don’t agree with Coles’ reasoning to infer that the figures were carved in greenwood, which is based on the idea that if tool marks or scars (facets) are left on an object’s surface, then the wood must have been carved green (Coles 1991:316),

“This faceting indicates that the wood was carved before it was seasoned, whatever tools may have been used to produce it.”

Tool marks can be left on wood whether it is green or seasoned – and can be removed from both green and seasoned wood (and I don’t mean with sandpaper) if the carver wants a fine, smooth finish to the work (I blogged a bit about this topic here, although that post doesn’t compare unseasoned and seasoned wood).

Using greenwood could well present some problems

Abbott, M. (1989,2007)  Green Woodwork   Lewes: Guild of Master Craftsmen Publications Ltd

Coles, B. (1991)  “Anthropomorphic Wooden Figures from Britain and Ireland”  Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 56:315-333

Pengelly, W. (1875) (ed) “Memoranda, Part 1″  Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Art 7:197-202

Introducing the Kingsteignton Idol

I’ve started work on a new project; a copy and interpretation of the Kingsteignton Idol.  This carved oak figure was excavated from the banks of the River Teign in Devon in 1867.   Workmen from the Zitherixon Clay Works dug it out of the anaerobic deposits which had preserved the wood.   Other objects found in the locality include a boat, a dugout canoe, moulds for copper alloy casting, pottery sherds and a bronze spearhead – these were all described by William Pengelly in 1875.

Pengelly was a geologist, a Fellow of the Royal Society “as little anxious and careful for posthumous fame as he was for celebrity and notoriety while living” (Ellis 1897:vii) who, after a few years working at sea on his father’s tramping cargo ship, became a teacher and tutor.   He was essentially self-taught, yet was able to research and publish important fieldwork on the geology and palaeontology of Devon and Cornwall (Bishop 2004).

In his notes in volume 7 of the Devonshire Association’s Transactions, Pengelly was concerned to gather together the odd bits and pieces of information about interesting matters which otherwise might have been lost to general knowledge.   The memoranda that he drew together were the first such collection published by the Association and comprise archaeological finds.   The Kingsteignton Idol being in private ownership, it might not have become better known without the interest of Pengelly and his correspondents.

The Idol, “a strange and by no means beautiful work of art” (Pengelly 1875:200), is an upright male figure just over 33cm tall.   There is a good set of drawings of it in Bryony Coles’ (1990) paper in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society.   The Idol has an oval head with heavy brows and nose, a long neck, sharply cut torso but no arms, carefully carved penis and buttocks and short stubby legs with knees and little, short feet.   Calibrated radiocarbon date OxA-1717 placed the Idol in the range 426-352 BC (Coles 1990:326).

The Idol has a hole drilled through the neck, side-to-side.   Perhaps this was to take arms which could be pegged over the torso, a bit like the Roos Carr wooden figures (Coles 1990) (in Hull and East Riding Museum) that have a number of pegged parts.   Another puzzle is the waxy deposits on parts of the Idol, which might be the remains of a resinous coating or something that accumulated whilst it was buried.

Discovered “25 feet below the surface”, the Idol was lying up against the trunk of a fallen oak tree (Pengelly 1875:200).   Was it a votive figurine (“Idol”) for worship to some spirit of the water; or a child’s toy (“doll”), lost until found some 2300 years later by Messrs Watts, Blake, Bearne and Co’s labourers?

I shall post about this project periodically, describing my failures as well as successes.   The aim is to make a copy of the Idol (probably a facsimile rather than replica) for handling, but also to interpret the figure, making a set of interchangeable arms which can be chosen by the handler and which could affect the way the Idol is understood.

Next up – procuring oak and preparing drawings.

Bishop, M.J. (2004) “Pengelly, William (1812–1894)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/21838, accessed 26 June 2014]

Coles, B. (1990)  “Anthropomorphic Wooden Figures from Britain and Ireland”  Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 56:315-333

Ellis, F.S. (1897) “Preface” In Pengelly, H. (ed) A Memoir of William Pengelly, of Torquay, FRS, Geologist, with a Selection from his Correspondence   London: John Murray

Pengelly, W. (1875) (ed) “Memoranda, Part 1”  Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Art 7:197-202

Open Farm Sunday!

Last weekend it was Open Farm Sunday.   On 8 June, farms across the UK opened their gates to visitors to learn about what life is like on the modern farm – what we grow, the animals we care for, the equipment we use, programmes for helping wildlife and lots more.   Open Farm Sunday is a great day out and this year was no exception in Wiltshire.

A group of farms on the Marlborough Downs are partners in the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area.   An Open Farm Sunday event is thrown by one of the farms in the partnership and this year was the turn of North Farm, West Overton.

The Nature Improvement Area is around 10,000 hectares of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Beauty.   The farmland includes a huge area of land scheduled for its archaeological significance.   The Avebury part of the Avebury and Stonehenge World Heritage Site nestles in its south-western corner.   There are Sites of Special Scientific Interest, County Wildlife Sites, important geological sites, public rights of way, Open Access land, and the Fyfield Down National Nature Reserve.   All told, it’s a wonderful part of the world.   The NIA partnership aims to ensure that the Downs are as biodiverse in the future as they have been in the past.

North Farm is at the very south of the NIA, tightly bound to the World Heritage Site and a very important archaeological landscape.   Farmer Gill Swanton is also an archaeologist and she and I have worked together for years on different projects.   Gill wanted to ensure that the archaeological heritage of farming in the area was represented to the visitors – after all, the land has been farmed for a good few thousand years.   While Gill put together a display about the fabulously well-preserved prehistoric landscape and its range of natural materials that attracted people to the area in the past, I took some objects for families to handle (as well as a whole pile of Yong Archaeologists’ Club subscription forms!).

Carrying on the early farming theme, Gill asked me to demonstrate an aspect of prehistoric domestic life.   She had a raw sheepskin in the freezer – last year one of her Wiltshire Horn shearlings had an accident and she kept the hide when the carcass was butchered.   So I decided to process the hide to show one of the ways that one of the most common archaeological artefacts found in the area – the flint scraper – would have been used.

This meant that I had to refurbish my toolset for the task.   I keep a very basic set of hide scraping tools – no more than hazel rods with flint scrapers fitted into the ends.   There are very few archaeological examples of hafted flint tools, and as far as I know none of them are scrapers.   Butler (2005, 2011:49) suggests that most scrapers would have been used in hand, but hide scraping needs a force and leverage which requires a handle.   There are ethnographic and historical examples to use as analogies, but for my day-to-day toolset I like to keep it simple and suit myself.

The fixings are no more than slots in the ends of the hazel rods, a “glue” made of a mix of beeswax, resin and bark tar, and sometimes a strip of rawhide.   One of the rods has just the slot, so that I can easily interchange scrapers, sharpen them or turn a scraper in the slot to use a different edge.   If I want to sharpen or re-shape the scrapers that are fixed with glue, I do it with the flint in place.   You can see one of the effects that this has in the photos above of the small scraper; only one third of the scraper was left for work, the rest was covered in glue and stuck in the handle slot.

To make a supple, soft, strong leather for clothing, raw animal hide needs to be cleaned up, stretched on a frame, and scraped down to remove all the unwanted layers.   The flint scraper needs to be sharp, but also evenly shaped – even the smallest point or spur of flint left around the working edge will score or slice the skin.   The working edge must be clear of the handle, but the fixing needs to be strong and enough of the stone must be available to make a good bind.

This is a lovely scraper to work hide with. The curve of the ventral surface (the underside of the scraper) helps to bite the edge into the hide layers and scrape downwards, removing the unwanted material.  All this now needs is a bit of glue.

This is a lovely scraper to work hide with. The curve of the ventral surface (the underside of the scraper) helps to bite the edge into the hide layers and scrape downwards, removing the unwanted material. All this now needs is a bit of glue.

 

Butler, C. (2005, 2011)  Prehistoric Flintwork   Stroud: The History Press

Axe heads in Three Ages

Later this Summer I shall be commissioning a group of facsimile Bronze Age tools – axe and adze heads, gouges and chisels.   I’ve done a little bit of copper alloy casting but can boast neither the skills nor the equipment to produce a suite of mid- to late-Bronze Age artefacts.   Not of high enough quality, anyway.   As well as thinking about exactly which tools I require, I shall also have to plan their hafting.   This has led me to look at some of the axes in my tool kit and our local Young Archaeologists’ Club handling box, because there is such a range of axe shapes and styles throughout prehistory and history.

One of the longest-lived tool types, hominids older than Homo sapiens were knapping stone chopping tools and axes.   Also known as bifaces, because they are knapped from both sides to make cutting edges and thus have two faces, stone hand axes are the characteristic object of deep human prehistory.   There are some fabulous examples in the Museum of London’s collections – take a look at this example from Richmond Lock, this from Yiewsley, and this from Swanscombe.   These date from hundreds of thousands of years ago.   My little review is by no means a comprehensive study of the development of the axe; I’m just curious about some of the observations prompted by looking at a group of axe heads.

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The Palaeolithic hand axe in my selection was knapped by Karl Lee a few years ago during a Young Archaeologists’ Club meeting.   Karl also knapped me the Neolithic axe head.   The Bronze Age axe head was cast by Neil Burridge, also for a Young Archaeologists’ Club activity.   I bought the steel axe head from a bric-a-brac shop in Marlborough many years ago.

A number of differences are immediately obvious.   Two of the objects are made of flint, two of metal.   The shapes are very different and they vary in size, colour and texture.   Something about the relative ages of these objects is suggested in the names I have used to label them.   Now consider those varied shapes, and the subtle difference between my description “hand axe” and “axe head” – how would you go about making use of these objects?

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“Palaeolithic hand axe”: an Old Stone Age tool made for use in the hand.   That is, no handle.   Odd when you think about it.   The sharp edge created by the opposing flake scars on each side goes all the way around the thin, oval-shaped tool.   Wouldn’t you be just as likely to cut your palm as the material that you were cutting with the axe?   Would you be more likely to cut down a tree, or cut your fingers off?  So…what else might you have had to make this tool work for you; and what do you do with an “axe” anyway?

There are plenty of things you can do and use to protect your hand, so let’s set to one side prehistoric leather production and focus on what we mean by the word “axe”.   There is no evidence that hand axes were hafted (although that hasn’t stopped some people trying!).   They are generally thought to have been used for a variety of tasks, especially butchery.   Thin, flat, oval-shaped hand axes, like this one, were perhaps not used as chopping tools at all – but were more like knives (Butler 2005, 2008:64).   They certainly do slice through flesh very well and I especially like this tool type for skinning.   Not tree felling.

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“Neolithic axe head”: a New Stone Age tool made for use in a handle.   Now it’s not that this axe head can’t be used in hand to cut through a range of materials; but I’m sure you would agree that it looks a lot more axe-y than the hand axe.   The opposing flake scars run all the way around the tool just like the hand axe, it’s certainly sharp enough all the way round for every edge to be used for something.   The main cutting edge, however, the bit, is at the broader end, whilst the narrower butt allows the axe head to be let into a wooden handle.

The narrower, longer Neolithic tool doesn’t feel so comfortable in hand, although I can slice with it.   It’s just not meant to work that way.   A few Neolithic axe heads have been found with their handles, like the one recovered from the beach at Port Talbot in 1970 (Savory 1971) and the Ehenside Tarn axe.  The glossy, dark flint of the hand axe contrasts strongly with the light grey.   The grey seems duller, less responsive to the sunlight – but then this axe head has not been ground and polished.   A characteristic of many (but not all) Neolithic axe heads is their silky-smooth, dazzling surface once the knapping traces have been ground away.

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“Bronze Age axe head”: a Bronze Age tool made for use in a handle.   For the first time we have a unique cutting edge – only the bit of this axe head is capable of cutting (although it’s not sharpened, this is used in the Archaeology Club handling collection).   It is the smallest axe head in this selection, almost but not quite symmetrical, and by far the thinnest overall.

Now there is a huge range of shapes, sizes and hafting methods for Bronze Age axe and adze heads.   I refer in the same breath to what in a modern age are distinct tool types (“axe”, “adze”) because it is entirely possible that many of the Bronze Age tools called axes were set horizontally – even used both ways, as either axe or adze, at different times.    You can see this in action in the toolset used to build Morgawr, the Bronze Age-type sewn plank boat recently built by the University of Exeter and National Maritime Museum (Van de Noort et al 2014).

This copper-alloy axe head is an example of an early Bronze Age Arreton type, with my punched decoration inspired by the Bush Barrow mace.   You can see the casting scar along its edge left by the two-piece mould.  The slight flanges – the raised sides – suggest that axe heads like this should be hafted in a “shoe”.   That is, not pushed through a hole in a handle, but slotted between two prongs which extend at an angle from the handle, like the example excavated from Palaeochannel 1 at Peterstone Great Wharf (Bell 2013), and bound up with maybe raw-hide or a leather strip.

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“Kent pattern axe”: a steel axe head made for use on a handle.   Hafting technology has changed again; now the axe head has a socket (the “eye”) into which a wooden handle fits.  The axe head has a broad and thin bit, rounded shoulders, lugs either side of the socket, and the butt is really a poll.   The poll has a flat surface that can be struck, to exert additional force, without too much risk of damaging the axe head – unlike the butts of the three previous examples.

Edit: whilst the poll can be struck, the primary purpose of this extra mass of metal behind the handle is to balance the weight of the blade in front of the handle.

The many regional variations of axe head shape common until the end of the nineteenth-century were often named by counties.   The Kent pattern itself included variations such as the Banbury Axe, Guildford Axe, Mahogony Axe, Manchester Axe, Norfolk Axe, Plymouth Axe, Suffolk Axe (Salaman 1975:58).   Although you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish between some of these.

And at last, a maker.   Had my first three axe heads been prehistoric, archaeological examples, I could not have told you who knapped or cast them.   But the Kent pattern axe head was forged by the Eagle Edge Tool Company, whose foundry was at Monmore Green, Wolverhampton.

stone, bronze, iron

stone, bronze, iron

These four axe heads are also stand-ins for the Three Age System – stone, bronze, iron – which has been used by archaeologists to divide [prehistoric] time in technological terms since the system was drawn together in Scandinavia in the nineteenth-century.   Is the Iron Age over?*

Bell, M. (2013)  The Bronze Age in the Severn Estuary  York: Council for British Archaeology

Butler, C. (2005, 2008)  Prehistoric Flintwork   Stroud: The History Press

Salamon, R.A. (1975)  Dictionary of Tools used in the woodworking and allied trades c.1700-1970   London: George Allen and Unwin

Savory, H.N. (1971)  “A Neolithic Stone Axe and Wooden Handle from Port Talbot”   The Antiquaries Journal 51/2:296-7

Van de Noort, R., Cumby, B., Blue, L., Harding, A., Hurcombe, L., Hansen, T. M., Wetherelt, A., Wittamore, J. and Wyke, A. (2014), Morgawr: an experimental Bronze Age-type sewn-plank craft based on the Ferriby boats. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12058

*not in my workshop…

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

 

Sarsen #5

Blogging about what archaeologists can learn from toolmarks left by the sharp edges of metal tools – and how ephemeral those marks can be – reminded me of one of my all-time favourite archaeological features.

Last Saturday I was in Avebury to see what a pasture to the north of the Manor House would be like for a Young Archaeologists’ Club activity.   Lovely earthworks, probably medieval, quiet and secluded without being remote, and great views out to Windmill Hill and back to the church and manor – so it’s perfect for a surveying session.

The weather was holding up.   Heading east out of the village up Green Street, I was reminded just how enclosed, protected, encircled, claustrophobic, it feels inside the prehistoric earthworks of the huge henge monument.   Green Street – the herepath on the way to Marlborough – felt faintly like an Anglo-Saxon military way as runners participating in the Marlborough Downs Challenge plodded uphill and teenagers working on their Bronze Duke of Edinburgh Award splashed down.

I was heading for the Valley of Stones and the open-access area of Totterdown.   Crossing the Ridgeway, the rise is broached at 236m above sea level on Overton Down and three landmarks come into view; the remains of a barrow in a cluster of wind-blown hawthorns, the Experimental Earthwork hung with more stunted trees, and another barrow crowning the south-east facing spur of the hill.   The first hint of what’s to come appears in the light scattering of grey wethers on the slope below.

The view to the east from the Ridgeway, over Overton Down.

The view to the east from the Ridgeway, over Overton Down.

Having enjoyed the best part of three hours amongst the sarsen stones in a small area around Delling, taking photos and gathering data, it was time to head back down to Avebury.   Dark downpours of freezing rain had been interspersed with bright, blowsy sun.   Sometimes it felt heavenly up on the heights – sometimes it was impossible to imagine just how the prehistoric farmers had teased life out of their cold, wet arable fields now shadowed under sheep-run pasture.

But I could hardly take the short route back and not visit this:

The polissoir - a grinding stone for polishing stone axe heads - one of a number on the Downs but the only one with this variety of toolmarks.

The polissoir – a grinding stone for polishing stone axe heads – one of a number on the Downs but the only one with this variety of toolmarks.

This magnificent sarsen stone is a polissoir, just to the east of the Ridgeway at grid reference SU 1283 7150.   It’s a large version of the grindstones and honing blocks I use to sharpen my steel axe edges – but it was used in the Neolithic to put smooth surfaces onto stone axe heads.   Sarsen is a sandstone: not so finely grained that it won’t rip off material from an axe head; but nicely regular and evenly textured to work down a flaked surface.

Not every Neolithic axe head was ground and polished – and some were only partially worked –  but those that were have beautifully finished surfaces.   You get a hint of this if you touch the dished corner of the polissoir, run a finger along the grooves, and stroke the glossy surface which you can see shining in the sunlight.

This polissoir has probably lost part of its prehistoric grinding surface.   It was split by the stone cutters who used to work this area, and who removed the whole of the west side of the stone, taking some of the worn area with it.   Before being used as a grinding bench it had perhaps been a standing stone.   Excavations in 1963 revealed the remains of a pit at the northern end of the stone, interpreted as a socket in which the sarsen had once stood (Fowler 2000:66-8).

This is not the only polissoir in this area to have been one thing, then another.   For example, one of the sarsens used to construct the chambers of the West Kennet long barrow (no more than about 4km away to the south-west) bears a similar dished, glossy grinding area.   There is a portion of a polissoir, with a shallower but still glossy surface, incorporated as a block in the farmyard wall at North Farm, West Overton (just over 2km to the south).

The stone tools ground and polished on this sarsen have left their marks.   Knapped axe heads, like the flint one below made recently by Karl Lee, lost their flake scars and ridges; but in the process of becoming smooth, cut and marked the sarsen.   For such a hard, tough stone, these cuts are deep.

Flint axe head knapped by Karl Lee - Neolithic form, 20cm long.

Flint axe head knapped by Karl Lee – Neolithic form, 20cm long.

Fowler, P.J. (2000)  Landscape Plotted and Pieced   London: The Society of Antiquaries

The Elder cannibal fork – creating memories

As the Edgcumbe cannibal fork was made in a particular way for a particular purpose, I wanted to carve an altogether different fork; partly to experiment with a different effect in the wood, partly for the practice using a different tool-set.   The task ended up doing a good deal more for me than that.

I have a few good-sized and remarkably straight pieces of what seems to be elder in the woodstore (this is the trouble with being given wood by people who don’t actually know what they’ve got – the bark looks like elder, but maybe…).   Whatever it is, the wood works nicely.   It is firm, easy to cut when green but toughening up as it dries out.   The thick, dark brown core of the heartwood, full of tannin, contrasts with the pale, creamy-coloured sapwood.

The Fijian cannibal forks are on the whole carved in a dark wood capable of taking a high polish, like the black tree fern.    The effect is sleek, rich and mysterious.   I wanted to see what I could do, to create a parti-coloured object which has a different appearance depending how it is viewed and held.

The Elder cannibal fork* is carved from a half-log.   The heartwood is either hidden from view, or is a dark streak running the length of the object.   As the wood dries out, the colour in the fibres and cells changes – it softens in some places, stands out in others.   The sapwood/heartwood interface is more pronounced, making the transition even more dramatic.   Darker flecks in the heartwood catch the eye.  Interesting patterns made by the growth rings throughout the fork can be followed under close inspection, making the deceptively yealding-looking sapwood appear more sinewy and robust.

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Most of the work on the Edgcumbe cannibal fork was completed on the pole lathe.   This was a deliberate and specific choice – part of the suggestion that the object was a modern, European, creation and not an historic, native object from Fiji.   I did all the work on the Elder cannibal fork in hand, using an axe, drawknife and knife.   I wanted to leave a seemingly unrefined look, with all the marks left on the surface of the wood.   But I also wanted to test my skills by carving five prongs.

Fijian cannibal forks have any number of prongs, but usually from two to four.   Five is a beautiful but awkward number to work with.

It was agony.   A slow, laborious, painful process.   Cutting out five prongs left much less space to work the knife-blade; the centre section, all of which must be removed, tenaciously held in place and would only come out in a mess of broken fibres and gristly splinters; the narrowing edges of the triangular prong sections felt ever sharper as they dug more insistently into my fingers; the long prongs became bars that kept knocking the blade and my hands back as I tried to finish the surfaces; the finished points are like needles.   This fork came of out the wood unwillingly.

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I carefully placed the cuts so that one prong would consist entirely of heartwood whilst the other four were all sapwood.    The contrasting colours are a surprise.   As the tensions in the log are released and the drying cells start to contract, the fork is moving.   The heartwood prong has escaped the confines of the billet of wood and appears to have stepped back, so that the fork stands proud.   It is a handsome fork, full of spirit and character.

In the short space of time that I have known it, the fork has become a talisman.   It cut me, yet I can hardly put it down.   The fork is glossy and substantial but also made interesting to the touch by the toolmarks on the surface, yet it still bites back if I don’t take care; those sharp-edged prongs and stiletto points.   I remember every movement, from first cleaving the log to the last knife cut, that went to claim it from the wood.

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Elder: witches’ tree; lucky and unlucky; home of the goddess; Sambucus nigra; timber of the true cross; our lane guardian, lookout-post and familiar friend.

* I don’t know if the wood is elder.   But it has given me the name for this fork.

[For an entertaining read about Britain’s trees, including a nice vignette of Sambucus nigra, try Out of the Woods by Will Cohu, published by Short Books in 2007.]

 

 

The cutting edge – more on toolmarks

A few days ago I came across an unexpected example of toolmarks in a piece of oak, so having taken a snapshot it has prompted me to collect a few other examples and post them together for comparison.

There’s nothing scientific about this little collection of photos.   I chose them because of the way they contrast one another.   Unlike the fascinating sense from seeming chaos that Maisie Taylor was working on, analysing marks left by Bronze Age axes on thousands of preserved timbers at Flag Fen (Peterborough, UK), my pictures should suggest some of the variety to be found in edged tools – sharp cutting tools, usually made of metal these days.

So here’s the first:

Oak lintel above the door of 35 High Street, Royal Wootton Bassett

Oak lintel above the door of 35 High Street, Royal Wootton Bassett

This is a snapshot of the private access door for the residence and shop-rear at 35 High Street, Royal Wootton Bassett.  The rich colour of the bricks offsets the pale, shabbily-elegant paintwork, just as the fine fanlight contrasts with the well-weathered oak lintel above (I’m not sure what’s underneath that more recent, dark wooden batton which has been screwed on above the fanlight – probably bricks).   The rough surface and shaped cutaway in the lintel caught my eye as I walked past.   It looks like there had once been a porch roof over this door, with a decorative moulding perhaps which had to be accommodated against the lintel – hence that curved rebate cut in the wood on the left-hand side.

There are at least two different toolmarks on the lintel’s roughened surface.  On the left-hand side, inside the curved rebate, there is a group of very straight, square cuts.  They do not, however, slice all the way through the wood fibres to remove chips from the lintel’s surface.  Instead, the person making the cuts stopped the tool before it sliced all the way through; leaving wood fibres lifted from, but still attached to, the lintel.

The tool used to make these cuts must have had a straight, square edge.   It could have been an adze or large firmer chisel.   By contrast, the second set of cuts covering the rest of the lintel were I think made with a large axe.   The surface has been roughened by cutting long chips out of the oak, striking the surface twice each time to remove pieces which would have been characteristically triangular in cross-section.

Axes can also be used to make really smooth surfaces.   Here’s one way.   Marks left by axing chips from the end of this billet are themselves removed by using the axe to shave off wafer-thin slivers of wood:

Here’s another technique, being used to thin a strake in the Roskilde shipyard.  A strake is a plank for a clinker-built boat.   First, a small axe with a curved cutting edge is used to cut along the length of the timber.   Each cut is perpendicular to the length of the strake, cutting through wood fibres but not removing chips.   Secondly, a broad axe is used, cutting from the top of the board downwards, to remove large, thin pieces of wood; these are more like shavings, which you can see carpeting the ground.

These two techniques leave characteristic waste material, but less (if any) evidence of tool marks on the wood that has been cut.   By contrast, the planks used for the walls of the Trelleborg longhouse are covered in shallow, broad facets (almost the size of my hand) left by the tool – probably a wide, near-straight adze – used to finish each surface.   These are difficult to see, in the shade under the roof, without a raking light.

The external surface of the hall wall, Trelleborg.

The external surface of the hall wall, Trelleborg.

The facets look a little like flake scars on a piece of knapped flint.   Knapping is a reductive process: flakes are removed from the parent stone to make a tool; they can’t be stuck back on; and the more that are taken off, the smaller the object becomes.   The scars are caused by the fracture of stone which has been hit at one point, the shock waves passing through the stone and forcing a flake away.   Carving is also a reductive process, but the scars – the facets left on the wood – are formed in their entirety by the sharp tool edge slicing through the wood fibres.

Interpreting the hammer types used to knap flint is possible by studying the nature of the waste flakes and the scars left on a flint tool (see for example Butler 2005, 2011:37-42).   Theoretical foundations and a range of methods have been developed for that type of study (Andrefsky 1998, 2005).   The huge variety in edged tools presents different analytical problems for woodwork.   Take this pair of photos:

On the left, the facets on this piece of elder are thin, flat and straight.   They could have been left by any number of different tools, ranging from a tiny knife with a blade no more than 2cm (¾ inch) long to a drawknife – of which there are many different types and styles.   Not only that, but more than one tool type could have been used during the shaping.

This was almost certainly the case for the bowl in the photo on the right.   The whole of the interior is covered in long, narrow, concave facets left by curved tools.   Some of the cuts  near the handles finish with snapped fibres, not a clean cut (a bit like a hinge or step fracture in flint knapping).   This suggests that a small adze with with a tightly curved edge was used to remove these chips.   A bowl interior doesn’t have much room to work in.   Sometimes it isn’t possible to slice cleanly with the adze all the way through the wood to remove a whole chip.   Instead, the chips snap out.   This is more likely to happen, the steeper the sides of the bowl.

The facets inside the long sides of the bowl, however, are all clean cuts – despite being the steepest and most awkward part of the bowl to carve.   This suggests that a narrow chisel with a shallow sweep was used.   The small adze is moved with a hammer-like action against the bowl interior, whilst the chisel is pushed from the top of the bowl towards the bottom.   This means that it is possible to slice through the wood fibres and finish before either snapping a chip out or hitting the bottom of the bowl.

Finally, here is a set of images to illustrate a range of toolmarks and wood chips all taken from one piece of wood, following its reduction sequence:

Andrefsky, W. (1998, 2005)  Lithics: Macroscopic approaches to analysis   Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Butler, C. (2005, 2011)  Prehistoric Flintwork   Stroud: The History Press

Weird and wonderful #3

Not weird but certainly wonderful, I’ve been handling a good deal of ash and oak recently.   These have been firewood logs, however, with only a few bits suitable to be set aside for carving and other purposes.

Restrop Farm, where all my fuel comes from, is a small farm of rolling pasture fields and woodland.   Included within its bounds is Ringsbury Camp, an Iron Age hillfort (scheduled monument 1018124) which sits on a spur of rhaxella chert looking out from the limestone ridge over the head of the Thames Valley.   The views to the north, towards the Cotswold Hills, are fabulous.

About two-thirds of the hillfort banks and ditch are covered in trees, which along with the burrowing badgers have been compromising the integrity of the earthworks.   The interior has been ploughed in the past, although only for a relatively small part of the twentieth-century after the Second World War, and not (as far as I know) with deep ploughing equipment.   For many years the farm was owned by three sisters, the Misses Paginton, and their dairy farming practices were old-fashioned and gentle.   It is to be expected that archaeological remains inside the hillfort are in good condition, but aside from a few stray finds there has been no controlled excavation here.

Sometimes the yellow stony scree thrown up by the badgers, which rolls down the banks onto the hillfort’s encircling paths, is a reddish-brown colour.   This is the bloodstone, reputed in local story to be the stone stained red with the blood of unknown warriors who died in combat here – an event commemorated by the name of the nearby lane “Battlewell”, and “Red Street”, the alternative name for this part of the parish.

Ethel Richardson, in her local history published in 1919, mentions the possibility of there having been a Civil War skirmish here, when the lanes ran red with blood.   She ties the red of battle to the red which at the time was thought to be the origin of the place-name Restrop.   The historical truth is in a way more prosaic, and yet (to me) more romantic.    Restrop is derived from “Rada’s thorp” (Gover et al 1939); Rada, the name of the otherwise invisible Anglo-Saxon farmer who cared for his crops and animals on the hillside and in the coombes which cut through the limestone, looking out over the clayey Thames valley to see wisps of smoke rising from the hearths in the walled town of Cricklade to the north.

Oak and ash both grow well at Restrop, and useful woods they are.   They are both ring-porous.   The vessels which transport water and minerals up from the roots to the tree leaves are made up of cells that make long tubes.   Those vessels formed during rapid Spring growth are much larger than the tubes that grow in the Summer, thus forming rings which emphasise the tree’s growth rings (Abbott 1989, 2007:17).   You can see this in the photo below:

Ash and oak

Ash and oak

The piece of ash on the left has especially clear growth rings.   The rings of vessels are the darker, brown-coloured lines, in-between the pale wood fibres.   This piece comes from a faster-growing branch, which you can tell because there are only four or five growth rings to the inch.   Faster-grown ash is stronger than slow-grown because it contains more wood fibres, which is good for shock-resistance and is why ash is good for tool handles and furniture.   Ash grows best on deep soils over limestone; just like the banks of Ringsbury Camp.

On the right, the oak – showing the very clear distinction between the dark heartwood and the light sapwood.   Oak has a very strong and rich smell, owing to its acidic tannin content.   This makes the wood resistant to rot (but also eats into steel so I am very careful to clean my tools quickly and thoroughly after using them on oak) (Abbott 1989, 2007:26, 28).   There are a number of big oaks at Restrop, which have built themselves for strength against the wind that blows up and down the limestone ridge, and the prevailing weather rolling in down the valley from the west.   Oak is a sinuous wood.   Its strength and longevity have resulted in more than 90% of building timbers being taken from oak trees (Rackham 1986, 1995:86).

Now that the hedgerows and woods are greening up, it’s time to take a good look at the ash and oak growing at Restrop to see which buds come out first,

“Ash before oak – in for a soak;

Oak before ash – in for a splash.”

 

Abbott, M. (1989, 2007)  Green Woodwork   Lewes: Guild of Master Craftsman Publications

Gover, J.E.B., Mawker, A., Stenton, F.M. (1939)  The Place-names of Wiltshire   English Place-Names Society/Cambridge University Press

Rackham, O. (1986, 1995)  The History of the Countryside   London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson

Richardson, E.M. (1919)  The Story of Purton; a collection of notes and hearsay   Bristol: J.W. Arrowsmith Ltd

This post is the third in an occasional series called “Weird and Wonderful”.

How to keep your tools sharp – and why archaeologists might prefer you not to

First things first – this post will not tell you how to sharpen your tools.

The best advice I can give you – without showing you – about how to sharpen your (steel) tools is (a) read Sainsbury, J. (1984) Sharpening and Care of Woodworking Tools and Equipment   Burgess Hill: Guild of Master Craftsmen Publications Ltd.   The chapter on hand-tools is very useful, and the book has some great advice on grinding and sharpening equipment suitable for different types of workshop.

Then (b) take care over the quality of the materials that your tools are made of; poor quality materials won’t take and keep much of an edge.   And finally (c) learn through practice what it feels like to work with your edged tools, how they behave in different materials so you know what’s going on at the edge, and check your edges all the time.

So, back to how to keep them sharp.   I invest time in sharpening my edged tools.   The majority are steel (the rest bronze and flint), with a relatively high carbon content that among other things helps me to sharpen them by hand.

Most of my steel tools jumble around in a tool-bag, or when in use can be found lying around on my various chopping blocks or on the end of the shave-horse – recipe for disaster should anything fall to the floor!   Which is the main reason why I keep a thick layer of all the wood-shavings and chippings in the workshop.

But what about their storage and transport?   Most of the steel tools are odd shapes and sizes and whilst some came with sheaths, others have no protection.   Here is a selection of photos to demonstrate my solutions for keeping my tools sharp.   It’s easy to spot the home-made sheaths.

Nevertheless, imperfections in the cutting edges of tools can be revealing.   Maybe you’ve watched the TV CSI lab technicians match the tool marks in someone’s skull to potential murder weapons?   Remember how they work out which particular type of tyre iron, knife or blunt instrument was used to kill someone by comparing the shapes left in the victim’s bone with marks the CSIs thwack or stab into a suitable test material?

In theory you can do something similar in archaeology too.   An edged tool with a “ding”it it, like this one-

Edge damage on a small cleaver

Edge damage on a small cleaver

will leave a characteristic mark in the wood that it is used on.   Take my right-handed spoon knife.   In the photo below, you should be able to see the facets where I have used it to cut little chips away from a piece of birch; and inside the facets, thin, parallel lines which are left by the (currently damaged) knife edge.

Evidence for tool edge damage

Evidence for tool edge damage

Wouldn’t it be amazing to match up marks on prehistoric wood with the tools that were used to do the carving?  For example, some 9000 pieces of wood were recorded from the Area 6A excavations of the Bronze Age timber platform and trackway at Flag Fen (Peterborough, UK) (Taylor 2001:171).  Linking tools with timber at Flag Fen could throw light on ways that a major building enterprise was carried out and organised more than 3000 years ago.   In theory, the very chisel used to cut a mortise joint could be identified, and we could say “this tool was used to do that job”; just like the antler picks excavated from Stonehenge which were used to dig out the ditch and the holes for the standing stones.

In practice, it’s not so simple.   First, you need tools in order to study their edges.   Despite all that wood, the Flag Fen excavations revealed no more than one socketed gouge and one socketed axe-head (Coombs 2001:263, 265).   Why after all would anyone leave their tools behind?  Perhaps as part of a ritual, or accidental loss; but not if they are still needed for other activities.

In fact, many of what could be described as Bronze Age carpentry tools – especially axes – have been found in circumstances other than archaeological excavation; they were ploughed up by farmers or found by metal-detectorists, for example, with no associated timber to try to match to.   In any event, that timber will only be preserved if the underground conditions are right, like in the waterlogged peat at Flag Fen.   And archaeologically excavated examples of Bronze Age metalwork finds often show, by the careful positioning and arrangement of the objects, that the tools had been put in the ground in carefully deliberated ways (Barber 2003); in what archaeologists call hoards, and not necessarily associated with the timbers that tools might have been used on, nor abandoned in the workplace.

This raises an interesting question: were all Bronze Age carpentry tools intended for woodworking?   Metal – copper alloys and iron anyway, if not the precious metals – is often seen as “inherently utilitarian” (Barber 2001:164).   Yet sometimes there is evidence that tools had not been used.   For example, some of the axes from the Manton Copse 2 hoard found in Wiltshire in 1999 (and now in Wiltshire Museum) still bear their casting scars.   Were they “poorly finished” as described in the excavation report (Lawson et al 2011:35), or unfinished because they were never intended to be fettled and sharpened for carpentry?

Secondly, you need to be able to identify edge damage.   This could be difficult if the metal is corroded following thousands of years buried under the ground.   Or the object could have been damaged after it was buried, for example if hit by a plough share.   Some  imperfections, which could leave very characteristic marks, are nevertheless very difficult to see on the edge itself – like on my spoon knife, whose faults cannot be seen with the naked eye but are very obvious in the wood.

Thirdly, edge damage is easy to remove, and it is usually in the interest of the carpenter to re-sharpen and re-shape the edge.   Marks left in the wood might never be traceable to a tool which has been re-worked in this way.   There used to be a wonderful example of the reductive effects of sharpening on display in the Museum of St Albans, when the Salaman Collection was exhibited.   In the cabinet of sharpening equipment, a new chisel about 25cm long was shown alongside another of same make and original size, but which had been used and sharpened so much it is now only 10cm long.   The evidence would also disappear if the tool was recycled – melted down and turned into a new object.

That’s not to say that the study of prehistoric toolmarks is wishful thinking.   For example, 168 different axes were counted on the basis of the toolmarks left on the Flag Fen timbers.   Comparison of the toolmark shapes with the dimensions of different types of British Bronze Age axe led Maisie Taylor to conclude that socketed axes had been used to do the wood-working at the site (Taylor 2001:194-202).   More recently, photogrammetric and GIS techniques have been applied to the analysis of toolmarks on hewn prehistoric timber (Kovacs and Hanke 2012, 2013).

And finally…what might we conclude from the description of the Flag Fen scoop, carved from a piece of willow; “The bowl of the scoop was shaped across the grain and so well finished that no clues survive as to the method of fabrication.” (Taylor 2001:226)?

 

Barber, M. (2001) “A time and a place for Bronze”  In Brück, J. (ed)  Bronze Age Landscapes, Tradition and Transformation   Oxford: Oxbow Books

Barber, M. (2003) Bronze and the Bronze Age   Stroud: Tempus

Coombs, D. (2001) “Metalwork”   In Pryor, F. (et al) The Flag Fen Basin: Archaeology and Environment of a Fenland Landscape   Swindon: English Heritage

Kovács, K. and Hanke, K. (2012) “Hydrologic and feature-based surface analysis for tool mark investigation on archaeological finds”   International Archives of the Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Sciences Volume XXXIX-B5:565-570

Kovács, K. and Hanke, K. (2013) “Automatic tool mark identification and comparison with known Bronze Age hand tool replicas”  ISPRS Annals of the Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Sciences Volume II-5/W1:181-186

Lawson, A.J., Robinson, P. and Swanton, G. (2011)  “Bronze Age metalwork from Manton Copse, Preshute, Wiltshire”  Wiltshire Studies 104:31-43

Sainsbury, J. (1984) Sharpening and Care of Woodworking Tools and Equipment   Burgess Hill: Guild of Master Craftsmen Publications Ltd

Taylor, M. (2001) “The Wood”  In Pryor, F. (et al) The Flag Fen Basin: Archaeology and Environment of a Fenland Landscape   Swindon: English Heritage