genius loci

Here is the genius loci of my workshop:

genius lociShe is inspired by prehistoric wooden figures.  I carved her from a piece of ash using a small axe and a knife.   Beeswax and resin glue fixes the belly-button shell.   Here’s how it happened:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Advertisements

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