A new Bronze Age axe

Here is my almost ready socketed axe:

Bronze Age socketed axe

Two things remain to be finished.  The cutting edge is blunt as a blunt thing and the handle is probably too thick.  Although I have polished out most of the scratches and the tiny casting flaws along the edge, I have to sharpen it.  It was cast by Neil Burridge and came safe-for-posting (not sharp!).  The wide angle of the axe’s bit takes some getting used to, and I’m sure that I will find it harder to sharpen than my narrower, more acute, steel axes.  You can see how wide the bit is by looking at the wedge-shaped cut mark it makes:

Bronze Age socketed axe

The haft is a piece of ash.  It used to look like this:

ash haft

The useful shape made by the side-branch also makes the perfect angle for this haft.  The angle between the handle (main branch) and the foreshaft (side branch) is about 65°.  There are two wooden handles for socketed axe heads excavated from Perry Oaks, angled at 66° and 62.5°, made from similar branches with side-branches.

My handle can be up to 60cm long, given the way the piece of ash was cut before it got to me.  The two Perry Oaks handles are 24.5cm and 70.6cm long, and both are close to 4cm thick.  4cm is a bit big for my hands.  This means I need to prioritise the fit more to my hands, less to the archaeology.  I’m not making a replica or facsimile; I’m making a working tool, that is based on the archaeological record.

The Perry Oaks foreshafts onto which socketed axe heads would have been fitted are short, only 9.4cm and 7.9mm long.  Marks on the wood suggest that the bronze axe heads fitted closely, butting up to the handles.  At their narrowest points the Perry Oaks foreshafts are 1.8cm and 2.4cm wide.  The socket hole of my axe head is this narrow only about one-third of the way down.  I need my foreshaft to be a better fit than this, and I want to keep it longer so that I have the option of making it shorter and bringing the axe head closer to the handle later on.

ash handle

There was much shaping to do to make the foreshaft fit the socket hole, the most awkward part of the task.  I could use the Flag Fen handle as an example to guide me.  Its foreshaft is 44.3cm long, its axe head fitted onto the end leaving lots of space between it and the handle.  The angle is more acute though, closer to 50°/55°.  Its axe head probably needed to be further away from the handle to provide enough clearance.

The naturally-grown shape is convenient, but brings some problems with it.  There were other, smaller, branches growing out of the main branch.  This means that the grain of the handle is knotted, not nice and straight.  This makes it harder to cut a smooth, regular surface; more likely to get blisters and splinters using the axe.  Cutting across the tumbled grain could create weak points.

But it’s almost finished, so the proof of the pudding will be in the eating…or axing.

Details about the Perry Oaks finds, analysed by Steve Allen, are available online from Framework Archaeology here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/388449/The-wooden-finds-from-Perry-Oaks   The Flag Fen handle, and others excavated from the site, is reported on in Pryor, F. (2001) The Flag Fen Basin: Archaeology and Environment of a Fenland Landscape  Swindon: English Heritage

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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:

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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”.

Wooden animals

There is a long tradition of whittling or carving little wooden animals in many countries and a wonderful range of techniques is used in their manufacture.  As well as commercial production of toys such as Noah’s Arks and farmyard animals, individuals seem always have whittled little creatures for their own enjoyment and for presents.

The most amazing technique to carve animal shapes that I have come across is in the Erzgebirge region of north-eastern Germany.    Wooden rings are turned on a lathe, cutting the profile of an animal.   Once off the lathe, the ring is sliced up revealing the animal in the section.

My father carved me a small pike many years ago, which I still have on a shelf in my sitting room.   And I have a vivid memory of watching a bodger carve an owl at one of our local agricultural shows (I was perhaps eight or nine years old).   He had a short length of a fairly close-grained roundwood, about two inches in diameter and four inches long.   The owl appeared out of the wood, as though perched on a fence post.  It was all done with a knife until it came to finishing the furled wings on the owl’s back, when the bodger used a little gouge to pick out the effect of the feathers.

This past-time could even be said to go back to the Upper Palaeolithic carvings of animal forms in mammoth ivory, so beautifully displayed at the British Museum’s recent Ice Age Art exhibition.   Were these little figures models, toys, totems, signifiers of group or personal identity, art?

I was asked by one of my neighbour’s daughters to carve her a duck.   I’ve no idea why she chose a duck, but Ellie was adamant that I should make her a duck.   Being my first foray into figurative carving I was a bit nervous.   This is what came out of the little bit of ash that I used:

A duck, carved in green ash.

A duck, carved in green ash.

On seeing the duck, the older son of another neighbour asked for a whale.   Toby likes dolphins and whales.   Using the same tools – a straight knife and a spoon knife – on another ash scrap, here is the whale:

A whale, in green ash

A whale, in green ash

The photo doesn’t really show you the shape of the tail, but I’m glad I kept the bark on to suggest the whale’s scarred, barnacle-covered skin.    These are simple, plain shapes and it is interesting to see what the human eye can do to fill in the gaps and identify a form that is suggested by a few lines and planes.

Toby’s little brother would like a bear…