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.

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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.

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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.

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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.