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.


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.

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.]



My brother was eaten by cannibals

birch cannibal fork

Object type: fork
Museum number: MAEB:1987.11.622
Description: four-pronged Cannibal Fork made of wood, 290mm x 53mm x 53mm
Materials: wood
Technique: carved
Acquisition Date: 1987
Notes: Donated by the Edgcumbe family (see correspondence file 1987-11-EDG), claimed to be a Fijian cannibal fork

Edgcumbe diary extract

Extract from the transcript of the diaries of Rev C. Edgcumbe.

Tovey letter

Transcript of a letter concerning the death of Lt F. Edgcumbe, written by Midshipman William Tovey to Rev C. Edgcumbe .

Edgcumbe death certificate

General Register Office. Certified Copy of an Entry of Death (Death Index: District Stepney, vol. II, page 47)


Tovey newspaper story

“Riverside Murder” Times [London, England] 7 Jun. 1841: 6 The Times Digital Archive. Web. 26 Feb 2014

(Blogging Archaeology)

My cannibal fork

I recently visited the newly-redisplayed Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge.   Unfortunately I could see only the ground-floor space because of ongoing works upstairs, but it was really impressive nonetheless with some wonderful objects and interesting ideas presented with clarity.   Although the old archaeology galleries in this room showed off a great range of the museum’s collections, the exhibits had got rather tired.   Now the room is full of natural light and beautifully displayed objects.

A case tucked round the corner behind the new teaching space is filled top to bottom with nineteenth-century Fijian cannibal forks.   I hadn’t come across these before, and was intrigued by the smooth, dark wood, elegant prongs and decorated handles of the anthropological objects.   Alongside these are displayed replicated objects, made by members of the Department during a project lead by Alana Jelinek, AHRC Creative Fellow in the Creative and Performing Arts.

The replicated cannibal forks have been carved from white woods including sycamore and ash, so they make a dramatic contrast to the dark, shiny surfaces of the Fijian originals.   The case is illuminated by a video of a making event, with audio of museum staff discussing the forks.   I learnt that cannibal forks are surrounded by controversy, with a rich yet dangerous mythology that has perpetuated barbarous tales of the Fijian people.

A current view is that the forks were nothing to do with cannibalism, but were made to satisfy the curiosity and predilections of collectors who brought them back to European museums.

I took the opportunity to make my cannibal fork, inspired by the beautiful workmanship of the Fijian craftspeople who had carved theirs for the Museum’s Victorian benefactors.   It is made on a piece of cherry from North Farm, West Overton and carved using a hatchet, pushknife and sloyd knife.   Originally I intended to carve beads around the upper handle, but decided to give the fork a face after I saw some footage of the Kingsteignton Idol.   The idol is a wooden Iron Age artefact, excavated in 1867.

wooden cannibal fork

Cannibal Fork in cherry, April 2013