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 [, 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


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…