This has felt like an especially busy Advent. I’m always short of time during December, but since I’ve had these few days over Christmas to look back, I have realised just how frenetic it’s been this time round.
There’s a just-started bowl in the clave in my workshop, untouched in at least a fortnight, and four badly-finished bobbins off the lathe. Not only are they badly finished; I couldn’t get them done in time for 14 December when we would have used them in a Young Archaeologists’ Club activity (fortunately there were a hundred and one other activities available for the YAC members to enjoy).
It’s not simply that there is too much to do, what with seasonal rehearsals and performances, shopping, card-writing, activities to run and work to polish off before everyone goes on holiday. There just isn’t enough daylight.
During Advent we got closer and closer to the Winter solstice (21 December this year). Currently on Greenwich Mean Time, clocks in Britain won’t go forward an hour for summertime Daylight Saving until 30 March 2014. And even though we’ve now passed the shortest day, the cloud-filled skies that we’ve been enjoying conspire to draw the nights in just as quickly.
What with sunrise around 8am and sunset around 4pm, it’s been impossible to do any handiwork before or after work at the office. With no artificial light, I haven’t been able to do anything much – either coarse or fine work. Even bringing wood in from the woodshed for the stove is a darn nuisance in the dark. If I lived in a roundhouse I’d make sure I kept at least one night’s fuel inside to avoid blundering around in the damp, muddy wetness (which would also provide some warm fuel ready to burn better than putting cold logs onto the hearth).
Ruth Goodman has made this observation a few times during episodes of “Tudor Monastery Farm” which has been showing on BBC tv. In their cod-sixteenth century world, they get up with the dawn and finish work with the sunset; apart from making some rush lights and enjoying the hearth fire, there’s no way to create a truly working light (tallow and expensive wax candles and glass balls filled with water aside; and how many of them do you need to carve, or sew, or weave?). How did the shepherds caring for the monastery’s huge flocks cope with lambing in the darkness? Or any of the other nightly emergencies on the farm?
Even more amazing – how did the goldsmiths find enough light to complete the fabulously intricate work exemplified in the Cheapside Hoard, currently on display at the Museum of London in a marvellous special exhibition. The exhibition interpretation includes some information about the buildings of Goldsmiths’ Row on Cheapside, the likely layout of shopping and use of cocklofts in the four-story buildings for gilding rooms, taking advantage of south-facing windows for maximum natural light. Magnification must have been used for elements of the delicate soldiering, laying down enamel powders and other fine work (one of the figures in an engraving of a jeweller’s workshop, 1576, seems to be wearing spectacles – for short sight or magnification?). But lenses, whether ground glass or water bowls, aren’t enough on their own. You need excellent light, too.
The dark is good for some jobs. Neil Burridge suggests that casting in the Bronze Age would have been carried out in the dark or semi-darkness, making it easier to use furnace and metal colours to judge the required temperatures. It’s amazing watching him work, sitting in a roundhouse at Trewortha with a sheet across the doorway to keep the real sun out whilst he pours liquid sun into a mould.
And here I am, benefitting from electricity that (in the house, at least), extends my “working” hours as long as I want. It’s probably not good for us to be up at all hours. So I’ll call it a night.
Forsyth, H. (2013) The Cheapside Hoard; London’s Lost Jewels. London: Museum of London