Green oak

This post was going to be about scrapers.   Unfortunately most of the literature that I wanted to catch up on is in journals which are proving difficult to get hold of.   So it will have to wait.

In the meantime, let’s think about oak for the Kingsteignton Idol.

This male figure, carved in the Iron Age and left on a ground surface near what is now the River Teign in Devon until excavated by workmen in the nineteenth-century, is made of oak.  To make my copy of the Idol, I must procure some oak with just the right characteristics.

Oak!

Oak!

The Idol was carved from a piece of roundwood – that is, a length of branch.  We think this, because the centre of the branch runs right through the middle of the Idol, from crown all the way through the torso.  The branch’s growth rings radiate out in concentric circles from this point.  The Idol’s head is full of radial cracks like a great star-burst, because of the characteristic way that the roundwood shrank (most likely after the figure was excavated from its waterlogged deposit and dried out).

It was also a straight piece of wood, and, as the line of least shrinkage in wood is longitudinal, the Idol when newly-carved was probably not much taller than the 340mm recorded by Bryony Coles in 1991.   At its widest point (across the shoulders), the Idol measures a shade under 60mm. Or at least, its drawing in Coles’ paper does; but that’s for another post.

Let’s deal with the issue of width first.  Oak has a very pronounced heartwood/sapwood boundary.  The outer sapwood can be quite thick.  The inner heartwood is dense.   It’s an exaggeration, but axing through the sapwood on the oak I’m using is a bit like chopping through honeycomb; it has a sort of crunchy feeling and sound to it, whilst the heartwood is solid and smooth in comparison.

This piece of oak roundwood is about 10cm diameter.   The sapwood is really thick, so the heartwood isn't wide enough for me.   Not only that; the pith of the branch isn't in the centre of the heartwood. The Kingsteignton Idol is 6cm wide at the shoulders, with the pith running right down the centre. This branch won't do!

This piece of oak roundwood is about 10cm diameter. The sapwood is really thick, however, so the heartwood isn’t wide enough for me. Not only that; the pith of the branch isn’t in the centre of the heartwood. The Kingsteignton Idol is 6cm wide at the shoulders, with the pith running right down the centre. This branch won’t do!

Although neither Pengelly (1875) nor Coles (1991) say, the Idol must be made of heartwood given that the centre of the branch runs down the middle of the figure.  Without a close look at the original I am assuming that the whole figure is heartwood, with no sapwood at all left.  So although at its widest the Idol is only 6cm, I need a branch that is a good 10cm or 12cm in diameter, maybe more.  By the time all the bark and sapwood has been cut away, I should be left with about the right amount of heartwood to work with and some to spare.

Is it straight-grained? Unlikely...

Is it straight-grained? Unlikely…

The branch also has to be straight-grained for at least 34cm.   Just because a branch looks straight doesn’t mean the grain inside runs true.   The grain may run round a knot.   If a leading bud dies and a side shoot takes over the growth of a sapling or branch, the grain will bend.   These might not necessarily be obvious from the outside of the branch.

Roughly chopping away the bark and cutting into the sapwood reveals...all sorts of problems.

Roughly chopping away the bark and cutting through the sapwood reveals…all sorts of problems.

So much for this length of branch.   Here’s what happened when I cut down this billet (using a fabulous Disston rip saw, how I wish it was mine…) and let it start to dry out:

This brings me to the final characteristic that the piece of oak must have.   Coles (1991:327-8) argues that the Idol, along with other prehistoric carved figures, was carved from greenwood – that is, unseasoned wood retaining a high water content.

Greenwood is great for carving with nice, sharp tools.   Mike Abbott (1989,2007:21-4) lists six reasons for preferring to work with unseasoned wood, including the ease with which the softer greenwood can be cut with edge tools.   I love it, greenwood carving has a long pedigree, and am very happy to believe that the prehistoric figures were carved – with stone, bronze or iron tools, depending on their age – from greenwood; and that’s what I’ll be using for my copy of the Idol.

However, I don’t agree with Coles’ reasoning to infer that the figures were carved in greenwood, which is based on the idea that if tool marks or scars (facets) are left on an object’s surface, then the wood must have been carved green (Coles 1991:316),

“This faceting indicates that the wood was carved before it was seasoned, whatever tools may have been used to produce it.”

Tool marks can be left on wood whether it is green or seasoned – and can be removed from both green and seasoned wood (and I don’t mean with sandpaper) if the carver wants a fine, smooth finish to the work (I blogged a bit about this topic here, although that post doesn’t compare unseasoned and seasoned wood).

Using greenwood could well present some problems

Abbott, M. (1989,2007)  Green Woodwork   Lewes: Guild of Master Craftsmen Publications Ltd

Coles, B. (1991)  “Anthropomorphic Wooden Figures from Britain and Ireland”  Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 56:315-333

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

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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 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/21838, 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

Axe heads in Three Ages

Later this Summer I shall be commissioning a group of facsimile Bronze Age tools – axe and adze heads, gouges and chisels.   I’ve done a little bit of copper alloy casting but can boast neither the skills nor the equipment to produce a suite of mid- to late-Bronze Age artefacts.   Not of high enough quality, anyway.   As well as thinking about exactly which tools I require, I shall also have to plan their hafting.   This has led me to look at some of the axes in my tool kit and our local Young Archaeologists’ Club handling box, because there is such a range of axe shapes and styles throughout prehistory and history.

One of the longest-lived tool types, hominids older than Homo sapiens were knapping stone chopping tools and axes.   Also known as bifaces, because they are knapped from both sides to make cutting edges and thus have two faces, stone hand axes are the characteristic object of deep human prehistory.   There are some fabulous examples in the Museum of London’s collections – take a look at this example from Richmond Lock, this from Yiewsley, and this from Swanscombe.   These date from hundreds of thousands of years ago.   My little review is by no means a comprehensive study of the development of the axe; I’m just curious about some of the observations prompted by looking at a group of axe heads.

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The Palaeolithic hand axe in my selection was knapped by Karl Lee a few years ago during a Young Archaeologists’ Club meeting.   Karl also knapped me the Neolithic axe head.   The Bronze Age axe head was cast by Neil Burridge, also for a Young Archaeologists’ Club activity.   I bought the steel axe head from a bric-a-brac shop in Marlborough many years ago.

A number of differences are immediately obvious.   Two of the objects are made of flint, two of metal.   The shapes are very different and they vary in size, colour and texture.   Something about the relative ages of these objects is suggested in the names I have used to label them.   Now consider those varied shapes, and the subtle difference between my description “hand axe” and “axe head” – how would you go about making use of these objects?

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“Palaeolithic hand axe”: an Old Stone Age tool made for use in the hand.   That is, no handle.   Odd when you think about it.   The sharp edge created by the opposing flake scars on each side goes all the way around the thin, oval-shaped tool.   Wouldn’t you be just as likely to cut your palm as the material that you were cutting with the axe?   Would you be more likely to cut down a tree, or cut your fingers off?  So…what else might you have had to make this tool work for you; and what do you do with an “axe” anyway?

There are plenty of things you can do and use to protect your hand, so let’s set to one side prehistoric leather production and focus on what we mean by the word “axe”.   There is no evidence that hand axes were hafted (although that hasn’t stopped some people trying!).   They are generally thought to have been used for a variety of tasks, especially butchery.   Thin, flat, oval-shaped hand axes, like this one, were perhaps not used as chopping tools at all – but were more like knives (Butler 2005, 2008:64).   They certainly do slice through flesh very well and I especially like this tool type for skinning.   Not tree felling.

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“Neolithic axe head”: a New Stone Age tool made for use in a handle.   Now it’s not that this axe head can’t be used in hand to cut through a range of materials; but I’m sure you would agree that it looks a lot more axe-y than the hand axe.   The opposing flake scars run all the way around the tool just like the hand axe, it’s certainly sharp enough all the way round for every edge to be used for something.   The main cutting edge, however, the bit, is at the broader end, whilst the narrower butt allows the axe head to be let into a wooden handle.

The narrower, longer Neolithic tool doesn’t feel so comfortable in hand, although I can slice with it.   It’s just not meant to work that way.   A few Neolithic axe heads have been found with their handles, like the one recovered from the beach at Port Talbot in 1970 (Savory 1971) and the Ehenside Tarn axe.  The glossy, dark flint of the hand axe contrasts strongly with the light grey.   The grey seems duller, less responsive to the sunlight – but then this axe head has not been ground and polished.   A characteristic of many (but not all) Neolithic axe heads is their silky-smooth, dazzling surface once the knapping traces have been ground away.

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“Bronze Age axe head”: a Bronze Age tool made for use in a handle.   For the first time we have a unique cutting edge – only the bit of this axe head is capable of cutting (although it’s not sharpened, this is used in the Archaeology Club handling collection).   It is the smallest axe head in this selection, almost but not quite symmetrical, and by far the thinnest overall.

Now there is a huge range of shapes, sizes and hafting methods for Bronze Age axe and adze heads.   I refer in the same breath to what in a modern age are distinct tool types (“axe”, “adze”) because it is entirely possible that many of the Bronze Age tools called axes were set horizontally – even used both ways, as either axe or adze, at different times.    You can see this in action in the toolset used to build Morgawr, the Bronze Age-type sewn plank boat recently built by the University of Exeter and National Maritime Museum (Van de Noort et al 2014).

This copper-alloy axe head is an example of an early Bronze Age Arreton type, with my punched decoration inspired by the Bush Barrow mace.   You can see the casting scar along its edge left by the two-piece mould.  The slight flanges – the raised sides – suggest that axe heads like this should be hafted in a “shoe”.   That is, not pushed through a hole in a handle, but slotted between two prongs which extend at an angle from the handle, like the example excavated from Palaeochannel 1 at Peterstone Great Wharf (Bell 2013), and bound up with maybe raw-hide or a leather strip.

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“Kent pattern axe”: a steel axe head made for use on a handle.   Hafting technology has changed again; now the axe head has a socket (the “eye”) into which a wooden handle fits.  The axe head has a broad and thin bit, rounded shoulders, lugs either side of the socket, and the butt is really a poll.   The poll has a flat surface that can be struck, to exert additional force, without too much risk of damaging the axe head – unlike the butts of the three previous examples.

Edit: whilst the poll can be struck, the primary purpose of this extra mass of metal behind the handle is to balance the weight of the blade in front of the handle.

The many regional variations of axe head shape common until the end of the nineteenth-century were often named by counties.   The Kent pattern itself included variations such as the Banbury Axe, Guildford Axe, Mahogony Axe, Manchester Axe, Norfolk Axe, Plymouth Axe, Suffolk Axe (Salaman 1975:58).   Although you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish between some of these.

And at last, a maker.   Had my first three axe heads been prehistoric, archaeological examples, I could not have told you who knapped or cast them.   But the Kent pattern axe head was forged by the Eagle Edge Tool Company, whose foundry was at Monmore Green, Wolverhampton.

stone, bronze, iron

stone, bronze, iron

These four axe heads are also stand-ins for the Three Age System – stone, bronze, iron – which has been used by archaeologists to divide [prehistoric] time in technological terms since the system was drawn together in Scandinavia in the nineteenth-century.   Is the Iron Age over?*

Bell, M. (2013)  The Bronze Age in the Severn Estuary  York: Council for British Archaeology

Butler, C. (2005, 2008)  Prehistoric Flintwork   Stroud: The History Press

Salamon, R.A. (1975)  Dictionary of Tools used in the woodworking and allied trades c.1700-1970   London: George Allen and Unwin

Savory, H.N. (1971)  “A Neolithic Stone Axe and Wooden Handle from Port Talbot”   The Antiquaries Journal 51/2:296-7

Van de Noort, R., Cumby, B., Blue, L., Harding, A., Hurcombe, L., Hansen, T. M., Wetherelt, A., Wittamore, J. and Wyke, A. (2014), Morgawr: an experimental Bronze Age-type sewn-plank craft based on the Ferriby boats. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12058

*not in my workshop…