Drawing the Kingsteignton Idol

Back from Spoonfest, and internet access restored!

Before I went away I had been working on an important stage in making a replica of the Kingsteington Idol.   Drawings.

They aren’t my drawings.   This isn’t a commission.   I haven’t arranged to visit the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter to draw and photograph the Iron Age wooden figure.   It’s fragile and very special, best only handled when really necessary.   The drawings are those published in Bryony Coles’ (1990) paper about prehistoric carved figures.   A colleague very kindly scaled them up for me to save some time.

Relying on the published drawings for the form and dimensions of the figure presents problems though.   The front, back and one side of the figure only are illustrated.   Measurements can be taken from these perpendicular views, providing maximum and minimum but it is much harder to capture intermediate measurements without being able to examine the detail of the changes of each surface.

Nevertheless, I have traced the outlines and cut out templates, reversing the single side view to make its pair.   To see how these shape up, I have worked up a section of the Idol in a small piece of sweet chestnut.   Sweet chestnut can behave like oak (oak is what the Idol is made of) because it has similar properties.

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Not too shabby, but more work required!

Coles, B. (1990)   “Anthropomorphic Wooden Figures from Britain and Ireland”   Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 56:315-333

 

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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

Weird and wonderful #3

Not weird but certainly wonderful, I’ve been handling a good deal of ash and oak recently.   These have been firewood logs, however, with only a few bits suitable to be set aside for carving and other purposes.

Restrop Farm, where all my fuel comes from, is a small farm of rolling pasture fields and woodland.   Included within its bounds is Ringsbury Camp, an Iron Age hillfort (scheduled monument 1018124) which sits on a spur of rhaxella chert looking out from the limestone ridge over the head of the Thames Valley.   The views to the north, towards the Cotswold Hills, are fabulous.

About two-thirds of the hillfort banks and ditch are covered in trees, which along with the burrowing badgers have been compromising the integrity of the earthworks.   The interior has been ploughed in the past, although only for a relatively small part of the twentieth-century after the Second World War, and not (as far as I know) with deep ploughing equipment.   For many years the farm was owned by three sisters, the Misses Paginton, and their dairy farming practices were old-fashioned and gentle.   It is to be expected that archaeological remains inside the hillfort are in good condition, but aside from a few stray finds there has been no controlled excavation here.

Sometimes the yellow stony scree thrown up by the badgers, which rolls down the banks onto the hillfort’s encircling paths, is a reddish-brown colour.   This is the bloodstone, reputed in local story to be the stone stained red with the blood of unknown warriors who died in combat here – an event commemorated by the name of the nearby lane “Battlewell”, and “Red Street”, the alternative name for this part of the parish.

Ethel Richardson, in her local history published in 1919, mentions the possibility of there having been a Civil War skirmish here, when the lanes ran red with blood.   She ties the red of battle to the red which at the time was thought to be the origin of the place-name Restrop.   The historical truth is in a way more prosaic, and yet (to me) more romantic.    Restrop is derived from “Rada’s thorp” (Gover et al 1939); Rada, the name of the otherwise invisible Anglo-Saxon farmer who cared for his crops and animals on the hillside and in the coombes which cut through the limestone, looking out over the clayey Thames valley to see wisps of smoke rising from the hearths in the walled town of Cricklade to the north.

Oak and ash both grow well at Restrop, and useful woods they are.   They are both ring-porous.   The vessels which transport water and minerals up from the roots to the tree leaves are made up of cells that make long tubes.   Those vessels formed during rapid Spring growth are much larger than the tubes that grow in the Summer, thus forming rings which emphasise the tree’s growth rings (Abbott 1989, 2007:17).   You can see this in the photo below:

Ash and oak

Ash and oak

The piece of ash on the left has especially clear growth rings.   The rings of vessels are the darker, brown-coloured lines, in-between the pale wood fibres.   This piece comes from a faster-growing branch, which you can tell because there are only four or five growth rings to the inch.   Faster-grown ash is stronger than slow-grown because it contains more wood fibres, which is good for shock-resistance and is why ash is good for tool handles and furniture.   Ash grows best on deep soils over limestone; just like the banks of Ringsbury Camp.

On the right, the oak – showing the very clear distinction between the dark heartwood and the light sapwood.   Oak has a very strong and rich smell, owing to its acidic tannin content.   This makes the wood resistant to rot (but also eats into steel so I am very careful to clean my tools quickly and thoroughly after using them on oak) (Abbott 1989, 2007:26, 28).   There are a number of big oaks at Restrop, which have built themselves for strength against the wind that blows up and down the limestone ridge, and the prevailing weather rolling in down the valley from the west.   Oak is a sinuous wood.   Its strength and longevity have resulted in more than 90% of building timbers being taken from oak trees (Rackham 1986, 1995:86).

Now that the hedgerows and woods are greening up, it’s time to take a good look at the ash and oak growing at Restrop to see which buds come out first,

“Ash before oak – in for a soak;

Oak before ash – in for a splash.”

 

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

Gover, J.E.B., Mawker, A., Stenton, F.M. (1939)  The Place-names of Wiltshire   English Place-Names Society/Cambridge University Press

Rackham, O. (1986, 1995)  The History of the Countryside   London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson

Richardson, E.M. (1919)  The Story of Purton; a collection of notes and hearsay   Bristol: J.W. Arrowsmith Ltd

This post is the third in an occasional series called “Weird and Wonderful”.