Box of delights

Have you seen the amazing archaeology being excavated at Must Farm by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit?  Must Farm is one of the most important Bronze Age sites in Europe, because of the spectacular preservation.  The remains that survive are wonderfully intact, including things that we’ve never seen before.

This includes, for example, the roofing timbers of the settlement’s roundhouses; whole pottery bowls with their contents; a fleet of log boats; animal tracks and footprints in the mud around the settlement. Check out the photos from the past few months’ of digging – there’s even the most complete Bronze Age wheel!

Amongst the staggering preservation of organic remains, one of the many lovely things is a small wooden box, SF2747.  The Must Farm team has already shared Vicky Herring’s scale drawing of this find and I’m planning to make some facsmiles and replicas.  This weekend I made a preliminary rough-out to discover what problems I might encounter.  I picked up some fairly straight grained willow on Saturday that had only just been felled, so it’s really green and good to cut with edged tools.  This is how I got on:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We don’t yet know what species the box is carved from, but it’s a hollow form; meaning it was carved from one piece of wood, not made from panels jointed together.   My rough-out is approximately the right size and is carved from a billet cut from the same portion of branch as the Bronze Age box.  Its base and two long sides have recessed panels like the original, although their depth and shape need adjustment.

Inside, I have carved roughly the right shape but didn’t cut a groove to seat a lid. The original seems to have a groove for a lid to fit into, but no lid was found with the box and I’d like some more information before working on this.

First thoughts

The internal dimensions are challenging to carve.  The box is about 37mm wide inside and 29mm deep, making for a very narrow, shallow space to get tools and fingers into.  Working with very green wood is a great help, but the thin sides and base are at greater risk of splitting as the wood dries out. And the dimensions will change as the wood dries, that’s something to compensate for.

The drawing suggests that the corners in the bottom of the box are rounded, concave, curves.  I achieved this using my spoon-knives.  It’s not clear to me whether this shape was original or the result of use, or of change over time in the waterlogged mud.  If original, then this suggests that the Bronze Age carver did not use a straight edge to cut right-angled corners into the box.

That’s an issue because there are many cutting tools from the Bronze Age with straight or flat edges, but very few that cut in the way that spoon-knives cut.  And although there are various types of gouge, the internal space of this box is tiny – hardly any space in which to turn the cutting edge of a tool to make these complex curves and so that the wood fibres are cut, not torn.  A closer examination of the original might throw some light on this.

The type of wood will make a difference to its cut-ability too.  The willow I bodged has an open, fibrous, texture making it tricky to get a good finish in that tiny inside.  Also, the fibres tend to pull out giving the outside a slightly hairy look where I haven’t finished it tidily.  The widest growth ring shown in the box drawing is about 5mm, and in the c47mm radius in the end-grain of the box there are 15 rings.  It looks like a diffuse-porous tree species (one in which the Spring-grown and Summer-grown vessels are of an even size across the growth ring).  It will be interesting to see just from where in the tree the specialist analysing the box thinks the wood was taken.

Weird and Wonderful #2

At last, some good weather!   Finally, I have cut my willow.   I wouldn’t normally have left it this late, but it’s been so difficult to get on the ground in this rain.   Neither do I have the right space to store too much greenwood; so it’s really important that my raw materials are in tip-top condition to keep, if I’m not going to use them right away.

These considerations bring to mind two issues: good materials; and seasonality.

I grow different varieties of willow, each of which is a basketry type: Salix purpurea “Dicky Meadows”; Salix purpurea “Lancashire Dicks”;  Salix triandra “French”; Salix daphnoides “Continental Purple” and Salix alba vitelina “Britzensis”.   Here is the first wonderful thing about willow.   Many varieties produce great rods for basketry – good for their long, slender, straight rods with strong skin, and with flat, close-growing buds.

In Britain there are eighteen native willow species and twenty-seven interspecific hybrids (Brendell 1985:2).   The second wonderful thing about willow is that it is fabulously successful at reproducing.   There is widespread hybridisation, it flowers and seeds, and it will “strike”; push a 9″ stick of willow into the ground in early Spring, and it will root and grow for you.

Following on from willow’s strong inclination to expand its tribe is its determination to keep on growing.   Cut back some willow, and return next year to see how well it has come on!   Be amazed at all the straight rods growing out of the treetop where a branch has fallen away in a storm!   I imagine that it would take no more than a season to realise how easy, and how valuable, it is to manage willow to grow really useful products; from basketry rods to fence- and building-sized poles on pollarded trees.

Which brings me to seasonality.   It’s time to cut the basketry rods once all the leaves have fallen off.   This is usually from November.   The rods are then a season old, good and straight with no branching, the buds are small and flat, the leaves have fallen naturally.   You can continue to cut over the Winter, until the sap has started to rise again, when the buds on the rods will start to push on.   As long as you can keep your harvested rods cool and dry (beware mould and frost), you don’t have to use them right away.   They change from “greens” = unseasoned rods, to “browns” = seasoned rods.   All it takes is the right amount of soaking and damping when you need them, and you can make baskets with your browns any time of the year.

So if you do want to store your rods, this has an impact on the building space that you need.   The right space for storage, the right space for soaking and mellowing, the right space for working (although working space is the least demanding).   Which is another way of saying that it was not necessary in the past for life to be entirely governed by the seasons, given planning and preparation.

Last year, however, the lack of frosts meant that my plants still had leaves well into December.   Then it seemed that it would never stop raining.   If I had cut my rods a few weeks ago, I would have risked loosing the lot to rot in storage.   As it is, I was only just in time, as you’ll see from the photos (the buds, especially towards the tips, were starting to sprout).   The photos also suggest another wonderful thing about willow, the beautiful range of bark colours.

What the pictures can’t convey, however, is the last wonderful characteristic of willow that I want to highlight.   The fabulously spicy, salty, aromatic smell.

Willow harvest, March 2014

Willow harvest, March 2014

Willow harvest, March 2014

Willow harvest, March 2014

Brendell, T. (1985)   Willows of the British Isles   Princes Risborough: Shire Publications Ltd

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

More willow

As part of the process of learning about the characteristics of willow, I carved a large scoop from some of the River Kennet wood that I used to make the bowl in my earlier blog post.

scoop madeof willow

Willow scoop, April 2013

The orange colours have been brought out by the raw cold-pressed linseed oil that I used on the wood.   It’s about 32cm long (bowl about 15 cm, handle about 17cm).   It’s all one piece of wood, carved from half a log.   The back of the scoop’s bowl was at the outside of the log.

Just like the bowl I wrote about earlier, the cleanest cuts were those across the grain.   The smoothest surface is the outside of the bowl.   The handle surface isn’t bad either, except where some fibres were lifted by the cutting edge and tore out.   Cutting parallel to the grain was very difficult to manage.   Even the thinnest of fibres lifted up on the handle, and when I tried to cut or scrape these off, others would lift in the opposite direction.

The interior of the bowl also presented problems.   This was because of the steep sides and relatively sharp angle between the sides and the base.   The willow fibres tended to lift or crush in this area.   Although the upper internal sides of the bowl are quite smooth, the lower sides and base are noticeably rougher.   The narrowness of the bowl meant that I could not place my hands correctly to get the direction of cut I really wanted with my spoon knives.   Perhaps this would have been easier if I had left-handed spoon knives as well as right-handed.

The wood is still relatively green, having been cut about this time last year.   I shall have to leave what I have left for some time before seeing how it cuts when well-seasoned.   In the meantime, perhaps I need to read about how willow is managed for making cricket bats, and whether the different British willow varieties have noticeably different qualities for wood-working.

Learning about willow

There are some really interesting wooden artefacts from the Flag Fen excavations, preserved in the fenny waterlogged deposits.   One of these is a scoop, find reference A8458, carved from a piece of willow.   It was found in one of the lowest levels of the main excavated area of wooden timbers that make up the post alignment and platform of this major prehistoric site.   Associated with Phase 1 structures, it probably dates from around the thirteenth-century BC and is now in the British Museum.

Maisie Taylor analysed the wood from the excavations.    When describing the scoop she wrote, “The bowl of the scoop was shaped across the grain and so well finished that no clues survive as to the method of fabrication” (Pryor 2001:226).

Willow is a fibrous wood with a very open texture.   There are many British varieties and it hybridizes very easily.   The wood can be cut cleanly, but there is a risk that the fibres will tear out; apart from cricket bats, the most common use of willow is its withies for basketry.

With half an eye on the Flag Fen scoop, I’ve been trying out some unseasoned willow that came from a fallen tree in the River Kennet at Lockeridge.   The tree fell across the river and was affecting its course, so the landowner cut it up and I was given a few pieces.

This bowl was very easy to carve, using my small adze and a wide, shallow swept chisel designed for just this work.   However, the long, coarse fibres caused problems in the bowl bottom and where the bottom and sides meet as the chisel’s cutting edge went parallel to the grain rather than across it.   It will be interesting to compare with the behaviour of seasoned wood.   The bowl base is at the centre of the log and the oval form runs parallel with the log.

willow bowl

Willow bowl, March 2013


Pryor, F. (2001)   The Flag Fen Basin   Swindon: English Heritage