The Death and Birth of a Cannibal Fork

Sometimes my firewood delivery includes some wood that I prefer not to burn.  A few months ago the last load included some spalted something: I’m really not sure what tree this was from, it’s so spectacularly eaten.  Here’s a bit of a slightly less munched log:

A piece of spalted wood

I ought to burn it if only to reduce the number of grubs and beetles that might still be lurking in it, waiting to make their way to better-quality material in reserve for carving. Or my workshop roof.

These logs were on the way out.  Full of big holes eaten away by burrowing creatures, patches of soft fibrous white rot, and crumbly brown rot.  But spalting can be beautiful, making swirling lines and patterns, and contrasting colours.  The interleaving, revealing, maze of vacant tunnels lead into and out of the wood, little squints into its heart.

Some of this dying wood would be just right for an elderly, crotchety, worn out cannibal fork that’s come to the end of its life almost before it’s started.  It’s a poor old thing.


What’s in the box?

My second carving of the recently-excavated Bronze Age Must Farm wooden box, found along with other remarkable archaeological remains in a collapsed roundhouse in the Fens, has left me with more questions.  That’s what fact-finding is for.

As you can see from the photos, it’s a lovely little box, small and delicate.  Vicky Herring’s fabulous drawings show more details, including the suggestion of an interior seat for a lid.  But no lid was found with the surviving parts of the box.

Maybe it had a lid but at the time of the round house fire and collapse this had been taken off and left somewhere else.  Maybe the lid fell away in the collapse and will be found in lower deposits.  Maybe it burnt up in the fire.

So should I carve a lid?  The only evidence is negative evidence – the seat inside the box, which itself is partial.  Not much to go on.

Well, what use is a box without a lid?  Especially a small box like this that ought to have little treasures tucked away in it.

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First thoughts

The wood is so green – the tree was cut down just a few weeks ago – that the sap was coming out of fibres as I cut them.  The lid is very thin, especially as I cut out a recessed panel like those in the long sides and base of the excavated box.  The surface area is therefore large in comparison to the volume of wood; this means that the very green wood can dry out really fast.  And even faster, because I brought the box and lid into my warm house.  So already the lid has shrunk.  It’s not such a good fit as when I first made it just 24 hours ago.

There are two choices.  Make the box from green wood or from seasoned wood. Each has advantages and disadvantages.  I can’t wait to find out more about the wood that the Bronze Age box is made of.  Hopefully the post-excavation analysis will reveal the species of tree.


Box of tricks

This afternoon I completed my second fact-finding version of the fabulous Must Farm Bronze Age box. The first attempt involved making an approximation of the box excavated at Must Farm to show me some of the general problems I would be likely to encounter.  The second was more about all the little devils in the detail.


Must Farm box #2

The first task was to study the fabulous artefact drawings and note the box’s measurements.  The box was found in pieces and one end is very poorly preserved.  This means that whilst the width and depth measurements are fairly reliable, the length is not.  The finer details, like wall thickness, are variable.  That’s probably for more than one reason, including the different parts that have survived and the way the waterlogged wood has changed shape over time, as well as the original dimensions as carved.

Having settled on the dimensions that I would carve to, this is what I cut:

Version 2 is closer to the original, in terms of shape and size, than version 1, and I have included an internal lip as suggested by the drawings.  This might have been the seat for a lid, although no lid was found with the box.  Like the first, this second version is willow.

First thoughts

The willow again was problematic: whilst its fresh, green, state made it really easy to cut, the open fibrous nature of this wood makes it difficult to get a good clean finish in the small, confined spaces of the box. To make progress I’ve got to the stage where I need to know the original wood species – and will have to wait for the post-excavation analysis.

In dealing with some of the torn and hairy wood fibres I have over-cut in various places, so that the dimensions aren’t quite perfect.  In trying to make the interior of the long side walls close to vertical, I have over-cut the depth of the interior by a couple millimetres.  This has left the base rather thin, whilst the two short end walls are too thick at the base and slightly over-cut at the top.

On the flip side, I have to make assumptions about the dimensions to cope with the missing parts.  The lid seat is a good example of this.  There isn’t much information in the drawings about it, I have made decisions about the shape and size, so the spots that I am unhappy about are only where I have failed to meet my own instructions – not necessarily what the box really looked like.

I have cut the lid seat around the whole of my box.  A lid for my version 2 would therefore have to press down onto the top of the box, engaging with all four sides.  One short end of the Bronze Age box, however, is (mostly) missing, so I can’t actually tell if this is how it looked originally.  It might have been open at the missing end, so that a lid could slide onto the seat – like a wooden pencil or domino box.

That interpretation is less likely, because there the original doesn’t seem to have channels cut in the long sides for a lid to slide along.


Probably not like this…

Hence my interpretation of a seat to house a lid engaging vertically with the box.

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:

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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.

My brother was eaten by cannibals

birch cannibal fork

Object type: fork
Museum number: MAEB:1987.11.622
Description: four-pronged Cannibal Fork made of wood, 290mm x 53mm x 53mm
Materials: wood
Technique: carved
Acquisition Date: 1987
Notes: Donated by the Edgcumbe family (see correspondence file 1987-11-EDG), claimed to be a Fijian cannibal fork

Edgcumbe diary extract

Extract from the transcript of the diaries of Rev C. Edgcumbe.

Tovey letter

Transcript of a letter concerning the death of Lt F. Edgcumbe, written by Midshipman William Tovey to Rev C. Edgcumbe .

Edgcumbe death certificate

General Register Office. Certified Copy of an Entry of Death (Death Index: District Stepney, vol. II, page 47)


Tovey newspaper story

“Riverside Murder” Times [London, England] 7 Jun. 1841: 6 The Times Digital Archive. Web. 26 Feb 2014

(Blogging Archaeology)

Little Boy Blue’s Bear

Having had to give up with the piece of apple that split so dramatically, I have now finished carving a bear for next door’s grandson, Blue.

Blue has been asking about his bear ever since I agreed to carve it.   As three-dimensional figures like this are not my forte, it’s taken me a good while to do the job.   At least it does look like a bear, snuffling along the ground.

Small bear on ?sycamore, 2013

Small bear on ?sycamore, 2013

You’ll notice that the wood is very pale.   I was recently given some off-cuts by a friend at work – her dad had helped to fell and reduce a neighbour’s tree and, knowing that I am always after wood, very kindly drove it all the way over from Stroud.   I was told it was sycamore, which is a white wood traditionally used for kitchen ware.   The bark, however, isn’t right for sycamore so I’m not really sure what it is, having not seen the tree.   Nevertheless, it did cut well and I am looking forward to carving the really big log that came into a large bowl.

Been away…

Well I notice it’s nearly two months since my last blog post.   I’ve been away, enjoying sunny Denmark!   I had a great time and learnt a huge amount.   The trip has already influenced some of my activities since returning, to do with edged tools – axes, this time – and holding devices.

It’s amazing to me how little attention is paid sometimes by archaeologists to the whole question of what is required to make something.   The concept of the chaine operatoire is making its way out of flint analysis and into other areas.   Even so, it’s really easy to concentrate on different forms of a tool type and loose the bigger picture.

Take holding devices, for example.   This issue really exercises me, because I spend a great deal of time getting my holding devices right so that I can use my tools the way I need in order to complete tasks the way I want to.   They really are essential.

I mean things like benches, dogs, pigs, clamps, brakes, cramps, donkeys, shave horses, vices, claves, holdfasts, grips…the list would go on and on if I further subdivided these classes according to trade or specific task (for example, cleaving brakes, shaving brakes, bending brakes, peeling or rinding brakes).   I regularly use my shave horse and clave, and I’ve just built two pigs inspired by those at use in the boatyard of the Vikingeskibsmuseet in Roskilde.

I’m sure that tools which did the jobs of these holding devices would have been used in prehistory, just as they have been in historical periods and today, especially for woodworking.   They enable a piece to be worked effectively – by which I mean, safely, accurately, efficiently, to attain the desired end result.

The aims of the Bronze Age boat project did not include anything about using prehistoric tools other than the edged tools and plank stitching that was so wonderfully applied at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall (and rightly so, because the experiment design didn’t require it).   But check out the photos and brilliant time-lapse photography in their boatyard.   You’ll see just how important (modern) holding devices were to the build.   Now think about all the materials that you might need, and their configuration, to do a similar job in 2012BC.

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…

My cannibal fork

I recently visited the newly-redisplayed Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge.   Unfortunately I could see only the ground-floor space because of ongoing works upstairs, but it was really impressive nonetheless with some wonderful objects and interesting ideas presented with clarity.   Although the old archaeology galleries in this room showed off a great range of the museum’s collections, the exhibits had got rather tired.   Now the room is full of natural light and beautifully displayed objects.

A case tucked round the corner behind the new teaching space is filled top to bottom with nineteenth-century Fijian cannibal forks.   I hadn’t come across these before, and was intrigued by the smooth, dark wood, elegant prongs and decorated handles of the anthropological objects.   Alongside these are displayed replicated objects, made by members of the Department during a project lead by Alana Jelinek, AHRC Creative Fellow in the Creative and Performing Arts.

The replicated cannibal forks have been carved from white woods including sycamore and ash, so they make a dramatic contrast to the dark, shiny surfaces of the Fijian originals.   The case is illuminated by a video of a making event, with audio of museum staff discussing the forks.   I learnt that cannibal forks are surrounded by controversy, with a rich yet dangerous mythology that has perpetuated barbarous tales of the Fijian people.

A current view is that the forks were nothing to do with cannibalism, but were made to satisfy the curiosity and predilections of collectors who brought them back to European museums.

I took the opportunity to make my cannibal fork, inspired by the beautiful workmanship of the Fijian craftspeople who had carved theirs for the Museum’s Victorian benefactors.   It is made on a piece of cherry from North Farm, West Overton and carved using a hatchet, pushknife and sloyd knife.   Originally I intended to carve beads around the upper handle, but decided to give the fork a face after I saw some footage of the Kingsteignton Idol.   The idol is a wooden Iron Age artefact, excavated in 1867.

wooden cannibal fork

Cannibal Fork in cherry, April 2013