Mystery of the Moor; 4000 years of woodturning

The collection of artefacts could be one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the last 100 years


  The original discovery      

In August 2011, an early Bronze Age 4000 years old cist (A small chamber made of thin stone slabs) burial was discovered on Dartmoor. Inside were the cremated remains of a female, and, almost uniquely for this period were well preserved grave goods including 4 lathe turned ear studs (labrets).

Stuart King image Oct 2013,  (12)

The old and the new

Analysis has established that these studs are turned from spindle wood, a small shrubby tree that still grows on the Moor.

Stuart King filming BBC doc re 4000 BC  Bronze Age  cist burial,  Dartmoor, Oct 2013--



Studying high resolution images confirmed to me that these artefacts were turned rather than carved, but the question that was put to me by Andrew Brown of de facto Films who was Producing a BBC documentary was how were these exquisite items turned on a lathe, and what sort of lathe? These objects are no more than 2½ cm diameter so I ruled out the use of a traditional pole lathe, much too heavy for such delicate woodturning. As the invention of the crankshaft was at least another 1500 years away, possibly more, the only options were some form of reciprocating apparatus, and this left me with the bow lathe or ‘strap’ lathe.  

Filming BBC doc, Mystery of the Moor, Stuart King with presenter Mike Dilger image Oct 2013,

Stuart King with One Show presenter Mike Dilger.

This was to become an intriguing archaeological experiment. I set up a piece of ‘round wood’ spindle tree between two points and with a bow in one hand and a chisel in the other it was clear that with a little practice progress could be made, coordinating the bowing and holding the tool using a separate hand for each and only making a cut as the wood revolves forwards is tricky at first. Perseverance proved that it could be achieved and I did indeed produce a passable ear stud, and so down to Dartmoor for the filming.

Stuart King filming BBC doc re 4000 BC  Bronze Age  cist burial,  Dartmoor, Oct 2013-- (2)

In deepest Dartmoor

The location was perfect, in front of a recreated ancient round house. The lathe was set up, the presenter was Mike Dilger of the ‘One Show’ with Dr Richard Brunning, wood expert in attendance. Using my set of Bronze Age tools, notably a socketed bronze chisel and a small round nose scraper I bowed away, slow but sure. I then suggested that if Mike put a cord around the work piece it would free up both of my hands and this would allow me more control, this made a great difference with both the speed of turning and the accuracy of tool use. More speed, more torque, more accuracy, quicker production, this had to be the method used. Indeed, this form of turning proved so efficient that multiples could be turned, pointing possibly to the earliest form of mass production?

Stuart King image Oct 2013,  (10)

Bronze Age chisel alongside neolithic flint chisel

The original studs were so well preserved that one could see evidence of final finishing on the some of the side walls, as if the turnings had been rubbed on a course stone to remove the uneven surface where the studs had been finally parted from the main stock, possibly with a knife. This was my first encounter with spindle wood and I was amazed at the fine finish that was achieved directly from the bronze skew chisel.

Stuart King image Oct 2013,  (9)

Within a couple of hours I had taken woodturning back another 500 years to the early Bronze Age. My next challenge is to take woodturning back to the Neolithic!


ear studs bronze age

The forthcoming BBC2 TV Documentary will be broadcast 28th February 8.30 pm then on iplayer for a while 



Mary Rose Comb

Back in Time, Mary Rose visit  Mary Rose Comb by Stuart King 2013 (9)

Henry the Eighth must have been gutted when on the 19 July 1545 at the Battle of the Solent, His flagship the Mary Rose sank because it was top heavy while leading the attack on the French invasion fleet. Five hundred sailors perished watched by a horrified King Henry from the shore.

Between 1979 -1982 the ship’s contents are excavated by divers and more than 19,000 artefacts were brought to the surface. The wreck of the hull was raised in 1982 and now after years of pioneering conservation work the whole story of the Mary Rose, her crew and much of Tudor life is set out in a brand new, state of the art Museum.

It is calculated that it would have taken about 16 hectares (40 acres) of woodland, more than 600 large oak trees to construct the great ship, but in many ways it is the small, sometimes tiny and personal items that really enthralls. Rosary beads, fine toothed nit combs, wooden bowls, pomanders and eating spoons, the preservation of all these artifacts is truly amazing.

I recently visited the new Mary Rose museum at Portsmouth. What a fantastic job they have done. I was so taken by the sailor’s boxwood hair combs that it was straight to the workshop, I just had to make a couple, one a basic Jack Tar example and another that I envisaged Henry commissioning for him self.Mary Rose Comb by Stuart King 2013 (3)

Making these combs using onlMary Rose Comb by Stuart King  July 2013 (3)Mary Rose Comb by Stuart King  July 2013y hand tools is the only way that a craftsman can have an insight into the skill of the Tudor and earlier specialist artisan.Mary Rose Comb by Stuart King  July 2013 (10)

Henry, your loss is our gain,Mary Rose Boxwood combs by Stuart King, July 2013



The Wildwood Blog

 Muntjac deer

The Wildwood Muntjac deer are often seen in daytime or heard close by barking loudly to others

 I have been acquainted with this secluded 42 acres since a teenager but it has only been the last few years that I have dug deep into it’s past as a armature woodland archaeologist and local historian.  Bluebelles


Foxgloves apear in abundance for a couple of years after tree thinning having lain dormant for decades

Everywhere is to be seen the humps and bumps left by earlier inhabitants and I have set myself the task of making some sense of them.


The Wildwood edge is defind by a medieval ‘woodbank’ and ditch

It is not just the visible landscape changes that bring me into contact with the ‘lost tribes’ of the Wildwood, but the tantalising artefacts lying on the woodland floor awaiting a keen eye to rediscover them. These objects range from fossils, Stone Age tools and discarded pottery sherds, discarded some thousands of years ago with no thought that someone far in the future would show even the slightest interest in them.

It will be my pleasure as the months roll by to share some of my discoveries with you, and you will be surprised at what has survived from the lives our enigmatic ancestors.

Tree Felling in the Wildwood

The woodmen are coming

Wildwood  - Stuart King- image March 2013 (3)

Good oak butts awaiting collection from the old drovers lane

Wildwood  - Stuart King- image March 2013 (2)

Firewood grade ash, the per ton value is measured by the loaded lorry

It is time to thin the trees, to bring down some of the giant oaks, beech and more recent ash to allow those that are left more elbow room. Continue reading

Stuart King on TV 2012

Alan Titchmarsh Show ITV

Stuart King on Alan Titchmarsh's ShowIt is good to see the media seemingly taking more interest in traditional crafts these days, let us hope this is a continuing trend.

I was asked to contribute my expertise to three very different programmes in 2012; the first was the Alan Titchmarsh Show.  Being studio based meant an early morning trip to London to give the show host a lesson in woodturning on a power lathe. Continue reading

Wizardry in Wood, London Oct 2012

 Stuart King using his reconstruction of Leonardo da Vinci’s lathe  C1480.

Wizardry in Wood-2012 London-Dennis Hales image (4)

As a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Turners it was my privilege to be in involved with organising the recent Wizardry in Wood exhibition at the Carpenters Hall, London.This event is held every four years and showcases the very best of British craftsmanship, historical, traditional and contemporary.






Wizardry in Wood 2012-Carpenters Hall-London (317)

Continue reading

History of the Lathe: part two – continuous rotation

French giant wheel latheThe wheel is probably man’s most important technological discovery.  A Sumarian pictogram dated 3500BC is the earliest reference for the wheel. By 2000BC man was making spoked wheels yet the earliest pictorial reference we have of a wheel driven lathe seems to be from the 15th century.

The great advantage of a wheel driven lathe is that continuous and controlled rotary motion is possible. This was not an automatic benefit to every aspect of woodturning though, as is illustrated by the continuing use of the reciprocating bow, strap and pole lathes. These ancient, simple lathes could still compete and perform efficiently in certain specialist areas such as small spindle and bowl turning. Continue reading

History of the Lathe: part three – mechanical power

Electric power drillFrom classical times man has harnessed wind and water to work heavy machinery, to relieve him of hard physical labour and to speed up production. A Roman settlement C.200AD in southern France boasted sixteen water mills for grinding corn. It may be that this form of motive power was used to drive lathes also but if it was there seems to be no record of the fact. If this were the case, it would have probably have been the exception rather than the rule.

It does appear that the woodturners of old were content to continue with their tried and trusty traditional methods long after other sources of power were available to many of them. There were good economical reasons for this. No advantage was to be gained by expensive investment when the simple reliable technology of the strap, bow, pole and latter wheel lathes was usually just as efficient and more reliable. Continue reading

Raymond Harvey makes his (wooden) bed

Raymond Harvey, woodturner from High Wycombe

Raymond Harvey, woodworker from High Wycombe

“These are my most important tools”, said my host, looking at two home made knives, one ground from a worn-out hacksaw blade, and an old ‘Surform’ rasp. I was standing in Raymond Harvey’s makeshift back-garden workshop, which reflects his general approach to his work, being a structure consisting completely of recycled materials. There, standing majestic in the midst of this ramshackle shelter is the most stunning four poster bed I have ever seen.

It is bedecked, one could say almost bejewelled, with the most beautifully coloured and grained exotic woods, all vying for attention. These are arranged in very precise geometric patterns reminiscent of the Islamic art of the Moors. Continue reading