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 



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

Samuel Rockall: last of the chair bodgers

The two RockallsThe proud brick quoined flint cottage still stands alone on Summer Heath, once home to the Rockall family for an uninterrupted 180 years. But no longer can freshly cut Beech butts be seen stacked in the shade of a tall hedge or the whinny of Dapple, the family cart horse be heard from the meadow.

A traditional Chiltern Hills way of life ceased when Sam Rockall died aged 84 in 1962. The local newspapers announced: Samuel Rockall, the last of the Bodgers is dead. Continue reading

The Chair Bodgers of Buckinghamshire

Reg Tilbury as a young manThe old chair bodgers of Buckinghamshire are now relegated to history, the last few of them doggedly clinging on to their traditional way of life until the late 1950s. I have been privileged to know some of these craftsmen from the Beech-clad Chiltern Hills and have spent many a cosy hour by their firesides and in their disused workshops sharing their old tales and dry sense of humour. They are all gone now but their legacy is every where. You are supported by their craftsmanship every time you sit in an old Windsor chair. Every leg, spindle and stretcher contains the spirit of these men, the essence of the Beechwoods is still there and if those turnings could talk they would speak of spring Bluebells, red Squirrels and autumn winds. Continue reading