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!

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ear studs bronze age

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

 

 

History of the Lathe: part one – reciprocal motion

Chinese pedal latheAll lathes by their very nature rely on a revolving work piece. To capture and impart this motion, to devise and create the required force has challenged mans ingenuity back into pre-history. Man has been using the momentum provided by a spinning weight for tens of thousands of years in the form of drop spindles for spinning wool. The potter’s revolving ‘wheel was almost certainly the first machine used by our ancestors. It maybe that the reciprocating bow drill and pump drill in it’s many forms was the first mechanical hand tool, Certainly it could be used to create fire as well as bore holes and with a profiled cutter fitted could be used to produce buttons, counters and beads. 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

History of the Lathe: part four – the machine takes over

Man has always tried to find ways of making manual tasks easier and the businessman methods to reduce manpower, speed production and lower operating costs. A good illustration of this was the manufacture of rifle butts. Hand held firearms have existed since the Middle Ages and virtually all these weapons incorporated a hand fashioned wooden butt. Making rifle butts was a highly skilled and time-consuming occupation and in time highly protective guilds were formed and prices kept at a high level.

This was just the sort of situation where a machine solution would be welcomed by firearm manufacturers, and in 1820, an Englishman, Thomas Blanchard designed a ‘reproducing lathe’. Blanchard’s lathe was capable of making two rifle butts an hour and it was not long before he had built one capable of producing ten or twelve in an hour. He went on to devise other reproducing lathes to manufacture shoe lasts and axe handles. Continue reading

How I built Leonardo Da Vinci’s lathe

Leonardo's lathe and its modern reconstruction

How long has man been turning wood? Almost certainly longer than we have evidence for! What did the first lathe look like? We are not sure, but we can come to a reasonable conclusion bearing in mind the materials and technology available. There are just a few early illustrations that give us some insight plus the continuing use of simple technology in parts of the under-developed world. Continue reading

Spinning a Yarn: Eastern European bow lathe turners

Bow lathe turningSpinning of wool in the West has for a long time been the province of the machine, but in many parts of the globe including much of Eastern Europe this time-old activity is still very much a hand skill.

Some spinners use a spinning wheel while many more produce woollen thread with the aid of a drop spindle, simply a turned wooden tapering shaft about 16 inches long and about one inch diameter towards its base. They are sold at local markets and still form part of peasant culture. Continue reading