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 

 

 

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

The Caversham Village Sign: carved by Stuart King

In some parts of England there is a tradition of carved wooden signs depicting the unique qualities of the area and often erected on the village green. Usually created by a local craftsman, they instill a sense of identity and pride, and are rivaled only by the English pub sign for originality. They are part of our folk art heritage.

Some time ago I received a commission from the Caversham Residents Association, supported by Reading Borough Council, to design, carve and paint a sign to represent the history of the village. Continue reading

Making Gypsy Flowers

A gypsy flower made from ElderToday’s flower arrangers are spoilt for choice. Wonderful natural material is available from around the globe, all the year round. Fifty years ago one had to rely on what was grown in season in one’s own garden or the limited range stocked by the local florist whose main business was supplying weddings and funerals.

It’s the same with artificial flowers. Remember those awful plastic examples from Hong Kong, heavily molded lurid reds and greens that fooled no one? Today, artificial flowers and foliage can be unbelievably life like, but until very recent times there was only another source of artificial flowers for the ordinary home: from the Romanies or Gypsies. Continue reading